I drove to Ravenel on June 3 for one of Caw Caw Interpretive Center’s morning bird walks. As we meandered along antebellum rice dikes looking for swallow tails and egrets, I was reminded of how much history we in the Lowcountry can experience right under our feet, outside the downtown tourist district.
In the short distance between Charleston and Ravenel, traveling along Highway 17 South — or what was known in colonial times as the King’s Highway — I found myself passing by places that brought to mind stories of romance, rebellion and roses.
Not long after you put the commercial sprawl of the Savannah Highway “auto mile” behind you, you’ll cross over Rantowles Creek bridge and by the graves of Lt. Col. William Washington and his wife Jane. George Washington’s cousin William was also a Revolutionary War hero, about whom Lord Cornwallis once wrote “there could be no more formidable antagonist in a charge, at the head of his cavalry, than Colonel William Washington.”
In his first encounter with Gen. Banastre Tarleton at the Battle of Rantowles Ferry on March 23, 1779, Washington soundly defeated the British cavalry. Afterward, as the rank-and-file soldiers settled in for a good night’s sleep under the stars, the officers rode to a neighboring plantation, Sandy Hill, seeking more comfortable accommodations.
Over dinner, Washington made the acquaintance of the planter’s daughter, Jane Elliott. Noting that the lieutenant colonel had no flag under which to fight, Jane promptly ripped down her mother’s draperies and spent the evening sewing a new battle flag. (Bear in mind, this story pre-dates Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” drapery scene by nearly a century.) Washington carried Jane’s flag into the Battle of Cowpens, a victory that turned the tide of the American Revolution in the South to the Patriots’ advantage.
Afterward, the conquering hero rode back to Sandy Hill and married Jane. The couple lived at Sandy Hill and at their Charleston townhouse at 8 South Battery for the rest of their lives. Though not visible from the highway and on private property, their graves lie just off to the right in the Elliot family cemetery.