Robert Gibbes Barnwell: Beaufort’s revolutionary and statesman
A little history of one of Beaufort’s own heroes.. On this day in 1761, Revolutionary War hero and faithful patriot Robert Gibbes Barnwell was born in Beaufort, South Carolina. Beaufort enthusiastically participated in each stage of his country’s revolutionary coming-of-age.
At age 16, Barnwell enlisted as a private in the Patriot militia. Wounded 17 times in the Battle of Matthews’ Plantation on St. John’s Island in June 1779, his supplies were taken and he was left for dead on the battlefield. Fortunately, a slave found him and took him to his aunt’s nearby plantation, where he recuperated. He rejoined the militia as a lieutenant the following spring, only to be taken prisoner by the British during the siege of Charleston in May 1780.
Barnwell spent the next 13 months imprisoned on the ship Pack Horse. Still undeterred, he joined the militia after his release, reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel by the end of the War of Independence.
Having served the new nation loyally during the war, Barnwell became a successful politician in the political revolution that followed.
He was elected first to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1787, then served as a delegate to the Continental Congress from 1788 to 1789. In 1788, he also served as a member of the South Carolina convention that ratified the U.S. Constitution. He sat in the second U.S. Congress as a member of the House of Representatives from 1791 to 1793, declining to run for a second term. He returned to the South Carolina legislature from 1795 to 1797, including a stint as speaker of the house in 1795.
His public service also included time in the South Carolina Senate from 1805 to 1806, serving as president in the latter year, and as president of the Beaufort College Board of Trustees beginning in 1795.
He died in his birthplace on October 24, 1814 and is buried in the churchyard of St. Helena’s Episcopal Church.
Barnwell’s devotion to civic life and the importance of education were characteristics shared by the Revolutionary generation; his blend of military heroism with political and pedagogical activity was a far rarer combination. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and many of the other luminaries of the age never bore arms in the fight they so passionately championed.
Barnwell’s son, Robert Woodward Barnwell, carried on his father’s tradition of political and educational service. Ironically, he chose to serve the Confederacy in its attempt to divide the nation his father helped to build.