Sullivan's Island, South Carolina
Fort Sullivan, Fort Moultrie
Charleston County, SC | Jun 28, 1776
Sullivan’s Island cradles the South Carolina coast at the northern mouth of Charleston Harbor. Its history is one of heartbreak, tenacity, defeat, and remembrance. In it’s early days, as Charleston was establishing itself as a key port in the southern British colonies, Sullivan’s Island was the epicenter for the unloading of captured Africans who would serve in bondage in North America. As present visitor signs indicate, the majority of future enslaved Americans would arrive through these waters, and be processed on Sullivan’s Island. Due to the barrier island’s location, it also served as a suitable position for a redoubt or garrison. This theory would be tested, rather quickly, in the early summer days of 1776 as Charleston citizens would find out the American Revolution was no longer confined to Massachusetts.
As the British evacuated Boston in March 1776 and regrouped along the coast, several plans were being worked out on what to do next to curb the American rebellion. One such strategy was the possibility of sailing south, establishing a foothold in the southern colonies, and rally loyalist support to retake the provincial governments that were being ousted by patriot forces. Such claims of wide-spread loyalists eager to join the fight were put forth by royal governors in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia. British commander in chief Sir William Howe sent his second in command, Sir Henry Clinton, with a detachment of troops to secure these claims and aid in the unfolding campaign of 1776. Originally, Clinton was planning on linking up with General Lord Cornwallis’ arriving fleet along the coast of North Carolina, but Cornwallis was slow to arrive. Further complications arose when Cornwallis’s escort, Commodore Sir Peter Parker, discovered a flaw in the fortifications guarding the harbor to Charleston, the richest port city in North America at the time. Clinton preferred Virginia, possibly to avoid the summer climate of South Carolina. However, he soon became convinced by Parker’s insistence that Charleston’s defenses were no match for them, and the British fleet set sail for the southern city. The objective would be to target and destroy the half-built fort on Sullivan’s Island. If successful, the British would establish a beachhead and presence on the island, effectively closing off the port harbor to all ships. Charleston, itself, would not be the objective at this time.
Standing in the way of the British was the unfinished fort on Sullivan’s Island and its commander, Colonel William Moultrie. The approach to Charleston Harbor was treacherous even for the most experienced sailor. From the south, a series of narrow channels skirted northward with shallow sandbars surrounding either side. A ship that entered the mouth of the harbor would have to sail close to the southern tip of Sullivan’s Island or face the disastrous possibility of running aground. The Americans observed the importance of the island’s location and began the work of erecting a fortification at the mouth of Charleston Harbor in February 1776. Using palmetto trees, the Americans built walls by placing two cut logs sixteen feet apart and filled in the space with clay and sand. Unknown to the British was the unique durability of palmetto wood. Unlike other types, palmetto fiber absorbed impact like a sponge where other treed woods would splinter and shatter. The five-hundred foot square fort with high, sixteen-foot-wide sides filled with sand and planked gun platforms, holding thirty-one assorted cannon, would be the first line of defense for Charleston. The Americans were able to complete walls facing to the southeast and southwest overlooking the harbor’s narrow entry channel, but were unable to complete the walls facing inland, leaving the fort and its defenders exposed from an attack if the British were able to land a force or position a gun boat in the channel separating the island from the mainland.
Most of the British fleet arrived outside the harbor on June 1, 1776. Parker instructed “his frigates and if possible, the Bristol may go over Charles Town Bar, in order to make a diversion,” while Clinton’s infantry made the main assault against the half-finished palmetto and sand fort on Sullivan’s Island. With the British fleet crossing into Five Fathom Hole on June 8, Clinton issued a proclamation to deliver to the rebels demanding them to surrender the town. Three North Carolina Regiments of 1,400 men arrived in town the same day, under the command of Brigadier General John Armstrong. The British were having trouble getting their frigates over the shallow Charles Town bar because they were too heavy. When Clinton did not receive any word on his surrender offer, he decided to begin the assault against Sullivan’s Island. Clinton did not want to land on Sullivan’s Island under a heavy fire, so he put his ground forces ashore at 10:00 am “through a heavy surf” on northern Long Island on June 9, across from Breach Inlet. The same day that the British landed, Major General Charles Lee arrived in town with Brigadier General Robert Howe.
Based on contemporary accounts, William Moultrie was an able-bodied individual who was well-liked and got along with just about everyone he crossed. What he lacked in military experience he made up for in cool and steadiness in the face of adversity. Charles Lee, given commission by the Continental Congress, was opposite of Moultrie in all facets. While Moultrie was broad and commanded respect, Lee was sickly thin with a large nose and his temper and foul mouth rubbed just about everyone the wrong way. What wasn’t questioned was Lee’s military experience of decades of service in the British Army. Moultrie welcomed Lee’s arrival, as did South Carolina’s political leader, John Rutledge. But tensions would mount in the days leading up to the engagement that saw Fort Sullivan’s defenders be put to the ultimate test. Lee thought that the fort at Sullivan’s Island should be abandoned. He argued that Moultrie and his troops would be cut off from any retreat and the fort would become a “slaughter pen.” John Rutledge overruled Lee, supporting Moultrie’s fortress, and privately wrote Moultrie a three-sentence letter stating Lee had no authority to order the fort’s abandonment. Lee insisted on the construction of a floating bridge from Sullivan’s Island to Haddrell’s Point for the troops to retreat, but the bridge collapsed under the weight a regiment crossing it. Lee micromanaged the entire harbor’s defenses, thinking the British fleet likely would sail past Forts Sullivan and Johnson (located on James Island south of the harbor) to attack Charleston. Lee placed Howe in command of the city’s defenses and Armstrong in command of the reserves at Haddrell’s Point. Moultrie’s 400 troops were to defend Sullivan’s Island, though Lee continued to insist that the fort should be abandoned and that Moultrie needed to be a stricter commander to obtain the seriousness of which they were about to face. Colonel William “Danger” Thomson commanded a small force at the northeast end of Sullivan’s Island at Breach Inlet.
From his perch on Long Island north of Breach Inlet, Clinton conducted a reconnaissance of Fort Sullivan. With faulty intelligence stating the waters to be shallow, on the morning of June 28, Clinton personally led his infantry into the waters of Breach Inlet only to discover a ripping current and an inlet far too deep to wade across. He next tried to cross using flat boats, but the sniper fire brought on by Thomson’s detachment of 800 troops drove the British back. Moultrie, who happened to be visiting Thomson’s position, saw the British maneuvers, and immediately raced to the fort on horseback to prepare for the unfolding battle. However, isolated, Clinton had to abandon the original plan to attack Fort Sullivan from a combined assault from the sea and by land, miles apart.
At 10:00am, the HMS Thunder, a warship with mounted mortars, anchored a mile and a half from the fort and began to lob its shells. “Most them fell in within the fort, but we had a morass in the middle, that swallowed them up instantly, and those that fell in the sand in and about the fort, were immediately buried, so that very few of the burst amongst us,” Moultrie recorded in his memoirs. Parker’s British vessels were brought up against the fort “in the following order: the Active against the three guns on the face of the east bastion, Bristol against five guns in the curtain and two on the flank of the east bastion, Experiment against the four remaining guns in the curtain and the two on the flank of the west bastion. The Thunder Bomb, covered by the Friendship, brought the salient angle of the east bastion to bear.” They dropped anchor and opened broadside fire on the fort with over 7,000 rounds of cannon and mortar fire striking about the fort.
The patriots had twenty-eight rounds for each of twenty-six working guns when the battle began. Due to limited supplies of powder, Moultrie’s men slowly and steadily replied making each shot count. Despite being only a few hundred yards off the coastline, the clouds of gun-smoke from the British ships were so thick, the Americans temporarily lost sight of them. Only twelve of Moultrie’s cannon could be brought to bear effectively on the British fleet’s locations. In return, the British were not doing any real damage to the fort because the spongy palmetto logs absorbed the cannon balls. Many of the ships were either anchored too far from or in the wrong position for their cannon to have the desired effect on the fort. The HMS Thunder’s mortars were doing so little damage that the British crewmen began overpacking her cannon with powder to give her shot more velocity. The result was the heavy mortars, held down by special wood planks, buckled the planks, and began destroying the deck of the ship. She would have to leave the fight entirely by mid-afternoon. For every fifty British fleet shots fired, Fort Sullivan fired but one, most of which proved deadly accurate on their targets. The firefight as intense, as even Lee later admitted he hadn't seen anything like it. During it, Moultrie was reported to be calm, giving reassuraning orders to his soldiers while he smoked his pipe. At one point, the fort’s flagstaff was cut by British shot. Sergeant William Jasper jumped up on the ramparts, over the walls, to retrieve the colors, ignoring the rain of the shot and shell. Jasper then climbed back up and tied the flag to an artillery sponge staff and erected it on the fort to be seen. Jasper's bravery rallied the men to fight on. Moultrie wrote, “The men that we had killed and wounded received their shots mostly through the embrasures. Sergeant James McDonald was mortally wounded and carried off the platform to the surgeon. His commanding officer wrote to his wife that “after a cannon ball had taken off his shoulder and scouped out his stomach,” McDonald said, “Fight on my brave boys; don’t let liberty expire with me today!”
Moultrie wrote that Lee visited the fort during battle and “pointed two or three guns himself; then said to me ‘Colonel, I see you are doing very well here, you have no occasion for me, I will go up to town again,’ and then he left us.” The Sphinx, Syren, and Acaeon sought to take advantage of the tremendous British broadsides and sailed past the fort, planning to take up a position from where they could attack the fort on its weak side. Unfortunately, the three ships ran aground over the sandbar known as the middle ground, the site of where Fort Sumter would eventually be built. By mid-afternoon the Sphinx and the Syren were free, but the Actaeon remained aground. The cannon of Fort Johnson struggled to reach the floundering British ships. Parker’s fleet was in a bad spot. The American cannon were proving too much for his fleet, and he could not effectively position his ships to counter. The sturdiness of the fort’s walls took the British by surprise, as the continuous firing of cannon against them proved ineffective at toppling the fortification. With every shot of American cannon, the planks and decking of the British ships ripped apart, hurling splinters at deadly velocity. The Commodore’s flagship, the Bristol, had her anchor springs shot away causing her stern to swing around facing the fort with all the American guns firing at her. The Bristol’s captain wrote, “The Enemy’s Shott went thro’ and thro’ us.” Parker himself was wounded when a splinter ripped his breeches off on the rear end, penetrating his knee and buttocks. Royal Governor William Campbell, aboard the Bristol, was also wounded by the rapid onslaught. The main mast of the Bristol had nine 32-pound balls imbedded in it and the mizzenmast had been shot to pieces containing seven imbedded 32-pound balls. By nightfall, the battle finally began to subside. The Bristol was barely keeping herself afloat and as darkness set in, Parker withdrew his forces around 9:30pm, setting sail for the Atlantic. The Bristol alone had fired 1,840 cannon shots to little effect.
The unsuccessful British attack on Fort Sullivan cost them ninety-three lives and about one hundred thirty wounded. The patriots suffered twelve killed and twenty-five wounded in the successful defense of Charleston. Moultrie remained at the fort, assuming the British might plan a second offensive. At 2:00am in the morning of the 29th, the British set the grounded Actaeon on fire and abandoned it. Meanwhile, Charleston folks did not know if the fort had been victorious or if it had been captured. Moultrie sent a boat to inform them of the good news and loud cheers reverberated through the streets. The defense had been a major victory for the Americans in Charleston. General Lee wrote, “The behavior of the Garrison, both men and officers, with Colonel Moultrie at their head, I confess astonished me.” Six days later the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia. Afterwards, the South Carolina General Assembly renamed the fort, Fort Moultrie, in honor of the commander of Fort Sullivan.
Fort Moultrie would once again be tested when the British returned in the spring of 1780. Unfortunately, her defenses proved inadequate to the committed siege parties under the command of Sir Henry Clinton. On May 7, Fort Moultrie surrendered without a fight, having been completely encircled by British warships in the harbor and a landing party of regulars on Sullivan’s Island. After the war, the fort went into decline until the European conflict of the 1790s revived interest in having a defensive position to protect Charleston Harbor from attack. Several refittings occurred through the years, but once Fort Sumter was built in the middle of the harbor, Fort Moultrie was no longer looked at as a viable battery for American troops. We remember Fort Moultrie and its defenders manning the cannon and firing their muskets on British warships in 1776 as brave citizens who rallied to throw off the yoke of foreign rule and interference. Today, Fort Moultrie and the surrounding batteries on the southern tip of Sullivan’s Island are open to the public and present a fascinating story to the public of how citizens of Charleston responded to war in the early days of the American Revolution. On the present flag of South Carolina is the crescent from the caps of the South Carolina 2nd Regiment troops and a Palmetto tree to represent of what logs Fort Moultrie was built. The date of June 28, when Liberty triumphed, is as sacrosanct in South Carolina as the 4th of July.