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Fort Moultrie and the Battle of Sullivans Island


By the early 1770's, with a full century of settlement behind it, Charleston had come into its own as a thriving urban center. Its 12,000 residents-- the half of whom who were white--looked optimistically to the future. Henry Laurens, for instance, was a saddler's son who, through reasonably hard work as a merchant, amassed more than 20,000 acres. This was a young society, enthusiastic and on the move, a mixture of nationalities and cultural styles. "The people of Charleston," wrote a visitor to that colonial metropolis, "live rapidly, not willingly letting go untasted any of the pleasures of life."

"View of Charleston" c.1771, by Thomas Leitch. Courtesy Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts

Increasingly, Charleston's planters, merchants, and aristocrats chafed under the distant British domination. Needing funds to maintain its far-flung army and navy after the French and Indian War, Britain had heightened its mercantilistic policies of taxation on the colonies and restriction of American manufacturing. As the years went by, the Crown's directives accumulated-- the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, the Quartering Act, the Townsend Duties, and the Tea Act. The city's large body of artisans, many of whom operated their own enterprises, took a dim view of these controls. Clothiers and carpenters, chandlers and coachmakers, bricklayers and gunsmiths, and a host of other artisans hated a system that jammed British products down their throats.

The antagonisms took on a momentum of their own. As early as 1768, Charlestonians had gathered under the Liberty Oak "in Mr. Mazyck's pasture" (near present-day 80 Alexander St.). In September 1774, five Charleston representatives journeyed north to Philadelphia and took part in the First Continental Congress. A month later Charleston threw a Boston-like Tea Party where, "with ominous dignity," patriots suggested that local importers of British East Indian Tea might want to dump that tea into the harbor-- and they did.

The lines were drawn. A Provincial Congress controlled by patriots met in January 1775 and assumed legislative authority in the Lowcountry. On May 8, Charleston received word of the confrontation in April at Lexington and Concord. Patriots and Loyalists, rich and poor, planter and journeyman, suddenly realized that for better or worse, the time for fighting was upon them. Throughout the Fall of 1775, Charlestonians worked to drive two British sloops from the harbor. Cannon appeared on the waterfront where old warehouses had been. Patriots seized Fort Johnson, located southeast of the city on James Island. A heavy battery went up across the water at Haddrell Point, and when a crew began to place guns at the mouth of the harbor on Sullivans Island, the British ships--with the last Royal Governor on board--sailed away.

Despite such initial rebuffs throughout the Colonies, the British devised a plan that they hoped would cripple resistance to the Crown. The bulk of the British forces in America, commanded by Sir William Howe, would march against the middle colonies. A smaller Southern force would consist of units dispatched from Howe's army, additional troops from England that would sail directly to the Carolinas, and a large number of Southern Loyalists who would help the cause on their own ground. Howe selected Maj. Gen Henry Clinton to lead the Southern Expedition. Sir Peter Parker was named to command the expedition's naval force gathering at Cork, Ireland. In late January, Clinton sailed from Boston with 1,500 men, bound for Cape Fear on the coast of North Carolina. When Clinton reached the Cape Fear River in March, he learned that a sizable body of North Carolina Loyalists had been soundly defeated at Moore's Creek Bridge on Feb. 27th. Clinton reviewed the British plan and waited for Parker, who arrived in early May. Their eyes now turned toward Charleston.

"General William Moultrie" by Rembrandt Peale. Courtesy The Gibbes Museum of Art/ Carolina Art Association

By February 1776, John Rutledge had returned to Charleston from a long session with the Continental Congress. He brought back warnings of a British move in the South. Rutledge was soon elected president of a newly formed General Assembly that became and remained the backbone of South Carolina's revolutionary government. Under his leadership, Charleston steadily strengthened its defenses. Rutledge placed the direction of the city's military preparations in the hands of 46-year-old Col. William Moultrie, former militiaman and Indian fighter. In early March 1776, Moultrie was ordered to Sullivans Island to supervise the building of a "large fort" there. From the beginning, the fortification was intended for seacoast defense. Its purpose was to make an invasion as costly as possible, or, better still, to prevent an invader from landing at all. Since such a fixed defensive position could not reasonably be expected to annihilate the enemy, the fort would have to be backed up by inland troops and a well-armed city.

Sullivans Island was thought to be the key to the geographically shielded harbor. A large vessel sailing into Charleston first had to cross the Charleston Bar, a series of submerged sand banks lying about 8 miles southeast of the city. A half-dozen channels penetrated the bar, but only the southern pair could be navigated by deep-draft ships. A broad anchorage called Five Fathom Hole lay between the bar and Morris Island. Although part of the sand bank would later provide the site for Ft. Sumter, it's main significance in the early years lay in its existence as an obstacle that influenced defensive strategy within the harbor. Just a thousand yards north of that shoal loomed the crucial southern end of Sullivans Island.

During the next weeks, Moultrie's work gangs cut thousands of spongy palmetto logs and rafted them over from the other sea islands and the mainland. As the fort took shape, its design was likened to "an immense pen 500 feet long, and 16 feet wide, filled with sand to stop the shot." The workers constructed gun platforms out of 2-inch planks and nailed them together with spikes. Moultrie himself concluded that "everyone was busy, and everything went on with great spirit."

By mid-May, Charlestonians received word of the formidable British fleet massing at Cape Fear. Late in May, the frigate Sphinx and the schooner Pensacola Packet sailed from Cape Fear to reconnoiter Charleston Harbor. When five of Moultrie's men went out to the frigate in one of his barges, the British hoisted the barge " with sails standing athwart the Bowsprit of the Man of War and hung it there for a whole day." This inglorious "hanging" was meant by the British to impress the townspeople as a "way of Bravado or perhaps as an innuendo of what they would do with the owner, if they could lay their hands on him." After this display, Sphinx and her tender confidently returned north. Patriots grimly realized that the main fleet would soon arrive.

On board the flagship Bristol, Clinton and Parker debated the fleet's future operations. New information concerning "the works erected by the Rebels of Sullivans Island" indicated that the fort was still in an imperfect and unfinished state." Parker proposed to "attempt the reduction of that Fortress by a coup de main." When Sphinx and Pensacola Packet returned from their reconnaissance, the British made their move. The fleet weighed anchor on May 30, crossed Cape Fear Bar, and stood to the south.

Patriot couriers brought word to Charleston on May 31 that British vessels were seen near Dewees Island, 20 miles away. On June 1, the fleet finally appeared and "displayed about fifty sail before the town, on the out side of the bar." The ships had been long expected, but their actual presence was, nevertheless, frightening. Moultrie described their effect on Charlestonians: "The sight of these vessels alarmed us very much, all was hurry and confusion, the president with his council busy in sending expresses to every part of the country, to hasten down the militia; men running about the town looking for horses, carriages and boats to send their families into the country; and as they were going out through the town gates to go into the country, they met the militia from the country marching into town..."

Among those marching in was Gen. Charles Lee and 2,000 soldiers from North Carolina and Virginia dispatched by George Washington to assist in Charleston's defense. Washington considered Lee "the first officer in military knowledge we have in the whole army." His appearance in Charleston boosted morale immensely, and Rutledge put him in command of all South Carolina troops. After viewing Charleston's defenses, however, Lee's private worries mounted. He found that Moultrie commanded only 31 cannon and a garrison of less than 400 men.

The square-shaped fort, completed only on the seaward front, presented no invincible image. Palmetto walls, 16 feet wide and filled with sand, rose 10 feet above wooden platforms for the soldiers and their guns. A hastily erected palisade of thick planks helped guard the powder magazine and the unfinished northern curtains. A motley assortment of hard-to-get cannon, ranging from 9- and 12-pounders to English 18-pounders and French 26-pounders, dotted the breastworks, the southeast and southwest walls, and the corner bastions.

Arrayed against Moultrie and Lee were the vessels of Sir Peter Parker's fleet, including transports, victuallers, service vessels, and nine Men of War-- Bristol, Experiment, Actaeon, Active, Solebay, Syren, Sphinx, Friendship, and the bomb-vessel Thunder-- together mounting nearly 300 heavy guns. When a visitor to the fort pointed to the British fleet, Moultrie replied, "We should beat them." "Sir," the visitor said, "when those ships come to lay aside your fort, they will knock it down in half an hour!" Moultrie answered coldly, "We will lay behind the ruins and prevent their men from landing." Lee did not share Moultrie's confidence. He privately referred to the fort as a "slaughter pen" of sand and logs, yet Rutledge refused to let him abandon it. Lee ordered Moultrie to build a breastwork of sand inside the works, in case the British stormed the fort. One day while inspecting it, Lee brusquely took Moultrie aside and asked him directly: "Do you think you can maintain this post?" "Yes, I think I can," came the reply.

On June 8, after most of the British fleet had crossed the bar and anchored in Five Fathom Hole, Clinton delivered a proclamation to the patriots. He wished "to entreat and exhort them, as they tender their own happiness and that of their posterity, to return to their duty to our common sovereign." Rutledge rejected this plea. A day later, Clinton and 500 soldiers landed on Long Island (today called Isle of Palms, just north of Sullivans Island), and on June 10 Parker's 50-gun flagship, Bristol, and the last of his deep-draft transports crossed Charleston Bar. Over the following days, Clinton increased his force on Long Island. His plan was to cross The Breach, an inlet between Long Island and Sullivans island, and attack the fort from its unfinished rear while Parker's ships assaulted it from the sea. On June 20, Clinton sent Maj. Gen. Charles Cornwallis' brigade-- Cornwallis' first large command of the war--to pitch camp within sight of The Breach. But now Clinton received disappointing news: the depth of The Breach at ebb tide, first reported to be only half-a-yard, was in reality seven feet. And to defend against an island-to-island crossing, Moultrie had already stationed an Advance Guard of 400 men on that end of Sullivans Island. So the British strategy changed: Clinton sent notice to Parker that he was considering using boats to land his troops inside the harbor, near Haddrell Point, or even on the southern end of Sullivans Island. Parker's ships would penetrate the harbor, level the fort, and try to support Clinton's amphibious assault.

The British and the patriots were as ready as they could reasonably hope to be. The 50-gun ship Experiment crossed Charleston Bar and joined Parker's fleet on the morning of June 27. Charles Lee kept a steady stream of advice flowing to Moultrie. That night, word circulated through the British fleet that "no quarter would be given the Americans, and that 5,000 pounds had been offered for General Lee." Events pointed toward the 28th as the fateful day.

At 9 a.m., June 28, Parker fired a signal gun. An hour later his warships advanced. The move caught Moultrie conferring with Thomson's Advance Guard, but when lookouts raised the cry that the men-of-war were coming, Moultrie galloped back to the fort. Lee was at that moment attempting to cross from the mainland to the island, but rough water forced his small boat back. Lee had spent the first half of the morning in Charleston where he had notified Rutledge that he would replace Moultrie with Col. Francis Nash unless Moultrie carried out his orders. Now, however, there remained no time for such dickering. From his vantage point across The Cove, Lee watched the British ships maneuver into firing position.

Thunder and Friendship anchored one and one-half miles from the fort. Four ships -- Active, Bristol, Experiment, and Solebay -- took positions about 400 yards out in a line west to east opposite most of the fort's cannon. The British moved slowly and confidently, fueling the fears of Charlestonians that Parker's looming men-of-war could "knock the town about our ears, notwithstanding our batteries." At 11:30, gunners aboard Thunder began to loft 13-inch mortar bombs toward the fort. Moultrie's men began firing on Active, the first ship within range, and hit her four or five times. Than came the British broadsides, loud and powerful. Lee called them "the most furious and incessant fires I ever saw or heard." Parker's frigates -- Sphinx, Syren, and Actaeon -- now sought to take advantage of this cover fire and sailed past the fort toward The Cove, planning to take up a position from whence they could both attack the fort from its weak side and isolate the island from the mainland. It was a momentous move, yet it failed. The ships' pilots, unfamiliar with the harbor, ran their ships aground on Charleston's infamous sand banks.

Inside the fort, gun crews labored furiously to return the British fire. Moultrie termed the situation "one continual blaze and roar," with clouds of smoke curling over...for hours together." The garrison had enough powder on hand for only 28 rounds per gun. Lieutenant Byrd was soon sent to inform Lee of this shortage. The patriots quickly abandoned three poorly-protected 12-pounders west of the fort, but the main walls of sand and spongy palmetto wood stood up well and smothered most of the British bombs before they could explode. Many of the American casualties came from direct hits through the embrasures. The first man killed, Cpl. Samuel Yarbury, was rolled off the platform amid epithets of revenge. About 3 pm, Moultrie received a dismaying report that Clinton had landed successfully on Sullivan's Island.

The information proved false. On the contrary, the Advance Guard troops had prevented Clinton from doing anything. Although Clinton had long since commenced bombardment of the patriots' position, he knew that the grounding of the three frigates limited his options. When Clinton finally began to move toward The Breach with armed schooners and infantry, the Americans halted their advance. American artillery raked the British decks, and most of Clinton's foot soldiers never made it to The Breach. A young North Carolinian named Morgan Brown described this engagement: "Our rifles were in prime order, well proved and well charged; every man took deliberate aim at his object...The fire taught the enemy to lie closer behind their bank of oyster shells, and only show themselves when they rose up to fire." Clinton judiciously held his position until nightfall, then canceled any further attacks. A British crewman onboard the schooner later wrote: " It was impossible for any set of men to sustain so destructive a fire as the Americans poured in... on this occasion."

On right & below left: "The Unsuccessful Attack on the Fort on Sullivan's Island" by Henry Gray. Courtesy The Gibbes Museum of Art/ Carolina Art Association

The battle at the fort was more closely drawn. By mid-afternoon the British had refloated Sphinx and Syren, although Actaeon remained aground. These two ships joined the general bombardment of the fort, which at one point "gave the merlons such a tremor" that Moultrie grew "apprehensive that a few more such would tumble them down." In the midst of the battle, when a British projectile broke the fort's flagstaff, Sgt. William Jasper "leapt over the ramparts" and , in the words of Captain Horry, "deliberately walked the whole length of the fort, until he came to the colors on the extremity of the left, when he cut off the same from the mast, and called to me for a sponge staff, and with a thick cord tied on the colors and stuck the staff on the rampart in the sand. The sergeant fortunately received no hurt, though exposed for a considerable time, to the enemy's fire."

Moultrie ordered his gun captains to concentrate their fire on Bristol and Experiment. Men all along the platform cried, "mind the Commodore, mind the two fifty gun ships." As American shot ploughed into these men-of-war, Moultrie grew more positive that Parker "was not at all obliged to us for our particular attention to him." Indeed, one round on the Bristol's quarterdeck rendered Sir Peter's "Britches...quite torn off, his backside laid bare, his thigh and knee wounded." In the afternoon's oppressive heat many of the fort's garrison shed their coats. When an exploding bomb slung one of the cast-off coats into a nearby tree, a rumor spread among the British fleet that it was an American deserter, hanged as an example to his fellow soldiers.

Lee visited the fort at 4 p.m. to "encourage the garrison by his presence." About this time another 700 pounds of powder reached the defenders. The powder was more necessary than Lee's presence, as the general soon recognized. Walking about the platform, Lee found the men "determined and cool to the last Degree, their behavior would in fact have done honors to the oldest troops." Lee redirected several of the guns, then said to Moultrie: "Colonel, I see you are doing very well here, and you have no occasion for me, so I will go up to town again."

With the extra powder, the patriots fired until sunset and even afterwards sent their shot into the British ships with deliberate regularity. By 9 p.m. Parker had had enough and withdrew to lick his wounds.The reports came in. Onboard Bristol, 40 were dead and 71 wounded. The ship itself was hit 70 times, with "much damage in her Hull, Yards, and Rigging"; Experiment also suffered: 23 dead, 56 wounded. There were 15 casualties on board Active and Solebay. Against such heavy losses the fort sustained 25 wounded and a dozen killed. The battle of Sullivans Island had required just a single day to play itself out. On the morning of June 29 the British set the grounded Actaeon afire and abandoned it. The Americans added insult to defeat by sailing out to the burning ship and briefly firing several of its guns at the departing Bristol. After the eager defenders returned to shore, Actaeon exploded, sending up an inferno which seemed to Moultrie "a grand pillar of smoke, which soon expanded itself at the top, and to appearance, formed the figure of a palmetto tree."

The British had used 32,000 pounds of powder, the Americans less than 5,000. Moultrie's men later searched Sullivans Island and "gathered up more shot, from 24-pounders down to the smallest size, than they had fired. The fort still stood, as squat and unimposing as ever, but British shot had destroyed almost all of the island's huts and trees. Parker and Clinton evacuated the area in late July and began to blame each other for their defeat. Lee blamed no one but himself for doubting: "The behavior of the Garrison, both men and officers, with Col. Moultrie at their head, I confess, astonished me." President Rutledge gave his sword to Sergeant Jasper; Moultrie was later promoted to general, and the fort was named in his honor.

The engagement at Sullivans Island assumed unquestioned importance. Within days of the battle came the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The June 28 victory stood as a kind of physical Declaration, an early sign of the American capacity to oppose the British at arms. As historian Edward C. Bearss has observed: "So far in 1776 General Washington had accomplished little beyond hurrying Howe's evacuation of Boston. The American army sent to overrun and occupy Canada had collapsed. Now came word of a victory from the south. Not only had the British been repulsed before Sullivans Island, but they had given up their initial attempt to carry the war to the southern colonies."

The upsetting of British plans in the South helped win uncommitted Americans to the struggle for independence. It also enabled the Southern colonies to support vital campaigns in the north. Most directly and significantly, the American triumph at Sullivans Island helped keep an important Southern port free from British occupation for more than three years.

Acknowledgements The text of this essay is adapted from Fort Moultrie: Constant Defender, Official National Park Handbook 136, by Jim Stokley. Used courtesy National Park Service. Map of Fort Moultrie and Sullivans Island used courtesy of the Library of Congress. Watercolor (details) by Lt. Henry Gray of the 2nd South Carolina Regiment. Gray witnessed the Battle of Sullivans Island and continued his military career until May 12, 1780 when he was captured as Charleston fell to besieging British forces. Used courtesy Gibbes Museum of Art.