The year 1776 started well for the rebel’s thirst for independence. They had kicked the British out of Boston and won a major victory at Charlestown [After the war it was changed to Charleston]. Only the invasion of Canada had proved to be disastrous. However, things quickly changed course. New York City and most of New Jersey were lost. Time and again American armies fell before British steel. American officers made critical mistakes. By December of that year, the remainder of Washington’s ‘homespun’ troops had been pursued and hiding in the Pennsylvania countryside. The onset of winter prevented the British from aggressively pursuing the rebel armies. And why should they do so? The hopes of the so-called patriots seemed to shrivel with each passing day. Nevertheless, the rebels had reason for hope. They were aided by England’s inept bungling of a war to forcibly bring the colonies back to their brood. In legislature and on the battlefield, this was true from the very beginning. From the first signs of gathering protests – right through to the war’s conclusion more than a decade later.
Throughout the American Revolution the British demonstrated a wonderful incapacity to evolve an over-all strategy to crush the rebellion. They first moved against New England, regarded as the prime instigator of sedition. When that move failed, [the British forces, with a fleet of Tories in tow, evacuated Boston to Halifax], they transferred their main operations to the Middle States. Here again they failed to coordinate their efforts in a plan to conquer New York, [having settled for New York City in which a third was destroyed by recent fire]. After allowing what was left of Washington’s army to slip away, they posted their German mercenaries to keep an eye on the riffraff while British aristocracy enjoyed comfortable settings in New York. After Washington’s army reared up from the dead in a stunning defeat of Hessian forces, the British frittered away time and expense on a second campaign to subdue Pennsylvania. This costly endeavor added but a second city to British dominance leaving nearly half a million square miles in control of a rebellious rabble. Meanwhile, a British army invading from Canada never hooked up with the main British force and was systematically hammered by American until forced to surrender.
The same held true in the south where the British appeared to protract a war ‘by the seat of one’s pants’. An early invasion proved disastrous to British forces forcing the abandonment of any future plans. Only after fizzling to a halt in the north and with a change in supreme commander did the south once again gain interest.
The south had always been a tempting target because of its large concentration of Tories or loyalists to the crown. These southern colonies, mainly North and South Carolina, were considered a stronghold of British loyalists The Cape Fear country of North Carolina was mainly colonized by Scottish Highlanders who maintained a romantic attachment to the Stuart Pretenders which, in the present rebellious upheaval within the colonies, transmuted into a strong loyalty to George III. The interior of North and South Carolina was occupied by a mixed group of national origins, however mainly Scotch-Irish and Germans. These settlers considered themselves fiercely independent and had long standing grievances against local government. After many left the Carolinas for Tennessee becoming ‘over-the-mountain folk’, those left transferred their incensed hatred not towards the crown, but to wealthy planters and merchants who many were patriots. Though these settlers were Presbyterians whose denomination throughout the colonies was overwhelmingly rebellious, they would remain loyal to their King. In 1776, the British command believed that with a show of force, these loyalists would flock to the royal banner and align their militias with British Regulars.
This article will examine the first British attempt to placate the south – the attack on Charlestown and Fort Sullivan in June of 1776. It will include eyewitness accounts to describe the action. Interestingly, in this first invasion of the south, the British commander of infantry, General Henry Clinton, never made a serious attempt to land his troops, thereby sharing defeat with the navy. Once Clinton gained supreme command of all British forces in America, he soon launched another offensive against the same city and fort (Fort Sullivan, renamed Fort Moultrie – in honor of Colonel William Moultrie, the American commander who defeated the British in their first attempt). Perhaps Clinton was still smarting from his earlier defeat and wanted to set the record straight.
Plan to Invade the South
Plans to send a large force to the southern colonies was set in late 1775. Land forces would be commanded by Lt. General Henry Clinton and consist of 1500 troops detached from Supreme Commander Major General William Howe, a large number of Scottish Highlander loyalists from the Cape Fear area of North Carolina, and 2,000 Irish troops commanded by Major General Charles Cornwallis. The naval force was commanded by Sir Peter Parker and was to sail from Cork, Ireland in early December, 1775; Cornwallis’ troops would accompany the fleet.
By late 1775, Clinton had already proved himself to be a thorn in Howe’s side; continually second guessing his supreme commander’s strategies and offering endless advice. Choosing Clinton to sail south might have Howe’s way of getting rid of an annoying subordinate. The same would hold true a year later when Howe sent Clinton from New York City to invade Providence, Rhode Island.
The expedition was delayed from the start. Parker’s fleet of nine warships including transports and supply ships did not depart Cork, Ireland until February 13, 1776. Clinton left Boston on January 20th, and instead of the 1,500 troops that were originally planned, he departed with two companies of light infantry. He stopped at New York City and conferred with New York’s Royal Governor William Tryon. Tryon was embroiled with patriotic forces who were arresting and forcing loyalists out of the city. He was also having more and more difficulties supplying British ships with needed supplies. Clinton’s arrival created apprehension among the rebellious faction, fearing his arrival precluded an invasion of the city. However, the Whigs were relieved to see him set sail soon after his arrival.
Ironically, Major General Charles Lee, second in command of American forces and considered the finest commander in America, even by supreme commander General George Washington, arrived in New York City the same day as Clinton. He was sent from Boston by Washington to see to the defenses of New York City. While in New York, Clinton had made no secret that his final destination was in the south. This was not the first hint that an invasion of the south was looming. A letter was intercepted in December, 1775, that provided intelligence that the British were intent on setting up a base of operations in the south. After Clinton departed, Lee remained in New York long enough to set in operation plans to fortify the city and soon followed Clinton to the Carolinas.
Clinton landed at Cape Fear, North Carolina (the original destination of all royal forces) on March 12th and was dismayed to find that the European convoy had not yet arrived. He also learned from Royal Governors Josiah Martin and William Campbell, governors of North and South Carolina, that the recruited Scottish Loyalists had been defeated two weeks earlier at Moore’s Creek Bridge. Commodore Parker’s fleet had a difficult crossing, battered by storms and high seas. The first ships did not arrive until April 18th, with Cornwallis’ ships setting anchor on May 3rd. During the several weeks the British remained at Cape Fear, Parker sent two ships, the frigate Sphinx and the schooner Pensacola Packet, further south to reconnoiter the coast, especially Charlestown Harbor.
Upon the return of the two ships, Clinton and Parker debated future operations. It was reported that the works erected by the Rebels on Sullivan’s Island, which protected Charlestown Harbor, were imperfect and unfinished. Parker proposed to reduce the fortress by a coup de main. The fleet weighed anchor on May 30 and crossed Cape Fear Bar and stood to the south.
Charlestown Harbor Prepares Defenses
On June 1, 1775, the Provincial Congress of South Carolina met and discussed means to defend the colony. They encouraged the dozen militias throughout the colony to be in readiness and authorized payment for three regiments of regular soldiers. Col. Christopher Gadsden would lead the 1st South Carolina Regiment of Infantry. Col. William Moultrie, a 45 year old, stout member of the Charlestown community was to head the 2nd Regiment. Col. William Thomson, a popular Scotch-Irishman born in Pennsylvania and raised on a frontier farm in South Carolina, commanded the mounted infantry Regiment of Rangers. Among these regiments were prominent southern names: Captains Pinckney, Lynch, Richardson; 1st Lieutenants Drayton, Dickenson, Middleton, Mason, Motte, Huger, and Francis Marion who would later become immortalized as the guerilla fighter the “Swamp Fox”. Schooners soon sailed to the Caribbean and eventually 10,000 pounds of powder was stored in Charlestown.
Men were actively recruited to fill these regiments. There’s one instance that romantically portrays the rough, ruddy nature of the backcountry settlers. Capt. Barnard Elliott, an elegant Englishman turned patriot recruiter, wore silk stockings and carried himself like a gentleman. He drew the ridicule of many of the rawboned back countrymen he sought to recruit. At one crossroads, a large group of settlers were not swayed by his promise of money, drink, and adventure. He learned that their stocky leader was heard to say that he “never could think of serving under a man he could lick.” Elliott challenged the man to a fight and lost no time showing their leader the result of a British education: the art of boxing. The countrymen throughout the area lined up to enlist.
Charlestown was the largest harbor and trading center south of Philadelphia. The patriots knew its importance to British interests. Throughout the fall of 1775 and the new year, the regiments and new recruits arrived Charlestown to begin operations to defend the city and the several nearby islands. Townsmen had already broken into the Royal Armory while the Charleston artisans were hired to furnish additional supplies necessary to sustain a military presence. Cannon began to appear on the waterfront where old warehouses had been. Patriots seized Fort Johnson, located southeast of the city on James Island. Colonel Moultrie raised the South Carolina flag over the Fort on September 15, 1775. A heavy battery went up at Haddrell Point across from Sullivan’s Island. When a crew began to place guns at the mouth of the harbor on Sullivan’s Island – the beginnings of Fort Sullivan – the British ships, with the royal governor on board, sailed away.
In February 1776, John Rutledge, who had been elected to represent South Carolina in the Continental Congress, had returned to Charlestown. He brought back information of an impending British attack. Rutledge was soon elected president of the newly formed General Assembly which was to remain the centerpiece of patriotic resistance in the south. Under his careful eye, Charlestown began to strengthen its defenses. He immediately gave command of all military operations within the city to Colonel William Moultrie, now aged 46, former militiaman and experienced Indian fighter.
Sullivan Island was chosen to construct a fortified battery because it was a geographic obstacle that shielded the harbor. A large vessel sailing into Charlestown first had to cross Charlestown Bar, a series of submerged sand banks lying about eight 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. From Five Fathom Hole, shipping headed northward before turning west. At this point the channel narrowed considerable. To the south, a well-known shoal, called the Middle Ground, projected outward from James Island; here Fort Johnson was constructed in 1704. Just a thousand yards north of the shoal loomed the crucial southern end of Sullivan’s Island. A ship had to approach the fort bow first until within close range, then turn to port and expose her stern as she passed the fort. The ship would have very little time to fire broadsides and would herself be raked [shot traveling the length of the ship thereby doing the most damage] fore and aft.
Col. Moultrie and his South Carolina 2nd Regiment arrived on the island in March, 1776. They found a “great number of mechanics and negroe laborers” already at work on the fort. Moultrie and his men joined a detachment under Capt. Peter Horry, of the navy. Horry had made sure that a pair of British warships, Tamar and Cherokee, did not send landing parties ashore. During the next weeks, work gangs cut thousands of spongy palmetto logs and rafted them over from the other islands and the mainland. Horry kept a close eye on the fort’s progress likening it to “an immense pen 500 feet long and 16 feet wide [here referring to the walls], filled with sand to stop the shot.” The workers constructed gun platforms out of two-inch planks and nailed them together with wood spikes.
By mid-May, men were arriving in Charlestown from the mainland of both South and North Carolina. Typical of the militia marching to defend Charleston was Lt. Felix Walker from Watauga country, North Carolina, in what would later become east Tennessee. Walker recruited “over the mountain men” to join his company. He had once been an apprentice in Charleston and lured his friends and other youthful frontiersmen with enticing stories of the city and the ocean. A sizable number of these back-country men contributed to the defense of the city. For the most part they carried rifles whose accuracy at over two hundred yards was already legend. Many joined Thomson’s Rangers on Sullivan Island, while most were stationed at Haddrell Point, across the water from Sullivan’s Island. Richard Hutson, militiaman, reached Charlestown and remained unimpressed with the troops he saw: “I expect that when it comes to the push we shall be obliged to do all ourselves.”
But Moultrie, after the arrival of the British fleet and watching them scout out possible landings on nearby Long Island, wrote on June 3, “Our fort is now enclosed. It is the opinion of everyone that we should have more men at this post; but, as I know they cannot be spared from the capital, I must make the best defense I can with what I have got… I shall give 4 or 500 men a great deal of trouble before they can dislodge me from this post.”
Militia and regular troops continued to arrive in Charlestown. Nearly a month later they would number around 3,000 to face Commodore Peter Parker’s fleet of nine men-of-war and General Clinton’s 2,000 infantry who by then had landed on Long Island.
By the time of battle, the square shaped fort was fully completed on the seaward front only; the remaining sides were enclosed with earthen and hastily laid timber. The fort presented no invincible image. On seaside, palmetto logs were piled into walls sixteen feet wide and filled with sand that stood ten feet above wooden platforms for the soldiers and their guns. A hastily erected palisade of thick planks guarded the powder magazine and the unfinished northern curtains. There was a motley assortment of cannon ranging from 9 and 12 pounders to English 18 pounders and French 26 pounders that dotted the wall facing seaward including the corner bastions. These palmetto log walls that looked frail to the British attacking force proved incredibly pliable when pelted with British shot. The spongy wood reinforced by sand absorbed the heavy blow so that each broadside that struck sent a strong vibration throughout the parapet, but the wall held.
Couriers brought word that on May 31st British vessels were seen near Dewees Island, only twenty miles from Charlestown. The fleet arrived off Charlestown Harbor the next day, June 1, and displayed over fifty sail before the town just outside the bar. Though warned of the fleet’s approach, the sight of so many ships-of-war sent a panic among the 12,000 inhabitants of the city. Moultrie records in his memoir, “The sight of these vessels alarmed us very much, all was hurry and confusion… 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…” Moultrie records the hurried defenses being thrown up, “… traverses were made in the principal streets; fleches thrown up at every place where troops could land; military works going on everywhere, the lead taking from the windows of the churches and dwelling houses, to cast into musket balls, and every preparation to receive an attack, which was expected in a few days.”
Marching among the militia was Major General Charles Lee and 2,000 soldiers from North Carolina and Virginia dispatched by George Washington to assist in Charlestown’s defense.
Lee, a former British officer, carried an overblown reputation for military brilliance that was propagated by an outpouring ego. Washington fell within Lee’s ‘aura’ proclaiming that Lee was “the first officer in military knowledge and experience we have in the whole army.” Rutledge immediately put Lee in control of all defensive forces.
Lee’s appearance boosted morale immensely. Moultrie recorded in his memoirs on June 4, 1776: “General Lee arrived from the northward, and took command of the troops; his presence gave us great spirits, as he was known to be an able, brave, and experienced officer, though hasty and rough in his manners, which the officers could not reconcile themselves to at first; it was thought by many that his coming among us was equal to a reinforcement of 1,000 men, and I believe it was, because he taught us to think lightly of the enemy, and gave a spur to all our actions.”
Soon after arriving, Lee boasted that he would send Clinton a challenge if nothing happened soon. He met with President John Rutledge to discuss the defense of the city and harbor and began inspecting the works. Again Moultrie writes: “… he [Lee] hurried about to view the different works, and give orders for such things to be done as he thought necessary; he was every day and every hour of the day on horseback, or in boats viewing our situation and directing small works to be thrown up at different places.” When Lee arrived at Fort Sullivan, he was dismayed finding soldiers of the 2nd South Carolina encamped behind the unfinished walls in huts and booths covered with palmetto leaves. Moultrie writes: “… when he [Lee] came to Sullivan’s Island, he did not like that post at all, he said there was no way to retreat, that the garrison would be sacrificed; nay, he called it a ‘slaughter pen,’ and wished to withdraw the garrison and give up the post, but president Rutledge insisted that it should not be given up.”
When Rutledge insisted that the fort on Sullivan’s Island would remain, Lee was still thinking of a route in which the garrison could retreat. Moultrie writes: “…Then General Lee said it was ‘absolutely necessary to have a bridge of boats for a retreat’; but boats enough could not be had, the distance over being at least a mile. Then a bridge was constructed of empty hogsheads buoyed at certain distances, and two planks from hogshead to hogshead; this would not answer, because when Colonel Clark was coming over from Haddrell’s [Point] with a detachment of 200 men; before they were half on, it sunk so low, that they were obliged to return.”
Lee continued to worry about not having an adequate retreat for the garrison, badgering Moultrie. However Moultrie seemed unconcerned. He writes: “Gen. Lee’s whole thoughts were taken up with the post on Sullivan’s Island; all his letters to me show how anxious he was at not having a bridge for a retreat; for my part, I never was uneasy on not having a retreat because I never imagined that the enemy could force me to that necessity; I always considered myself as able to defend that post against the enemy. I had upwards of 300 riflemen under Col. Thompson… Col. Clark, with 200 North Carolina regulars, Col. Horry, with 200 South Carolina, and the Raccoon company of riflemen, 50 militia at the point of the island behind the sand hills and myrtle bushes; I had also a small battery with one 18 pounder, and one brass fieldpiece, 6 pounder, at the same place, which entirely commanded the landing and could begin to fire upon them at 7 or 800 yards before they could attempt to land… had they [British] made their landing good, the riflemen would have hung upon their flanks for three miles as they marched along the beach, and not above fifty yards from them.”
Moultrie was confident that he could hold off a land attack against the fort. He writes: “Col. Thompson had orders that if they could not stand the enemy they were to throw themselves into the fort, by which I should have had upwards of 1,000 men in a large strong fort, and Gen. Armstrong in my rear with 1,500 men [at Haddrell Point], not more that [than] one mile and a half off, with a small arm of the sea between us… I therefore felt myself perfectly easy because I never calculated upon Sir Henry Clinton’s [Clinton had yet to attain that title] numbers to be more than 3,000 men; as to the men-of-war, we should have taken every little notice of them if the army had attacked us.”
The night before the battle, June 27, word circulated through the British fleet that “no quarter would be given the Americans, and that £5,000 had been offered for General Lee.”
General Lee remained skeptical right up to the time of battle. Moultrie writes: “Gen. Lee one day on a visit to the fort took me aside and said, ‘Col. Moultrie, do you think you can maintain this post.’ I answered him ‘Yes I think I can,’ that was all that passed on the subject between us.” Lee began to doubt if Moultrie should remain in command of the garrison. Moultrie writes: “Gen. Lee, I was informed, did not like my having the command of that important post, he did not doubt my courage, but said ‘I was too easy in command,’ as his letters show; but after the 28th June he made me his bosom friend.” On the morning of June 28th and the day of battle, Lee had notified President Rutledge his desire to replace Moultrie with Col. Francis Nash. Before such a move could be enacted, Lee spotted the war ships moving into position to begin the bombardment and cancelled the order.
Moultrie, in him memoirs, comments on an able seaman’s skepticism as to the fort’s chances: “… Capt. Lamperer, a brave and experienced seaman, who had been master of a man-of-war, and captain of a very respectable privateer… visited me at the fort after the British ships came over our bar; while walking the platform looking at the fleet, he said to me: ‘well Colonel what do you think of it now; ‘I replied that ‘we should beat them’ ‘Sir said he ‘when those ships (pointing to the men-of-war) come to lay along side of your fort, they will knock it down in half an hour’… then I said, ‘we will lay behind the ruins and prevent their men from landing.’”
There must have been some doubt in Moultrie’s mind as to the fort’s ability to hold back an attack for he writes: “… our fort at this time was not nearly finished; the mechanics and negro laborers were taken from all the works about the town, and sent down to the Island to complete our fort, we worked very hard, but could not get it nearly finished before the action.”
Final Preparations for Battle
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, offering them an opportunity “to return to their duty to our common sovereign.” Rutledge rejected Clinton’s offer. The next day Clinton and 500 soldiers landed on Long Island (just east of Sullivan’s Island and separated by a narrow inlet). On June 10, Parker’s 50 gun flagship, Bristol, and the last of his deep-draft transports crossed Charlestown Bar. Over the next several days, Clinton increased his force on Long Island as he made plans to wade across The Breach to Sullivan’s Island (the small inlet between the two islands) and attack the fort from its unfinished rear while Parker’s ships assaulted it from the sea.
Parker’s fleet included transports, victuallers, service vessels, and nine men-of-war; Bristol, Experiment, Actaeon, Active, Solebay, Syren, Sphinx, Friendship, and the bomb vessel Thunder. The combined metal mounted 300 heavy guns. By late June, Moultrie commanded 31 cannon and a garrison of less than 400 men. Besides the 2nd South Carolina regiment, 20 men from the 4th South Carolina Artillery Regiment were posted in the fort. Most reports puts the total number of defenders within the fort at 413 men.
On June 20, Clinton sent General Charles Cornwallis’ brigade (this being the Earl’s first command of the war) southward to pitch camp within sight of The Breach. Clinton received disappointing news: the depth of The Breach at ebb tide, which he had originally thought to be half-a yard in depth, was in reality seven feet. Clinton’s plan of attack called for his troops to wade across The Breach. Clinton sent notice to Parker that he was considering using boats to land troops inside the harbor, near Haddrell Point, or even on the southern end of Sullivan’s Island. Parker left the decision to Clinton. By the last week of June, the British settled on a vague, uncoordinated strategy. Parker’s ships would penetrate the harbor, level the fort, and possibly support Clinton in an amphibious assault. Clinton would help out by somehow crossing Sullivan’s Island, destroy Thomson’s Advance Guard, and storm the work from the rear.
Nine AM the morning of June 28, Commodore Parker fired a signal gun. Within the hour the war ships approached the fort.
Thunder and Friendship anchored 1 ½ miles from the fort. The four men-of-war, Active, Bristol, Experiment, and Solebay, dropped anchor and set springs to cable about 400 yards in a line east to west opposite most of the fort’s cannons. The British were confident in their movements aligning themselves carefully into position. At 11:30 the battle began.
Thunder began to loft 13 inch mortars toward the fort. The distance being too great to do much if any damage, the engineer, Colonel James, ordered more powder added per charge to the mortars. The overcharged recoil shattered the beds soon putting the Thunder out of action. Legend has it that the only fatalities on Sullivan’s Island from the Thunder were three ducks, two geese, and one turkey.
The fort began firing on the Active, the first ship within their range. The Active was hit four or five times before a powerful broadside erupted from the closest ships. Lee wrote: “the most furious and incessant fires I ever saw or heard.” For a half hour, the four closest men-of-war; Active, Bristol, Experiment, and Solebay continued a heavy fire on the fort. Around noon, Commodore Parker ordered the three frigates; Sphinx, Syren, and Actaeon to take advantage of the action and sail past the fort and enter the cove behind the fort just as General Lee had feared. They hoped to take a position where they could both shell and rake the fort from its weak side and isolate the island, preventing reinforcements from aiding the fort. Had the ships been successful, it could have been disastrous for the fort, however the move failed. The ships’ pilots, unfamiliar with the cove, lost their bearings and ran their ships aground on Charlestown’s legendary sand banks.
Inside the fort, the gun crews labored to return the British fire. Moultrie took precise care in firing his battery – never more than 4 cannon in volley. The garrison had enough powder on hand for only 28 rounds per gun. Lieutenant Byrd was soon sent to inform Lee of this shortage. President Rutledge responded at the heat of the battle and penciled on a slip of paper: “I send you 500 pounds of powder. I should think you may be supplied well from Haddrell’s… You know our collection is not very great… P.S. Do not make to free with your cannon. Cool and do mischief.” Three poorly protected 12 pounders were abandoned west of the fort, but the main walls of sand and palmetto stood up well and smothered most of the British bombs before they could explode. Majority of the American casualties came from direct hits through the embrasures; the first killed, Cpl. Samuel Yarbury, was rolled off the platform amid epithets of revenge.
Around 3 p.m., Moultrie received a discouraging message that Clinton had landed successfully on Sullivan’s Island and was advancing on his works. This proved to be incorrect. Thomson’s riflemen had prevented Clinton from doing anything. Although Clinton had long since commenced bombardment of Thomson’s 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. Thomson’s artillery raked the British decks, and most of Clinton’s 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 held his position until nightfall, and then cancelled any further attempt to attack. A British crewman onboard a schooner later wrote of Thomson’s success: “It was impossible for any set of men to sustain so destructive a fire as the Americans poured in…”
By mid-afternoon, the British had refloated Sphinx and Syren, although Actaeon remained grounded. These two ships joined the general bombardment of the fort. At one point, one round that struck the Bristol’s quarterdeck wounded Commodore Parker: “… [Parker’s] Britches… quite torn off, his backside laid bare, his thigh and knee wounded.” It was 4 PM when Lee was able to visit the fort. At the same time another 700 pounds of powder reached the defenders. The powder proved more necessary than Lee’s presence. Lee found the men “determined and cool to the last degree, their behavior would in fact have done honors to the oldest troops.”
With the extra powder, Moultrie’s men fired until sunset and even afterwards sent their shot into the British ships with a deliberate regularity. By 9 PM, after nearly ten hours of action, Commodore Parker had enough and withdrew his ships. The Bristol and Experiment (the two 50 gun men-of-war), gained the fort’s most attention and received the greatest damage and largest number of casualties. The Bristol was hit 70 times with “much damage in her Hull, Yards, and Rigging.” The Acateon had remained grounded until morning when she was abandoned. The Americans rowed out and set fire to the ship that blew up in a fantastic explosion and burned to the water.
First Hand Accounts of the Battle
The following is Colonel Moultrie’s description of the action as commander of Fort Sullivan. It is taken from his memoir, written some years later, and states only that he recorded this in June of 1776, not giving the exact date. He elaborately portrays the action in detail including the human ordeal faced by his troops. He describes General Lee’s brief presence during the battle and alludes to the minor role he played. His description of the action is included in its entirety:
“On the morning of the 28th of June , I paid a visit to our advance guard (on horseback three miles to the eastward of our fort). While I was there, I saw a number of the enemy’s boats in motion, at the back of Long Island, as if they intended a descent upon our advanced post; at the same time I saw the men-of-war loosen their topsails. I hurried back to the fort as fast as possible; when I got there the ships were already under sail. I immediately ordered the long roll to beat, and officers and men to their posts. We had scarcely manned our guns when the following ships of war came sailing up, as if in confidence of victory. As soon as they came within the reach of our guns, we began to fire. They were soon a-breast of the fort… let go their anchors, with springs upon their cables, and begun their attack most furiously about 10 o’clock A. M. and continued a brisk fire till about 8 o’clock P.M. The ships were:
The Bristol, of 50 guns, Commodore Sir Peter Parker: the captain [Cpt. John Morris] had his arm shot off, 44 men killed and 30 wounded. The Experiment, 50 guns; the captain [Cpt. Alexander Scott who survived] lost his arm, 57 men killed and 30 wounded. The Active, [Cpt. William Williams] 28 guns; 1 Lt. killed, 1 man wounded. The Sole-Bay, [also Solebay- Capt. Thomas Symond] 28 guns; 2 killed, 3 or 4 wounded. The Syren, [Cpt. Tobias Furneaux] 28 guns. The Acteon, [also the Actaeon – Cpt. Christopher Atkins] 28 guns; burnt, 1 Lt. killed. The Sphinx, [Cpt. Anthony Hunt] 28 guns; lost her bowsprit. The Friendship, [1st Lt. Charles Hope] 26 guns; an armed vessel taken into service.
The Thunder, bomb,[Cpt. James Reid, 8 guns], had the beds of her mortar soon disabled; she threw her shells in a very good direction; most of them fell within the fort, but we had a morass in the middle that swallowed them up instantly, and those that fell in the sand and in and about the fort were immediately buried so that very few of them burst amongst us. At one time the Commodore’s ship swung round with her stern to the fort, which drew the fire of all the guns that could bear upon her: we supposed he had had the springs of her cables cut away. The words that passed along the platform by officers and men were: “Mind the Commodore! Mind the two fifty-gun ships!” Most all the attention was paid to the two fifty-gun ships, especially the Commodore, who, I dare say, was not at all obliged to us for our particular attention to him; the killed and wounded on board those two fifty-gunships confirms what I say.
During the action, General Lee paid us a visit through a heavy line of fire 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 left us.
When I received information of General Lee’s approach to the fort, I sent Lt. Marion from off the platform, with 8 or 10 men, to unbar the gateway. Our gate not being finished, the gateway was barricaded with pieces of timber 8 or 10 inches square, which required 3 or 4 men to remove each piece. The men in the ships’ tops, seeing those men run from the platform, concluded “we were quitting the fort,” as some author mentions. Another says, “We hung up a man in the fort [for desertion] at the time of the action.” That action was taken from this circumstance; when the action begun (it being a warm day), some of the men took off their coats and threw them upon the top of the merlons. I saw a shot take one of them and throw it into a small tree behind the platform. It was noticed by our men and they cried out, “Look at the coat!”
Never did men fight more bravely, and never were men more cool; their only distress was the want of powder; we had not more than 28 rounds, for 26 guns, 18 and 26 pounders, when we begun the action; and a little after, 500 pounds from town and 200 pounds from Captain Tufft’s schooner lying at the back of the fort. [As mentioned in this article, General Lee brought over 700 additional pounds of powder during his brief visit].
There cannot be a doubt but that, if we had had as much powder as we could have expended in the time, the men-of-war must have struck their colors or they would certainly have been sunk, because they could not retreat, as the wind and tide were against them; and if they had proceeded up to town, they would have been in a much worse situation. [Assuming they would be in range of the many guns aligned along the harbor]. They could not make any impression on our fort, built of palmetto logs and filled in with earth. Our merlons were 16 feet thick and high enough to cover the men from the fire of the tops. The men that we had killed and wounded received their shots mostly through the embrasures.
An author, who published in 1779, says, “The guns were at one time so long silenced that it was thought the fort was abandoned; it seems extraordinary that a detachment of land forces were not in readiness on board of the transports, or boats, to profit of such an occasion.”
The guns being so long silent was owing to the scarcity of powder which we had in the fort, and to a report that was brought to me “that the English troops were landed between the advance-guard and the fort.” It was upon this information that I ordered the guns to cease firing, or to fire very slow upon the shipping; that we should reserve our powder for the musketry to defend ourselves against the land forces, there being a scarcity of powder at this time.
At one time, 3 or 4 of the men-of-war’s broadsides struck the fort at the same instant, which gave the merlons such a tremor that I was apprehensive that a few more such would tumble them down. During the action three of the men-of-war, in going round to our west curtain, got entangled together, by which the Acteon frigate went on shore on the middle ground; the Sphinx lost her bow-sprit; and the Syren cleared herself without any damage; had these three ships effected their purpose, they would have enfiladed us in such a manner as to have driven us from our guns. It being a very hot day, we were served along the platform and grog in fire-buckets, which we partook of very heartily: I never had a more agreeable draught than that which I took out of one of those buckets at the time. It may be very easily conceived what heat and thirst a man must feel in this climate, to be upon a platform on the 28th June, amidst 20 or 30 heavy pieces of cannon in one continual blaze and roar, and clouds of smoke curling over his head for hours together; it was a very honorable situation, but a very unpleasant one.
During the action thousands of our fellow citizens were looking on with anxious hopes and fears, some of whom had their fathers, brothers, and husbands in the battle; whose hearts must have been pierced at every broadside. After some time our flag was shot away; their hopes were then gone, and they gave up all for lost, supposing that we had struck our flag, and had given up the fort! Sergeant Jasper, perceiving that the flag was shot away and had fallen without the fort, jumped from one of the embrasures and brought it up through a heavy fire, fixed it upon a sponge-staff, and planted it upon the ramparts again. Our flag once more waving in the air revived the drooping spirits of our friends; and they continued looking on till night had closed the scene and hid us from their view; only the appearance of a heavy storm, with continual flashes and peals like thunder. At night when we came to our slow firing (the ammunition being nearly quite gone) we could hear the shot very distinctly strike the ships.
At length the British gave up the conflict. The ships slipped their cables and dropped down with the tide, and out of the reach of our guns. When the firing had ceased, our friends for a time were again in an unhappy suspense, not knowing our fate till they received an account by a dispatch boat, which I sent up to town to acquaint them that the British ships had retired and that we were victorious.
Early the next morning was presented to our view the Acteon frigate hard and fast aground at about 400 yards distance. We gave her a few shot, which she returned, but they soon set fire to her and quitted her. Capt. Jacob Milligan and others went in some of our boats, boarded her while she was on fire, and pointed 2 or 3 guns at the Commodore and fired them; then brought off the ship’s bell and other articles, and had scarcely left her when she blew up, and from the explosion issued a grand pillar of smoke, which soon expanded itself at the top and, to appearance, formed the figure of a palmetto tree; the ship immediately burst into a great blaze that continued till she burnt down to the water’s edge.
The other ships lay at the north point of Morris’ Island [about 2 miles] we could plainly see they had been pretty roughly handled, especially the Commodore.
The same day, a number of our friends and fellow citizens came to congratulate us on our victory and Governor Rutledge presented Sergeant Jasper with a sword, for his gallant behavior; and Mr. William Logan [presented] a hogshead of rum [old Antigua rum] to the garrison… A few days after the action, we picked up, in and about the fort, 1,200 shot of different calibers that was fired at us, and a great number of 13 inch shells.
Major Barnard Elliott of South Carolina writes to his wife on June 29, 1776. He describes the ordeal the men faced in the fort and particularly the heroics of Sergeant Jasper’s raising the fort’s downed flag: “… The firing continued till near 10 o’clock, and I have the pleasure to inform you that we have lost but ten men and twenty-two wounded… The expression of a Sergeant McDaniel, after a cannon ball had taken off his shoulder and scooped out his stomach, is worth recording in the annals of America: ‘Fight on, my brave boys; don’t let liberty expire with me today!’ Young, the barber, an old artillery man, who lately enlisted as sergeant, has lost a leg. Several arms are shot away. Not an officer is wounded. My old grenadier, Sergeant Jasper, upon the shot carrying away the flag-staff, called out to Col. Moultrie: ‘Colonel, don’t let us fight without our flag!’ “Then sir,” said he, ‘I’ll fix it to a halberd and place it on the merlon of the bastion next to the enemy, which he did, through the thickest fire.” [Other reports state that the flag was attached to a swabbing pike.]
The following are excerpts from a letter written by a surgeon with the British fleet dated July 9, 1776: “We left Cape-Fear on the 27th of May… All our motions were so languid and so innervate that it was the 9th of June before the Bristol and Pigot passed the bar of Charlestown… By our delays we gave the people every opportunity they could have asked for to extend their lines, etc: they were not idle – every hour gave us astonishing proofs of their industry… The fort on this island is exceedingly strong (or rather the battery): it is built of palm trees and earth, and on it are mounted eighteen or the lower deck guns of the Fondroyant… He writes that the plan was to attack on June 27th, but the attack had to be put off until the next day because of unfavorable winds. He writes about the poor showing the Thunder Bomb played in the battle: “The Thunder, bomb, began the attack at half past eleven by throwing shells while the ships were advancing… Unfortunately the bomb was placed at such a distance that she was not of the least service. This Colonel James, the principal engineer, immediately perceived to remedy [with] an additional quantity of powder was added to each mortar; the consequences were the breaking down the beds and totally disabling her for the rest of the day.” He complements the rebels: “Our ships… were obliged to retire with great loss. The Provincials reserved their fire until the shipping were advanced within point-blank shot; their artillery was surprisingly well swerved, it is said, under the command of a Mr. Masson and DeBrahm, it was slow, but decisive indeed, they were very cool, and took great care not to fire except their guns were exceedingly well directed.” The surgeon laments the affect the news of the defeat will have on England: “…This will not be believed when it is first reported to England. I can scarcely believe what I myself saw on that day – a day to me one of the most distressing and intrepidity; one would have imagined that no battery could have resisted their incessant fire.”
Francis Rawdon-Hastings was aide-de-camp to General Clinton and accompanied him on the Charleston expedition. He wrote a long letter to Lord Huntington, written on Long Island near Charlestown on July 3, 1776. He helps explain the delay in the British attack. “…We were forced to anchor without any shelter, in very deep water, where for eight or ten days we had a continual gale of wind.” Several of the ships had to put out to sea, but they all finally returned safely. After more than three weeks, the fleet “got into the harbor, the entrance not being defended.” He writes of the batteries facing them: “… upon the south end of Sullivan’s Island, a partially completed rebel battery mounting from four and twenty to thirty pieces of cannon, which we were informed had been the lower-deck guns of the Foudroyant, and were six and twenty pounders. No British vessel could reach the town “without passing within half cannon shot of this battery.” Then “Fort Johnson presented itself mounted with sixty guns, and every wharf in Charleston was converted into a battery.” Rawdon was enthralled by the spectacle of the bombardment: “I think it was by far the grandest sight I ever beheld… the Experiment alone fired away near a hundred and sixty barrels of powder.” When night fell, Parker “was obliged to retire, having suffered exceedingly, and scarcely done any injury to the works.” He wrote that Captain John Morris (Captain of the Bristol), “had his right arm shot away and was otherwise much hurt.” Parker was “much hurt by splinters.” He writes that Captain Alexander Scott of the Experiment “had his right hand shot off.” He writes about the failed attempt by his superior to gain Sullivan Island and concludes: “We are preparing to re-embark, and join General Howe. I fear we shall not reach him till the campaign is almost over, so that I do not expect to see much this year. [Rawdon refers to the New York invasion in which Clinton showed up in time to take an active part].
Colonel Moultrie, in his memoir, underestated the number of casualties aboard the British ships. The Bristol was savagely mauled with 64 dead and 161 wounded. The Experiment fared better, but not by much; 57 dead and 30 wounded. The Solebay lost 12 killed and wounded, and the Active seven. In comparison, Colonel Moultrie had 12 men killed and 25 wounded. The British had expended 34,000 pounds of powder and the Americans only 4,766 pounds.
The British men-of-war were so mauled that there was no possibility of another assault on Charlestown Harbor –even if Clinton’s troops were to find a way to gain land to attack the batteries. The fleet limped back to New York City where they joined brothers Admiral Howe and General Howe during their invasion that summer.
On July 7, 1776, nine days after the battle, General Lee sends a note to Moultrie. He inquires after Moultrie’s gout and hints at his bout with gout as the reason he did not take a more active role during the attack: “General Lee’s compliments to Colonel Moultrie, and desires he may come to town as soon as he thinks proper; he hopes the air will cure his gout. I had the gout before and at the time of the action on the 28th of June.
From the time Lee entered Charlestown leading up to the battle, most of the defenses were actively under construction or finished. Lee’s brusque manner put officers and civilians off, as he had done in New York City prior to arriving Charlestown. He offered some useful advice as to organizing and the placement of additional batteries, but for the most part he was a prolific complainer. He did instill confidence in the American troops claiming that the British could be beaten. Such a firm frame of mind was something he no longer showed after he was later captured by the British and exchanged. It is interesting that Lee was so concerned that the garrison and troops on Sullivan’s Island did not have a proper escape route if they were overwhelmed by enemy ground forces. He daily badgered Moultrie on this point. Right up to the day of battle he had begun initiating orders to have Moultrie replaced. It may be argued that putting so much time and energy into organizing a route for retreat was a flaw in General Lee’s character and determination to press forward in battle with the confidence of victory. This had near devastating results at the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, some years later when Lee ordered a general retreat after the American forces had but run up against General Clinton’s rearguard. Only Washington’s timely presence turned the troops back to face their enemy.
Commodore Parker and General Clinton would continue through life placing the blame for the embarrassing defeat on each other. In England, there were many recriminations against both Clinton and Parker. Official statements tried to downplay the events with some success.
The victories around New York, resulting in the British chasing the bulk of the Continental Army across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania, were a distraction from the defeat at Charlestown.
Friends of Clinton put pressure on Lord Germain and had him sign a statement that Clinton was not at fault, but Clinton was angered when Germain refused to have the statement published. Clinton was even more upset when Admiral Parker’s opinions began to appear in print. Clinton became so distraught, that after the campaign in and around New York was over, he received a leave of absence from Supreme Commander Sir Major General Howe to return to England. Howe was more than happy to be rid of a noisome subordinate. It was reported that Clinton intended to have a pistol duel with Lord Germain. But Germain was able to avoid the duel by bestowing Clinton with an Order of the Bath, making him Major General Sir Henry Clinton. Many believed that Germain made Clinton a Major General to avoid a duel in which Germain would surely lose. Howe was not happy upon hearing the news that his second, and one who made no secret that he wanted Howe’s job, was now Sir Henry Clinton and would soon be returning to America.
Clinton would have his revenge a few years later. Soon after Howe left and Clinton accepting the Supreme Command of the British forces in America, he began making plans to invade the south. His first blow fell on Charlestown. He accompanied the invasion force along with Cornwallis to make sure the same ‘errors’ made the first time were not repeated. In this later action he not only captured Fort Sullivan (renamed Fort Moultrie), but the city of Charlestown and most of the southern American army under command of General Benjamin Lincoln.
This American victory, which proved to be one of the most decisive actions against the British in the entire war, fell on the heels of General Howe’s evacuation of Boston. How quickly the turn of events in and around New York within the next two months switched the war’s momentum back to the British. The crown enjoyed their seemingly assured route towards ultimate triumph; however that too was short lived. Washington’s miraculous victory at Trenton in December was yet another setback for His Majesty’s forces. The war would continue for six more years with the scales tipped in favor of one side then the other. But the dye was cast and by the end of 1776, there were clear signs that the colonies were slowly slipping through England’s fingers.
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 Commanger & Morris, pg. 1062
 Charleston was originally named Charles Town. At the time of the Revolution, many wrote Charlestown. The name was changed to Charleston in 1783. Throughout this article, the writer has used the modern version.
 Coup de main is French meaning to strike a blow with the hand. It is a swift attack that relies on speed and surprise to accomplish its objectives in a single blow.
 This was the second meeting of the new administration set up by South Carolina patriots. The Provincial Congress first met in January 1775. Prior to that, in September, 1774, five delegates were selected and traveled north for the first Congressional Congress.
William Moultrie (1730-1805) was born in what was then called Charles Town, South Carolina. He fought against the native Americans in 1761 and served in the colonial assembly before accepting a commission to lead the 2nd South Carolina.
 Stokley, pg. 9.
 Ibid, pg. 13.
 Fort Johnson(1704 -1865) It was established in 1704 on James Island, Charleston County, South Carolina. Named after Governor Sir Nathaniel Johnson (1644-1713). Governor Johnson ordered in 1704 the erection of a strong point on the exposed neck of land which projected into Charleston harbor and thereby dominated.
 Sullivan’s Island goes back to 1674 when Captain O’Sullivan had been appointed to maintain a signal cannon there and to fire it as any vessel approached.
 Bow is the front of a boat and stern the rear. The rest of the ship is divided into quarters.
 Stokley pg. 13.
 Over 200 African American slaves would toil from dawn to dusk to build the fort.
 Stokley, pg. 13
 Long Island was renamed the Isle of Palms. A developer changed the name in 1953 because, supposedly, Long Island was a Yankee name.
 Stokley, pg. 18
 Moultrie, pg. 140
 Traverse in military usage is a mass of earth or other material employed to protect troops against enfilade – firing along the length of the troops thereby doing the most damage. It is constructed at right angles to the parapet or breastwork.
 An earthwork consisting of two berms – manmade ridge of sand or earth – forming an angle in the shape of an arrow with an open gorge – gorge meaning the back end of the field structure.
 Moultrie, pg. 141.
 Fitzpatrick, Vol. 4, pg. 451.
 Moultire, pg. 141.
 Moultrie, pg. 142
 Moultrie, pg. 142-143.
 Moultrie, pg. 143.
 Stokley, pg. 21.
 Ibid, pg. 144.
 Ibid, pp. 143-144.
 Ibid, pg. 144.
 Col. William Moultrie was overall commander. The South Carolina 2nd Regiment had 413 men under the following officer; Lt. Col. Isaac Motte, Maj. Andrew Dellient, Maj. Francis Marion. The men were divided into 413 companies; each company was officered by a captain plus lieutenants.
 Stokley, pg. 21.
 Russell, pg. 93.
 Moultrie, pg. 167.
 Ibid, pg. 22.
 Raking a ship’s decks means that cannon shot is fired down the length of the ship at deck level producing the most damage, as opposed to shot fired across the hull say from lee to starboard.
 Moultrie, pg. 23.
 Ibid, pg. 26.
 Top-sails are the uppermost sail in a square-rigged ship. In a fore-and-aft rig they are set above the mainsail. By loosening sail means just that, the sail is loosened from the yards, either to ‘set sail’ from an anchorage or to gain additional momentum.
 Cable, also referred to as hawser, is a thick rope upwards of five inches in thickness to which a ship’s anchor is fastened. A spring is a line (also strong rope) that is made fast at one end to the anchor or cable and at the other end to the ship’s quarter. By hauling on it, the ship can be brought broadside to the anchor. In this action, one side of the ship is kept facing the fort so that all the guns on that hull can be brought to bear upon the fort and fired at once in a broadside. Ship’s quarter is the upper parts or deck of a ship’s side between the after part of the main chains and the stern. Chain refers to the hardware that secures the lower lines or shrouds that lead down from the mast to the side of the ship thereby securing the mast in place. The main chains would those that secure the main mast which, in a square rigged ship would be the center mast supporting the main and largest sail. Therefore when referring to ‘after parts of the main chains’, the spring or line would be attached to an area just behind the mainmast near center of the vessel.
 The Bristol was Commodore Parker’s flagship. It was not he who had his arm shot off, but the captain of the Bristol, Captain John Morris. He died of his wound a week after the battle while aboard the Pigot.
 These four ships were in the first division and closest to the fort and sustained the most casualties.
 The Sphinx is listed historically as having 20 guns.
 The Friendship is listed historically as having 22 guns.
 Moultrie adds in his memoir, pg. 175, that the number of British casualties was from their own account.
 A Bomb was a smaller ship that carried mortars for throwing or arching their projectiles (bombs) inland or to fall behind the walls of a fort or defensive position. They were also known as bomb-galliot, bomb-ketch, bomb-ship, bomb-vessel, or bombard.
 Morass is an area of muddy or boggy ground. The original plan of the fort defined four walls surrounding the swampy area within the center. By the time of the battle, only the wall facing the sea and to its’ right were completed.
 Merlon – in a fortification, the portion of the parapet (wall or elevation of earth in front of an emplacement) between two embrasures (openings in the parapet through which cannon are pointed and discharged). Its length is usually from 15 to 18 feet.
 Moultrie, in his account, pg. 176, states that several of the officers, as well as him, were smoking our pipes and giving orders at the time of the action; but somewhat humorously he adds, “…but we laid them down when General Lee came into the fort.”
 According to Moultrie’s account, pg. 177, 12 men were killed and 24 wounded.
 The quote by the author Moultrie refers to is in a book published in 1779. The text is entitled “The History of the War in America, between Great Britain and Her Colonies”, Published in Dublin by The Company of Booksellers.
 The advance guard was approx. 3 miles from the fort at the east end of Sullivan Island.
 Bowsprit – a large spar running out from the stem to which the foremast stays (stays are taught lines or ropes that support the masts, foremast is the forward mast) are fastened and from which jibs are set. Jib is a triangular sail that stretches from the fore topmast to a jib boom at the bow or far front of a ship. Stem is the curved upright bow timber into which the planks of the bow are joined hence: from stem to stern – from front to back of a ship.
 18 & 26 pound French Cannon
 At approximately six miles distant from the fort.
 A cylindrical block of wood covered with sheepskin, used to clean the interior of a gun after firing and to extinguish any sparks that may remain behind. It may be attached to a staff, as in this case, or a rope-sponge, fixed on a strong rope instead of a staff. It has a rammer head on its opposite end; used on lower deck guns in bad weather when the ports cannot be opened except at moments for firing.
 Moultrie, pg. 174-181.
 HMS Pigot was a British schooner. Two years later, on October 1st, 1778, while blocking passage of the Seconset River in Rhode Island, she was captured by a boarding crew commanded by Captain Silas Talbot [army]. They were able to sail away with their prize. Congress expresses its pleasure by promoting Talbot to a Lt. Colonel. See Chronology of the American Revolution by Bud Hannings, pg. 298.
 Commanger, pp 1065-1067.
 This writer has searched naval records for any vessel named Foudroyant in which the lower deck guns were removed. An 80 gun French ship of that name was launched on 18 Dec., 1750. It was captured by the British during the Battle of Cartagena and renamed the HMS Foudroyant in 1758. The HMS Foudroyant remained mainly along the European coast and did not participate in the American conflict. It was broken up in 1782.
 Nelson, pp. 39-41.
 Moultrie, pg. 173.
 Lord George Germain, 1st Viscount Sackville (1716-1785). He was the Secretary of State for America in Lord North’s Cabinet.
 Russell, pg. 94.