Sunday, June 25, 2017

Things: The Palmetto

A Tour de Force

In the spring of 1776 the British planners in London were intent on turning the stalemate and embarrassing withdrawal from Boston to the cheers and jeers of a rag tag rebel army into a strategic tour de force to end the rebellion that year. With one armada poised to strike the critical port of New York in a right punch, another would make a quick left jab at the equally important port of
Charleston. The latter blow would come first, setting up the rebels for the more powerful knock out in the middle Atlantic colonies. Charleston was the major southern city at the time and had key connections to the important islands in the West Indies, which were always at the forefront f British strategic interests. Dominated by a planter class, South Carolina was not viewed as a particularly rabid rebel stronghold that would succumb quickly. A handful of gallant patriots would show them wrong.

A Last Minute Plan

Lord Dartmouth
The British strike at the southern colonies actually began earlier in the year when William Legge, Lord Dartmouth, and Secretary of State for the Colonies ordered General Henry Clinton  and Commodore Peter Parker to rendezvous with another armada under General Lord Charles Cornwallis off Cape Fear, North Carolina. Misfortune on land and at sea turned the North Carolina plan to mud. But before Clinton could sail north, Parker reported that a reconnoiter of Charleston indicated the defenses were ill prepared and that a quick strike against Fort Sullivan on Sullivan's Island in the harbor would be successful. After that, the city could be successfully assaulted. Anxious for some "low hanging fruit" after the Tar Heel frustration, Clinton concurred and so they made their way south, anchoring off the city on 7 June 1776.

A City Prepares

Charleston's waters were treacherous
as the British would soon discover

But the South Carolinians in Charleston long expected they were a target of the British and feverishly built up the defense works on Sullivan's Island. This was a three sided fort with sixteen foot sand walls bounded by soft wood palmetto logs. The spongy-soft palmetto wood gave way and absorbed the shock of cannon balls - the primary threat to the fort. The fort boasted twenty-five guns of assorted size and caliber with a garrison of over four hundred men. Most importantly, in command of Fort Sullivan was militia Colonel William Moultrie, who would soon prove to be one of the best fighting generals of the war. The city itself had a garrison of over six thousand men - including Continental Line infantry. In command was Major General Charles Lee, a former British officer and widely regarded (especially by himself) as the finest officer in the American cause. Lee's estimate was that Fort Sullivan lay too exposed to the fire of British warships and ordered it abandoned. However, South Carolina Governor John Rutledge overruled Lee, believing it a buffer against a naval onslaught. Geography and hydrography were allies of the defending rebels. The narrow channel into the harbor, with hits commensurate currents and shoals, plagued the British as they plotted where to land and how to position their war ships. It took a month before the were ready to advance on the city that lay just within their grasp.

Colonel William Moultrie's militia
staged a gallant defense

Bombs Bursting in Air... Sand.. and Wood

The South Carolina flag hoisted in battle
boosts morale

On 28 June, a bombardment commenced between Parker's warships aligned off Sullivan Island and Moultrie's raw militia manning the guns protected by sand and palmetto logs. The barrage went on for hours. The British gunners were frustrated that, despite hit after hit, the combination of sand and spongy logs inflicted little damage on the fort. Shot after shot from the warships either bounced off the walls or got absorbed into the soft walls of palmetto. The Americans fired back. But low on gunpowder, Moultrie insisted that each shot be well aimed. In the middle of the hours long engagement a British shot cut down the South Carolina flag. A brave sergeant named William Jasper, in full view of the British and the American, ignored the hail of lead and iron to mount the parapet and restore the flag. The impact on the morale of both sides was telling. As the battle went on,  the deliberate fire of the defenders took its toll on the British ships, scoring hit after hit. Things took a final turn against the British when Parker sent three frigates around Sullivan Island to take the defenders in the flank. Unaware of the dangerous waters of the channel, all three suddenly grounded in the shallows. After a struggle, two freed themselves but the third, HMS  Acteon remained stuck. The frustrated crew burned it to prevent the rebels taking it.

The savage naval bombardment was decided by shoals, sand and wood

Fight  on till Dark

Commodore Parker
The firing continued on both sides. Commodore Parker's flagship had its anchor cable severed by a shot, causing the ship to turn and present its explode stern to American fire. The rounds poured in and one actually passed between Parker's legs as he shouted out commands. The commodore was unhurt but indignant as the shot tore his pants off. When darkness descended on the harbor Parker signaled the fleet to disengage. Exasperated, the British fleet sailed from the harbor. It would be four long years before they would deign to return to face the Carolinians and their palmettos. The next one would end differently, but in 1776, the failed attack presented the British with a near disaster. The Royal Navy incurred well over two hundred casualties - Moultrie's men less than forty. An what of General Clinton? His men had landed on nearby Long Island to prepare for an assault on the mainland once Fort Sullivan fell. With the warships gone this would not be. Instead, they remained exposed there for several weeks before the British transports were able to sail in and they could re-embark.

The Result

The British armada returned to New York on the last day of July with ships damaged and sailors and soldiers demoralized. But they soon would get a chance for some sort of retribution when the British launched their massive attack on Long Island in late August. Still, the victory at Fort Sullivan saved the south for four critical years. It introduced the world to a gallant new leader and bolstered morale throughout the Carolinas and the entire rebellion. And in honor of the role of the palmetto in the victory, the noble tree with the soft bark was added to the South Carolina state flag, where it remains to this day.

South Carolina State Flag

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