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
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|
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
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|