- Historic Sites
Palmetto Fort, Palmetto Flag
Aided by certain residents of South Carolina, Colonel Moultrie built a fort, beat a British fleet, and started an enduring legend of valor
October 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 6
Even for those not primarily interested in the colorful but complicated art of heraldry, the great seal of the sovereign state of South Carolina is worth studying. Centered within it is a large palmetto tree—just such a tree as you see in luxuriant reality all through the low country and in iron effigy in the capitol grounds at Columbia; beneath its roots lies the trunk of a giant oak, blasted along its length and with both ends splintered, the whole memorializing the very first battle action of the armed forces of the United States against invasion by a foreign foe.
The story behind that crest begins late in the spring of 1775 when word filtered down to the crown colonists in the South that there had been great doings up north between the Yankee colonials and King George’s Redcoats. It seemed there was a skirmish at a town called Lexington, and another and bigger skirmish over a bridge at Concord (wherever that was), and finally a regular pitched battle up and down a hill near the port of Boston. Following this, the Continental Congress had called one Colonel George Washington of the Colonial Militia from his plantation in Virginia, made him a general although he protested he wasn’t fitted to be one, and sent him up to the Massachusetts Bay Colony to lead the new Continental Army. It began to look very much as if some of England’s possessions in North America were determined to fight their way free from the mother country, and the Southland was of two frantic minds what to do about it.
The loyalist point of view was best expressed by South Carolina’s royal, though fugitive, governor, Lord William Campbell, who assured his superiors in Britain that they need fear no uprising in his colony; Carolina’s dominant Tory party would quickly squelch such trouble as any misguided rebels might try to start.
To give the lie to the noble lord the Committee of Safety of South Carolina called a meeting of the Provincial Congress, and when that august body met on the first of June it promptly authorized the raising of two regiments of state soldiery. Of these new military organizations, the First Regiment under the able Colonel Gadsden quietly went its honorable way down the years of the Revolution; but its twin brother, the Second Regiment, was touched with fire by the god of battles and grew in glory. It could hardly do anything else, with the officers Fate had given it—staunch southern patriots who needed only this chance to make their names forever stand apart in the history of their homeland: Horry, Pinckney, Huger, Francis ("Swamp Fox") Marion, and for colonel, William Moultrie—the first syllable to rhyme with “cool.”
This forthright leader of his colony’s cause was the Charleston-born son of a Scotch emigrant doctor, and brother to the rabid loyalist, John Moultrie. His other two brothers had enlisted in the Continental Army, so the idea of a house—national or personal—divided against itself was nothing new to William.
Trusting in Governor Campbell’s optimistic view of the local situation, the British in December of 1775 sent an expedition to protect the South against itself. It got as far as the Great Bridge over the Elizabeth River near Norfolk, Virginia, where it ran into a grim group of rebels who quite palpably desired no protection from anyone; as matters turned out, the Redcoats needed all their protection for themselves. Retreating, they left their colonel dead on the field behind them and King George’s men were not heard from again in the Carolinas until February of the following year.
Then another column in scarlet and white and gold followed its shrilling fifes into North Carolina by way of the Cape Fear River and once again the grenadiers were stopped and sent reeling by backwoodsmen who could shoot the eye out of a squirrel and were not at all unnerved by England’s armed might.
This was more than the royal ministers could be expected to bear, and they properly decided that the time had come to teach these colonial upstarts a lasting lesson in respect for ordered government. As a beginning, two sloops of war, H.M.S. Tamar and Cherokee, were dispatched to the port of Charleston, where they instantly halted all maritime commerce with the town. This to a citizenry who believed, as all good Charlestonians have ever believed, that theirs is a special civilization to which exclusive blessings and prerogatives have been vouchsafed, was effrontery of a highly annoying nature. Something must be done, and William Moultrie was called upon to do it.
The colonel thereupon took some cannon down to Haddrill’s Point, facing the harbor eastward from the city, set them among the sand dunes, and called upon Captain Thornborough, the British commander, to lift his blockade and to remove himself and his armada without delay. This Thornborough refused to do. Moultrie, with that lassitude that would always deceivingly cloak his active personality, lounged over to his soldiers and waved a languid hand. “Let them have it!” he said. There was a roar of guns, smothered in their own smoke. Window panes rattled in Charleston: timbers crashed on the British ships. The Englishmen drew off and William Moultrie was a man marked for service against the next emergency.