Palmetto Fort, Palmetto Flag

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It was not long in coming. Early in June Lord Cornwallis brought seven regiments of regulars from England to the Charleston Harbor entrance in two ships of the line and six frigates, bristling with a total of 230 guns. He was joined by General Sir Henry Clinton, senior English officer in America, and a provisional regiment of picked files from two of the infantry outfits that lately had evacuated Boston.

To direct a proper defense of Charleston, Washington had sent there General Charles Lee, his trusted colleague—trusted, it may be added, by few others. This arrogant, conceited, and treacherous soldier of fortune was ever to be a stumbling block in the path of the Continental Army’s success until he overreached himself in perfidy during the Battle of Monmouth and forced his long-suffering chief to send him in disgrace from the field. Now smugly complacent in a glittering reputation for military valor that had not yet time to tarnish, this meddling marplot swaggered into town to take command of 5,000 militia, and brusquely demanded that his subordinates submit their defensive plans to him for approval. His subordinates not only had a plan but had already carried it into execution. On Sullivan’s Island on the north of the harbor mouth, on James’ Island on the south, on Haddrill’s Point, and on the wharves of Charleston itself were ranged batteries of guns of varying calibers, completely commanding all the water approaches to the city.

 

At this display of force, Lee sneered in pitying disgust. Had the southerners no knowledge, then, of the prowess of British frigates? Those mighty ships could do anything; they’d blow these puny Charleston defenses right back into the Cooper and Ashley Rivers. None of the fortifications were in any way adequate, but the fort on Sullivan’s Island was the worst of all —“a mere slaughter pen,” Lee called it; the commander, Colonel Moultrie, would attend to its evacuation at once.

Colonel Moultrie preferred to do nothing of the kind, and so intimated to the general. As long ago as March, Moultrie had made a careful tactical survey of the defensive possibilities of the harbor and had come to the firm conviction that Sullivan’s Island was the key to the whole situation. True, it was a wilderness of massive live oaks and Spanish moss, dense coverts of myrtle, and virgin groves of palmetto trees, but the ship channel lay in point blank cannon range of its southeastern shore. Here Moultrie properly built his strongest defense and moved in with the 300-odd men of his Second Regiment.

The fort mounted thirty guns behind earthen parapets sixteen feet thick; these in turn were sheathed with palmetto logs, notched on the ends and fastened with wooden pegs in alternate layers, much in the fashion of a long cabin wall. Surrounding the fort was a deep ditch, and a gate of huge oaken timbers blocked the one entrance that faced towards Charleston, its defensive strength aided no little by a morass that stretched across the rear area. It was an excellent position excellently prepared, but for some strange reason Lee refused to approve it. Furious, he stumped off to demand that the colonial governor, Rutledge, should order the fort dismantled. But Rutledge gave the pompous commander no satisfaction.

Meanwhile, Clinton had used up three precious weeks sailing back and forth beyond the harbor bar, readying his attack while Moultrie further consolidated his position to repel it. At last, on the morning of June 28, 1776, signals from the flagship gave the long-awaited order to advance on the harbor.

The British scheme called for simultaneous assaults on the American position by land and sea. Three thousand troops of the royal infantry under Clinton were to come ashore on Long Island which lay to the immediate northeast of Sullivan’s, separated from it by a narrow inlet called “The Breach”; crossing this by boats and by wading, the Redcoats would then attack Moultrie’s fort from the rear. Meanwhile, the navy would be engaging the colonists from the water side. Two ships of the line and two frigates were designated to coast through the harbor mouth and anchor in mid-channel opposite the fort; two more frigates would then slip past them and anchor between the fort and the city. While all this was going on, a bombship carrying a couple of mortars and escorted by the remaining frigate would take up a position southeast of the fort and bombard it from that side. It was a sound plan and of its complete success the English commanders had every reason to be supremely confident. Every reason, that is, but one. That reason was Colonel William Moultrie.