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
Leaving nothing to chance, Moultrie daily made personal reconnaissance of the situation and when the British ships swung towards the Charleston channel in that fateful June dawn, he saw the proceedings from an observation post he had established three miles from the fort. Watching the loosened topsails of the leading frigates swell with the first morning breeze, he also spied Clinton’s landing party making toward Long Island. Vaulting into his saddle Moultrie stretched his horse at full gallop for the fort. Foam-flecked and breathless he raced through the gate, shouting for the drummer of the guard to beat the long roll. He was none too soon, for as the call to arms sent the gun crews sprinting to their posts, the first of the towering English ships came gliding up abreast of the ramparts. She was the 28-gun frigate Actaeon and behind her in stately procession followed the 50-gun flagship Bristol and her sister ship of the line, Experiment, with another 28-gun frigate, Solebay, completing the first division; next were the 28-gun frigates, Sphinx and Syren, and lastly the mortarboat, Thunderbird, chaperoned by the frigate, Friendship, also 28 guns.
So thorough had been Moultrie’s estimate of the expected attack that he had even anticipated and prepared for the hostile sortie from Long Island. When Clinton started to ford The Breach as the first broadside from the ships roared into thundering echoes across the islands, he found a mixed group of colonial infantry and artillery waiting for him on the further shore. Nor was this the only surprise in store for the royal general.
No sooner did his men push their boats out into the inlet than they ran aground on hidden sandbars. Tumbling overboard, the heavily-burdened ranks tried to get forward on foot, but immediately sank over their heads in unexpected hollows among the shoals. Then the waiting Americans opened up with bullets and round shot, and there was nothing for the raging Redcoats to do but go splashing back as best they could to the shore they had just left. And there they remained for the rest of the day, inactive except for a ceaseless struggle against the swamp mosquitoes.
At the other end of Sullivan’s Island the battle had been joined more in accordance with Clinton’s original schedule.
The Actaeon led the fleet up the channel, battle flags streaming, lofty tops aswarm with marine sharpshooters, their muskets poised to pick off the Yankee gunners hidden from the ship’s decks behind the fort’s ramparts. But Moultrie had thought of that too, and the eagle-eyed “jollies” found to their chagrin that the ramparts were of such height and width that they effectively screened any aerial view of the colonial troops beneath them.
Abreast of the fort the Actaeon let go her anchor; in her wake the flagship Bristol followed suit, then the Experiment and finally the Solebay. Hardly had the vessels’ headway stopped when, as if touched off by a common fuse, their broadside batteries flared across the water in one simultaneous and concerted blast. The firing platforms inside the fort shook as from an earthquake; solid shot rained on the ramparts where they sank ineffectually into the soft palmetto logs, or buried themselves in the sand. In the momentary pause that followed this initial action the cheers of the American gun crews could be plainly heard on the attacking craft, mingled with taunting laughs and raucous warnings.
Echoing this defiance the fort’s guns spoke slowly, one by one. The Yankee magazines held little ammunition; powder and ball must be carefully husbanded until additional charges could be unloaded from the supply schooner that was even then moored behind the island.
But what Moultrie’s fire may have lacked in quantity it made up in effectiveness. The great ships shivered from the impact of the iron balls loosed against them at such short range; splinters flew and water spouted and suddenly the Bristol was seen to yaw and shift out of line. A lucky shell from the fort had cut her anchor cable and the tide slewed the mighty bulk across the channel with the unprotected stern facing the fort’s cannon.
Such a golden opportunity for destructive action could not be missed, nor was it. Eager gun sections rushed up their needed fresh supplies of powder and shot, rammed the charges home, and engulfed the hapless flagship in a wave of fire. Her mainmast tottered and crashed over the side, followed by her mizzen. Along her cluttered main deck, through her sturdy upper works, Moultrie’s men swept a stream of cannon and musket fire as with the spray from a hose. Finally, broken and all but sinking, the once proud leader drifted out of harm’s way with heavy casualties.