Palmetto Fort, Palmetto Flag

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Coming up to enfilade the fort, the Sphinx and Syren, thrown off their course by the Bristol ’s actions, had come down on the Actaeon and were hopelessly tangled with her. Before the madly working sailors had chopped their respective ships clear of each other the Actaeon lost her bowsprit, her rudder jammed, and she floated clear of the mix-up only to smash herself hard and fast on the Middle Ground, a shoal in the center of the channel that in later years would find enduring fame as the site of a fort named Sumter.

It is now high noon, and over the causeway from the mainland stalks a tall, gangling figure; Lee is coming to inspect his island garrison. Daintily picking his way among broken branches and spent cannon balls, and indifferent to the enemy fire that is raking his path, the general gains the fort gate and calmly waits in the open until the portal is unbarred by Francis Marion. Then he whistles his omnipresent dogs to heel and enters to greet Colonel Moultrie.

“Ah, Moultrie; how goes it?”

The Carolinian grins through the powder dust that perspiration has caked into a mask over his face. “Well sir,” he chuckles, “no doubt this is a very honorable situation, but it’s a dam’d unpleasant one, tool”

Lee nods and strolls over to a battery that is ready to fire. “Permit me, if you please,” he says to the gun captain and himself aims the piece. He is apparently pleased at the effect of his shot, and repeats the performance at several other emplacements. Then he dusts his hands carefully on a handkerchief and walks to the gate. “Colonel,” he says, “I see you are doing very well here. You have no occasion for me; I will go up to town again.” And up to town he goes, following his long nose unconcernedly through the lead slugs and iron missiles that rain about him.

Moultrie watches him in grudging admiration, and turns to Marion. “I declare, Francis,” he murmurs, “that calls for a drink.” Grog is brought out and passed around in fire buckets; it is lukewarm but to the soldiers steaming in the hot summer sun it seems refreshingly cold. Later on, Moultrie is to commemorate this pleasing potion in his diary: “I never had a more agreeable draught.”

Slowly the afternoon wears away, with the British ships ripping out broadside after broadside from seemingly inexhaustible stores of ammunition. Gun after single gun, the fort answers.

Once the Redcoats have real reason to cheer; a British ball snaps the flagstaff of the fort, and the flag —Moultrie’s own blue banner with the silver crescent of South Carolina’s state troops—comes tumbling down. Across the harbor, the watchers at Charleston groan at the sight—and then yell as a figure darts over the parapet, grabs the broken pole, and drives it once more upright in the earth. It is a sergeant named Jasper who will later receive thanks and a sword from the state’s governor and other gifts of a more substantial nature from the state’s citizens.

As night shuts down, the thunder and flashes of the guns give every appearance of a tropical storm—but a storm that has spent its fury, and is now a rumbling echo of its former ferocity. Little by little the British fire slackens; then the harbor tide starts to ebb; with it flow away all hopes of a quick British conquest of the southern colonies. One by one the royal warships weigh anchor and drop down through the harbor mouth to safety. As they go, the final shot of the tenhour battle is fired by Francis Marion from the fort. It enters the cabin of the luckless Bristol, kills two officers who are there, passes to the deck where it cuts down three seamen, and falls overside.

Next morning only the Actaeon remained, hard aground, as a reminder of yesterday’s action. The remnants of her crew who had stayed aboard all night now set her afire and then took to the boats for the long pull to the battered Bristol, which had been able to drag herself only a few miles further down the channel.

An American prize crew at once put off from the fort, boarded the deserted frigate, fired a few shots from her guns at the Bristol for good measure, took the ship’s bell, and departed just before she blew up. Moultrie described the explosion thus: “A great pillar of smoke which soon expanded itself at the top, and to appearances, formed the figure of a palmetto tree.”

... So, on the great seal of the sovereign state of South Carolina you will see today the palmetto tree, and, too, that shattered log beneath the palmetto—broken as once were broken those hulls of English oak that tried to broach the palmetto ramparts in the New World’s first engagement between land and sea forces.