October 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 6
Aided by certain residents of South Carolina, Colonel Moultrie built a fort, beat a British fleet, and started an enduring legend of valor
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.
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.
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.
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.