The road to Independence: Victory in Charleston

Perhaps the British attack on Charleston, S.C. unwittingly solidified southern revolutionaries' resolve to sever ties with Great Britain. Photo: public domain

SAN JOSE, June 28, 2013 — When students of history reflect on Charleston, South Carolina at war, they usually think of the beginning of the Civil War.

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It was the firing upon Fort Sumter on April 12 by Charleston shore batteries commanded by General Pierre G. T. Beauregard that initiated the war.

Although President Lincoln attempted to dispatch supplies and reinforcements, the fort fell into the hands of the Confederates when Major Robert Anderson surrendered.

Few Americans remember a military action that took place in Charleston much earlier, just days before a few brave representatives re-convening in Philadelphia formally voted on a drastic pending resolution to sever ties with the mother country in the summer of 1776.

At that time, the hostilities between the king’s troops in the colonies and the Minutemen and other bands of patriots seemed irreconcilable. Circumstances had gone from bad to worse in the months since shots were fired at the king’s troops near Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts, which is recognized by historians as the start of the American War for Independence.

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Relations between Great Britain and the rebellious colonists were irreparable because there had been too many military confrontations and too much talk of separation. And, there had been too much of an inclination towards independence by the colonial leadership in Philadelphia.

In January of 1776, Thomas Paine had issued his arguments against monarchies in his pamphlet Common Sense. By mid-March, George Washington’s siege of Boston achieved success when the Continental Army captured Dorchester Heights and installed captured British cannons upon the hills overlooking Boston Harbor to force General Howe to evacuate British forces from the city.

On April 6, 1776, the North Carolina colonial assembly became the first of the colonies to authorize its delegates to the Continental Congress to be able to vote for independence from Great Britain. By May, King Louis XVI of France had commited one million dollars in arms and munitions to the rebels in North America. On May 10th, the Continental Congress authorized the 13 colonies to form provincial governments.

But by summertime, in June, General Howe had reassembled the British forces and a massive war fleet arrived in New York Harbor. The British sent 30 battleships equipped with 1200 cannon and accompanied by 300 supply ships to secure New York.

The British government dispatched 30,000 soldiers and 10,000 sailors to lay down the law to the rebels. That represented the largest military deployment in British history up to that time. The British were also intent on an invasion of the South. A British expedition under the command of General Henry Clinton joined forces with a British fleet commanded by Admiral Peter Parker that had reached Cape Fear, North Carolina in April, 1776.

A rough crossing of the Atlantic forced the commanders to wait until May 3, when the rest of the fleet with Major General Charles Cornwallis arrived. British troops had been kept busy by raiding several properties of patriot sympathizers, but the three military leaders concluded that Cape Fear was not the most suitable base for their future campaign.

Instead, based upon Parker’s scouting expeditions up and down the coast, they decided to target Charleston, South Carolina.

By early June, British warships arrived outside of Charleston Harbor, and while Admiral Parker’s ships attempted to navigate the sand bar that surrounded the harbor, General Clinton landed his troops ashore on Long Island, to the north of Sullivan’s Island, between June 9 and 15.

Poor British intelligence indicated that there was some shallow area that would be useful in crossing over to Sullivan’s Island, where the rebels had attempted to hastily construct a “fort” to protect Charleston.

At the time, American defenses of Charleston had been organized by South Carolina’s revolutionary government led by John Rutledge, who had recently been elected as president of the General Assembly. He had appointed Colonel William, a former Indian fighter and militiaman, to command local defensive operations.

Moultrie figured that Fort Johnson, on the northern end of James, could protect the southeastern approach to Charleston. But he selected Sullivan’s Island as the best place to build another fort to defend the entrance of Charleston Harbor from enemy warships.

So with authorization from Rutledge, in March of 1776, the 2nd South Carolina Regiment commenced the construction of a fortress in preparation for possible assault upon the city.

Construction proved cumbersome and those uncooperative British forces certainly were not going to wait until the fort could be completed. In fact, it was one of the reasons for their decision to target Charleston. When the British fleet arrived for their assault, Fort Sullivan simply consisted of a square-shaped box with only the seaward wall completed. The outer walls had been built from palmetto logs and then filled with sand to absorb shots.  

When Major General Charles Lee, who had been appointed by the Continental Congress to oversee the Southern war effort, saw the incomplete fortress, he referred to it as a “slaughter pen” and recommended abandoning it.

Lee, who had arrived in Charleston shortly after the British fleet, unfortunately did not have the entire support of the Carolina military, nor enjoy concurrence with President Rutledge, who refused to let the fort be vacated. However, Rutledge specifically ordered Colonel Moultrie to “obey [General Lee] in everything, except in leaving Fort Sullivan.”

It seemed to be a difficult situation for the defenders, and while there was a bit of disunity among the Americans, the British were preparing to attack. Nevertheless, although their invasion plan was seemingly sound, it proved difficult for the British as well.

The British intent was to land troops while the ships bombarded the American excuse for a fort. On June 7, General Clinton issued a proclamation demanding rebel colonists to lay down their weapons. That same day, he commenced the landing of over 2,000 troops on Long Island.

However, the shallow fording area that British intelligence had identified eluded General Clinton for days. Without locating a safe wading route for his soldiers, the search served only to delay their attack that had been planned for June 24. Eventually, when Clinton attempted to use a flotilla of longboats in an amphibious crossing, American riflemen following General Lee’s directions cut his troops down, thus frustrating the British land assault. Eventually Clinton abandoned the plan.

Lee had also reinforced positions on the mainland to counter any British efforts for a direct attack against Charleston. In addition, the colonial troops constructed an entrenchment at the northern end of Sullivan’s Island, and had fortified a guard post at Haddrell’s Point on the mainland across from Fort Sullivan.

Ironically, the American and British forces were limited to an indirect clash and faced each other across the channel, primarily engaging in occasional cannon fire, and due to the limited range of the cannons, such fighting was fairly ineffective.

Admiral Parker’s efforts were also thwarted by bad weather and unfavorable winds. Parker had trouble with his heavy cannon-laden ships navigating the sandbar that surrounded the harbor. Some of the ships had to have their guns removed to reduce their weight to clear the bar.

Finally, despite difficulty in maneuvering, on June 26, the British ships were ready, but they had to wait longer as the wind was still not with them. Finally by mid-morning on June 28, the winds filled British sails, and Parker guided the ships into position and commenced the bombardment of Fort Sullivan that was intended to destroy the fort’s walls with continuous broadside cannonades.

This did not work.

Amazingly, the British bombardment had little effect because the fort’s palmetto log construction absorbed the cannonballs, as palmetto is soft and spongy and did not splinter like other lumber. The sandy soil caused the cannonballs to sink into the sand. On the other hand, very conservative use of gunpowder and careful aim of artillery from the defenders in the fort generated considerable damage to the British ships, three of which ran aground upon an uncharted sandbar as they attempted to gain an advantageous position to bombard the fort.

Col. Moultrie later reflected on such fortune: “Had these three ships effected their purpose, they would have enfiladed us in such a manner, as to have driven us from our guns.”

From the fort, Moultrie had directed his men to concentrate their fire on the two large British man-of-war ships, and the fort’s guns pummeled them. One of those ships, the Bristol, was the ship Parker was on and he was wounded during the battle.

One of the legends emerging from the battle occurred when the Liberty flag that Moultrie had designed was shot down as it flew over the fort. Sergeant William Jasper reportedly rushed over and raised the flag, and rallied the troops until the flag was again secured.

Moultrie commended him for reviving the spirit of the defenders, and Jasper was later given commendations for bravery.

After a day of cannon fire slashing the area, the battle eventually finished after darkness set in, and fighting is said to have broken off around 9:30 p.m. Around 11:30 p.m., the British ships withdrew and the following morning, the British were forced to abandon the Actaeon, which had been one of the ships hung up on the sand bar. It could not be freed, so it was torched so that it would not fall into the hands of the rebels.

It has been reported that Patriots in small boats sailed out to the ship, and while it was engulfed in flames, they turned some of its cannons on the retreating British ships and fired at them before the ship’s powder magazine exploded.

The British withdrew from the area and General Henry Clinton sailed back to New York. The British military did not make another serious assault in the South until 1778. It attacked Charleston again in May 1780, when the city finally fell to British forces.

By 1776, the British knew that they were in a serious fight. On the same day of this historic victory, Thomas Jefferson had completed the Declaration of Independence with edits from John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.

Within less than a week of this American victory at Fort Sullivan, on July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress declared Independence.

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Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member  at West Valley College in California.  He also currently writes a column on history and one on American freedom for the Communities at the Washington Times.


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