The Battle of Sullivan’s Island June 28, 1776
(General George Washington’s Response)
By 1775 Charleston had become a thriving and prosperous commercial hub as well as a manufacturing center for the colonies. In the increasingly hostile atmosphere, such as the battles of Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill and numerous recent skirmishes in the southern colonies, Charleston has also become a major site for recruitment and equipping of “colonial rebels.” These two factors rendered Charleston a prized strategic objective for the British land and naval forces which is the background for the ill conceived British attack and storied Patriot defense of Charleston on June 28, 1776.
The results of the British attack, known as The Battle of Sullivan’s Island, were instrumental in animating the fledgling Patriot cause and putting the most powerful military force of the time on notice. The patriotic fervor was also providing significant additions to the developing rich traditions in the struggle for liberty. The British force included nine man-of-war ships and a contingent of 1,500 seasoned sailors and soldiers. For the 435 “unseasoned” defenders of Fort Sullivan it must have appeared to them as the epic battle of “David and Goliath”. You may recall that David won that battle.
What do you suppose might have been the thoughts of the intrepid defenders as they gazed around their half completed, primitive “fortifications” of sand and palmetto logs dotted with 31, of mostly the light 9 and 12 pound cannon. Perhaps they were a bit circumspect as they gazed out on the horizon “dotted” with nine British man-of-war rigged with 300 heavy 24 pound cannon.
General Charles Lee, the colonial commander, had recently confided in Governor Rutledge that he viewed the fortifications as a “slaughter pen” of sand and logs. Others may have had similar views, in fact a visitor, just days before the battle, had told Colonel Moultrie, the fort’s commander, that the fortifications would be knocked down in “half an hour”.
Knowing full well the British motivations and capabilities this seasoned warrior calmly replied, “We will lay behind the ruins and prevent their men from landing.” Just before the battle General Lee asked Moultrie in a very curt manner, “Do you think you can maintain this post?” Undaunted by both the overwhelming British forces as well as his own commander’s obvious reservations, the Colonel confidently replied “Yes, I think I can!” Reminds me somewhat of The Little Engine That Could, “I think…I can, I think…I can”.
Colonel Moultrie’s valiant corps did maintain their post by their heroic and sacrificial actions at a cost of 12 defenders killed in action and 24 wounded. However, they not only “maintained their post” they caused the British force to suffer a major defeat with 64 killed, 141 wounded, 1 ship lost and 2 ships heavily damaged. The victory of Sullivan’s Island on June 28, 1776 amounted to a physical declaration of independence on the very day Thomas Jefferson was putting the finishing touches on the written version.
Many of us in South Carolina review this saga annually because it is also celebrated as Carolina Day. However, chances are you have never read General George Washington’s general order to his entire army. In this general order he describes the impact of this great victory on the entire revolutionary cause and the magnitude of the courage demonstrated by Colonel Moultrie’s gallant band.
In reading this letter I found it inspiring, motivating and instructional in the realms of patriotism, sacrifice, courage, and duty. As we approach the 237th, July 4th please remember the 237th June 28th which was very instrumental in making your 2013 backyard cookout possible.
After detailing pertinent factors surrounding the battle itself General Washington wrote…“The Firmness, Courage, and Bravery of our Troops, has crowned them with immediate Honor. The dying heroes conjured their Brethren never to abandon the Standard of Liberty, and even those who had lost Limbs, continued at their posts: Their Gallantry and Spirit extorted applause from their enemies, who dejected and defeated, have retired to their former station, out of reach of our troops.
This glorious Example of our troops, under like Circumstances with us, the General hopes will animate every officer, and soldier, to imitate, even out do them, when the enemy shall make the same attempt on us: With such a bright example before us, of what can be done by brave and spirited men, fighting in defense of their Country, we shall be loaded with a double share of Shame and Infamy, if we do not acquit ourselves with Courage, or a determined Resolution to conquer or die: With this hope and confidence, and that this army will have its equal share of Honor, and Success; the General most earnestly exhorts every officer, and soldier, to pay the utmost attention to his Arms, and Health; to have the former in the best order for action, and by Cleanliness and Care, to preserve the latter; to be exact in their discipline, obedient to their superiors and vigilant on duty: With such preparation, and a suitable Spirit there can be no doubt, but by the blessing of Heaven, we shall repel our cruel Invaders; preserve our Country, and gain the greatest Honor…” (General Orders, Head Quarters, New York, July 21, 1776)
With all the unsettledness in our nation and tension in our world, a visit to Fort Moultrie in the near future might just be the thing to provide some therapeutic relief. As we visit sites such as these we can pay homage to the fallen as well as all those who stood and defied tyranny along the walls of sand and palmetto logs. In so doing we can draw and drink refreshing inspiration from the deep reservoir of Liberty’s pure well.
Developed by: John R. “Barney” Barnes, CDR, USN ® 21 June 2013