Sunday, May 12, 2019

Episode 096: The Battle of Sullivan’s Island

Way back in Episode 82 we left Gen. Henry Clinton off the coast of North Carolina, awaiting the arrival of an army of loyalists who never came, and a fleet carrying regulars from Britain who took forever to arrive.   In January 1776, Clinton had left British occupied Boston headed South.

Collecting an Army

He stopped first in New York.  In New York Harbor, Clinton conferred with several royal governors who had been ousted, but who were sure that if the army raised its standard, thousands of their loyalist subjects would flock to support the King.  This was also the visit that I mentioned back in Episode 83 when Lord Drummond attempted to get Clinton to meet with Peace Commissioners from the Continental Congress.  Clinton refused.

Sir Henry Clinton
(from Wikimedia)
This was also the same visit I mentioned in Episode 89 when Clinton simply told his old friend Charles Lee, now serving as a general with the enemy in the Continental Army, that he was planning to head down to the Carolinas and lead an attack there.  After that conversation, Lee got himself transferred to command a southern army to oppose Clinton.  So Clinton: no more revealing your plans to the enemy, ok?

After a lengthy stay, Clinton made his way down to Cape Fear in North Carolina, where he expected to find an army of loyalists from the Carolina backcountry.  London had promised to send several regiments of regulars led by Gen. Cornwallis, who would become Clinton’s second in command.

Com. Peter Parker

Carrying the regulars would be a naval fleet under the command of Commodore Peter Parker. This was long before Parker received a bite from a radioactive spider, so he had no special superpowers at this time, only decades of naval experience.  The 55 year old Commodore was son of Admiral Christopher Parker.  Peter joined the navy in 1735, at age 13 or 14.  He served under Admiral Vernon, along with George Washington’s older brother Lawrence, in the West Indies during the War of Jenkins’ Ear.  He saw considerable action in the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War, before retiring from active service in 1763.

A decade later, when trouble in the colonies created a need to increase the active navy, officials encouraged Parker to rejoin active service, granting him a knighthood and promoting Sir Peter to the rank of Commodore.  Later Parker would become an admiral and would later serve as a patron to a young up and coming officer named Horatio Nelson.

Plan of Attack

But for now, Commodore Parker would share command with General Clinton.  Parker carried plans from Lord George Germain back in London.  The plan had been to have Clinton and Cornwallis meet at Cape Fear.  They would deploy their 2000 regulars and provide arms to the loyalists.  Once the regulars restored order in North Carolina, as well as Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia, they would leave the Loyalists in charge, and meet up with Gen. Howe in New York.  I’m not sure when Germain wrote those orders, but he expected the whole mission to be wrapped up in time for Clinton, Cornwallis, and Parker to join General Howe some time that spring.  Given that Clinton did not even receive these orders until May, chances of having everything done before summer were nill.  But given that Howe was running behind schedule as well, Clinton did not think he needed to be in any special hurry to get back to New York.

Sir Peter Parker
(from Wikimedia)
Clinton had arrived in March.  By then, the rebels had already crushed the loyalists at Moore’s Creek Bridge, meaning there would be no loyalist army for Clinton to lead.  Clinton found himself sitting off the coast, with only a few companies of men that he brought with him. General Cornwallis finally arrived on May 3, but thanks to stormy weather, the fleet continued to arrive slowly over the next few weeks, some not arriving until June.

In the meantime, soldiers had to remain aboard ship.  They could not land anywhere without doing battle with the locals.  The British conducted a series of coastal raids, mostly to collect food and supplies.  But the men were getting sick with so much time aboard ship.  Some of them were beginning to die of scurvy because of the lack of fresh vegetables.

Without loyalists rallying to their standard, there was not much Clinton’s forces could do.  Even if they captured some town or territory, they knew they had to leave soon to assist Howe in New York.  Without loyal local forces to leave in charge, any victory would have been pointless.

While waiting for more ships to find their way to the rendezvous at Cape Fear, Clinton and Parker tried to find some place they could have a military success.  Parker indicated that London thought Charleston, South Carolina was particularly important.  Clinton also received a message from Howe, saying there was no hurry to return and also indicated the importance of securing Charleston.

Clinton deployed a ship to reconnoiter Charleston from the sea.  The officers reported back that the rebels were building a fort on Sullivan’s Island at the mouth of Charleston Harbor.  At the time of the survey, the fort was still under construction and not ready for an attack.  Up until then, Clinton seemed in favor of establishing a secure outpost on the Virginia coast.  Parker though, persuaded him of the value of taking Sullivan’s Island.  Even if they did not have the resources to capture all of Charleston, taking the fort before it was finished would prevent the rebels from securing Charleston Harbor, and would provide the British with a launching point for a later attack against the city.

By the end of May, Clinton received updated orders from Lord Germain that if he was not going to engage in any military operations, he might as well head north and begin linking up with Howe.  Clinton did not want to give up his independent command without having accomplished anything.  He held a council of war to decide what action they might take.  The council approved the attack on Sullivan’s Island.  The fleet weighed anchor had headed south to Charleston.  By June 1, the first British ships anchored outside Charleston Harbor.

Charles Lee Moves South

While General Clinton and the British fleet slowly moved toward Charleston.  Continental General Charles Lee slowly made his way down to defend it.  After Lee informed Congress about General Clinton’s plans, Congress directed Lee to head a southern command to stop Clinton.  Lee spent some time in Philadelphia, then moved south, making waves wherever he went.  In Baltimore, he ordered the arrest of Royal Governor Robert Eden.  The Annapolis Committee of Safety challenged his authority to make such an arrest.  While they argued about it, Governor Eden jumped aboard a ship and sailed back to London.  Lee then set up headquarters in Williamsburg.  There, he commandeered a building at William and Mary College that had been set aside for a military hospital, setting off more local protests.  He also arrested and burned the homes of some Tory leaders.  He ordered the removal of other less influential Tories away from the coast.  The Provincial Congress eventually supported all these moves, but the imperious manner in which Lee acted, bothered many patriot leaders.

By late May, Lee left for Charleston after determining that Clinton would likely attack there soon.  Lee actually did not arrive until June 4, a few days after the British fleet appeared outside Charleston Harbor.  It still is not clear to me why the British just sat there and did not attack.  They were still awaiting the arrival of some ships, but still had plenty for the attack.  Instead, they did little before beginning the attack four weeks after arrival.  This only gave their men time to get hungrier and sicker while the patriots improved their defenses.

Preparing the Defense

Lee brought with him 1900 Continentals to supplement the local militia.  One of Lee’s first steps was to assert command over all militia and anything else he might need in defense of Charleston.

After observing and evaluating the defenses, Lee decided that they should abandon Sullivan’s Island.  The wooden walls would not stand long against artillery fire.  More importantly, the fort did not have a back wall yet.  If the navy sailed around the fort, they could wipe out the defenders, who would have nowhere to hide.  There was also no way to retreat from the island if the British overran it.

Sullivan's Island (from Wikimedia)
The defenders had a total of 31 cannon on Sullivan’s Island Another 15 patriot guns sat across the harbor at Fort Johnson.  Compare that to the roughly 270 guns among the 50 British ships that were prepared to attack.  Given the incomplete defenses, the smaller number of guns, and the lack of a line of retreat, it’s easy to understand why General Lee thought they should not try to hold Sullivan’s Island.

Lee would not get his way though.  President of South Carolina, John Rutledge, argued that he commanded the state militia.  South Carolina had created a new Constitution in March.  Before that, Rutledge had been a member of the Continental Congress.  He was not ready to turn over command of his militia to Lee and the Continental Army like colonials had done with the regulars in earlier wars.  Rutledge sent a note out to Fort Sullivan’s commander saying that General Lee thought they should abandon the island. The commander, however, should not do so without an order from Rutledge, and that he would rather cut off his right hand than issue such an order.

Lee attempted to build a pontoon bridge to the island, using barrels and wood planks.  This would at least provide a line of retreat if needed.  But when he tried to send 200 soldiers over the bridge, it broke apart.

Out on Sullivan’s Island, Col. William Moultrie commanded a group of over 400 militia.  They had 31 cannons and about 10,000 pounds of powder, a good amount for the patriots, but not really enough for a multi-day artillery battle.

On June 7, British General Clinton sent a messenger under a flag of truce to the patriot lines.  A militiaman fired on the messenger who returned without delivering the message.  The next day, patriot leaders had to send an apology to General Clinton for firing on a flag of truce and allowed him to send a messenger the following day.  Clinton’s message though, was a nonstarter.  It simply called on the rebels to lay down their arms and surrender.  That was not going to happen.

The Battle

That same day, June 8, General Clinton along with Cornwallis landed 2200 regulars on Long Island, just to the north of Sullivan’s Island.  The British plan was to ford the men across a shallow sand bar to Sullivan’s Island.  They would then march down to the south end of the Island and attack Fort Sullivan from behind.

Moultrie Flag at Fort Sullivan
(from British Battles)
When General Lee got word of this, he sent a note to Col. Moultrie to have him move two of his field cannons to the north end of the island.  They would use these to prevent any British landing.  It took two days for Moultrie to get the note, but he still had time to move the cannon into place before the slow moving British attempted any assault.  Lee also ordered Moultrie to continue building up the back wall of the fort to defend against an assault.  Moultrie never got around to that.  Lee himself was focused on the defense of the town of Charleston.  He feared Clinton could march his army from Long Island to make a direct land assault on Charleston, bypassing the island defenses entirely.  But the swampy land between Long Island and Charleston would have made any direct assault impossible.

More than a week passed before anything else happened.  Clinton planned to move slowly and deliberately, not relying at all on speed or surprise.  On June 17, Clinton made his first attempt to ford soldiers across to Sullivan’s Island.  He discovered, to his frustration that the sandbar at low tide was not 18 inches as expected, but more than 7 feet deep.  His army could not cross the ford to get to Sullivan’s Island.

By this time, the patriots had over 6500 soldiers.  Most of these remained with Lee at Charleston, his 1900 Continentals, as well as around 4000 South Carolina regulars and militia.  Then there were Moultrie’s 400 defenders on Sullivan’s island, and a few other crews on surrounding islands.   Lee remained primarily concerned about a direct assault on Charleston.  He did not realize the British only had the limited goal of seizing Sullivan’s Island.  Lee still considered the island indefensible.  Although the fort could have accommodated 1000 defenders, Lee would not send over any more troops.  He figured anyone there would simply be killed or taken prisoner, no need to add to those losses.

On the evening of June 27, Lee decided to relieve Colonel Moultrie of command and send over a Continental officer to take control of Fort Sullivan.  More than likely, once htat officer was in command, we would order a withdrawal from the island.  But before Lee could replace Moultrie, the British finally acted.

Battle of Fort Sullivan (from British Battles)
On the morning of June 28, the British Navy began its bombardment of Fort Sullivan.  Parker’s attack, however quickly ran into problems. First, Parker had two ships lobbing bombs and mortars into the center of Fort Sullivan from a distance.  Because he anchored the ships too far away, they had to use larger amounts of powder.  The loads were so large that they ended up destroying the deck of one of the ships, taking it out of commission.  Also, the explosives lobbed into the fort mostly sank into the soft sand before exploding, thus greatly reducing their destructive effect.

Next, Parker sent four of his largest ships, with a total of over 150 cannon, to level the fort walls.  Again, the British met with frustration,  The walls of green palmetto logs were soft wood, with about 16 feet of sand and mud in between the inner and outer walls.  British cannonballs simply pushed through the logs, which did not splinter, and sank into the sand, doing almost no damage.

During the naval attack, Clinton attempted to use boats to move his troops from Long Island to Sullivan’s Island.  However, the patriot defenders used their two cannon to fire on the landing craft. On the mainland, Continentals also used cannon to put the British landing craft in a deadly crossfire.  Since the British did not have enough boats to overwhelm the defenders, the attack broke and the regulars returned to Long Island.  After that one attempted assault, Clinton gave up on any attack by the army and sat out the rest of the battle.

British Navy firing on Fort Sullivan (from British Battles)
The defenders at Fort Sullivan returned fire against an overwhelming cannonade that lasted all day.  But they took surprisingly few casualties.  Moultrie’s biggest fear was running out of ammunition.  He had to slow down his return fire to conserve powder.

Around noon, Parker ordered three of his ships to pass around behind the fort so they could fire on defenders where the walls remained incomplete.  This too ended in frustration as the ships could not get over a sandbar.  Two of the ships retreated, but one of them, the Acteon got stuck there and had to be burned the following morning.  The patriots actually boarded the burning ship, fired some of its cannon at the enemy, removed some supplies, and abandoned it only minutes before the powder magazine exploded.  The Navy did not attempt again to get around behind the fort.  Instead, they continued to batter the front, which was proving useless.

In the afternoon, Lee rowed out to Sullivan’s Island to see how things were going.  I think he expected to see soldiers ready to flee the field.  Instead, he found dogged defenders not having much problem defending the fort.  After a fifteen minute inspection, he returned back to Charleston.

Fort Moultrie Flag (from Wikimedia)
During the battle, Moultrie flew a now famous blue flag with a white crescent moon and the word Liberty written on it.  At one point the British shot down the flag, but the defenders quickly raised it again.  Later this would become known as the Moultrie flag.

The firing continued until around 9:30 PM.  Later that evening, the British fleet pulled back to a safe distance.  The defenders of Fort Sullivan suffered only 12 dead and 25 wounded, despite the British expending over 34,000 pounds of powder.  Later, more than 7000 British cannonballs would be dug out of Sullivan’s Island.


The British had lost one ship entirely, the Acteon, and had many other damaged.  They suffered 63 dead and 157 wounded.  Parker himself received a minor knee injury.  Royal Governor William Campbell also received a leg wound.  Campbell had intended to sit his government on Sullivan’s Island and become a rallying point for Tories.  Instead, his wound would contribute to his death two years later.
William Moultrie
(from Wikimedia)

Clinton remained on Long Island for another week or two as he and Parker decided what to do next. Instead of renewing the fight, they packed up and sail for New York, where they would rejoin General Howe’s army.  Clinton especially would spend much of the next year trying to explain why the loss at Sullivan’s Island really wasn’t his fault and that he didn’t even want to attack there in the first place.

As the commander of Fort Sullivan, William Moultrie became an instant hero.  South Carolina renamed Fort Sullivan, Fort Moultrie in his honor.  He would receive a commission as a general in the Continental Army later that year.  Charles Lee, despite the fact that the patriots won only by continually defying his orders, also received credit for the victory.  This credit would only stoke his ego and contribute to his view that he should replace Washington as Commander of the Continental Army.

In fact, Lee was right about Fort Sullivan being indefensible.  The patriots won only because of three things that no one foresaw, the fort walls being virtually indestructible against cannon fire, the inability of Clinton to get his army from Long Island to Sullivan Island due to deep water, and the inability of Parker to get his ships behind the fort due to shallow water.  Had any one of these three things gone differently, the battle would have almost certainly been a British victory.  Of course, whether the British could have held the island as an outpost without committing way too many resources there is another question.

But we won’t have to answer that question because Sullivan’s Island became an unqualified patriot victory and an embarrassing British defeat.

- - -

Next  Episode 97: A Coup in Philadelphia

Previous Episode 95: Battle of Trois-Rivières (Three Rivers)

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Further Reading


Lord Cornwallis:

Sir Peter Parker

Stacy, Kim R. “The Land Battle for Sullivan's Island, Charles Town, South Carolina, June - July 1776.” Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, vol. 92, no. 371, 2014, pp. 189–209.

Battle of Sullivan’s Island:

Battle of Sullivan’s Island:

Bragg, C.L. "Why the British Lost the Battle of Sullivan’s Island" Journal of the American Revolution, Sept. 2016:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Bearss, Edwin The Battle of Sullivan’s Island and the Capture of Fort Moultrie, National Park Service, 1968 (from

Carrington, Henry Battles of the American Revolution, 1775-1781, A.S. Barnes & Co. 1876.

Dallas, George A Biographical Memoir of the Late Sir Peter Parker, Longman Hurst, 1815 (Parker’s description of the Battle of Sullivan’s Island in Appendix I).

Drayton, John Memoirs of the American Revolution: From its Commencement to the Year 1776, inclusive, as relating to the state of South-Carolina, Vol 2, A.S. Miller, 1821.

Gibbes, Robert Documentary History of the American Revolution, consisting of letters and papers relating to the contest for liberty chiefly in South Carolina, Vol 2, 1764-1782, D. Appleton, 1855.

The Defense of Sullivan’s Island, 28 June 1776, excerpt from Gen. William Moultrie's Memoirs of the American Revolution, David Longworth, 1802.

Ross, Charles (ed) Correspondence of Charles, First Marquis Cornwallis, Vol 1, John Murray, 1859.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)

Bragg, C.L. Crescent Moon Over Carolina: William Moultrie and American Liberty, Univ. of South Carolina Press, 2013 (book recommendation of the week).

Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.

Lumpkin, Henry From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in the South, Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1981.

Mazzagetti, Dominick Charles Lee: Self Before Country, Rutgers Univ. Press, 2013.

Russell, David Lee The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies, McFarland Publishing, 2000.

Willis, Sam The Struggle for Sea Power: A Naval History of the American Revolution, W.W. Norton & Co. 2016

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