2021 CAROLINA DAY PROGRAM
Watch Robert Rosen's delivery of the 2021 Carolina Day address on the men involved in the battle (video produced by At Will Productions)
2020 CAROLINA DAY ADDRESS
Watch Dr. Chip Bragg deliver an account of the Battle of Sullivan's Island as seen through the eyes of civilians on the Charleston peninsula on that faithful day in June of 1776 (video courtesy of St. Michael's Church)
2019 CAROLINA DAY PROGRAM
Watch Jack Warren's delivery of the 2019 Carolina Day address (video produced by At Will Productions)
2018 CAROLINA DAY ADDRESS
Watch Dr. Butler's delivery of the 2018 Carolina Day address (video courtesy of the Charleston County Public Library)
2021 CAROLINA DAY ADDRESS
“CAROLINA DAY” CELEBRATES AN AMERICAN ARMY
When Charles Waring asked me to deliver these brief remarks on the Battle of Fort Sullivan on June 28, 1776, I tried to beg off as I could not imagine what I could say that this audience did not already know. It is a grave undertaking indeed to talk to Charlestonians about Charleston history. The famous battle and the reputation of Sergeant William Jasper and Colonel William Moultrie are well known to all true South Carolinians. This may sound like false modesty, but then no one who knows me can credibly accuse me of being modest.
As it happens, the exquisitely polite but insistent and patriotic Mr. Waring also enlisted me – or should I say impressed me – into writing biographical sketches of the men who played a prominent role in the battle. He suggested I talk to you today about the character of the men who won this legendary battle.
I declined that invitation. Instead, I decided to talk about the characters themselves, the many men who played an important role in the astounding victory of June 28, 1776 – because the victory did not belong to Moultrie and Jasper alone – but to a wide variety of South Carolinians and, indeed, Americans whose remarkable bravery and patriotic fervor for liberty won the day.
We are all well aware of Colonel Moultrie who commanded Fort Sullivan, a fort hastily constructed with Palmetto logs, and who determined to fight it out on June 28, rather than retreat. When a fellow officer pointed to the British fleet and asked “Well, Colonel, what do you think of it now!” Moultrie replied, “We should beat them.” “Sir when those ships come to lay along the side of your fort, they will knock it down in half an hour!” “We will lay behind the ruins and prevent their men from landing,” Moultrie replied. Southerners do not believe in alternative dispute resolution. They fight.
After Moultrie, foremost among those who won the day on June 28th was John Rutledge, then the President of South Carolina which, since 1775, had organized its own provincial assembly and Council of Safety to confront the British Empire even if independence was still not finally decided upon. Rutledge, I am proud to say, a lawyer of great renown, had organized the militia, built forts, and asked the Continental Congress for help. George Washington sent General Charles Lee, an experienced and highly respected former British officer, to take charge of the defense of Charlestown. It was Rutledge who headed the Committee which determined to build a fort at Sullivan’s Island.
Colonel Moultrie drove General Lee crazy. No two men could have been more different. On June 22, Lee implored Rutledge to order Moultrie to leave Sullivan’s Island as he thought the fort would quickly be destroyed by British warships. Lee, in fact, removed gunpowder and 765 men from Fort Sullivan to limit his losses. The fort was reduced from 1,200 men to 435 men. But, it was the very determined Rutledge who refused to abandon Fort Sullivan, writing Colonel Moultrie, “General Lee wishes you to evacuate the fort. You will not without an order from me. I will sooner cut off my hand than write one.”
General Lee, who was in command of all the local Revolutionary forces, was highly energetic, erratic, egocentric, nervous, compulsive and detailed-oriented. Moultrie was calm, self-possessed, self-effacing and definitely not a strict disciplinarian. Lee was convinced the fort on Sullivan’s Island would be “a slaughter pen,” and Lee was obsessed with building a bridge from Sullivan’s Island to the mainland so that Moultrie’s men could retreat. The bridge never got built. He had so little faith in Moultrie that he literally was going to relieve him of command on the evening before the battle, but the arrival of the British fleet made that impossible. Indeed, had Lee gotten his way, there would have been no Fort Sullivan.
Everyone knew the British would likely attack Charlestown in 1776. Even the newspapers had stories about preparations for an invasion underway in England as early as February, 1776. Christopher Gadsden, the wealthy merchant turned Revolutionary firebrand and owner of Gadsden Wharf – now the site of the International African American Museum - had been in Philadelphia at the Continental Congress. He returned to Charlestown in February, 1776 having read and been overwhelmed by Thomas Paine’s famous pamphlet “Common Sense” on his voyage home.
Speaking of Thomas Paine – apropos of today’s rainy day ceremony:
“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis,
shrink from the service of their country.”
Thomas Paine, “The Crisis,” December 23, 1776
But you are all here braving the elements.
Back in town, Christopher Gadsden loudly proclaimed his support for immediate independence to a very reluctant and worried Provincial Assembly. Gadsden walked into the assembly carrying his famous Gadsden flag, the bright yellow flag with the coiled rattle snake and the words “Don’t Tread on Me.”
Although he was once in command of the local militia, no one thought Gadsden a competent commander. “My colleague Gadsden is gone home to command our troops,” Thomas Lynch quipped, “God save them.”
Yet, on June 28th, Gadsden was commander of the First South Carolina Regiment, in command of Fort Johnson on James Island which, prior to the creation of Fort Sullivan, had been a key fort defending Charleston harbor. Gadsden expected to play an important role on June 28 but he was stuck at Fort Johnson, and the British fleet aimed to take Sullivan’s Island instead. Gadsden’s men fired shots at the British fleet which fell short.
Both Francis Marion, later known as the “Swamp Fox,” and Thomas Sumter, later known as “The Gamecock,” were involved in the battle.
Marion commanded a battery at Fort Sullivan. He was a major of the 2nd South Carolina Regiment and served under Moultrie. Lt. Col. Issacc Motte, a British army veteran, was in charge of the right wing of the fort and Marion on the left wing which employed the heaviest cannon.
Marion was later made famous by Parson Weems in a biography which claimed Marion personally launched the final parting cannonball (with Moultrie yelling “Give them the parting kick”), but this was, like Weem’s story about George Washington and the cherry tree, a fairy tale. Marion did, however, send a party to save much needed powder from a wrecked ship in a nearby creek and bravely manned the guns firing at the British fleet.
Thomas Sumter, later famous as “The Gamecock,” was also involved in the battle. American soldiers were stationed in Charleston at various batteries to defend the city - on Fort Johnson, at Haddrell’s Point on the harbor in Mt. Pleasant, and on Sullivan’s Island at Breach Inlet as well as Fort Moultrie with a total of over 6,522 troops. There were fortifications on the peninsula from South Bay to Gadsden’s Wharf on the Cooper River. Sumter, a planter, grist mill owner and land speculator had already seen action. He served in the Provincial Assembly and was Lt. Colonel of the 6th South Carolina Regiment. General Lee sent Sumter’s riflemen along with William “Danger” Thomson’s rangers to repel any British crossing of Breach Inlet from Long Island (now Isle of Palms) to Sullivan’s Island. Sumter’s job was to back up Thomson’s rangers and protect the rear of Fort Sullivan. Later, Sumter withdrew back to Haddrell’s Point.
Colonel William “Danger” Thomson from St. Matthews Parish, now Calhoun County, also was a key combatant on June 28. As Colonel of the Third Regiment (Rangers), he recruited the best riflemen in the state, and he was in charge of the defense of Sullivan’s Island at Breach Inlet, where Major General Henry Clinton’s 3,000 British soldiers hoped to storm ashore and capture Fort Sullivan from the rear. Thomson’s 780 men with help from artillery and Sumter’s men, held firm. Thanks to our good friend, Doug MacIntyre, there are markers honoring Thomson’s men at present-day Breach Inlet.
Because General Lee was obsessed with the British attacking Charlestown by way of Mt. Pleasant, he put in command at Haddrell’s Point, an experienced commander from Pennsylvania, John Armstrong. Armstrong was Moultrie’s direct superior. There were 1,800 men at Haddrell’s Point, and Lee had actually reassigned men from Fort Sullivan to Haddrell’s Point. Armstrong was the first brigadier general commissioned by Congress and later fought at Brandywine and Valley Forge.
As we all know and the reason we are here today, it was Colonel Moultrie and his mostly inexperienced 435 men and 31 cannons who brought the war to a massive British fleet of 50 warships by excellent artillery fire – carefully using the gunpowder he had. “Thus,” a British officer wrote was “the Invincible British Navy defeated by a battery which it was supposed would not have stood one Broadside.” But there were another 6,000 Americans from North Carolina, Virginia, upstate South Carolina, and elsewhere backing him up.
Because of Sgt. William Jasper’s bravery in replacing the fort’s flag in midst of battle, President Rutledge took off his own sword and presented it to Jasper and offered him a lieutenant’s commission. Jasper humbly declined as he could neither read nor write. There are two statues to Jasper – one here at White Point Garden and one in Savannah. And, of course, the tallest monument of all – the Jasper Apartment building on Colonial Lake.
Congress on July 20, 1776, passed a resolution thanking General Lee, Colonels Moultrie and Thomson, and the officers and men under their commands who “repulsed, with so much valor, the attack which was made on the State of South Carolina, by the fleet and army of his Britannic majesty.” The South Carolina Assembly passed a resolution naming the fort on Sullivan’s Island, Fort Moultrie, in honor of the determined officer who had commanded its defense on June 28, 1776.
John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, wrote to Col. Moultrie on July 22, 1776:
…posterity will be astonished [and we are astonished today] when they read that on the twenty-eight of June an inexperienced handfull of men under your Command repulsed with loss and Disgrace a powerfull Fleet and Army of Veteran Troops headed by officers of the first Rank and reputation.
But the victory also belonged to Thomson’s Sharpshooters, General Lee and his troops held in reserve, the Swamp Fox, the Gamecock, Gadsden the agitator, General Armstrong from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and the 6,000 common soldiers from many backgrounds, nationalities and faiths who were determined to preserve American liberty and defend Charlestown from a tyrannical British government.
We are here today – Carolina Day – to honor, salute and remember each and every one of them, the cause of liberty, that they fought and died for and the American Revolution, which created the greatest Republic in the history of mankind.
Given by Robert N. Rosen
June 28, 2021
2020 CAROLINA DAY ADDRESS
A Charlestonian’s Perception of the Battle of Fort Sullivan
Good morning ladies and gentlemen. It is truly an honor and a privilege to be here to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Sullivan’s Island on this our 243rd Carolina Day.
Celebrated on or about the 28th of June every year since 1777, excepting perhaps the British occupation of 1780–82, Carolina Day commemorates one of the most important battles and the first significant American military victory of our Revolutionary War.
[Even though we don’t have evidence that Charleston patriots celebrated Palmetto Day (as it was called) during the British occupation, I strongly suspect that they secretly did mark the day in one way or another.]
Battles are customarily studied from a tactical, strategic, or geopolitical standpoint—with focus on the participants, whether they be the officers or common soldiers of one side or the other, or both. This morning I’ll certainly touch on strategy, tactics, and even a little theology, but no geopolitics. But I’d really like to tack away from the lofty abstractions of liberty and independence and instead consider this event, the Battle of Sullivan’s Island, as if we were there among the throngs of fretful but patriotic Charleston civilians who watched as the battle raged in the harbor?
But first, lets do a little mental arithmetic, beginning with the people of Charleston here on the peninsula on the morning of June 28, 1776.
Now, add to that everybody around the harbor who was not actually involved in the battle at the fort: our soldiers and citizens over in Mount Pleasant, Col. William “Danger” Thomson and his men who held breastworks on the north end of Sullivan’s Island, British troops across Breach Inlet on what is now Isle of Palms (called Long Island, back in the day), the British sailors observing from their ships anchored in Five Fathom Hole off Morris Island, and the garrison of Fort Johnson over on James Island.
If you go all around the harbor, from the various vantage points you will find that there were upwards of eighteen to twenty thousand spectators nervously awaiting the outcome of a duel between ships of the Royal Navy and small unfinished fort constructed of sand and palmetto logs.
(Well, we can’t really say that the British were nervous, can we? I imagine that they were smugly confident as their ships approached our little fort.)
But arguably, the Battle of Sullivan’s Island, specifically Sir Peter Parker’s naval assault on the fort itself, was the most spectated event in American history until the Yankees fired on Fort Sumter in 1861.
Parenthetically, I’m not at all discounting the heroics of “Danger” Thomson and his brave men at far end of Sullivan’s Island, their role was absolutely critical, but remember, for the purpose of my address this morning I’m concentrating on what could be seen, and heard, and known by the inhabitants of Charleston from right about here—in town. On the peninsula.
Nobody would disagree that the battle was important, but in my view, in addition to being one of the most spectated events in American history, it was one of the most, if not the most dramatic event in American history.
I understand if you are thinking, “How can he say that the Battle of Sullivan’s Island was the most dramatic event in American history?”
The Battle of Bunker Hill in Boston a year earlier in June of 1775 was pretty dramatic—the British charging up the hill; the American soldiers told, “Don’t fire ’til you can see the whites of their eyes!”
Or, Washington crossing the Delaware on Christmas night 1776—that was dramatic.
The list could go on: Francis Scott Key watching Fort McHenry and composing the Star-Spangled Banner or Andrew Jackson at New Orleans during the war of 1812, Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg (I don’t care which side of that argument you’re on—Pickett’s Charge was dramatic), Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill during the Spanish American War.
I’ll stop with the end of the 19th-century because you probably get my point.
And I think we can agree that the outcomes of the events I’ve just mentioned were never foregone conclusions, in fact, in every example given, the final result was highly uncertain from the onset.
But in no case more so than the Battle of Sullivan’s Island was the conclusion so uncertain, the odds against us so great, and the stakes so high.
The very idea of defending Sullivan’s Island, in the minds of some, was so far beyond the bounds of conventional wisdom as to make it’s undertaking foolhardy.
Let me restate what I just said, because its important: many in Charleston rightly believed that defending a fort on Sullivan’s Island was a bad idea.
Now bear with me for a moment while I digress to define the term “outcome bias.”
Having outcome bias means that when we look back on the battle now, knowing how it turned out—an astonishing victory for us, the steps leading up to the battle seem, in retrospect, to be perfectly reasonable, proper, and correct.
That, however, is not necessarily so, and if we can temporarily set aside our outcome bias, we might appreciate the Battle of Sullivan’s Island from the perspective of those watching from here on the peninsula in 1776.
So let’s set the stage:
Ignore the outside heat and humidity for a moment, imagine it is January 1776:
We’ve heard what the British have been doing in the northern colonies, and we’ve also learned that a British expeditionary force is headed our way.
We don’t know when they’ll arrive, or where, or what they’ll do when they get here, but we know that they are coming!
These unknowns only heighten our rising apprehension.
We’ll fortify Charleston and the harbor to the best of our ability, given limited time, resources, and experience.
And in due course, we will build a fort on Sullivan’s Island.
The ship channel runs right past Sullivan’s Island; we can at least try to stop the British there if they try to sail past to threaten our beloved town, right?
But how? How will we do it?
To our knowledge, palmetto logs have never been used in fortification or tested in battle, but hey—there are plenty of palmetto trees around here, and who knows—they might actually be of good use.
There is little else we can do, but honor demands that we do something! We are not just going to give up!
So we fortify, the British come, they bombard our little fort for the better part of a day, and then withdraw after suffering a humiliating defeat.
We’ll put a tree on our flag to commemorate our success, and we’ll observe the anniversary every year with a parade (usually) and the very best speakers (sometimes)!
Let’s back up and drill down a little deeper.
South Carolina provincial troops occupy Sullivan’s Island at Christmastime in 1775. Learning that a British force is indeed headed our way, South Carolina’s Council of Safety decides in January 1776 to build a fort out there (on Sullivan’s Island).
The Council engages Cornelius Dewees and others to deliver palmetto logs to the island — as many as they could, as fast as they could, until they received orders telling them to stop.
Over the coming months thousands of palmetto logs are rafted over to Sullivan’s Island from the mainland. All the while, we continue to fortify the peninsula, just in case.
But when Col. William Moultrie goes out to Sullivan’s Island in March, he find that not very much progress has been made. According to William Gilmore Simms, the fort “was little more than an outline. Its shape was traced upon the sand, and the palmetto rafts lay around it, waiting to be moulded into form.”
I can almost imagine Colonel Moultrie sending a note back to the mainland saying, “Friends, I have been out to Sullivan’s Island, and it is indeed in a sad, sorry state of affairs.”
He and his men, a number of hired artisans from town, and a cadre of enslaved laborers begin work in earnest.
Despite their hard work, when the British arrive offshore in June with a fleet of 50 ships and thousands of redcoat soldiers, the little palmetto fort is far from finished—more than halfway, perhaps, but not much more.
But this is where we will make our stand: an unfinished fort, the garrison of 435 will be outnumbered four to one, we don’t have near enough cannon—of our thirty-one guns in the fort, perhaps only twenty-one or so can be brought to bear on an enemy, so we will hold a seven to one disadvantage in firepower, our supply of gunpowder is critically short.
Notwithstanding, our commander William Moultrie has refused to give up his fort with out a fight.
Who was this William Moultrie? (It would take a book to tell that story.)
Many of us know him well and have known him for years. He is an esteemed and gregarious gentleman who is very popular with his men but he is unproven as a leader in battle.
In reality, Maj. Gen. Charles Lee of the Continental Army, sent by Congress to help us out, has mostly negative opinions about Moultrie’s leadership ability. Lee considers him lax, criticizes him for fraternizing with his soldiers, and almost relieves him of command on the morning of battle.
Most, if not all, of what I’ve just said is common knowledge around town, which doesn’t exactly bolster our confidence.
And what about the common soldiers under Moultrie’s command—the men inside the fort—the privates—we hear very little about them.
The enlisted soldiers are a generally rough and ragged bunch. Many are immigrants or poor white men of low social standing. Like most of their officers, few if any had ever before come under fire.
But here is one thing we know about the enlisted men — and its very illustrative if we remember that the South Carolina troops were not yet part of the Continental Army: in the Continental Army, at that time certain infractions were punishable by no more that 39 lashes.
The origin of the 39 lashes is actually Biblical; in Deuteronomy 25:3, Moses says that a guilty person may receive “forty stripes, not more.” In II Corinthians 11:24, the apostle Paul says that he received “forty lashes less one.”
General Lee, however, in a letter to Gen. Robert Howe, wrote that this level of punishment would be “too mild for the perverse Soldiery of this meridian to whom 39 lashes would prove but a light breakfast.”
The data, in fact, shows that when our soldiers misbehaved, they were often sentenced to far more than 39 lashes.
What does this say about South Carolina’s common soldiers in comparison to those from the other colonies—ours was a tough crowd. But that’s what we need right now, isn’t it? And without realizing it, Lee has actually paid us a backhanded compliment. “Light breakfast,” indeed!
In the end, we’ll ignore much of Lee’s advice—the “wisdom” of a soldier considered by some to be a better candidate to command the Continental Army than George Washington. Lee had declared that the fort was a veritable slaughter pen, that it would not hold for half an hour, that the garrison would be inevitably and needlessly sacrificed. He had no confidence in Moultrie or his men or the fort, and he strongly recommended abandoning Sullivan’s Island.
Even William Moultrie’s friend, ship captain Clement Lempriére, expressed his opinion (and one shared by many of the local sailors), that the British men-of-war would come alongside the fort and “knock it down in a half hour.”
Moultrie, of course, replied that if that happened, he and his men would fight from the ruins. He was absolutely committed to defending Sullivan’s Island.
Now lets momentarily turn our attention to our adversary: the Royal Navy and British army appear to be everything that we are not: battle tested, experienced, well supplied, well trained, well armed.
Taking into account all of these factors: the relative indefensibility of Sullivan’s Island compared to the military might of the British empire, what could possibly go wrong?
You can see that when we put aside our outcome bias, defending the fort doesn’t necessarily sound like a great idea, does it?
Again, lets circle back to where we started one more time: now imagine that you are a civilian here in Charleston, a man, woman, or even a child.
And as you watch the battle unfold from a rooftop, or a wharf, or from atop one of the walls around the waterfront, you are acutely aware of the terrible odds against your friends, brothers, your sweethearts, husbands, and fathers inside the fort.
You know that they are not fully prepared and are overmatched, facing an attack by one of the world’s most powerful navies.
That palmetto fort on Sullivan’s Island is not going to be merely battered into submission. There is a very real threat of annihilation.
And then what?
Will the British sail further into the harbor? Will they demand our surrender?
What if they bombard the town? Or start a fire? (Charleston was very flammable in those days.)
Will they land an occupation force?
We will fight, won’t we? Will we? What on earth will become of us?
Once the cannonade at the fort begins, we can’t really see much of what’s happening from where we are watching. The smoke from the guns on both sides obscures our view, taking on the appearance of thunderclouds. The muzzle flashes appear as summer lightning in the distance.
To quote William Gilmore Simms, “the emotions of the heart are visible in array upon our faces… The hope, the fear, and the worst agony of all, the dreadful suspense,” — this is what we see on the faces of our friends and family as we look about!
At some point, if you strain your eyes, you can barely make out our flag through the smoke, indigo blue with a crescent in the right upper corner. Well, maybe. It's a long way.
And then it falls.
Have we lost? Have we struck our colors? Have we surrendered? No one seems to know Wait… look—the flag is back in its place…. Take heart…. Our men fight on.
And they did fight on—all day long and into the evening. Slowly and methodically firing back at the British.
Finally, to our profound relief, a dispatch boat sent by Colonel Moultrie appears through the smoke and the darkness, bringing welcome news that the British ships had retired and that our South Carolinians are victorious.
More than victorious, actually. Our brave but outnumbered, outgunned, and undersupplied South Carolinians have decimated our British foes.
Colonel Moultrie would later say that if we had had enough gunpowder the British would have surely been compelled to strike their colors, “or they would certainly have been sunk, because they could not retreat, as the wind and tide were against them….”
General Lee conceded in a letter to the Continental Congress, “I was not acquainted with the merit of these brave fellows,” and he wrote that Colonel Moultrie, who he had almost relieved of command, had gained “eternal credit.”
The lesson was clear: victory, however improbable, against a foe of extraordinary strength, was possible.
South Carolinians had demonstrated by force of arms that they could and would defend their liberty.
And so, it was the first significant American military victory of our Revolutionary War.
And the most dramatic event in American history (in my humble opinion).
We would later learn of the various factors that contributed to our success that day, among them a cascade of British mistakes, the resiliency of our fort constructed of palmetto logs and sand, and the resolute determination of our men to hold their fort against incredible odds.
But there is a very important factor that should not be overlooked, and that is Divine Providence. Our forebears certainly gave Divine Providence its place. And so should we.
Maj. Barnard Elliott of the Fourth Regiment of Artillery had not fought in the battle, but had watched from the cupola of his home near the corner of Meeting and Queen. He penned a letter to his wife Susannah on the day after the battle (invoking Psalm 140:7).
In closing, let me share what he said:
“Now, my dear wife, let us not forget to whom we are indebted for this success against our enemy. Let us return God thanks for it. It is He that does all for us. He inspires our officers and men with courage, and shields their heads in the day of battle. He is the wonderful God of victory.”
And to that, I can only add “Amen,” thank you, and Happy Carolina Day.
Given by Dr. Cordell Lee "Chip" Bragg III
June 28, 2020
2018 CAROLINA DAY ADDRESS
We are gathered here today to commemorate the anniversary of an important military victory that took place in 1776, the Battle of Sullivan’s Island, in which a small but courageous body of men repulsed an attack launched by the most powerful military on the planet.
We come here each June 28th to perpetuate the memory of their triumph and to acknowledge their sacrifice. We stand here in the blazing sun, just as they did 242 years ago today, to revel in the long shadow of their distant memory.
The Battle of Sullivan’s Island wasn’t the first battle of the American Revolution, of course. It wasn’t even the first exchange of gunfire between American and British forces in South Carolina. It was, however, the first clear and indisputable American victory in our war for independence, and the significance of that fact reverberated from Sullivan’s Island to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, to the houses of Parliament in London, and even to the court of Louis XVI at Versailles. It demonstrated to the world that raw American troops, composed of farmers, shopkeepers, tradesmen, merchants, planters, immigrants, and enslaved Africans, were resolutely determined to stand their ground and to defend their dreams of liberty.
Most of you here today know the story of the Battle of Sullivan’s Island inside and out, so what can I say that might be new or different from other commentators on the same subject? This certainly is not the time or the place to attempt to recount every detail of the battle or to commemorate every act of bravery and sacrifice. Rather, I’d like to try to increase your appreciation for the significance of this battle with a few remarks about the general context.
The Battle of Sullivan’s Island took place just fourteen months after the first acts of open rebellion in South Carolina in April of 1775. It was fought by raw troops drawn from South Carolina’s provincial army, which was created just twelve months before the battle commenced. This major battle, the largest of its kind in South Carolina’s century-long history, took place just four months after this state tentatively declared its independence and adopted a state constitution in late March of 1776. The 28th of June 1776 was also the day that Thomas Jefferson presented the first draft of the Declaration of Independence to our Continental Congress, declaring the thirteen separate British colonies were henceforth to be known collectively as the sovereign United States of America.
The Battle of Sullivan’s Island took place on a single day, commencing at eleven a.m. and concluding just after nine p.m., but that day of action was choreographed well in advance. The British fleet arrived off the bar of Charleston harbor on the first of June, 1776. During the four restless weeks preceding the battle, the American and British forces watched each other closely as they chose their positions and deployed their resources. It was like a slow-motion game of chess, acted out in silence before the first shot was fired.
In commemorating the Battle of Sullivan’s Island, I believe it’s important to remember that Sullivan’s Island was not the primary target of the British operations here in the summer of 1776. Certainly, the British navy expected to exchange fire with the American troops in their unfinished fort on Sullivan’s Island, but their goal was to penetrate the harbor defenses and attack Charleston. The British never expected to face such fierce and determined resistance, however, and, frankly, the American command staff did not expect the raw troops stationed on Sullivan’s Island to persevere. How do we know this? Consider for a moment how the American troops were deployed in the weeks leading up to the battle.
The American forces in Charleston numbered just over 6,500 fighting men, including South Carolina Continental troops and South Carolina militiamen, supplemented by Continental troops from Virginia and North Carolina. When the battle commenced on the 28th of June, fifty-six percent (56%) of the American troops were positioned here on the peninsula, to defend urban Charleston. Just over twenty percent (20%) were stationed at Haddrell’s Point, in the old Village of Mount Pleasant. Colonel William Thomson’s riflemen, defending the north end of Sullivan’s Island, constituted about twelve percent (12%) of the total American force. At Fort Johnson, on James Island, Colonel Christopher Gadsden commanded a small garrison that represented about six percent (6%) of the total. Finally, the 435 soldiers inside the unfinished palmetto-log fort on Sullivan’s Island, including the 2nd South Carolina Regiment and a detachment from the 4th regiment, all under the command of Colonel William Moultrie, represented just over six percent (6.5%) of the available American soldiers.
Likewise, the distribution of gunpowder and ammunition was commensurate with the division of the American troops. That is to say, the bulk of the American supply of powder and shot was reserved for the defense of urban Charleston, which was deemed to be the most important asset. The relatively small body of men assigned to defend the unfinished palmetto log fort on Sullivan’s Island were purposefully given a proportionally small supply of ammunition. The American forces here on the peninsula were moderately well supplied with gunpowder and shot before the battle, but Colonel Moultrie knew well before the fight began that he was handicapped by an inadequate share of firepower.
From this sort of analysis, it’s clear that the American army was circling its wagons, to borrow a later expression, around the town of Charleston. Both sides expected the firefight at Sullivan’s Island to be just a prelude to the main event—a naval and amphibious assault on Charleston’s eastern waterfront. To meet this danger, the American commanders positioned the bulk of their artillery behind a palmetto log wall that stretched the length of East Bay Street, and behind the robust fortifications here at White Point. In fact, the prestigious Charleston Artillery Company, commanded by Captain Thomas Grimball, was stationed right here in Broughton’s Battery, which was known as Grimball’s Battery in the summer of 1776.
General Charles Lee, the commander of all the American troops in this area in June of 1776, thought it was folly to devote valuable resources to the defense of Sullivan’s Island. He believed the British navy would quickly decimate Colonel Moultrie’s troops as the warships sailed into the harbor. Lee would have preferred to keep those troops here on the peninsula, to defend the town, but in the end, he bowed to local pressure. President John Rutledge and the other local military commanders thought it was well worth the effort to attempt to stop the British from entering the harbor, or at least to slow their advance. General Lee reluctantly agreed to their plan, but he ordered Moultrie to spike the cannon and evacuate the fort as soon as his troops had exhausted their limited supply of powder and iron shot.
In this context, we can better appreciate the steely resolution displayed by Colonel Moultrie and his troops on the 28th of June. They knew they were undersupplied and outmatched. They understood that their superior officers didn’t expect them to persevere. They knew that the veteran British troops were expecting to breeze past the unfinished fort with minimal resistance. Despite all these disadvantages, however, those 435 raw American soldiers rolled up their sleeves and dug in for a hard fight.
In the ten-hour battle on the 28th of June, 1776, the British navy aimed nearly 300 cannon at Fort Sullivan and expended approximately 17 tons of gunpowder to fire more than 50 tons of iron shot. The Americans inside the unfinished fort had just 31 cannon and expended just over two-and-a-half tons of gunpowder to fire about 7 tons of iron shot at the British navy. The American forces were outmatched by a ratio of nearly 8 to 1. But yet they won the day, with only eleven men killed, and twenty-five wounded. It was an extraordinary victory. It was heroic, miraculous, providential, even epic. How did they do it?
I can think of at least three factors that sealed the fate of the battle on that historic day. First, the American troops were strengthened by their sincere belief in the righteousness of their cause. Second, the defenders of Fort Sullivan, later renamed Fort Moultrie, were empowered by the resolute determination displayed by their commander, William Moultrie. Third, the Americans were aided by the resilient properties of Mother Nature: the spongy palmetto tree trunks, the shock-absorbing sand within the fort’s walls, and the deceptive water courses that confused British intelligence and prevented the enemy from positioning troops to their advantage.
And finally, the men who faced the British war machine on the 28th of June were inspired to fight on by the brave acts of their fellow soldiers in the heat of the battle. Early in the day, when the flag of the Second Regiment was shot down by a British cannonball, Sergeant William Jasper braved a hail of cannon fire to rescue the fallen flag and replant it on the rampart. His reckless enthusiasm was more than folly. The flag was a powerful symbol that represented their cause. Spirits drooped when the flag fell, but Sergeant Jasper revived the spirit of determination at a critical juncture in the battle.
Likewise, Moultrie’s men were inspired by the dying words of Sergeant McDaniel, who was disemboweled by a British cannonball. “Fight on, my brave boys,” McDaniel said to his comrades with his last breath. “Don’t let liberty expire with me today.” Each year on the 28th of June we honor the memory of Sergeant McDaniel and his brave compatriots by recalling their deeds and the eternal debt we owe to their sacrifice.
Had the British plan prevailed on that 28th of June, 1776, the engagement at Sullivan’s Island would have been merely the appetizer course of a feast of violence in which downtown Charleston was the main course. The history of South Carolina, and of the United States in general, would have taken a far different course had the British prevailed on that fateful day. But the brave boys in blue on Sullivan’s Island won the day and spoiled the British appetite for both the surf and turf of South Carolina.
In the course of American history, our nation has survived hundreds of battles, but not every battle is remembered by an annual commemoration. We have general days of remembrance, like Memorial Day and Veterans Day, but many battles—in fact, most battles—are not individually commemorated on every anniversary. Why is the Battle of Sullivan’s Island different? Why have people been commemorating the anniversary of this battle every year since 1777? Why was a society formed specifically to perpetuate the memory of this battle? The answer, in short, is that the outcome of the Battle of Sullivan’s Island was so unexpected (both to the victors and the losers), so inspiring (to those who witnessed the event and those who came after), and so important (to the people of South Carolina and to the larger American struggle for independence).
As a teacher, I’m always thinking about how to summarize big stories into smaller, bite-sized themes that are easier to digest. So what lessons can we learn from the Battle of Sullivan’s Island? What message summarizes the spirit that won the day? What theme can we derive from this victory and pass along to future generations of Americans?
Personally, I draw inspiration from a phrase coined by John Rutledge, president of South Carolina on the 28th of June, 1776. During the height of the battle, when observers standing right here at White Point witnessed the success of the American firepower, President Rutledge ordered a boat to deliver an extra 500 pounds of gunpowder to Sullivan’s Island. Along with the powder, Rutledge also scribbled a note to Colonel Moultrie, urging him to use his supply of ammunition slowly and deliberately. In the heat of battle, Rutledge concluded his note by advising Moultrie, “Cool, and do mischief.”
That pithy phrase, rendered in more verbose language, might sound like this: Steady your nerves, sight your targets as precisely as possible, and use the resources at hand to inflict as much damage as possible to the enemy. In a civilian context, we might translate Rutledge’s advice like this: Calm your mind, identify your goals as clearly as possible, ignore the distractions of life, and work diligently to overcome the obstacles that stand between you and success. I think that’s a noble admonition, both in 1776 and in the present day. “Cool, and do mischief.”
I’d like to conclude my remarks today by recalling another anecdote from the summer of 1776. On the morning after the battle, General Charles Lee sent a short note to William Moultrie promising to visit the battle-scarred fort soon. In the meantime, the general wrote, “I have applied for some rum for your men. They deserve every comfort that can be afforded them.” And so, on this hot summer’s day, I think it’s fitting that we should all raise a glass to the memory of those brave men whose memory we celebrate today. Whether your glass contains a celebratory dram of rum or just plain refreshing water, I invite you to join me in toasting the memory of those brave men who fought and died for our liberty, 242 years ago today. Cool, and do mischief!
Given by Dr. Nicholas Butler
June 28, 2018