THE BATTLE OF SULLIVANS ISLAND

On the morning of June 28, Fort Sullivan was defended by Colonel Moultrie, commanding the 2nd South Carolina Regiment and a company of the 4th South Carolina Artillery, numbering 435 men.  At around 9:00 am that morning, a British ship fired a signal gun indicating all was ready for the attack.  Less than an hour later, nine warships had sailed into positions facing the fort. Thunder and Friendship anchored about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from the fort while Parker took Active, Bristol, Experiment and Solebay to a closer position about 400 yards (370 m) from Sullivan's Island, where they anchored facing broadside to the fort. Each of these ships began to fire upon the fort when it reached its position, and the defenders returned the fire.  Although many of Thunder's shots landed in or near the fort, they had little effect; according to Moultrie, "We had a morass in the middle, that swallowed them up instantly, and those that fell in the sand in and about the fort, were immediately buried".  Thunder's

role in the action was also relatively short-lived; she had anchored too far away from the fort, and the overloading of her mortars with extra powder to increase their range eventually led to them breaking out of their mounts.  Owing to shortage of gunpowder, Moultrie's men were deliberate in the pace of their gunfire, and only a few officers actually aimed the cannons. They also fired in small volleys, four cannon at a time. One British observer wrote, "Their fire was surprisingly well served" and it was "slow, but decisive indeed; they were very cool and took care not to fire except their guns were exceedingly well directed."

 

General Clinton began movements to cross over to the northern end of Sullivan's Island. Assisted by two sloops of war, the flotilla of longboats carrying his troops came under fire from Colonel William Thomson's defenses. Facing a withering barrage of grape shot and rifle fire, Clinton abandoned the attempt.


Around noon the frigates Sphinx, Syren, and Actaeon were sent on a roundabout route, avoiding some shoals, to take a position from which they could enfilade the fort's main firing platform and also cover one of the main escape routes from the fort.  However, all three ships grounded on an uncharted sandbar, and the riggings of Actaeon and Sphinx became entangled in the process.  The British managed to refloat Sphinx and Syren, but Acteon remained grounded, having moved too far onto the submerged sandbar. Consequently, none of these ships reached its intended position, a piece of good fortune not lost on Colonel Moultrie: "Had these three ships effected their purpose, they would have enfiladed us in such a manner, as to have driven us from our guns."

At the fort, Moultrie ordered his men to concentrate their fire on the two large man-of-war ships, Bristol and Experiment, which took hit after hit from the fort's guns. Chain shot fired at Bristol eventually destroyed much of her rigging and severely damaged both the main- and mizzenmasts.  One round hit her quarterdeck, slightly wounding Parker in the knee and thigh. The shot also tore off part of his britches, leaving his backside exposed.  By mid-afternoon, the defenders were running out of gunpowder, and their fire was briefly suspended. However, Lee sent more ammunition and gunpowder over from the mainland, and the defenders resumed firing at the British ships; Lee even briefly visited the fort late in the day, telling Colonel Moultrie, "I see you are doing very well here, you have no occasion for me, I will go up to the town again."  Admiral Parker eventually sought to destroy the fort's walls with persistent broadside cannonades. This strategy failed due to the spongy nature of the palmetto wood used in its constructions; the structure would quiver, and it absorbed the cannonballs rather than splintering.  The exchange continued until around 9:00 pm, when darkness forced a cessation of hostilities, and the fleet finally withdrew out of range.


At one point during the battle, the flag Moultrie had designed and raised over the fort was shot down. Sergeant William Jasper reportedly ran to the battlement and raised the flag again, holding it up and rallying the troops until a flag stand could be provided. He was credited by Moultrie with reviving the troops' spirits, and later given commendations for bravery. 


Counting casualties, Parker reported 40 sailors killed and 71 wounded aboard Bristol, which was hit more than 70 times with much damage to the hull, yards, and rigging. Experiment was also badly damaged with 23 sailors killed and 56 wounded. Active and Solebay reported 15 casualties each.  The Americans reported their casualties at only 12 killed and 25 wounded. The following morning, the British, unable to drag the grounded Acteon off the sandbar, set fire to the ship to prevent her from falling into enemy hands.  Patriots in small boats sailed out to the burning ship, fired some of its cannons at the British ships, took what stores and loot they could, and retreated shortly before the ship's powder magazine exploded.

PALMETTO SOCIETY OF CHARLESTON •  FOUNDED 1777