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Victory’s impact on signers of Declaration of Independence


Editor’s Note: Carolina Day speakers have a mission to enlighten participants who at a minimum know more about the American Revolution in South Carolina than historian David McCullough. Though the author of many books on the Revolution, including 1776, McCullough barely mentions the Battle of Sullivan’s Island and, with all due respect, he has not connected the historical dots. The late Seabrook Wilkinson knew how to thread the tapestry of history with color and accuracy; his essay below was published in the Charleston Mercury in 2005.


By Seabrook Wilkinson

            For many years it has been a cherished local urban legend that news of Moultrie’s great victory, celebrated annually as Carolina Day, reached Philadelphia in time to encourage the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, six days after the Battle of Fort Sullivan. There are several things wrong with this inspiring picture. Only our incumbent lieutenant governor could have made the journey by land in so short a time, and “Speedy” Bauer was unavailable. Then, as every schoolboy ought to know, nothing was signed on July 4; indeed, there was nothing to sign until August. The estimable George W. Williams IV, a purveyor not of myth but fact, dissected the major deficiencies in this favored fiction in a letter published last month.

            General Charles Lee sent an official report on the victory, enclosing other documents, north by express on July 2. This packet reached what we now call Independence Hall on Friday, July 19, quite late in the day, a few minutes before the usual time for adjournment.

            The delay in ordering a formal copy suitable for a signing ceremony had nothing to do with hesitation or timidity; anyone who reads a few pages of the Journals of the Continental Congress appreciates that this body as then constituted was characterized by steely deliberateness and absolute fearlessness. The problem was that New York had not yet assented. Approval from her legislature was not received until July 15. It would be gratifying to posit a causal connection between the news from Charlestown and the decision to engross and sign the Declaration, but the Journals of the Continental Congress make it clear that this decision was ratified much earlier in the day.

            What can be claimed is that the Continental Congress was immediately aware of the extreme importance of the news from South Carolina. After the notation that General Lee’s letter and enclosures had been received and read, the next item in the Journal is:  “Ordered, That an extract of General Lee’s letter be published.” Congress was instantly appreciative of the psychological importance such news would have in the Northern states, where military affairs were not going at all well.

            When Congress met pursuant to adjournment on the following morning, Saturday July 20, at nine, the first orders of business concerned the electrifying news from Charlestown, first a resolution referring the information received to the Board of War, and then one, “That the thanks of the United States of America be given to Major General Lee, Colonel William Moultrie, Colonel William Thompson [sic], and the officers and soldiers under their command, who, on the 28th of June last, repulsed, with so much valour, the attack which was that day made on the state of South Carolina, by the fleet and army of his Britannic majesty.”

            If Congress could not have known the outcome in Charlestown Harbor by July 4, they were well aware of a determined British effort to recapture their favorite American city; as the British fleet had anchored just outside our harbor in May, news of its whereabouts reached Philadelphia in June. We may also claim that every Signer of the Declaration of Independence was fully cognizant by the time he actually signed the document of Moultrie’s amazing Goliath-felling victory. The engrossed copy of the Declaration was received by Congress on August 2, and it is believed that 50 of the 56 Signers affixed their signatures that day, beginning with John Hancock’s sublime critique of royal myopia.

            Various eyewitness accounts of the “real July Fourth,” August 2, 1776, survive, and as is the way of eyewitness accounts are somewhat contradictory. All agree though on the solemn atmosphere of this assembly, phrased by Benjamin Rush as “the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many at the time to be our own death warrants.” But where politicians meet, there is always a window for levity, supplied by Benjamin Harrison of Virginia, father and grandfather of two presidents under the then unimagined Constitution.

            William Ellery of Rhode Island was standing beside Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Congress, peering into each man’s face as he signed. Harrison addressed him thus:  “I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Ellery, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.” Actually Ellery danced — or moved with the exceptionally slow, deliberate gait for which he was celebrated — until February 15, 1820, when, the longest-lived Signer but one, he expired in his 93rd year. 

            In 1776, as in our day, private communications often spread intelligence far more rapidly than information moved through official channels. Henry Laurens (and doubtless others) began firing off letters describing the events of June 28 almost as soon as the firing ceased. By August, news of this major American success was being exchanged in letters all up and down the seaboard. In Savannah Noble Wimberly Jones was eager to pass it on to contacts in Philadelphia. On July 11 he wrote to Benjamin Franklin, in less triumphalist vein than that in which many indulged, wondering “what Effect the severe rebuff the Troops or rather Ships against South Carolina Met with may have God knows, but as they are not gone from thence, cant say how matters may end there as yet; we are however in both Provinces in as great Spirits as tis possible to conceive, considering our weak Situation.”          

            Franklin, in turn, was anxious to spread the good news. On August 7 he and two other Signers, Benjamin Harrison and Robert Morris, acting as the Committee of Secret Correspondence wrote to American agent Silas Deane, showing that Continental intelligence had been able to assess the state of the British fleet after the battle:  “You will see by the Newspapers which accompany this, that the expedition against South Carolina is foiled by the gallant resistance made there. The Enemy, much diminished by Sickness, it is thought will attempt nothing farther in those parts.”

            Naturally the news reached Virginia long before it was known in Philadelphia. The express brought the glad tidings to Williamsburg on July 13, and Virginia leaders gathered there at once began sharing the triumph with friends in states to the north and east. The same day John Page wrote to Maryland’s Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, who had missed out on the chance to affix his signature to a world-shaking document this time, but would do so 11 years later when he signed the Constitution, “We congratulate you on the Success of the American Arms in South Carolina, by this Express you will be fully informed of Sir Peter Parker’s repulse.”

            Wounded in the attack, our last Royal governor, Lord William Campbell, was not up to correspondence, but his counterpart from North Carolina, Governor Josiah Martin, also present on June 28, was more candid than many in his report to Lord George Germain, the Secretary of State for the American Department, written on July 5 on board the snow (square-rigged vessel with two masts) Peggy, off Charlestown Bar:  “The check His Majesty’s Arms have received in the attack made by the Squadron here the other day, will certainly operate disadvantageously by teaching the Rebels higher opinions of their own strength.”

            One reason that Charleston’s Founding Fathers have received less attention from historians than their contributions merit is that the papers of our four Pinckney and Rutledge Signers of the two great framing documents do not survive in anything remotely resembling the completeness of those of Jefferson, Adams and Franklin. Fortunately, a letter Edward Rutledge sent to Robert R. Livingston on July 20 has been preserved. He is breathless with excitement about the news received the previous day, providing a detailed account beginning, “You will receive by this Conveyance what to me & to all who love me has & will be a most pleasing piece of Intelligence — I mean an Account of a very complete Defeat of the British Navy in So. Carolina.”

            He includes the irresistible detail of Sir Peter Parker’s celebrated wardrobe malfunction. This visionary Signer saw the potentially far-reaching consequences of Moultrie’s improbable triumph:  “I think it will have most happy Consequences, not to that Colony alone, but to all America, it will fill her with a Spirit of Emulation & go far I hope towards overthrowing opposition.”

            Just how keenly the news was relished in Washington’s camp appears from the general orders he posted the following morning:  “The General has great pleasure in communicating to the officers, and soldiers of this Army, the signal success of the American Arms under General Lee at South Carolina. The Enemy having attempted to land at the same time that a most furious Cannonade for twelve hours was made upon the Fortifications near Charlestown; Both Fleet and Army have been repulsed with great loss by a small number of gallant troops just raised.” Not surprisingly, Washington held up the heroes of Fort Sullivan as examples to the troops he would soon lead into battle against the British:  “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 their Limbs, continued at their posts.” He trusted that his own troops, “With such a bright example before us, of what can be done by brave and spirited men, fighting in defence of their Country,” would perform similar feats.

            Unofficial word preceded it, but as Francis Dana indicates in a July 28 letter to John Adams, reliable reports of the victory reached Boston only on July 27:  “We last evening receiv’d a confirmation of the engagement at Sullivan’s Island, Carolina.” His next sentence suggests that even at the dawn of the Republic Bostonians were busily taking credit for every great success in American history:  “The Yankees fought well.”

            Writing from London to his father in Ansonborough on October 26, John Laurens, soon to return to America to take up arms on behalf of his new country, indicates that the impact of the great victory was as great and sustained on that side of the Atlantic as on this:  “Impartial People had been convinced even from Sir Peter Parker’s own account, notwithstanding irksome Truths had been suppress’d, and great pains had been taken by the choice of expressions in relating the Matter to palliate his Defeat; that the honour of a very clear Victory was due to our Countrymen.” This was the one bright spot in a year of dismal defeat, for as Laurens confesses, “Our Spirits raised by Col. Moultrie’s Victory have been proportionately sunk by the accounts of our misfortunes at long Island.”

            If the Battle of Fort Sullivan did not launch a chain reaction resulting in the Declaration of Independence, it did more than anything else in the dark days of 1776 to make Americans believe they might just stand a chance against the mightiest military power in the world, encouraging many to sign the declaration. In March of 1775 General James Grant had assured the House of Commons that American soldiers could not possibly offer serious opposition to British regulars. Now, as Henry Laurens and other patriots gleefully observed, he had received his answer from Danger Thomson at Breach Inlet and William Moultrie and the brave defenders of Fort Sullivan.

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