This Day in History: The British attack on Fort Sullivan, near Charleston
On this day in 1776, the Americans fight and win the Battle of Sullivan’s Island. The day is still celebrated as Carolina Day!
British planning for the attack began early—maybe too early. The British Army had been under siege in Boston since April 1775. British officers needed a plan. How could they restore their grip on the colonies? By the fall of 1775, they were already planning an expedition to the Carolinas. They hoped to win back territory with the help of local Loyalists.
The early start, of course, gave the Patriots plenty of time to figure out what was being planned.
Matters seemed to get worse and worse for the British as the months wore on. Major General Henry Clinton was supposed to lead a force to North Carolina. He was to rendezvous with Sir Peter Parker, who was bringing reinforcements from Britain. But when Clinton arrived in March, he learned that Parker was late. He also discovered that the Patriots had won a victory against Loyalists at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge.
Could the British rely upon Loyalists in the area to help them after all? Maybe not.
Clinton had no choice but to wait for Parker. He soon received a communication in which Charleston was identified as an “object of importance to his Majesty’s Service.” Clinton and Parker decided to switch targets and to head for South Carolina. They knew that a Patriot fort was being erected on Sullivan’s Island, at the entrance to Charleston harbor. The fort was unfinished and seemed vulnerable to attack.
Perhaps it was, but all the delays had given Americans plenty of time to get ready for a British invasion. And they were given even more time to prepare as the British spent the next several weeks reconnoitering the coast and exploring their options.
The British finally attacked on June 28. They had 10 ships carrying roughly 300 guns, along with more than 2,500 soldiers. Fort Sullivan was under the command of Colonel William Moultrie. It was defended by about 400 Americans and 31 guns. They had limited powder.
Americans held their own! Fort Sullivan was built out of palmetto logs and sand. The porous wood could absorb many shots without major damage. In the meantime, Americans were very judicious with their own resources. They shot more slowly than the British, and they were more deliberate in choosing their targets.
Parker attempted to send three ships around to a weak, unfinished side of the fort. It was a good move that could have gone badly for the Americans. Unfortunately for Parker, the ships ran aground on a shoal and could not reach their target.
At one point during the battle, a volley of British fire knocked down the American flag mast. For a few moments, the British thought the Americans were surrendering! Sergeant William Jasper did not allow that hope to last long. He retrieved the fallen flag, rigged a makeshift mast, and hoisted the flag back up. He risked his life to secure the flag.
The British retreated after sunset. Against all odds, the Americans had won a major victory.
P.S. Have you ever wondered why there is a palmetto tree on the South Carolina flag? It’s because Fort Sullivan was made out of palmetto logs.
Benson John Lossing, The Pictorial Field-book of the Revolution (1852) (Vol. I)
Carolina Day – Celebrating since 1777! (South Carolina State Museum website)
Jim Stokely, Fort Moultrie: Constant Defender (NPS Publication; 1985)
John C. Fredriksen, Revolutionary War Almanac (2006)
Spencer C. Tucker, Almanac of American Military History (2013) (Vol. I).
The Battle of Sullivan's Island: June 28, 1776 (Fort Moultrie, South Carolina; June 30, 1968)