In late January of 1776, Clinton sailed from Boston, bound for Cape Fear, North Carolina. In Charleston, John Rutledge, a member of the Continenal Congress, arrived in Charleston with information of a British move into South Carolina. Named as the newly appointed president of the General Assembly that remained as the backbone of South Carolina's revoluationary government, Rutledge organized a defense force under the command of 46-year-old Colonel William Moultrie, a former militiman and Indian fighter. Moultrie saw Sullivan's Island, at the mouth of the entrance to Charleston Harbor as a good place suited to build a fort to protect the entrance from intruding enemy warships.
Sullivan Island was chosen because at the time because it was a geographic obstical that shielded the harbor. A large vessel sailing into Charleston first had to cross Charleston Bar, a series of submerged sand banks lying about eight miles southeast of the city. Moultrie and his 2nd South Carolina Regiment arrived on the island in March, 1776 and began construction of a fortress to defend the island and channel to Charleston Harbor. The construction moved slowly in which an observer, Captain Peter Horry of the Patriot naval detachment, described the site as a "an immense pen 500 feet long, and 16 feed wide, filled with sand to stop the shot". The workers constructed gun platforms out of two-inch planks and nailed them together with wood spikes.
During late May, British frigates arrived to scout the area and observe the construction of the enemy fort on Sullivan's Island. The main British fleet arrived outside of Charleston Harbor on June 1. Moultrie observed British scout boat observing possible landing points on nearby Long Island (now called Isle of Palms) just a few hundred yards from Sullivan Island. General Charles Lee, the commander of the South Carolina patriot troops, arrived a few days later and was put in command of the land forces around Charleston. On June 8, after most of the British fleet had crossed the bar and anchored in Five Fathom Hole, Clinton sent a proclamation to the patriot rebels to lay down their arms or face military action, which Rutledge rejected the demand. With the fort on Sullivan Island only half complete, Parker was confident that his warships would blast the fort into pieces.
The square-shaped Fort Sullivan made up of only the completed seaward wall, with walls made from Palmetto logs 16 feed wide and filled with sand, which rose 10 feed above the wooden platforms for the artillery. A hastly erected plaisde of thick planks helped guard the powder magazine and unfinished northern walls. A assortment of 31 hard-to-get cannon rangeing from 9- and 12-pounders as well as a few English 18-pounders and French 26-pounders dotted the front and rear walls.
The British fleet to attack the fort made up of nine man-of-war ships, with the flagship being the 50-gun Bristol, as well as the ships-of-the-line Experiment, Actaeon, Active, Solebya, Syren, Sphinx, Frendship, and the bomb-vessel Thunder, all mounting nearly 300 heavy cannon. Meanwhile, Clinton had landed most of his troops on nearby Long Island to cross the shallow sandbar to attack Fort Sullivan from the rear during the upcoming attack.
On June 2, Lee arrived in Charleston. As soon as he arrived, he ordered fortifications built in the city proper. He also considered Fort Sullivan too rundown to defend. Moultrie had not used his time in command to strengthen the fortifications and the fort's rear wall was still incomplete. However, Lee was overruled by South Carolina Governor John Rutledge.
Lee now had no choice but to do what he could to fortify Fort Sullivan. Though Lee and Moultrie had their differences, Lee instilled confidence in the Rebels that the British could be defeated and for that Moultrie respected him.
When Lee saw the condition of the harbor defenses, he told South Carolina President Rutledge that Fort Moultrie was untenable, "a slaughter pen" he called it. Rutledge refused to accept that judgement. Work on the fort was speeded up and by the end of June, the walls of the fort fronting the channel were complete, but the rear was far from ready for an attack.
The British landed an amphibious force on Long Island with the intention of attacking the northeastern end of Sullivan's Island and crushing the Americans in a pincher move. The British force was under the command of Maj. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton. He relied on poor reconnaisance, which reported that an assualt could easily carry across Breach Inlet. A search for that shallow ford consumed several days and nights and yielded no possible route for an attack. The British were forced to watch Col. William Thomson, with his Americans, prepare a formidable position to defend that extermity of the island.
The garrison of what was known as Fort Sullivan counted 425 men, mostly of the 2nd South Carolina Regiment and a detachment from the 4th Regiment. Gunpowder was in short supply for the Americans. Lee, thinking that the fort had little hope of surviving the British guns, limited the amount of gunpowder in the magazines there. What powder remained was saved in preparation for a desparate defense of the city that he planned.
On June 26, the British were ready, having finally moved and refitted all their ships at Five Fathom Hole.
On June 27, they attempted to set sail, but Maj. Gen. Henry Clinton put his troops ashore on Long Island, which was north of Sullivan's Island, while the fort was on the island's southern tip. Clinton then found it difficult to cross The Breach from Long Island onto Sullivan's Island. The British had incorrect intelligence of a shallow ford, when in truth the shallowest channel was 7 feet deep. But Clinton stubbornly spent several days searching for the elusive ford. When they finally tried crossing in boats, American riflemen and gunners held them off.
While Clinton continued his fruitless search, the last 2 British warships, the HMS Bristol and the HMS Experiment, had to have their guns removed to lighten the boats enough to clear the bar. ary winds halted their movement. They now waited for favorable winds.
On June 28, when the British fleet loosed their sails in the morning, the Americans had only 28 rounds for each of their 26 guns. For this reason, Moultrie ordered his men to wait 10 minutes between firing each round and to concentrate only on the ships nearest the fort.
The British fleet, commanded by Adm. Peter Parker, consisted of 20 ships,with only 9 ships being armed. The entire fleet ahd 270 guns. The British relied on pilots who had been impressed into their service. The pilots were ordered to bring the first ships to anchorage close enough so that the others could anchor very near the fort. The battle plan called for a sally, to be conducted by 3 other ships, to go around to the western side of the fort and fire into the unfinished portion. A bomb ketch, armed with a large mortar, was to fire into the fort.
As the battle began, the tide immediately began to turn against the British--literally. The pilots refused to bring the warships in as close as Parker ordered for they feared running aground. The full effect of their gunnery, which the British ships were capable of bringing to bear, was lost. The sally, which was planned to exploit the unfinished sides of the fort, failed when the tide changed and the ships ran aground on the shoal.
In the meantime, the inexperienced gunners of the palmetto fort, who had been trained as infantrymen, were pouring a deadly fire into the British fleet and demonstrating courage and order uncommon in green troops. Their fire was having a terrible effect on the ships. Every person on the quarterdeck of the HMS Bristol, the flagship of the fleet, was killed or wounded. Lord William Campbell, South Carolina's royal governor, manning a gun on that shop was wounded by splinter, a wound which caused his death 2 years later. Parker was also wounded by a splinter which tore off his pants. Another splinter wounded his knee and left him unable to walk without aid. The other ships also suffered a number of casualties.
The British continued their bombardment to little effect because of the fort's construction of palmetto logs. Palmetto is soft and spongy and simply absorbed the cannonballs. Meanwhile, the Americans expended roughly 1/7 the amount of powder that the British did, but the slow and steady American fire was quite accurate.
The British also attempted an assualt from Long Island by small boats on Thomson's men on the northern end of Sullivan's Island. The attack was covered by an armed British schooner. The boats were turned back when the Americans fired at point-blank range, causing very heavy casualties in the British assualt party. With this rebuff, Clinton called off the attack and no other attempts were made. By 9:30 P.M., all firing ceased. At 11:30 P.M. the British ships withdrew to Five Fathom Hole.
With their efforts repulsed at both ends of the island, the British halted their attack late in the day. Still, they had a major problem. Of the 3 ships which had run aground, the HMS Acteon was still unable to extract herself, despite the best efforts of her crew. The captain requested Parker's permission to abandon ship, and destroy her to keep the ship from falling into the hands of the Americans. This was received and the captain set ablaze one of the British Navy's finest ships, commissioned less than a year before. An American salvage party went out to the Bristol after it was abandoned and was able to gather the ship's bell, the colors, and various stores before the spreading fire endangered their safety. Half an hour later, the ship's magazine exploded.
The results of the victory were many-fold. For the Americans, it was their first decisive victory. For South Carolina, it produced a confidence in the government led by John Rutledge and forestalled another British effort to take Charleston for over 3 years. More importantly to both South Carolina and the new nation, this daring feat against odds fired the imagination of its citizens.
Here was the model for future triumph. It was here, in a day-long battle, that a gallant and spirited band defeated in desparate conflict an overwhelming naval and military force and having utterly whipped them, drove them from their shores. For the new nation, pride in the victory was unbounded.
For the British, the results were humiliating. A superb naval flotilla and army had been thwarted, in a large degree, due to the imprudent mistakes made by veteran officers. Poor planning and the refusal of the army and navy to cooperate sealed the doom of the British. the British lost all element of surprise and failed to take advantage of American weakness in early June. There were no navel officers in the fleet familiar with Charleston harbor. Instead, Parker relied on impressed pilots to guide the ships to their crucial anchorage.
The British did not attempt to renew the battle to try to take the fort again, and by mid-July, the fleet withdrew northward to help the main British army in the campaign against New York. Within days of the battle, the Charlestonians learns of the singing of the Declartion of Independence in Philadelphia which was a sign of their capacity to oppose British arms. The victory on June 28 stood to them as their own phsycial Declaration, which the upsetting of the British plans in the southern colonies helped win uncommited Americans to the struggle for independence from Great Britain. It also enabled the Southern colonies (later states) to support vital campaigns in the north. Most importantly the victory of Fort Sullivan helped keep Charleston free from British occupation for more than three years.
Fort Sullivan was renamed Fort Moultrie shortly after the battle in honor of Colonel William Moultrie for his successful defense of fort and the city of Charleston.