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Charleston Expedition

  • Time Period: May-June, 1776
  • Area: Charleston, South carolina
  • Explanation: ??

Charleston stands on a point of land which lies between the Cooper River and Ashley River, which falls into a bay of the Atlantic Ocean; and in the bay, there are several islands. The people resolved to fortify Charleston; and for that purpose, they built a fort on Sullivan's Island, which lies in the bay, about 6 miles below the town, and near the channel leading to it. The fort was constructed with the wood of the palmetto tree. The wood is remarkably spongy; and a ball entering it makes no extended fracture, but buries itself in the wood, without injuring the adjacent parts. The fort was mounted with about 30 cannon-32-lb., 18-lb., and 9-lb.

In the latter part of 1775 and the beginning of 1776, great exertions had been made in Britain to send an overwhelming force to America; and on June 2, the alarm-guns were fired in the vicinity of Charleston, and expresses sent to the militia officers to hasten to the defence of the capital with the forces under their command. The order was promptly obeyed; and some continental regiments from the neighbouring states also arrived. The whole was under the direction of Maj. Gen. Charles Lee, who had been appointed commander of an the forces in the Southern States, and had under him the continental generals, Armstrong and Howe.

The utmost activity prevailed in Charleston. The citizens, abandoning their usual avocations, employed themselves entirely in putting the town into a respectable state of defense. They pulled down the valuable storehouses on the wharves, barricaded the streets, and constructed lines of defense along the shore. Relinquishing the pursuits of peaceful industry and commercial gain, they engaged in incessant labour, and prepared for bloody conflicts. The troops, amounting to between 5,000-6,000 men, were stationed in the most advantageous positions. The 2nd South Carolina and 3rd South Carolina Regular Regiments, under Cols. ?? Moultrie and ?? Thomson, were posted on Sullivan's Island. A regiment, commanded by Col. ?? Gadsden, was stationed at Fort Johnson, about 3 miles below Charleston, on the most northerly point of James's Island. This place was within point-blank shot of the channel. The rest of the troops were posted at Haddrel's Point, along the bay near the town, and at such other proper places. Amidst this bustle and preparation, lead for bullets was extremely scarce, and the windows of Charleston were stripped of their weights, in order to procure a small supply of lead.

While the Americans were thus busily employed, the British exerted themselves with activity. About the middle of February, an armament sailed from the cove of Cork, under the command of Gen. Sir Peter Parker and Gen. Charles Cornwallis, to encourage and support the loyalists in the southern provinces.

After a tedious voyage, the greater part of the fleet reached Cape Fear, in North Carolina, on May 3. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton, who had left Boston in December, took the command of the land forces, and issued a proclamation, promising pardon to all the inhabitants who laid down their arms; but that proclamation produced no effect. Early in June, an armament, consisting of between 40 and 50 vessels, appeared off Charleston Bay, and 36 of the transports passed the bar, and anchored about 3 miles from Sullivan's Island. Some hundreds of the troops landed on Long Island, which lies on the west of Sullivan's Island, and which is separated from it by a narrow channel, often fordable.

On June 10, the HMS Bristol, a 50-gun ship, having taken out her guns, got safely over the bar; and on the June 25, the HMS Experiment, a ship of equal force, arrived, and the next day, passed in the same way. On the part of the British, everything was now ready for action. Clinton had nearly 3,000 men under his command. The naval force, under Parker, consisted of HMS Bristol and HMS Experiment, of 50 guns each; the HMS Acteon, HMS Solebay, and HMS Syren frigates, of 28 guns each; the HMS Friendship, of 22 guns, and the HMS Sphinx, of 20 guns; the HMS Ranger sloop, and HMS Thunder Bomb, of 8 guns each.

On the afternoon of June 28, this fleet advanced against the fort on Sullvan's Island, which was defended by Col. ?? Moultrie, with 344 regular troops, and some militia, who volunteered their services on the occasion. The Thunder Bomb began the battle. The Acteon, Bristol, Experiment, and Solebay followed boldly to the attack, and a terrible cannonade ensued. The fort returned the fire of the ships slowly, but with deliberate and deadly aim. The contest was carried on during the whole day with unabating fury. All the forces collected at Charleston stood prepared for battle; and both the troops and the numerous spectators beheld the conflict with alternations of hope and fear, which appeared in their countenances and gestures. They knew not how soon the fort might be silenced or passed by, and the attack made immediately upon themselves; but they were resolved to meet the invaders at the water's edge, to dispute every inch of ground, and to prefer death to what they considered to be slavery.

The Sphinx, Acteon, and Syren were ordered to attack the western extremity of the fort, which was in a very unfinished state; but as they proceeded for that purpose, they got entangled with a shoal, caned the Middle Ground. Two of them ran foul of each other; the Acteon stuck fast; the Sphinx and Syren got off, with the Syren having lost her bowsprit, the latter with little injury; but, happily for the Americans, that part of the attack completely failed.

It had been concerted that, during the attack by the ships, Clinton, with the troops, should pass the narrow channel which separated Long Island from Sullivan's Island and assail the fort by land. He found this plan impracticable; for the channel, though commonly fordable, was at that time deeper than usual. He and some other officers waded up to the shoulders; but finding the depth still increasing, they abandoned the intention of attempting the passage. The sailors, who found themselves engaged in such a severe fight, often cast a wistful look towards Long Island, in the hope of seeing Clinton and the troops advancing against the fort; but their hope was disappointed, and the ships and the fort were left to themselves to decide the attack. Although the channel had been fordable, the British troops would have found the passage an arduous enterprise; for Col. ?? Thommson, with a strong detachment of riflemen, regulars, and militia, was posted on the east end of Sullivan's Island to oppose any attack made in that quarter.

In the course of the day, the fire of the fort ceased for a short time, and the British flattered themselves that the guns were abandoned; but the pause was occasioned solely by the want of powder, and when a supply was obtained the cannonade recommenced as steadily as before. The engagement, which began about 11:00 A.M., continued with unabated fury till 7:00 P.M., when the fire slackened, and about 9:00 P.M., the fight entirely ceased on both sides. During the night, all the ships except the Acteon, which was aground, removed about 2 miles from the island. The next morning, the fort fired a few shots at the Acteon, and she at first returned fire; but, in a short time, her crew set her on fire and abandoned ship. A party of Americans boarded the burning vessel, seized her colors, fired some of her guns at Parker, filled 3 boats with her sails and stores, and then quitted her. She blew up shortly afterwards.

In this obstinate engagement, both parties fought with great gallantry. The British loss was considerable. The Bristol had 40 men killed, and 71 wounded; Mr. ?? Morris, her captain, lost an arm. The Experiment had 23 men killed, and, 76 wounded; Capt. ?? Scott, her commander, also lost an arm. Lord William Campbell, the late governor of the province, who served on board as a volunteer, received a wound in his side, which ultimately proved mortal; Parker received a slight contusion. The Acteon had Lt. Pike killed, and 6 men wounded. The Solebay had 8 men wounded.

After some days, the troops were all reimbarked, and the whole armament sailed for New York. The garrison lost 10 men killed, and 22 men wounded. Although the Americans were raw troops, yet they behaved with the steady intrepidity of veterans. In the course of the engagement the flag-staff of the fort was shot away; but Sgt. ?? Jasper leaped down upon the beach, snatched up the flag, fastened it to a sponge staff, and, while the ships were incessantly directing their broadsides upon the fort, he mounted the merlon and deliberately replaced the flag.

The next day, President ?? Rutledge presented him with a sword, as a testimony of respect for his distinguished valor. Moultrie, and the officers and troops on Sullivan's Island, received the thanks of their country for their bravery; and, in honor of the gallant commander, the fort was named Fort Moultrie.

The failure of the attack on Charleston was of great importance to the American cause, and contributed much to the establishment of the popular government. The friends of Congress triumphed; and numbers of them, ignorant of the power of Britain and of the spirit which animated her counsels, fondly imagined that their freedom was achieved.

The diffident became bold; the advocates of the irresistibility of British fleets and armies were mortified and silenced; and they who from interested motives had hitherto been loud in their professions of loyalty, began to alter their tone. The brave defense of Fort Moultrie saved the Southern States from the horrors of war for several years.


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