By R.L. SCHREADLEY
This is Carolina Day, the 232nd anniversary of the Battle of Fort Sullivan. If you are not a native of South Carolinian (and possibly even if you are), you likely have never heard of Fort Sullivan and the significance of this day.
Most American school children have heard stirring stories of the battles of Concord Bridge and Lexington Green, relatively minor skirmishes fought by the Minutemen of Revolutionary lore. These were fought in April 1775, and at Concord Bridge was fired the "shot heard 'round the world." But it was at an unfinished, palmetto-log fort on Sullivan's Island where the cannon shots heard 'round the world were fired. There, 425 Americans fought off a British invasion fleet of 20 ships, foiling an early attempt to occupy Charleston, then the largest and most important city in the colonies south of Philadelphia.
The Battle of Fort Sullivan marked the first American victory over a substantial British force in the Revolution, a victory won just a week before the formal adoption of the Declaration of Independence. It gave a much-needed boost to American morale, and forestalled for three years the eventual British occupation of Charleston, years that bought George Washington time to raise a credible army, years that enabled diplomacy to win the support of France in the struggle for independence.
How did a tiny fort, open on its landward side, with only 26 guns and but 28 rounds per gun allotted to the defenders, turn back a fleet mounting 270 guns?
Historians note the courage and marksmanship of the defenders at Fort Sullivan. The steadfastness of Gov. John Rutledge and Col. William Moultrie in the face of such daunting odds was remarkable. The daring dash of Sergeant Jasper outside the fort's seaward wall to retrieve and replant on the ramparts the indigo blue Palmetto Flag shot down by the British is the stuff of legend.
Largely un-remarked is the contribution made by a small number of harbor pilots impressed by the British admiral, Sir Peter Parker. They were ordered to guide his ships to a secure and favorable anchorage near the fort, an anchorage from which the British superiority in firepower could almost at leisure reduce Fort Sullivan to a smoldering ruin. The anchorage the British were directed to, however, was most unfavorable to the admiral's plan.
Earlier, these same or similarly motivated American pilots persuaded the British to put a large landing party ashore on Long Island (now the Isle of Palms). From there, the British were told they could easily ford a narrow strip of water, Breach Inlet, separating Long Island from Sullivan's Island, and attack the American fort from its open, landward side. They could not and did not. By the time they mustered enough boats to attempt a crossing, an American force was firmly entrenched on the opposite side.
Sir Peter Parker's battle plan also required his impressed pilots to guide three of his ships into Charleston Harbor proper, to an anchorage from which they could direct fire into the rear of the palmetto log fort. All three of these ships grounded on the shoal where Fort Sumter now stands. Two of the three were re-floated when the tide turned. The third, HMS Acteon, one of the newest and largest in British navy, could not be freed and had to be burned by its crew. The legend surrounding the battle says that when this ship's magazine exploded, it sent up a large plume of smoke that in shape resembled a palmetto tree.
Another legend is that Sir Peter Parker, the British commander, was struck by a "splinter" on the quarterdeck of his flagship, HMS Bristol, and as a result lost his breeches, leaving "his posteriors quite bare."
On this Carolina Day, as on many other earlier ones, the Washington Light Infantry color guard, the German Friendly Society and many other storied Charleston societies will march to White Point Gardens. There will be martial music and perhaps a speech.
From nearby rooftops, Americans in 1776 looked out anxiously to the puffs of smoke and distant rumble of guns that told them Fort Sullivan, now renamed in honor of its commander, Fort Moultrie, still held. The day was glorious.
R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.