June 28, 1776

    In the summer of 1775, with their main army besieged at Boston, the British began planning an expedition to the South, believing that a show of force by regulars might encourage the Loyalists to rise up and restore the crown to power.  The overly optimistic plan, influenced by the deposed Southern governors, envisioned bringing the four Southern colonies back in line and allowing many of the British troops to return north.  On January 20th, 1776, Sir Henry Clinton set sail from Boston with 1,200 to 1,500 men.  They would sail to Cape Fear off North Carolina and rendezous with a fleet under Peter Parker escorting an expedition under General Cornwallis.  After a stop in New York harbor, Clinton arrived off Cape Fear on March 12th.  There he learned that his hoped for Loyalist support had been defeated the day he left New York Harbor, February 27th, at Moore's Creek Bridge, in a fight sometimes known as the 'Battle of Slippery Logs'.  Parker's ships with Cornwallis only started arriving on April 18th, and it was late May before the last ships arrived.

    With the Loyalists crushed, the original British plan was no longer workable, but perhaps something useful could be done.  Clinton suggested setting up posts in Virginia, but Parker talked him into capturing Ft Sullivan protecting Charleston.  The fort was incomplete, and once it was captured, it might be held with a small force.  

    The fort, since renamed Fort Moultrie after its commander, held up to 25 guns facing the entrance to Charleston harbor.  Between Sullivan's Island and James Island was a dangerous shoal.  (Ft Sumter would be built on it many years later.)  A small channel did exist between the shoal and James Island, but it was too treacherous to use.  Charles Lee, when he arrived to take command of the American defenses, was not happy with the preparations so far.  The fort had little protection to its rear, with only a seven foot tall wall and a few guns.  With no bridge to the mainland, there was easy way to retreat.  Lee ordered a floating bridge constructed, but the resulting structure was too weak for the troops to use.  Three miles east of the fort was undefended Long Island, separated from Sullivan's Island by Breach Inlet.  Although Sullivan's Island at Breach Inlet was defended, a British force might use Long Island (now the Isle of Palms) as a springboard to the mainland and isolate Fort Moultrie.   This is exactly what Clinton planned - eventually.

View From Ft Sumter, Then Shoals

Breach Inlet

    On June 16th, Clinton landed roughly 2,500 men on Long Island, visible at the other end of the modern bridge.  Trying to cross Breach Inlet in boats to Sullivan's Island, boats would ground in a foot and a half of water, but when men would get out to push, they would find the water to be seven feet deep.  With such uneven footing and with American troops defending the landing area, the crossing was called off.  Parker felt that a naval bombarment would neutralize the fort, and if he could get ships past the fort, he could cover Clinton's troops as they crossed over to the mainland to cut off retreat from Sullivan's Island.

    Contrary winds pushed back Parker's attack until late morning on June 28th, giving the Americans more time to prepare.  A bomb ketch started the bombardment with 10 inch mortars at a mile and a half.  Four ships approached to around 400 yards and opened fire.  They were joined by three ships in a second line further behind.  Around 100 guns fired on the fort for around an hour.  The British mortar bombs were generally absorbed in swampy or sandy soil, and the cannon balls were absorbed by the sandy soil behind the fort's palmetto walls, wich didn't splinter like other woods.  The three ships of the second line were to pass into the harbor and around the fort, firing into its flank and rear and allowing Clinton's men to cross to the mainland.  All three ships ran aground in the middle shoal, though, removing their guns from the fight and preventing Clinton's crossing to the mainland.  Essentially, this sealed American victory.  One of the grounded ships was abandoned and destroyed while the other two were withdrawn for repair.

    During the bombardment, a British shot shattered the flagpole, which fell outside the fort along with the flag.  The flag coming down was considered a sign of surrender, so a Sgt. Jasper climbed the wall to the other side and erected the flag again with an improvised pole.

Statue of Col. Moultrie in Charleston

    The fighting ended at dark, with the British fleet withdrawing with the tide.  Col Moultrie and his men had dished out significant punishment to the British fleet, concentrating much of their fire on Parker's flagship, the Bristol, which took 70 hits and lost 64 dead and 161 wounded.  Parker himself was slightly wounded.  American losses were relatively light, 10 killed and 22 wounded.

    Clinton remained on Long Island for three weeks, then withdrew with the fleet to New York City, where they participated in Sir William Howe's campaign.  The expedition had been an embarrassing  fiasco.  The South remained fully in patriot hands until Savannah was captured in the final days of 1778.  Charleston was captured only in the summer of 1780, setting off fighting in both Carolinas and Virginia.  Although the South was spared for much of the war, ultimately the war would be decided there.

Back to Revolutionary War Virtual Battlefield Tours