Charleston and the American Revolution, 1776-1785: Fort Moultrie

Story by / July 6, 2017

From the moment they declared secession from the Crown on the steps of the Exchange, Charles Towne was a major player in the struggle for American Independence.  Charles Towne was twice the target of British attacks during the American Revolution, and both times the British wrongly assumed a large base of loyalists within the city would start and uprising.  The first of these attacks came on Fort Moultrie.

Armed forces had been organized prior to South Carolina’s secession from England, and William Moultrie was set in command of the Second Regiment. He combined the silver crescents on his soldiers’ caps with the blue of their uniforms to create the first South Carolina flag. This flag they proudly displayed over a small, unfinished fort in Charles Towne Harbor. Fort Moultrie had walls of two rows of palmetto logs sixteen feet apart, filled in with beach sand; only the front and one side of Fort Moultrie were completed on the day the British attacked.

On June 1, 1776, fifty British ships under the command of Admiral Sir Peter Parker appeared offshore. The British fleet boasted 270 cannons, while Fort Moultrie was equipped with only 31.  They were outnumbered, outgunned, and ill prepared. Even so, commanders like Rutledge and Moultrie were unwilling to accept defeat.

Captain Lempriere told Colonel Moultrie, “Sir, when [the British ships] come to lay alongside of your fort, they will knock it down in half an hour.”  Moultrie is said to have replied, “We will lay behind the ruins and prevent their men from landing.”

Sir Henry Clinton attempted to attack the fort from land with over 2,000 men by crossing over Breach Inlet from Long Island, now known as Isle of Palms. Colonel Thompson and his 780 sharpshooters defended the fort; their accuracy in conjunction with a miscalculation of the water depth prevented the British from crossing over. Three ships ran aground, and the fort concentrated their attack on the lead ship, the Actaeon.  Sir Peter Parker, the man in command of the British fleet, is said to have “had the hindpart of his breeches shot away, which laid his posteriors bare.”

During the battle, the South Carolina flag was shot down, and thousands of civilians watching from the Charles Towne waterfront feared that the battle for Fort Moultrie had been lost. But as night fell, the British fleet retreated to sea anchorage, and Charles Towne remained relatively quiet for several years.

Although Fort Moultrie was unfinished at the time of the attack, it sustained very little damage and there were few fatalities.  In a letter to his mother, General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney wrote, “The Fort, though well peppered with shot, has received scarcely ay damage, not a single breach being made in it, nor did the Palmetto logs, of which it is built, at all splinter.” The British cannonballs sank harmlessly into the porous wood of the palmetto logs and sand.  Because of the instrumental role the palmetto tree had in South Carolina’s victory at the battle for Fort Moultrie, it was added to the state flag along with the crescent moon set atop a background of blue.

On the day the last British ship sailed away from Charles Towne headed for New York, August 2nd, was the same day that four Charlestonians were signing the Declaration of Independence.


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