By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2015-2016, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the December 2015 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
Near the end of the movie Glory there is a depiction of the attack by the 54th Massachusetts Regiment on Fort Wagner. This attack took place on July 18, 1863 on Morris Island near Charleston, South Carolina as an attempt by forces of the national government to take Charleston from the rebels who held it. Some years prior to this assault, government forces attempted to capture Charleston by attacking a fort that was situated on a different island near Charleston, an island named Sullivan’s Island. In the battle on Sullivan’s Island, the rebels held a fort that guarded the entrance to Charleston harbor. Combined naval and ground forces of the national government planned to take the fort and then capture Charleston. In ground forces alone, the rebels on Sullivan’s Island were outnumbered two to one. The naval fleet of the national government included nine warships, while the rebels had no naval force during the battle of Sullivan’s Island. In spite of this, the rebels repulsed the forces of the national government, inflicted five times as many casualties as they suffered, and prevented the capture of Charleston. Although the battle of Sullivan’s Island pit rebel troops against forces of the national government, this battle was not between men in blue and men in gray. In the battle of Sullivan’s Island, the rebel forces were American colonists, the government forces were British, and the battle took place on June 28, 1776 or four score and seven years before the attack of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment on Fort Wagner. In December 1860 South Carolina’s defiance was expressed by its secession from the United States. But in an earlier act of defiance, some other South Carolina rebels fought in support of secession against forces of their national government in the battle of Sullivan’s Island.
For some time before the British attempted to take Charleston, the Americans recognized the importance of that city and began construction of a fort on Sullivan’s Island to defend the entrance to the harbor. The walls of the unnamed fort were built of logs from palmetto trees, and the choice of this wood proved significant in the battle. In command of the fort was Colonel William Moultrie. Shortly before the battle of Sullivan’s Island, Moultrie said something that can be considered the South Carolina equivalent of a defiant wartime quote from ancient Greece. At the battle of Thermopylae, when the Spartans were warned that the Persians would fire so many arrows that the arrows would blot out the sun, one of the Spartans reputedly said, “Then the battle against us will be in the shade.” In a similar way, an experienced seaman visited William Moultrie in the fort, pointed to the British fleet, which by then was in the waters off of Charleston, and said to Moultrie that the British ships will destroy the fort in half an hour. To this gloomy prediction Moultrie replied, “We will lay behind the ruins and prevent their men from landing.”
The British plan for capturing Charleston involved a combined attack by naval and ground forces, and when the British arrived in early June, the fort had not been completed. British ground forces under the command of General Henry Clinton were put ashore on an island that is northeast of Sullivan’s Island and is separated from Sullivan’s Island by a water inlet. These troops were to cross the water inlet and then move across the length of Sullivan’s Island to attack the fort, which was on the opposite end of Sullivan’s Island. (As an aside, it was through this inlet that the Hunley went as she began her mission that resulted in the sinking of the Housatonic.) On the morning of June 28, 1776, these British troops began their movement toward the fort. But the Americans positioned troops on Sullivan’s Island along the inlet to contest the British crossing. Despite a determined effort by Clinton’s men, the fire from the American troops prevented the British from crossing the inlet, and Clinton’s men never made it to the fort. This resulted in the entire attack on the fort falling to the British fleet.
The British fleet was under the command of Commodore Sir Peter Parker (presumably not the Peter Parker who is the alter ego of Spiderman). As the British ground forces commenced their movement, the British ships moved into position in what was supposed to be a coordinated attack on the fort. At 11:30 a.m. the ships began firing on the fort, but the sponginess of the palmetto wood of the fort’s walls allowed the walls to absorb the bombardment without splintering. Three of the British ships attempted to move to a position from which they could shell the fort at a weaker side, but all three of these ships became grounded on sand bars. Although two of the three ships were refloated, one ship remained stuck and was later scuttled. The Americans returned fire, but the fort was low on powder, which caused the gunners to conserve their fire. Despite this, some of the British ships received many hits, including Parker’s flagship, the HMS Bristol, which was hit 70 times. One of the shells that hit the Bristol wounded Parker in the knee and thigh. But not only was Parker wounded by this shell, part of his britches were “quite torn off, his backside laid bare.” The battle lasted over ten hours, and even though the British fired substantially more rounds than the Americans, the fort withstood the British attack. At nightfall Parker withdrew, and in the weeks following the battle the British made no more attempts at the fort or at Charleston. By late July the British forces left the area, and Parker and Clinton blamed each other for the failure to capture Charleston.
There are several important consequences and legacies of the battle of Sullivan’s Island. This battle was the first significant victory for the Americans in the Revolutionary War and provided a much needed boost in morale, since it showed that the Americans could defeat the British in battle, even when the Americans were badly outnumbered. This battle also gave South Carolina its state flag. Prior to the battle William Moultrie was instructed by the colonial government to design a flag to be used at the fort. Moultrie’s flag was a dark blue field with a white crescent in the upper left corner. In January 1861, after South Carolina had seceded, a white palmetto tree was added to the center of the flag, and this flag, with some minor design tweaks, has remained the flag of South Carolina. Another legacy of the battle of Sullivan’s Island is the fort, itself. This fort came to be named in honor of its commander, William Moultrie, and Fort Moultrie was subsequently expanded and updated. In the months prior to the Civil War, the U.S. garrison in Charleston had been occupying Fort Moultrie. But in late December 1860, after South Carolina had voted to secede, garrison commander Robert Anderson moved his troops to Fort Sumter, because he believed that Fort Sumter was more defensible. When Fort Sumter was bombarded, some of the shots came from Fort Moultrie. Fort Moultrie remained in operation until after World War II, when it was decommissioned and later transferred to the National Park Service. Historian Ed Bearss, whose primary focus is the Civil War, expressed the following about the importance of the battle of Sullivan’s Island. “So far in 1776 General Washington had accomplished little beyond hurrying Howe’s evacuation of Boston. The American army sent to overrun and occupy Canada had collapsed. Now came word of a victory from the south. Not only had the British been repulsed before Sullivan’s Island, but they had given up their initial attempt to carry the war to the southern colonies. A victory had been won, and American morale soared…Now independence might become something beyond the bold statements set forth on parchment.”
Shortly after South Carolina voted to secede in December 1860, a Union-loyal South Carolina lawyer and politician named James L. Petigru gave his assessment of the secession fever that had taken hold of his native state. Petigru said, “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.” For many years Petigru had been on the minority side of public opinion in South Carolina. He opposed nullification, and he was the lead attorney in a trial against what was known as a test oath, which required that everyone in the South Carolina militia swear allegiance to the state in precedence over the federal government. This trial occurred in 1834, which indicates that the sentiment of state over nation existed in South Carolina long before that state’s Ordinance of Secession. Moreover, the fiercely rebellious sentiment in South Carolina goes back even further, as indicated by the resolve of South Carolinians to stand and fight on Sullivan’s Island against a vastly superior force. Charleston even had its own tea party in 1774 when city officials convinced the local importers of British tea to dump the tea in the Cooper River, or, as a Charleston newspaper reported, “an Oblation was made to Neptune.” As James Petigru intimated, sometimes the rebellious sentiment in South Carolina seems to border on insanity. But in the battle of Sullivan’s Island this rebellious sentiment is viewed as fervently patriotic. Perhaps South Carolina’s rebellious sentiment is classified as crazed insanity or fervent patriotism depending on the target of that rebellious sentiment.