FORT MOULTRIE WAS LAID OUT for four bastions, but on the twenty, eighth day of June, 1776, the west and north faces of the main work were nearly open, and only the two bastions on the channel front had been sufficiently advanced to receive guns. The soft and spongy but tough palmetto trees which abounded on Sullivan Island, had been dovetailed together in a series of connecting pens, and these were filled with sand, so that the parapet was sixteen feet in thickness, and sufficiently high to protect the gunners and garrison. Thirty-one guns were in position. Only twenty-one could have a combined fire at the same time, and the ammunition on hand at the commencement of the action of that date did not average thirty rounds to the piece.
It was evident very early in the morning, that an immediate assault was impending. Colonel Moultrie visited the advance guard, which was on the northern extremity of the island three miles from Sullivan, very soon after the break of day. He found that Colonel Thompson had completed the light breastworks which were to face the channel between Sullivan Island and General Clinton's camp, and that one eighteen and one six pounder gun had been well located for resisting a landing by the British troops. In the myrtle bushes near the beach, and well covered by some drifted sand hills, there had been secreted a company of expert riflemen. Three hundred "good shots" from Thompson's own regiment, supported by nearly as many from Colonel Clark's North Carolina regiment, two hundred of Horry's men, and the "Raccoon Rifles," made up the entire command, and their officers manifested full confidence in their ability to resist any attack.
Moultrie had just finished his inspection of these preparations when the movement of the troops from the opposite beach to their boats and floating batteries, warned him that the time had come for him to be at his own post of danger. Motte, his second in command, and Marion who had been his lieutenant in the old Cherokee war, were anxiously awaiting his arrival. Already the flagship of Commodore Parker was flying signals for Clinton's army to cross Breach inlet to Sullivan Island, and attack the main fort in the rear, and the ships had shaken out top-sails in readiness to advance to their own proper position in the channel nearest the fort.
Moultrie was on horseback. He says, "I hurried back to the fort as soon as possible. When I got there I found that the ships were already under sail. I immediately ordered the long roll to beat, and officers and men to their posts, when the ships came sailing up, as if in confidence of victory. We had scarcely manned our guns. They were soon abreast of the fort, let go their anchors, and began their attack most furiously."
The fort was designed for a thousand men, but was occupied by Moultrie's own regiment only, and part of one artillery company, making a total of four hundred and thirty-five, including officers and men.
General Armstrong was in command of a force of fifteen hundred men, and a portion of the artillery regiment at Haddrell's Point, and General Lee took up his head-quarters for the day at that post. The First regular South Carolina regiment, under Colonel Gadsden, still occupied Fort Johnson, on James Island, and a force of nearly, or quite twenty-five hundred men was properly disposed for the protection of the city itself, and its earthworks and batteries. A large force of negroes was briskly at work endeavoring to complete some additional works; and another body had charge of the fire-engines and other fire-apparatus, as when the first alarm four weeks before had called the city to arms.
The quaint old map referred to, so accurate in its description of the harbor, and in all chief respects in full harmony with official reports, is erroneous as to Clinton's force, which consisted of over twenty-one hundred foot, light infantry, and grenadiers, and nearly seven hundred seamen, making a total of nearly three thousand men. But the old map thus correctly represents the location of the advancing vessels.
The Solebay, 28, Captain Thomas Symonds, led the van of the first division; the Experiment, 50, Captain Alexander Scott; the Bristol, 50, flag-ship of Sir Peter Parker, Captain John Morris ; and the Active, 28, Captain William Williams followed. A second division of three light frigates ; the Sphynx, 20, Captain Anthony Hunt ; the Actaeon, 28, Captain Christopher Atkins; and the Syren, 28, Captain Tobias Furneaux, moved on a course further to the south, with orders to pass the line of battle ships, and gain a position westward of the fort, so as to sweep its open side with an enfilading fire, and give their larboard broadsides to the redoubts and earthworks on Haddrell's Point. The Thunder Bomb, mortar ship, 8, Captain James Reid commander, took its position south-east by south from the salient angle of the east bastion, with Colonel James, throwing shells, and covered by the Friendship, 22, Captain Charles Hope. The Ranger, sloop, Captain Roger Willis, and the St. Lawrence schooner, 8, Lieu tenant J. N. Graves, lay off Breach inlet, which separated Sullivan and Long Island, to act in concert with the small boats which were to land the troops of Clinton.
The plan of attack was well conceived, and was sustained with a persistent gallantry nowhere surpassed in naval annals.
It was nearly eleven o'clock when the first division advanced under easy sail, and disregarding the first few shots delivered from the fort, let go their anchors and opened fire. The Thunder Bomb was already at work, and the roar of guns from the northward, brought notice to the quickened garrison that this double effort to win their post was at its issue. That garrison, under the order of Moultrie, "mind the commodore," "mind the fifty gun-ships," wasted few shots upon the frigates, but steadily, and as rapidly as the supply of powder would give them chance, swept the quarter decks of the heavy vessels, from about noon until sunset.
The first broadside firing from the fleet embedded balls in the palmetto logs ; but scattered no splinters, displaced no material and afforded no hopeful sign of the anticipated victory. Moultrie writes, "The Thunder Bomb had the bed of her mortar soon disabled, she threw her shells in good direction, and most of them fell within the fort; but we had a morass in the middle that swallowed them up instantly, and those that fell in the sand, in and about the fort, were immediately buried, so that very few bursted among us."
In the midst of the action the flagship swung round, with her stern to the fort. Every available gun was trained upon the ship and with terrible effect. Captain Moore lost an arm and was carried below. "At one time," says Edmund Burke, then editor of the Annual Register, "the quarter deck of the Bristol was cleared of every person but the Commodore, who stood alone,—a spectacle of intrepidity and firmness which have seldom been equaled, never exceeded."
Until the position of the ship was shifted, there was every probability that she would be sunk at anchor.
It was just then that the fire from the fort began to slacken, for want of powder; but within an hour it was resumed with increased vigor. Rutledge had not forgotten Moultrie, neither had he lost faith in his capacity and skill. The following note, written in pencil, conveyed his sympathy with the successful resistance thus far sustained.
I send you 500 pounds of powder. You know our collection is not very great. I should think you may be supplied from Haddrell's Point. HONOR and VICTORY, my good sir, to you, and our worthy countrymen with you. Yours,
"P. S. Do not make too free with your cannon."
"Cool and do mischief."
This wise postscript was a caution against that rapid firing so common with unskilled gunners who over-heat their pieces, endanger the lives of their comrades, and impair the accuracy of the aim and ranges. It was now three o'clock in the afternoon. The firing, to the northward, which began at the time of the naval attack, had ceased. Clinton had loaded his boats and attempted to cross to Sullivan island. The men could not wade through the deep water: and the loaded boats could do nothing upon intermediate shoals, with a depth of less than eighteen inches. The withering fire of the American riflemen who were under close cover, rendered every vigorous effort to force the army to the shore, a sure delivery of the command to entire destruction.
William Falconer, writing on the thirteenth of July from Long Island, where Clinton remained until his departure for New York, says, "If the ships could have silenced the battery, the army was to have made an attack on the back of the island, where they had about one thousand men entrenched up to their eyes. They would have killed half of us before we could have made our landing good."
General Clinton made two attempts, and finding that it was equally impossible to reach Sullivan island or the main land, on account of the marshes, he very wisely saved his troops from further effort.
The second division of the squadron, under top-sails only, sailed smoothly by the flag-ship, and by the Solebay, while the broadsides of those ships were first testing the palmetto fort. The quaint old map, locates them a little time after that, thus — "A— ground" They had run upon the "middle ground shoal," near where Fort Sumter was afterward built. "These three frigates were to have gone to the westward of the fort.'' "Actaeon scuttled and set on fire on the 29th. "
Lee crossed to Sullivan Island during the fight, to inquire into the condition of the fort, and returned with the conviction that the defense would be successful. Moultrie says, "we opened our temporary gate, to admit General Lee. Several of the officers as well as myself were smoking our pipes and giving orders; but we laid them down when he came in."
The day was memorable for its incidents. Captain Scott of the Experiment, as well as Captain Morris, lost an arm. Forty were killed and seventy-one were wounded on the Bristol; her hull was struck seventy times, the masts and rigging suffered severely, and a half hour of additional exposure would have been fatal. The Experiment had twenty-three killed and fifty-six wounded. The vessels slipped their cables at dark, and retired nearly three miles from the scene of conflict.
Within the fort, behind the palmetto logs and sand, where the people in shirt sleeves were handling cannon, there were heroic deeds performed well worthy of record with those of the battle deck. "At one time,'' says Moultrie, "three or four of the men-of-war broadsides struck the fort at the same instant, which gave the merlons such a tremble that I was apprehensive that a few more such would tumble them down." "Our flag was shot away! Our friends gave up all for lost! Sergeant Jasper perceiving that the flag (blue, with a silver crescent in the dexter corner, corresponding with the cap ornament of the South Carolina troops) had fallen without the fort, jumped through one of the embrasures and brought it up through heavy fire, fixed it upon a sponge staff, and planted it upon the ramparts again." Twelve men were killed, and twenty-four were wounded, nearly every casualty having occurred from shot which entered the large embrasures of the fort. When Sergeant McDonald received his mortal wound, addressing the soldiers who were carrying him to the doctor, he begged them "never to give up, they were fighting for liberty." His words are to be remembered with those of another of the same blood, "England expects every man will do his duty."
With the next morning, there came a clearer view of the result of the battle. The Actaeon was burned by her crew as they abandoned her. The Sphynx had fouled with the Syren and lost her bowsprit.
Both vessels went off with the tide and joined the first division, and the flag-ship which was also disabled for further offensive operations.
The British troops lingered on Long Island for nearly three weeks. Falconer thus describes his own condition under date of July thirteenth. "We have been encamped on this island for nearly a month past, and have lived upon nothing but salt pork and pease. We sleep upon the sea-shore, nothing to shelter us from the violent rains but our coats and miserable paltry blankets. There is nothing that grows upon this island, it being but a mere sand bank, but a few bushes which harbor millions of mosquitoes. Our killed and wounded number between two and three hundred, and numbers die daily of their wounds."
General Clinton, with his command, left under the convoy of the Solebay frigate, and reached Staten Island on the first of August. Useless differences arose between that officer and Commodore Parker. Each did his duty gallantly and well. Neither had the right to blame the other for the alternations of deep and shoal water, which rendered impossible the success of either.
South Carolina and the American Congress united their testimonials of gratitude and honor to the men who achieved the victory, and after more than a century of national life, the American Republic reaffirms the tribute which was given by the Palmetto State; and the fort on Sullivan Island is only to be remembered as FORT MOU'LTRIE!