Lowcountry Foil

This Day in History

On this day, in 1776, The Battle of Sullivan’s Island ended in decisive victory for the Patriots, thanks, in no small part, to the beautiful and practical South Carolina Palmetto tree and a group of pesky and well-concealed sand bars.  

How, one might wonder, could two such lowcountry features play a role in changing the tide of American History?

Our story begins in the beautiful coastal city of Charleston, South Carolina which also happened to be, in colonial times, the most bustling port city in the south.  Under the direction of John Rutledge, the General Assembly president, forces were organized under command of Colonel William Moultrie.  The troops numbered approximately 6600, including soldiers from North Carolina and Virginia as well as local militia.  

Then there was the pressing issue of where to construct a fortification.  Sullivan’s Island was chosen for several strategic reasons: First, the land projected out into Charleston Harbor which meant a better defense of the harbor from enemy ships.  And second, the hidden weapon, the Charleston Bars, which were simply a group of well-concealed sand bars lurking beneath the surface of the murky, greenish-gray waters of the ——-.

Perhaps because they were readily available, palmetto trees were used in the construction of the fort, but this choice would prove, in the end, to be a “game-changer.”

Meanwhile, in an effort to strategically move southward, British forces visited Cape Fear, North Carolina and deemed it “unsuitable” as a military base. They then ventured further South wherein they happened upon an unfinished fort, near Charleston, built on Sullivan’s Island.  

British Admiral Sir Peter Parker quickly sized up the fortification as a fairly easy target mostly due to its incomplete state.  With forces comprised of Scottish loyalists and Irish soldiers, Parker felt prepared to launch an attack on the fort on Sullivan’s Island.

After several delays, British forces finally turned their ships “broadside” on June 28th and began to fire at the partially-completed palmetto structure just as Patriot troops discovered they were running low on gun powder.  

Fort Moultrie

Rather than allowing this to become a detriment to their fortitude, the rebel forces chose to be more calculated and meticulous  with their limited shots and their reserve paid off.  In the meantime, several British ships heading to the northern part of the island, hit the infamous Charleston Bars and found their rigging hopelessly entangled with their fellow ships.

And perhaps most surprisingly, the “spongy nature” of the palmetto logs used to build the partial fort rendered it capable of “absorbing” the cannonballs rather than splitting apart as was the case with most types of wood.  The very fort, that on the surface appeared to provide little defense, turned out to be practically impervious to attack!

After nine hours of waging battle, British losses far outweighed those of the Patriots and the Brits didn’t come back to capture Charleston until 1780.

During the battle, a flag created by Colonel Moultrie was placed on the fort.  When the flag became dislodged after being fired upon, Sergeant William Jasper retrieved the flag and proceeded to hold it up, under threat of fire, until a new stand could be fashioned for it. 

John Rutledge awarded Jasper his sword in honor of his incredible act of patriotism and bravery.

After the Battle of Sullivan’s Island, the name of the fort was changed to honor the commander of forces and became known as Fort Moultrie.  

And the course of our revolution was forever changed, in part due to the stubborn nature of a few palmetto trees and a couple of sand bars!

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