The Battle of Sullivan’s Island, 1776

June 28, 1776

On June 28, 1776, American forces defeated the British at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island in Charleston Harbor. The victory forced the British to delay a plan to subdue the Southern Colonies and South Carolina remained under the control of the Patriots.

Battle of Sullivan's Island, 1776, Illustration, NYPL

The attack on Fort Moultrie, Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, on June 28, 1776. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Battle of Sullivan’s Island Quick Facts

  • Also Known As — The Battle of Fort Sullivan
  • Start Date — Friday, June 28, 1776
  • End Date — June 28, 1776
  • Location — Sullivan’s Island in Charleston Harbor
  • Length — Approximately 10 hours
  • Combatants — United Colonies and Great Britain
  • Winner — The United Colonies (American forces) won the Battle of Sullivan’s Island
  • Fun Fact — Four days after the victory, the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence

Battle of Sullivan’s Island Significance

The Battle of Sullivan’s Island was important because American forces stopped the British from capturing the island, which they were going to use to stage operations against Charleston, South Carolina. The British were forced to withdraw, leaving South Carolina under American control.

Battle of Sullivan’s Island Overview and History

As the Siege of Boston continued, the war in the New England Colonies was in a stalemate, with the British army surrounded by the Continental Army and many Northerners opposing the British. 

The British Plan to Capture the Southern Colonies

However, the British believed Loyalists in the South would support their war efforts. Because of this, the British government decided to launch a military expedition against the Southern Colonies — Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.

The British commander-in-chief, General William Howe, also viewed a Southern Campaign as a way to distance himself from General Henry Clinton. Howe had replaced General Thomas Gage, and Clinton was his second-in-command. However, Howe and Clinton rarely agreed on military strategy.

General William Howe, Illustration
General William Howe. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Howe sent Clinton south with an expedition that intended to take control of the Southern Colonies. Clinton’s fleet sailed from Boston on January 20, 1776, intending to meet another British fleet that was sailing from Cork, Ireland, carrying General Charles Cornwallis and seven regiments of troops. The fleet carrying Cornwallis was commanded by Admiral Peter Parker.

In March 1776, Clinton reached Cape Fear, near Wilmington, North Carolina. However, it took until the end of May for all of the men from Cornwallis’s command to arrive due to severe weather in the North Atlantic.

The American Victory at Moore’s Creek Bridge

At Wilmington, Clinton and Cornwallis were supposed to be joined by reinforcements from the Loyalist Militia. However, the Loyalists were defeated by the Patriots at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge (February 27, 1776), which prevented them from joining Clinton’s expedition.

Clinton decided to take action in Virginia and support Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor. Dunmore was engaged in a conflict with the Patriot Militia, which started with the Virginia Gunpowder Incident (April 21–May 4, 1775).

However, Admiral Parker sent ships to scout American fortifications in Charleston Harbor. When the scouts returned, they informed Clinton and Parker that the American fortifications were weak and incomplete, and they decided to change their plan and focus on capturing Charleston. Clinton wrote:

“Sir Peter Parker having in the mean time procured Intelligence from whence it appeared the Rebel Work on Sullivans Island (the Key to Rebellion Road & Charles Town) was in so unfinished a State as to be open to a Coup de Main & that it might be afterwards held by a small Force under Cover of a Frigate or two; and [I] having about the same time received a private Letter from Sir Wm Howe, in which he seemed to intimate a Wish I could get possession of Charles Town, without expressing any Hurry for my joining him; I was tempted to accede to the Commodores Proposals for a joint attempt upon that Island.”

General Henry Clinton, American Revolution
General Henry Clinton. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

American Fortifications at Sullivan’s Island and Charleston Harbor

In South Carolina, Fort Sullivan was under construction on the western edge of Sullivan’s Island and was intended to guard the entrance to Charleston Harbor.

On the other side of the harbor, southwest of Fort Sullivan, was an older fort called Fort Johnson. 

On the northern end of Sullivan’s Island, roughly 800 men, including South Carolina militia and Catawba warriors, built fortifications. They were led by Colonel William “Old Danger” Thomson.

Fort Sullivan was Built with Palmetto Logs

Fort Sullivan had three walls built from palmetto logs. Each wall had a front section of palmetto logs and another section positioned 16 feet behind the first. The space between the logs was filled with sand. The construction of the walls essentially made them immune to artillery, because cannonballs would simply bounce off of them.

Clinton’s Forces Arrive Near Sullivan’s Island

On June 1, 1776, the British forces arrived in the vicinity of Charleston, while Fort Sullivan was still under construction.

General Clinton personally conducted a reconnaissance of the area and chose to disembark his troops on Long Island — present-day Isle of Palms. The British ships’s pilots believed that the narrow channel between Long Island and Sullivan’s Island, called Breach Inlet, could be crossed during low tide. 

However, after landing 2,500 men on the island, Clinton discovered that Breach Inlet had rapid currents and deep holes, even during low tide. In some areas, Breach Inlet was 100 yards wide and seven feet deep. Beyond the inlet, the terrain was too swampy for Clinton’s men to march over. 

Clinton decided he would not be able to march from Long Island to Fort Sullivan. However, he did believe he could use small flat-bottomed boats to transport some of his men across Breach Inlet to engage the American defenses commanded by Colonel Thomson.

Charles Lee Arrived at Charleston on June 8

On March 1, Congress appointed General Charles Lee as the commander of the new Southern Department and sent him to Charleston to organize the defenses. 

Lee arrived on June 8 with roughly 2,000 soldiers. Meanwhile, more American troops, from North Carolina and Virginia, were on the way to join him. Although Lee was popular with Congress, his commanding officer, General George Washington, was wary, believing he had a bad temper and was easily distracted.

General Charles Lee, Illustration
General Charles Lee. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

British Ships Sail Into Five Fathom Hole

Despite the lack of adequate ground support from Clinton, Parker planned to attack Fort Sullivan. The same day Lee arrived, British warships sailed across the bar into Five Fathom Hole, directly south of Sullivan’s Island. Parker was confident a furious bombardment from the British warships would force the Americans to surrender. However, Parker’s attack was delayed for various reasons, including slow communication between him and Clinton.

The Dispute Over Fort Sullivan

Meanwhile, Lee surveyed the defenses of Charleston, which included about 6,500 soldiers. Roughly half were soldiers from the Continental Army, and the rest were militia. 

A dispute arose between Lee and South Carolina Governor John Rutledge concerning Fort Sullivan and its garrison of approximately 750 men from the 2nd South Carolina Regiment. The garrison was led by Colonel William Moultrie, a planter and veteran of the Cherokee War.

Lee called the fort nothing more than a “slaughter pen” for Moultrie and his men. Lee suggested abandoning the fort, fearing that the garrison would be overwhelmed and defeated. However, Rutledge, wanted the garrison to remain manned and used to counter the approaching British fleet.

William Moultrie, Portrait
William Moultrie. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Lee had a bridge built from the fort to the mainland to provide an escape route. Lee warned Moultrie about the fort, saying, “…when those ships come…they will knock it down in half an hour.”

However, Rutledge told Moultrie, “General Lee wishes you to evacuate the fort. You will not, without an order from me. I will sooner cut off my hand than write one.”

The Battle of Fort Sullivan Started on June 28

On June 28, around 11:00 a.m. six British ships passed over the sand bar and moved toward Sullivan’s Island. Moultrie was at Thomson’s position, inspecting the defensive works when sentries spotted the British fleet sailing toward Sullivan’s Island. Moultrie quickly rode back to Fort Sullivan where he raised the alarm. The Americans took their positions and prepared to defend the fort.

Parker planned to have four frigates carry out the main bombardment:

  1. Bristol — 50 guns, Parker’s flagship
  2. Experiment — 50 guns
  3. Active — 28 guns
  4. Solebay — 28 guns

However, the plan depended on those ships being able to sail within 70 yards of Fort Sullivan. Locals assured Parker it was possible, however, as the British ships sailed through the harbor, the pilots of the Men-of-War — who were enslaved men from the Charleston area — became concerned about the depth of the water and refused to move closer than 500 yards.

Although the ships were able to fire on Fort Sullivan, they were too far away to hit the American guns with much success.

Peter Parker, Admiral, British Navy, Portrait
Admiral Peter Parker. Image Source: Royal Museums Greenwich.

Fort Sullivan Withstood the British Bombardment

British cannonballs often failed to damage the palmetto and sand walls of Fort Sullivan. The shallow waters also kept the British ships from sailing too close to the fort, which prevented from Marines on board from firing on the Americans in the fort.

After the battle, Clinton described the walls by saying, “The Materials with which Fort Sullivan is constructed form no inconsiderable part of its strength. The Piemento Tree, of a spongy substance, is used in framing the Parapet & the interstices fill’d with sand. We have found by experience that this construction will resist the heaviest Fire.”

Clinton’s Attack on Sullivan’s Island

While Parker’s ships bombarded Fort Sullivan, Clinton loaded men on flat-bottomed boats and sent them across Breach Inlet. However, the Americans, led by Thomson, were protected by the earthworks, which were made from palmetto and earth. As the British approached, the Americans fired on them and the British were forced to turn back.

British Ships Run Aground

Parker sent three ships toward Rebellion Road, southwest of Sullivan’s Island, to block the American retreat from Fort Sullivan to the mainland. The Actaeon, Sphinx, and Syren ran aground on the shoal known as Lower Middle Ground — where Fort Sumter stands today. The Sphinx and Syren were able to escape, but the Actaeon remained grounded.

When Moultrie was informed Clinton had landed troops on the other side of the island, he ordered his men to stop firing at Parker’s ships. Moultrie wanted the gunpowder to be saved for as long as possible, especially if he needed to defend Fort Sullivan against a ground assault.

Sergeant Jasper’s Legendary Moment

For about an hour and a half, the Americans in Fort Sullivan withstood the British bombardment. During this time, the flag of the South Carolina regiment was shot down. 

In one of the legendary moments of the American Revolutionary War, Sergeant William Jasper jumped out of the fort and retrieved the flag, which was lying on the beach. Jasper cut the flag loose from its shattered pole, tied it to a gunner’s sponge, and planted it firmly in the sand.

Battle of Sullivan's Island, Moultrie Flag, Illustration
This painting by Percy Moran depicts Jasper raising the flag at Fort Sullivan. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Rutledge Sends Gunpowder to Fort Sullivan

In the afternoon, General Lee made his way to Fort Sullivan where he told Moultrie, “I see you are doing very well here, and you have no occasion for me.” Lee turned around and went back to Charleston. Governor Rutledge responded by sending 700 pounds of gunpowder to Fort Sullivan with a message that said, “Do not make too free with your cannon…and do mischief.”

Fort Sullivan Inflicts Heavy Damage on Parker’s Fleet

With the arrival of the gunpowder, the Americans resumed firing on the British ships. The garrison at Fort Sullivan took care in selecting their shots, which proved to be highly effective. As the battle raged on, the British suffered heavy casualties, and many of their ships sustained significant damage.

Parker’s flagship, Bristol, sustained more than 70 hits from the guns of Fort Sullivan and the crew was decimated. According to several accounts, every man on the quarterdeck was killed or wounded. The heavy damage happened because the Bristol’s anchor line was severed, which led the ship to drift to a location in the harbor where the Americans could fire on it.

Admiral Parker himself was wounded during the battle and lost his pants due to splinters from one of the cannon shots. The Royal Governor of South Carolina, William Campbell, was also wounded by an explosion that left a splinter lodged in his side. He would die from the wound two years later.

Late that night, Admiral Parker decided to order his fleet to retreat from the harbor entrance.  The crew of the Actaeon set the ship ablaze and sailed with the rest of the fleet. 

Later, the Americans salvaged equipment from the Actaeon and used the cannons to fire on the departing British navy.

Clinton’s men remained on Long Island for another three weeks before eventually withdrawing by sea from the area. Parker’s fleet set sail for New York on July 31, 1776.

Casualties

It is estimated that the Americans lost approximately 12 men killed and 20 wounded, while British casualties numbered approximately 225. The Bristol, Parker’s flagship, suffered an estimated 40 fatalities and 71 wounded.

Battle of Sullivan’s Island Outcome

The Battle of Sullivan’s Island played a pivotal role in securing the Southern colonies for the Patriot cause for an extended period of over three years. However, the British would return to capture Savannah in 1779 and Charleston in 1780.

Battle of Sullivan's Island, 1776, Day After the Battle
The Morning After the Attack on Sullivan’s Island, June 29, 1776, by Henry Gray (1776). Image Source: Gibbes Museum of Art.

George Washington Announces Victory at Sullivan’s Island

On July 21, General Washington’s general orders for the day announced the American victory at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island to the Continental Army in New York.

“This glorious Example of our Troops, under the like Circumstances with us, The General hopes will animate every officer, and soldier, to imitate, and even out do them, when the enemy shall make the same attempt on us: With such a bright example before us, of what can be done by brave and spirited men, fighting in defence of their Country; we shall be loaded with a double share of Shame, and Infamy, if we do not acquit ourselves with Courage, or a determined Resolution to conquer or die: With this hope and confidence, and that this Army will have its equal share of Honour, and Success….With such preparation, and a suitable Spirit, there can be no doubt, but by the blessing of Heaven, we shall repel our cruel Invaders; preserve our Country, and gain the greatest Honor.”

Battle of Sullivan's Island, 1776, Painting, White
The Battle of Fort Moultrie by John Blake White, 1826. Image Source: United States Senate.

Interesting Facts

  • South Carolina Militia captured Fort Johnson on September 12, 1775.
  • The British intended to capture Sullivan’s Island to use it as a base for military operations against Charleston Harbor and Charleston.
  • The British ships were unable to easily pass over the sand bar at the entrance to the harbor.
  • The walls of Fort Sullivan were 500 feet long, 10 feet high, and 16 feet apart. The fort was square, with a bastion at each corner. Conventional thought at the time was that a fort’s walls had to be built from stone to withstand a naval bombardment.
  • When the battle started, the garrison at Fort Sullivan had 31 cannons and less than 30 rounds of gunpowder. Moultrie ordered his men to shoot only when necessary.
  • It is believed that thousands of people watched the battle from rooftops in Charleston and the banks of the Charles River.
  • Many of the onlookers witnessed Sergeant Jasper’s bold move to raise the regimental flag.
  • After the British withdrew, Moultrie and his men remained at Fort Sullivan and prepared for the British to mount another attack.
  • Governor Rutledge gave Sergeant Jasper a sword for his effort to restore the flag.
  • Christopher Gadsden, who was stationed at Fort Johnson, congratulated Moultrie for “drubbing…those fellows the other day.”
  • Fort Sullivan was eventually completed and named Fort Moultrie.
  • William Moultrie was promoted to Brigadier General.
  • Francis Marion, the legendary “Swamp Fox,” was one of the commanders at Fort Sullivan who reported to Moultrie

Quotes

Henry Clinton — “Sir Peter Parker having in the mean time procured Intelligence from whence it appeared the Rebel Work on Sullivans Island (the Key to Rebellion Road & Charles Town) was in so unfinished a State as to be open to a Coup de Main & that it might be afterwards held by a small Force under Cover of a Frigate or two; and [I] having about the same time received a private Letter from Sir Wm Howe, in which he seemed to intimate a Wish I could get possession of Charles Town, without expressing any Hurry for my joining him; I was tempted to accede to the Commodores Proposals for a joint attempt upon that Island.”

William Moultrie — “It may be very easily conceived what heat and thirst a man must feel in this climate, to be upon a platform on the 28th June, amidst 20 or 30 heavy pieces of cannon, in one continual blaze and roar; and clouds of smoke curling over his head for hours together; it was a very honorable situation, but a very unpleasant one.”

Unidentified Charleston Loyalist — “…it was impossible for any set of men to sustain so destructive a fire as the Americans poured in.”

Unidentified British Officer — “We are in a shattered condition…No slaughterhouse could present so bad a sight, with blood and entrails lying about, as our ship did.”

Peter Parker — “…If the troops would have cooperated on this attack…His Majesty would have been in possession of Sullivan’s Island…”

Charles Lee — “I do most heartily thank you all… I have applied for some rum for your men. They deserve every comfort that can be afforded them.”

Charles Lee — “…the dilatoriness and stupidity of the enemy saved us…”

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title The Battle of Sullivan’s Island, 1776
  • Date June 28, 1776
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Sullivan’s Island, Battle of Fort Sullivan, South Carolina, Charles Lee, William Moultrie, Henry Clinton, Charles Cornwallis, Christopher Gadsden, John Rutledge
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date February 27, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 19, 2024

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