Biography of William Moultrie
William Moultrie was an officer in the South Carolina militia and then a General in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. He gained his military experience in the South Carolina Militia and fought against the Cherokee in the Anglo-Cherokee War. In 1774, he was elected to the First Continental Congress, but declined and stayed in South Carolina to serve in the Provincial Congress and to help prepare defenses. In June 1776, the British tried to take Charleston. During the Battle of Sullivan’s Island, Moultrie oversaw the defense of a fort, which was able to withstand the bombardment from the British warships. The British were forced to call off the attack, and Moultrie was recognized by Congress and commissioned as a Brigadier General in the Continental Army. From there, he participated in the Southern Theater and led a militia force to victory at the Battle of Beaufort. He helped defend Charleston in 1780, however, General Benjamin Lincoln was forced to surrender to the British following a siege. Moultrie was taken prisoner after the Siege of Charleston and was exchanged in 1782. After the war, he served in the South Carolina General Assembly and was twice elected Governor. He left office in 1794 and in 1802 he published his memoirs of the American Revolutionary War.
This painting by Percy Moran depicts the Moultrie Flag being restored by Sergeant William Jasper at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Five Important Facts About William Moultrie
1. William Moultrie was born and died in South Carolina.
Moultrie was born on November 23, 1730, in Charleston, South Carolina, and died on September 27, 1805, in Charleston. His father was Dr. John Moultrie and his mother was Lucretia Cooper.
2. William Moultrie was a hero for his actions at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island, even though General Charles Lee was in charge of the American defenses.
After the Siege of Boston, it was expected the British would attempt an attack along the southern coast. In South Carolina, Governor John Rutledge placed the colony’s defenses under Moultrie, who saw Sullivan’s Island as the key to keeping the British from attacking the city. A British fleet consisting of nine ships sailed toward Charleston in February 1776, and in March, Moultrie and the 2nd South Carolina Regiment landed on the island and started to build a small fort from palmetto logs. Moultrie’s force included Francis Marion, who would later become known as the “Swamp Fox.” Meanwhile, Congress put General Charles Lee in command of the southern forces and he marched to Charleston. The British ships were at the entrance of Charleston Harbor on June 8. Lee wanted to abandon Sullivan’s Island, but Rutledge and Moultrie refused. The British landed troops at Isle of Palms and Lee reinforced the defenses of Charleston. On the morning of June 28, the British fleet, under the command of Admiral Peter Parker, opened fire on the fort on Sullivan’s Island. Moultrie and his men were short on ammunition, so he instructed them to fire back at the British in short, precise volleys with their cannons. General Henry Clinton led British troops in an attack on the northern end of the island, but they were stopped by Colonel William Thompson and his men. Several of the British ships ran around in the water, and their cannons were ineffective against the walls of the fort. The cannonballs simply bounced off of the palmetto log walls or stuck in them. Moultrie and his men continued their strategic defense of the island and were able to inflict damage on some of the British ships. Around 9:00 that evening, the British finally withdrew. Moultrie and his men had successfully defended Charleston, and the British did not return to Charleston until 1780. The fort was renamed Fort Moultrie in his honor.
3. The Moultrie Flag helped rally the American forces during the Battle of Fort Sullivan.
Moultrie designed a flag for the fort, which was referred to as the Liberty Flag. It was flown over the fort during the battle. At one point, it was shot down. Sergeant William Jasper risked his life by running out into the open and raising the flag again, which rallied the men in the fort. The flag became a symbol of the Patriot Cause in South Carolina and was carried by the South Carolina Militia for the rest of the war. On December 14, 1782, the flag was presented to General Nathanael Greene and was the first American flag displayed in the South. The South Carolina state flag is based on the Moultrie Flag.
4. Moultrie commanded two Signers of the Declaration of Independence at the Battle of Beaufort.
The British captured Savannah, Georgia on December 29, 1778, which gave them control of the Savannah River and a route to advance further into Georgia and South Carolina. They were determined to establish a base on Port Royal Island, South Carolina, north of Savannah. On February 3, 1779, British forces under the command of Major James Gardiner arrived on the island. The next day, Moultrie arrived with a force that was made up of Continental Regulars and South Carolina Militia, which included Thomas Heyward Jr. and Edward Rutledge, both of whom were Signers of the Declaration of Independence. The two forces fired on each other for around 45 minutes. When both sides ran low on ammunition, the British withdrew and left the field, leaving Moultrie as the victor at the Battle of Beaufort, which is also known as the Battle of Port Royal Island.
5. The British tried to bribe him to switch sides while he was held as a prisoner of war.
Two of Moultrie’s brothers were Loyalists, and the British were aware. While he was captive, he was offered a commission in the Royal Army as a Colonel and command of a regiment in Jamaica. Moultrie told them, “the fee simple of that valuable island of Jamaica should induce me to part with my integrity.” He was exchanged for General John Burgoyne in 1782, returned to the Continental Army, and was made a Major General by Congress.
Significance of William Moultrie
William Moultrie was important to United States history because of his service in the South Carolina Militia and Continental Army in the Southern Theater of the American Revolutionary War. His skill in leading the defense of Fort Moultrie at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island helped keep the British from taking Charleston. He also played an important role in the government of South Carolina and served two terms as Governor. In 1802, he published “Memoirs of the Revolution as far as it Related to the States of North and South Carolina,” which is an important first-hand account of the war.