The Patriot Resource - American Revolution

Battle of Fort Sullivan
Battle of Fort Sullivan

The Battle
The first Continental Commander of the Southern Department, Maj. General Charles Lee arrived in Charleston on June 2, 1776. The British arrived offshore only two days later. As soon as he arrived, Lee ordered fortifications built in the city proper. He also considered Fort Sullivan too rundown to defend. Colonel Moultrie had not used his time in command to strengthen the fortifications and the fort's rear wall was still incomplete. However, Lee was overruled by South Carolina Governor John Rutledge.

General Lee now had no choice but to do what he could to fortify Fort Sullivan. He chose to remain in the city proper, but corresponded with Colonel Moultrie several times a day. and frequently corresponded with Colonel Moultrie over improvements to Fort Sullivan. Though Lee and Moultrie had their differences, Lee instilled confidence in the Rebels that the British could be defeated and for that Moultrie respected him.

On June 4, the British arrived outside Charleston Harbor. They now had to navigate over the bar that surrounded the harbor. It made the harbor inaccessable during low tide and accessable at high tide only through five channels. After sounding the channels and making other preparations, the smaller ships and warships moved to Five Fathom Hole on June 7. Five Fathom Hole was thirty feet deep and out of range of Fort Sullivan.

Between June 9 and 15, Maj. General Henry Clinton put his troops ashore on Long Island, which was north of Sullivan's Island, while the fort was on the island's southern tip. Clinton then found it difficult to cross The Breach from Long Island onto Sullivan's Island. The British had incorrect intelligence of a shallow ford, when in truth the shallowest channel was seven feet deep. But Clinton stubbornly spent several days searching for the elusive ford. When they finally tried crossing in boats, American riflemen and gunners held them off.

While General Clinton continued his fruitless search, the last two British warships, the Bristol and the Experiment, had to have their guns removed to lighten the boats enough to clear the bar. On June 26, the British were ready, having finally moved and refitted all their ships at Five Fathom Hole. On June 27, they attempted to set sail, but contrary winds halted their movement. They now waited for favorable winds. At 10:30 A.M. on June 28, the winds were favorable and Commodore Parker moved into position to bombard Fort Sullivan. The bomb ship, Thunder, initially anchored too far away and quickly disabled itself when too much powder was used to compensate for the distance. The recoil damaged the ship and left it silent.

After about an hour the Actaeon, Syren, and Sphynx attempted to move in closer for enfilading fire on Fort Sullivan, but the pilots were unfamiliar with the harbor and all three ships got stuck fast on Middle Ground shoal, where the famous Fort Sumter would later be built. Syren and Sphynx eventually rejoined the battle. The British continued their bombardment to little effect because of the fort's construction of palmetto logs. Palmetto is soft and spongy and simply absorbed the cannonballs. Meanwhile, the Americans expended roughly one-seventh the amount of powder that the British did, but the slow and steady American fire was quite accurate. The Bristol, Commodore Parker's flagship, was disabled. By 9:30 P.M., all firing ceased. At 11:30 P.M. the British ships withdrew to Five Fathom Hole. The next morning the Actaeon was set afire and abandoned.

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