Fort Johnson had been guarding the harbor since 1704 on the Southern entrance to the harbor protecting against the ever present Spanish threat from Florida and the French threat from the Caribbean which caused it to be strengthened in 1759 during the French and Indian War. The Powder Magazine was built in 1713 to hold the powder stores for the colony. By the time of the revolution it had already gone out of service, but was used by the patriots as a meeting point and for storage for incoming troops and their munitions. The Powder Magazine can still be visited today in down town Charleston. The fort at the town of Dorchester was built in 1757 to help protect the town from possible French and Indian attacks during the French and Indian War. Its location on the Ashley River meant that it would be the first road block on one of the two the main river transport systems from the interior of South Carolina to the capital at Charleston the other system being the Cooper River. It was constructed out of tabby walls on a bluff overlooking the river. In 1775 a powder magazine was built out of brick in the middle of the fort for storage of extra powder outside of Charleston for either Charleston’s defense if they needed it or for a forward storage area for the interior of the colony by the Patriots. This site can also be visited today to see the fort still intact, a church site, and what’s left of the Powder Magazine.
These defensive positions around Charleston were not in the best of shape in 1775 when the colony of South Carolina decided to rise up with the other colonies to defy their King. In fact, by 1775 the powder magazine and the fort at Dorchester were for the most part abandoned. Fort Johnson was in little better shape, but it was kept in some state of readiness by the British.
This was the state of defense in Charleston when they decided to join the other colonies. As soon as the path was clear that some sort of armed revolt was coming the colonist began to construct works on different parts of the harbor for their protection against their new threat, the British.
This began to change once the South Carolinas began to organize a patriot government. In September of 1775 the South Carolinas took position of Fort Johnson and began to arm the fort with new cannons and to repair the cannons the British had spiked upon their abandoning of the fort. The strengthening of Fort Johnson was assigned to the First South Carolina. Also, this was the time period that the fort at Dorchester began to get its new powder magazine. Four 18lb guns were also placed on Haddrell’s point, on present day Mount Pleasant to guard the Cooper River entrance to Charleston in the inner harbor defenses. This building up of the batteries around Charleston helped to convince Gov. Lord Campbell and the two British ships in the harbor the HMS Tamar and HMS Cherokee where he was trying to cause an uprising of Natives and Tories that it was time to leave before they were caught in a trap.
One of the first things that came about on Sullivan’s Island was that Col. Moultrie of the 2nd South Carolina ordered men from both the 1st and 2nd SC to send a combined force of 225 men to the island on January 10th, 1776 to build a fascine battery on the tip of the island guarding the entrance to the harbor. A fascine battery is one made primary out of sticks that are tied together almost like baskets for protection. Facing any type of artillery barrage this type of battery would be of little use to its defenders. So on March of 1776 Col. Moultrie was ordered to Sullivan’s Island to build a fortification of real substance with his 2nd South Carolina that could hold out the Royal Navy. This was accomplished with the use of mechanics, army personnel, slaves, and volunteers who worked around the clock to build the fortification. This fort was built out of sand and palmetto logs which came from all over the harbor. To get the palmetto logs to the island, they were tied together in rafts and floated to the beaches of the island and then dragged to the construction site by animal and man power. The plan was for the fort to have 16 feet thick walls and 500 feet long around its perimeter with walls 10 feet higher than the gun placements. The palmetto trees would form an inner and outer wall with sand in between to give maximum protection to the guns and their crews inside the fort.
Besides Fort Johnson on James Island, another battery was placed on James Island with twelve cannons in an inner defense position in case the British Fleet got past Fort Johnson. This second battery on James Island was also garrisoned by the 1st South Carolina.
In the city proper the town was building redoubts, fortifications, and batteries to repel the British if they should get past the outer harbor defenses. One of the most substantial fortifications was placed on and near Gadsden’s wharf one of the largest private wharfs in North America and which was garrisoned by the 4rth South Carolina. Its owner Christopher Gadsden was a member of the 1st and 2nd Continental Congress and a Lt. Col in the 1st South Carolina Regiment. He is also famous for the Gadsden Flag which he designed with the yellow back ground, coiled snake, and the words “don’t tread on me” located on it. These fortifications in the city proper mainly went up on the Cooper River side of Charleston since it was the location where almost all of the industry in Charleston was located at during this time period.
During the spring of 1776 the harbor was full of the sounds of construction and troops drilling in the air as the thought of a British fleet showing up outside the harbor made the work have urgency and real purpose. Also during this time period troops began to come from Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia to aid in the defense of Charleston. Along with the troops came Continental Officers such as General John Armstrong, General Charles Lee, and other to help build and lead the defense of Charleston.
The next in piece in the series will be on the British fleet arriving and the battle.