Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The final touches to the Charleston Defense; Part 5 Battle of Sullivan's Island

At the end of May 1776 the British fleet began to move down the coast of North Carolina into South Carolina towards Charleston. As they did this they did not try to hide their movements as they proceeded southward staying alongside the coast most of the way. As a result the Patriots were able to send riders to the capital with the size of the British Fleet and updates of its location along the coast. Examples of this coastal watch program are noted by Gov. Rutledge in written exchanges between himself and patriot officers in the harbor such as Col. Moultrie and Brigadier General John Armstrong who had been named the head of the defenses of Charleston. General Armstrong was an experienced soldier from Pennsylvania who had won praise in the French and Indian War as a commander of Pennsylvania troops and was also an engineer who had began to organize and build the defenses in Charleston. The information gathered and shared by these men told of the British fleet being around forty ships and their location as they came past each parish and safe harbor such as Bulls Bay near Georgetown, North of Charleston.

As the news spread of the impending British Fleet movement’s people began to flee Charleston and head inland to other homes and anywhere where they could safely move their families to. Charleston began at the first of June to resemble a military post rather than one of the busiest commercial harbors in North America with most of the foreign and commercial vessels leaving port and going to safe harbors in the Caribbean and towards Savannah to await the outcome of the impending battle. Also at the start of June, Gov. Rutledge ordered all of the outlying Parish Militia to turn out and to report to Charleston with all speed. This call to the county side was headed by the local and backwoods Parish militia and they started to report in piecemeal to the capital for its defense. For most of this militia it was their first time to Charleston and they were greeted with open arms for the by the Low Country rice gentry who had previously always had looked down on their unwashed cousins from the woods such as the Scotch-Irish, Dutch, and German settelers. You can only imagine what the scene was on the roads to and from Charleston as the town folks from Charleston were heading inland on their buggies and carts with their valuables as the back woods men with their buckskin shirts and hunting rifles passed each other on the roads.

Also starting at the first of June with the sighting of the fleet moving toward Charleston every slave and able body man went to work around the clock on the defenses in Charleston. This building of additional fortifications or finishing fortifications was on the Islands of James and Sullivans, the town proper, and other key points in the harbor.

By June the 7th most of the British fleet had moved into Charleston Harbor and was heading to an anchorage known as Five Fathom Hole in the outer harbor. From this point they could clearly see the fortifications on James and Sullivans Island and began to finalize their plan of attack on Charleston without fear of Patriot interference.

On June the 8th General Charles Lee arrives in Charleston from Williamsburg, Virginia with troops from Virginia and North Carolina and took command of its defense from General John Armstrong who then became the second in command. This change of command was made with the British sitting in the outer harbor with an attack emanate to the Patriots at any moment that the tides and winds were favorable to the British. Charles Lee was born and raised in England and came to the American causes with vast military experiences with the British Army having served in the French and Indian War as a lieutenant and with the 44th Regiment of Foot as a captain. He also has served as a soldier of fortune for the King of Poland before moving to America in 1773 to settle in Virginia. He was considered a military treasure by most of the Patriots from New England to the South. His vast military knowledge made him on par with Washington in the eyes of his new country. So with his arrival in Charleston it made its defenders feel even more confident than before knowing they had a commander with vast amounts of knowledge and experience to help defend their city. Also behind General Lee were a few more troops making their way through North Carolina from Virginia to further aid the defense.

Once General Lee meet with Gov. Rutledge and the Council he took over the defense of Charleston officially and began to examine the defenses. During this process he had some defenses torn down, some built up, and others moved to better effect a defense in Charleston. His biggest issue was with the fortification on Sullivans Island that Col. Moultrie and the 2nd South Carolina along with slaves and other workers were trying to finish with work around the clock under the direction of French engineer Baron Massenbourg . When Lee went to Sullivans Island he found the fort unfinished and his mind undependable. He went so far as to utter a now famous description of the fort as a “slaughter pen” and wanted to remove the troops and cannon from Sullivans Island to be disbursed in other defense positions in the harbor. This idea was floated to Gov. Rutledge and his council where the answer came back a resounding no to leaving the fortification on Sullivans Island. You must remember the Continental Army was still in its infancy and it needed the states support to exist. The states wrote the checks for the army under the Articles of Confederation, but they did not give up their rights. So the first political question came up to General Lee should he try to order the troops off the island or should he give into local authorities? General Lee chose to give in to Gov. Rutledge, but with strings. He ordered as many troops off the island as he could without alarming the local government and removing as much powder as he could also. Thus if the British were able to overrun the island and fortification Lee would limit his initial loses in men and material. Another concern for Lee was the plan for evacuation of the fortification and other island defenses if the British were able to land successfully on the island. While all of this political move and counter move was happening in the city the British Fleet was making preparations for their attack of Charleston just outside of the harbor, but still visible to the Patriots.

General Lee found out that there were not enough boats that could be left on stand by ready for an evacuation of the Sullivans Island or any plans for doing so. As a result Lee ordered a floating bridge from Mount Pleasant be built using barrels as the floating bases for boards to be put across for the troops to escape or reinforce as needed. This bridge was not stable or safe and troops asked to cross over it refused to on the grounds they were in fear for their lives.

Another defense position that Lee found on Sullivans Island was a small fortification being built by a French engineer who had donated his services to the American cause, Captain Ferdinand de Braham that would play a major role in the battle. This fortification was made out of palmetto logs, sand, and some say tabby structure was located on the North East side of the island and it was guarding Breach Inlet which stands between Sullivans Island and Long Island (later renamed Isle of Palms). The purpose of this fortification originally was to prevent small British ships from entering the harbor through Breach Inlet thus getting behind Sullivans Island and making their way into the harbor proper. The ships that could get through this breach would have to be very shallow drafted ships to make it clear and were not considered much threat from this point, however a defensive position was placed there for safety sake. This position was commanded by Col. William Thomson of the 3rd South Carolina Ranger Regiment. This regiment was formed for the defense of the back country of South Carolina by the men of this region. It was formed as a mounted regiment that would fight on foot so that its members could carry a fight to the natives, Loyalist, or other threats with all the speed they could muster. This regiment was accompanied by a detachment of the 4rth South Carolina lead by a Lt. Mitchell (the artillery regiment) to man the 18lb and 6lb guns, Col. Clark with his 1st North Carolina Regiment, Col. Daniel Horry with South Carolina militia, a company of Catawba Indians and other local tribes which had joined this company lead by Captain Boykin, and a company of riflemen calling themselves the Raccoon Company lead by Captain Allston bringing the total to around 750 men at this point. The men at this position also had a 6lb cannon and an 18lb cannon for the defense of Breach Inlet. Fortifications of some type were built to shield the men and the cannon from the expected British attack by ship. This position was referred to as the “Advance Guard” by the Patriots. Just a quick note this position was built before the British landed on Long Island as a deterrent to ships so please keep this in mind as we look at events as they unfold.

On June the 8th the entire British Fleet had entered the outer parts of Charleston Harbor and was resting in Five Fathom Hole. It was at this point that General Clinton sent a message to the defenders of Charleston to surrender. This was rejected by Gov. Rutledge without any discussion and thus the stage is set for the Battle of Sullivans Island in Charleston Harbor.

On June the 9th the British started to land in large numbers on Long Island and began to set up camp and to put pickets across Breach Inlet form the Patriot Advance Guard position on Sullivans Island. The two enemies were now separated by Breach Inlet which the Americans knew to be at least seven feet deep at low tide and which the British were about to learn the same.

According to Chief Justice of South Carolina at the time of the attack William Henry Drayton through his noted that his son John Drayton published at the time of the British attack o Charleston was defended by “6,500 men coming from 1,400 Continentals from North Carolina; 500 Continentals from Virginia; 1,950 Continentals form South Carolina; 700 Charleston militia; 1,972 Parish militia.” It will become very interesting to see how very few of these troops though never fired a shot in the battle to defend Charleston.

The next article will be the British plan of attack.

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