On June 28, 1776, American forces won their first significant battle of the War for Independence when South Carolina troops defeated a British naval force.

With tensions between the colonies and Great Britain rising, the Provincial Congress of South Carolina ordered the construction of a fort on Sullivan’s Island at the mouth of Charleston Harbor. Colonel William Moultrie and his 2nd Regiment of the South Carolina Provincial Troops took on the responsibility of constructing the fort and overseeing its defense. Due to a lack of construction materials, they had to improvise and built the fort’s walls from palmetto tree trunks.

This proved to be fortuitous.

On March 26, 1776, the Provincial Congress declared South Carolina a “sovereign and independent state” and adopted a new constitution. The Provincial Congress was renamed the South Carolina House of Representatives and the people elected John Rutledge the president of South Carolina.

Two months later, a massive British fleet of more than 50 British ships under the command of Commodore Sir Peter Parker set sail from New York to crush the rebellious South Carolinians. This turned out easier said than done.

After a few weeks of reconnaissance, Parker sent nine warships carrying 260 cannons to attack the unfinished fortification on Sullivan Island. 

Col. Moultrie and his men were significantly outgunned. The fort had just 31 cannons and a limited amount of ammunition. The palmetto logs turned out to be the South Carolinians saving grace. The spongy wood deflected or absorbed the British cannon balls without splintering.

The South Carolina defenders also benefitted from a bit of luck. Parker sent three frigates to a position where they could fire directly into the backside of the unfinished fort, but the ships ran aground on a shallow sandbar and were rendered useless for the duration of the battle.

Moultrie had his men concentrate their fire on the two largest British ships, including Parker’s flagship. The accurate fire of the South Carolinian gunners did significant damage to the British warships.

As the sun began to set, the British had failed to capture the island. The warships pulled up anchor and limped out of range of the South Carolinian guns. British sailors were able to get two of the grounded frigates off the sandbar as the tide came in, but they were forced to abandon the other, lighting it on fire to keep it from falling into American hands.

During the battle, the South Carolina regiment lost 12 men while the British suffered 220 casualties. The British navy withdrew to New York and didn’t return to South Carolina for three years.

One year later, South Carolinians celebrated the victory with cannon fire, parades, prayers of thanksgiving, and much eating and drinking. The celebration continues to this day with June 28 designated as “Carolina Day.”

Mike Maharrey

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