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Foundation Matters

Three Strikes and You’re Out! A Carolina Day Celebration

Posted: June 24, 2024

Celebrate Carolina Day with us on Friday, June 28th at 9:30 am before the annual parade at 11:30 am. This Family-friendly event will include games, crafts, story time, breakfast bites & refreshments, and early access to the historic house museum. Tickets available online HERE. 

Americans have been blessed with peace for so long that for the average person it must be difficult to imagine that war was a relatively common experience in centuries past. Evidence of war is all around us with landmarks like the Powder Magazine and Fort Sumter, and even under our feet when we walk over the old city wall on East Bay.

The Abortive Attack of Fort Moultrie by a British Naval Force under Commodore Sir Peter Parker., c.1776, by Lt. William Elliott (d.1810), hanging above the mantel of the Nathaniel Russell House’s Dining Room.

The important collections at the Nathaniel Russell House tell fascinating stories of early Charleston including the beginning of the war that led to our independence. One of the most important and evocative pieces is a painting hanging over the dining room mantel titled, “The Abortive Attack of Fort Moultrie by a British Naval Force under Commodore Sir Peter Parker.” Painted by a professional seaman turned artist named Lieutenant William Elliott, it depicts the warships HMS Bristol, Active, Experiment, Solebay, Actaeon, Syren, Sphinx and the Bomb Vessel Thunder assaulting the small sand and palmetto log fortification on Sullivan’s Island on June 28, 1776. Originally called Fort Sullivan, the fort was renamed for Colonel Moultrie its commanding officer after the battle.

The Abortive Attack of Fort Moultrie by a British Naval Force under Commodore Sir Peter Parker (detail)

We continue to celebrate the anniversary of this battle because it marked the beginning of South Carolina’s independence, and it was the first major victory for the Americans during the Revolutionary War.

As tensions began to rise in the colonies, the British believed that Charlestown was filled with people loyal to the crown. They wanted to have a presence in the South to offer the loyalists support and a rallying point, and further widen the divide between the American factions. Spies had been sent to Charlestown and reports concluded that the small fort on Sullivan’s Island was unfinished and weak. Indeed, even the American commander believed the fort would be a ‘slaughter pen’ for its defenders. The British assembled a massive force from both the army and the navy to move south from New York. But knowledge of the local terrain (both land and sea) proved to be the foil for the powerful British force and the most important factor for the American victory.

Map of Plan of the Platform in Sullivan’s Fort, c.1776

The British plan to capture Fort Sullivan was rather simple— overwhelm the fort with superior firepower and manpower. First, over two thousand British soldiers were landed on what is today called the Isle of Palms. This force was supposed to attack the fort from the land after it had been weakened by the bombardment from the fleet. But, the British underestimated the depth of Breach Inlet separating the two barrier islands and the soldiers could not cross the deep water to Sullivan’s Island. Strike one for the British.

A frustrated but still confident Commodore Parker decided that the overwhelming power of his fleet could force the Americans to surrender even without the ground assault. But again British intelligence underestimated the effectiveness of the fort’s walls which were made of sand and palmetto logs. The combination of sand and logs absorbed much of the shot from the ships.  Strike two for the British.

Sir Peter Parker by Lemuel Francis Abbott, National Maritime Museum Greenwich

Also, Commodore Parker and his captains had little knowledge of the underwater shoals that exist at the mouth of Charlestown harbor. Almost as soon as the action began, three British frigates, Syren, Sphynx and Actaeon, ran aground and become helpless targets for Colonel Moultrie’s gunners inside the fort. Strike three for the British.

The duel between cannons in the fort and the fleet, with its grounded frigates, continued all day. The American’s advantage became clear as the British ships began to lose their masts and rigging. Decks were covered in wounded and dying seamen. To encourage the men in the fort on this hot June day, American commanders ordered grog—a stout mixture of water and rum or, in other words, the simplest of rum punches—passed to among the troops.  And when the Patriot’s indigo blue flag was shot down Sergeant William Jasper, likely fortified with grog, tied the banner to a cannon sponge staff and rallied the men to keep up the fight.

As daylight turned to dusk the cannon fire slowly ceased. On board Commodore Parker’s flagship Bristol it was said that every man was wounded and even the bottom of Parker’s breeches was shot away! Slowly the rising tide allowed the fleet to move offshore except for the Actaeon which was so badly damaged it had to be scuttled. The battle was over, and the underdog patriots prevailed thanks in large part to the home field advantage.

Painting depicting the Battle of Sullivan’s Island

Three days later proud citizens rowed out to the fort for news of casualties and to salute the heroes of Fort Sullivan. This was the first celebration of the auspicious day and observances have continued for centuries until this day.

Lieutenant William Elliott’s painting, now prominently displayed at the Nathaniel Russell House, depicts a moment in this story. Elliott shows a powerful fleet sailing dangerously close to a small coastal fort. This was perhaps the last moment of British enthusiasm and unwarranted feelings of superiority on this a day. Certainly, they didn’t know, at this point in the battle, that they were facing three strikes against them as British intelligence failed to provide a clear picture of the natural obstacles awaiting on land and sea. Of course, we credit the heroism (fortified with rum punch!) of Moultrie, Jasper and other patriots, but as we celebrate Carolina Day on this 248th anniversary we should also remember that even in the 18th century those who’ve ‘been here’ have an advantage over those who ‘come here

-Tracey Todd, Interim Director of Museums, June 2024


In 2012, a Canadian group called Battles in Motion created a digital rendering of Fort Moultrie as it would have looked in May of 1860 in its Civil War heyday. Explore the rendering on YouTube, below.

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