American Revolution: Battle of Sullivan's Island

William Moultrie
Colonel William Moultrie. National Archives and Records Administration

Battle of Sullivan's Island - Conflict & Date:

The Battle took place June 28, 1776, during the American Revolution (1775-1783).

Armies & Commanders


  • Major General Charles Lee
  • Colonel William Moultrie
  • 435 men at Fort Sullivan, 6,000+ around Charleston


Battle of Sullivan's Island - Background:

With the Siege of Boston ongoing in late 1775, the British began seeking other opportunities to strike a blow against the rebelling colonies.

Believing the American South to be friendlier territory with a large number of Loyalists who would fight for the crown, plans moved forward for Major General Henry Clinton to embark forces and sail for Cape Fear. Arriving, he was to meet a force of Scottish Loyalists raised in North Carolina as well as troops coming from Ireland under Commodore Peter Parker and Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis.

Sailing south from Boston with two companies on January 20, 1776, Clinton called at New York City where he had difficulty obtaining provisions. In a failure of operational security, Clinton's forces made no effort to hide their ultimate destination. Reaching Cape Fear on March 12, he found that Parker's squadron had been delayed and that the Loyalist forces had been defeated at Moore's Creek Bridge on February 27. Loitering in the area, Clinton met the first of Parker's ships on April 18. The remainder straggled in later that month and in early May after enduring a rough crossing.

Preparations at Charleston:

Determining that Cape Fear would be a poor base of operations, Parker and Clinton decided to move south and attack Charleston, SC after learning that the city was a lightly defended. With the beginning of the conflict, the president of the South Carolina General Assembly, John Rutledge, called for the creation of five regiments of infantry and one of artillery.

Numbering around 2,000 men, this force was augmented by the arrival of 1,900 Continental troops and 2,700 militia. Assessing the water approaches to Charleston, it was decided to construct a fort on Sullivan's Island.

A strategic location, ships entering the harbor were required to pass by the southern part of the island to avoid shoals and sandbars. The task of building Fort Sullivan was given to Colonel William Moultrie and the 2nd South Carolina Regiment. Commencing work in March 1776, they constructed 16-ft. thick, sand-filled walls which were faced with palmetto logs. Work moved slowly and by June only the seaward walls, mounting 31 guns, were complete with the remainder of the fort protected by a timber palisade. To aid in the defense, the Continental Congress dispatched Major General Charles Lee to take command.

The British Plan:

Parker's fleet reached Charleston on June 1 and over the next week began crossing the bar and anchoring around Five Fathom Hole. Scouting the area, Clinton decided to land on nearby Long Island. Located just north of Sullivan's Island, he thought his men would be able wade across Breach Inlet to assault the fort. Assessing the incomplete Fort Sullivan, Parker believed that his force, consisting of the two 50-gun ships HMS Bristol and HMS Experiment, six frigates, and the bomb vessel HMS Thunderer, would easily be able to reduce its walls.

The Battle of Sullivan's Island:

Responding to the British maneuvers, Lee began reinforcing positions around Charleston and directed troops to entrench along the northern shore of Sullivan's Island. On June 17, part of Clinton's force attempted to wade across Breach Inlet and found it too deep to proceed. Thwarted, he began planning to make the crossing using longboats in concert with Parker's naval attack. After several days of poor weather, Parker moved forward on the morning on June 28. In position by 10:00 AM, he ordered Thunderer to fire from extreme range while he closed on the fort with Bristol, Experiment, Active, and Solebay.

Coming under British fire, fort's soft palmetto log walls absorbed the incoming cannon balls rather than splintering. Short on gunpowder, Moultrie directed his men in a deliberate, well-aimed fire against the British ships.

As the battle progressed, Thunderer was forced to break off as its mortars had become dismounted. With the bombardment underway, Clinton began moving across Breach Inlet. Nearing the shore, his men came under heavy fire from American troops led by Colonel William Thomson. Unable to safely land, Clinton ordered a retreat to Long Island.

Around noon, Parker directed the frigates Syren, Sphinx, and Actaeon to circle to the south and assume a position from which they could flank Fort Sullivan's batteries. Shortly after beginning this movement, all three grounded on an uncharted sandbar with the latter two's rigging becoming entangled. While Syren and Sphinx were able to be refloated, Actaeon remained stuck. Rejoining Parker's force, the two frigates added their weight to the attack. In the course of the bombardment, the fort's flagstaff was severed causing the flag to fall.

Jumping over the fort's ramparts, Sergeant William Jasper retrieved the flag and jury-rigged a new flagpole from a sponge staff. In the fort, Moultrie instructed his gunners to focus their fire on Bristol and Experiment. Pummeling the British ships, they caused great damage to their rigging and lightly wounded Parker. As the afternoon passed, the fort's fire slackened as ammunition ran low. This crisis was averted when Lee dispatched more from the mainland. Firing continued until 9:00 PM with Parker's ships unable to reduce the fort. With darkness falling, the British withdrew.

Aftermath of the Battle of Sullivan's Island:

In the Battle of Sullivan's Island, British forces sustained 220 killed and wounded. Unable to free Actaeon, British forces returned the next day and burned the stricken frigate. Moultrie's losses in the fighting were 12 killed and 25 wounded. Regrouping, Clinton and Parker remained in the area until late July before sailing north to aid in General Sir William Howe's campaign against New York City. The victory at Sullivan's Island saved Charleston and, along with the Declaration of Independence a few days later, provided a much needed boost to American morale.

For the next few years, the war remained focused in the north until British forces returned to Charleston in 1780. In the resulting Siege of Charleston, British forces captured the city and held it until the end of the war.

Selected Sources