The Battle of Sullivan's Island


As it relates to the Jacob Milligan Story


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 Current Fort Moultrie, formerly Ft. Sullivan, Charleston Harbor


The Battle of Sullivan's Island

Attack on Sullivan's Island



Of the Attack of the Fort on Sullivan's Island, by Sir Peter Parker and Sir Henry Clinton. 

In the close of the year 1775, and the beginning of the year 1776, great preparations had been made in Great Britain to invade the American colonies with a force sufficient to compel submission. With this view, early in 1776 upwards of fifty thousand men were employed in active operations against America. Part of this force was ordered to the southward, to carry into effect in that quarter the designs of the British ministry. In South Carolina every exertion had been made to put the province, especially its capital, in a respectable posture of defence. As one means conducing thereto, the popular leaders had erected works on Sullivan's Island. This is a very convenient post for annoying ships approaching the town. At the time the British fleet appeared off the coast, about twenty-six heavy cannon, twenty-six eighteen and nine pounders were mounted at Sullivan's Island, on a fort constructed with palmetto. This is a tree peculiar to the Southern States, which grows from twenty to forty feet high, without branches, and then terminates in something resembling the head of a cabbage. The wood of it is remarkably spongy. A bullet entering it makes no splinters nor extended fracture, but buries itself without injuring the parts adjacent.


Battle of Sullivan's Island

On the first of June, 1776, advices were received in Charlestown that a fleet of forty or fifty sail were at anchor about six leagues to the northward of Sullivan's Island. The next day the alarm was fired, and expresses sent to the officers commanding the militia in the country to repair to Charlestown. In a few days after, several hundreds of the troops from the British fleet were landed on Long Island. This is situated to the eastward of Sullivan's Island, and separated from it by a creek. On the fourth of June, thirty-six of the transports crossed the bar, in front of Rebellion road, and anchored about three miles from Sullivan's Island; two of them ran aground in crossing, one of which got off, but the other went to pieces. On the 10th of June, the Bristol, a fifty gun ship, her guns being previously taken off, got safely over. About this time a proclamation was sent ashore, under the sanction of a flag, in which the British General, Sir Henry Clinton, promised pardon to the inhabitants in case of their laying down their arms and quietly submitting to the re-establishment of royal government. This produced none of the effects expected from it. The militia of the country repaired in great numbers to Charlestown. The regular regiments of the adjacent northern States, having been ordered to the assistance of their southern neighbors, arrived at this critical juncture.

The two continental General officers, Armstrong and Howe, came about the same time. The whole was put under the orders of Major-General Lee. In a few days the Americans, including the militia of the town and country, amounted to five or six thousand men. The first South Carolina regular regiment, commanded by Colonel Gadsden, was stationed at Fort Johnson. This is situated about three miles from Charlestown, on the most northerly point of James' Island, and is within point blank shot of the channel. The second and third regular regiments of South Carolina, commanded by Colonels Moultrie and Thomson, occupied the two extremities of Sullivan's Island. The other forces had their posts assigned them at Haddrell's point, James' Island, and along the Bay in front of the town. The streets near the water were, in different places, strongly barricaded. The stores on the wharves were pulled down, and lines of defence were continued along the water's edge. Domestic conveniences were exchanged for blankets and knapsacks, and hoes and spades were in the hands of every citizen. In a few days, by their labor, in conjunction with a number of negroes, such obstructions were thrown in the way as would have greatly embarrassed the royal army attempting to land in the town.

 On the 25th, the Experiment, a fifty gun ship, arrived near the bar; and on the 26th, her guns being previously taken out, she got safely over.  

On the 28th the fort on the Island was briskly attacked by the two fifty-gun ships, Bristol and Experiment, four frigates, the Active, Acteon, Solebay, Syren, each of twenty-eight guns, the Sphynx, of twenty guns, the Friendship, an armed vessel of twenty-two guns, Ranger sloop, and Thunder-Bomb, each of eight guns. Between ten and eleven o'clock the Thunder-Bomb began to throw shells. The Active, Bristol, Experiment, and Solebay, came boldly on to the attack. A little before eleven o'clock the garrison fired four or five shot at the Active while under sail. When she came near the fort she dropped anchor, and poured in a broad-side. Her example was followed by the three three other vessels, and a most tremendous cannonade ensued. The Thunder-Bomb, after having thrown about sixty shells, was so damaged as to be incapacitated from firing. Colonel Moultrie, with three hundred and forty-four regulars, and a few volunteer militia, made a defence that would have done honor to experienced veterans.

During the engagement the inhabitants stood with arms in their hands at their respective posts, prepared to receive the British wherever they might land. Impressed with high ideas of British bravery, and diffident of the maiden courage of their own new troops, they were apprehensive that the forts would either be silenced or passed, and that they should be called to immediate action. The various passions of the mind assumed alternate sway, and marked their countenances with anxious fears or cheerful hopes. Their resolution was fixed to meet the invaders at the water's edge, and dispute every inch of ground, trusting the event to Heaven and preferring death to slavery.

General Clinton was to have passed over to Sullivan's Island with the troops under his command on Long Island; but the extreme danger to which he must unavoidably have exposed his men, induced him to decline the perilous attempt. Colonel Thompson, with seven hundred men, an eighteen pounder, and a field piece, were stationed at the east end of Sullivan's Island to oppose their crossing; but no serious attempt to land on Sullivan's was made, either from the fleet or by the detachment on Long Island. The Sphynx, Acteon, and Syren, were sent round to attack the western extremity of the fort. This was so unfinished as to afford very imperfect cover to the men at the guns in that part, and also so situated as to expose the men in the other parts of the fort to a very dangerous cross-fire. Providence, on this occasion, remarkably interposed in behalf of the garrison and saved them from a fate, which, in all probability, would otherwise have been inevitable.

Battle of the Acteon, Print from the NY Public LibraryAbout twelve o'clock, as the three last mentioned ships were advancing to attack the western wing of the fort, they all got entangled with a shoal called the Middle Ground; two of them ran foul of each other. The Acteon stuck fast. The Sphynx, before she cleared herself, lost her bowsprit; but the Syren got off without much injury. The ships in front of the fort kept up their fire till near seven o'clock in the evening without intermission; after that time it slackened. At half-past nine the firing on both sides ceased; and at eleven the ships slipped their cables. Next morning all the men-of-war, except the Acteon, had retired about two miles from the Island. The garrison fired several shot at the Acteon; she at first returned them, but soon after the crew set her on fire and abandoned her; leaving their colors flying, guns loaded, and all her ammunition and stores. She was in a short time boarded by a party of Americans, commanded by Captain Jacob Milligan. While flames were bursting out on all sides they fired three of her guns at the commodore, and then quitted her. In less than half an hour after their departure she blew up.

 [1] The Bristol had forty men killed and seventy-one wounded. Every man, who was stationed in the beginning of the action on her deck, was either killed or wounded. The Experiment had twenty-three killed and seventy-six wounded. Lord William Campbell, the late Governor of the province, who, as a volunteer, had exposed himself in a post of danger, received a wound which ultimately proved mortal.

The fire of the fort was principally directed against the Bristol and Experiment; and they suffered very much in their hulls, masts, and rigging. Not less than seventy balls went through the former. The Acteon had Lieutenant Pike killed, and six men wounded. The Solebay had eight men wounded. After some days the troops were all re-embarked, and the whole sailed for New York.

The loss of the garrison was ten men killed and twenty-two wounded. Lieutenants Hall and Gray were among the latter. Though there were many thousand shot fired from the shipping, yet the works were little damaged; those which struck the fort were ineffectually buried in its soft wood. Hardly a hut or tree on the Island escaped.

When the British appeared off the coast there was so scanty a stock of lead, that to supply the musketry with bullets, it became necessary to strip the windows of the dwelling houses in Charlestown of their weights. Powder was also very scarce. The proportion allotted for the defence of the fort was but barely sufficient for slow firing. This was expended with great deliberation. The officers in their turn pointed the guns with such exactness that most of their shot took effect. [2] In the beginning of the action the flag-staff was shot away.

Sergeant Jasper of the grenadiers immediately jumped on the beach, took up the flag and fastened it on a sponge-staff. With it in his hand he mounted the merlon; and, though the ships were directing their incessant broad-sides at the spot, he deliberately fixed it. The day after the action President Rultedge presented him with a sword, as a mark of respect for his distinguished valor. Sergeant M'Donald, of Captain Huger's company, was mortally wounded by a cannon ball. He employed the short interval between his wound and his death, in exhorting his comrades to continue steady in the cause of liberty and their country.

 This ill-conducted expedition contributed greatly to establish the popular government which it was intended to overset. The friends of America triumphed. Unacquainted with the vicissitudes of war, some of them began to flatter themselves their work was done and their liberties established. In opposition to the bold assertions of some, and the desponding fears of others, experience proved that American might effectually resist a British fleet and army. The diffident grew bold in their country's cause, and looked forward to the completion of their wishes for its liberty and independence. The advocates for the omnipotence of the British navy confessed their mistake. Those who, from interested motives, had abetted the royal government, ashamed of their opposition to the Struggles of an infant people for their dearest rights, retired into obscurity. Mr. Cunningham, and other leaders of the royalists, who, on the defeat and dispersion of their party in the latter end of 1775, had been taken and committed to close confinement, obtained their discharge soon after the departure of the British fleet. The State wished to conciliate them to the popular measures, and therefore in this moment of triumph received from them assurances of fidelity to their country, and restored them to the rights and privileges of free citizens.

Soon after the engagement, when the British troops were re-embarked for their departure, the transport ship Glasgow, mounting six four-pounders, with fifty-six highlanders on board, ran aground near Long Island. Captain Pickering, Benjamin Wallet, Cornelius Dewees, William Dewees, and twenty-one seamen, all volunteers, came alongside of her in a wood-boat, on which were mounted one eighteen-pounder and some smaller guns, and took the whole crew of the Glasgow prisoners. After stripping her of everything that could be brought off, they set her on fire. This successful defence gave to South Carolina a respite of three years from the calamities of war. In that season of leisure two expeditions were projected against Florida, but they both proved abortive. The energies of the State were applied with more success against the Cherokee Indian nation, which inhabit lands not far distant from the western settlements of Carolina.


 [1] Her guns were afterwards raised and planted on the lines of Charlestown for purposes of defence but on being fired they burst. This was supposed to be the consequence of a change their metal had undergone from their falling into the cold water of the harbor, when they were heated by previous discharges."

[2] on the third day after the action, the lady of Colonel Bernard Elliott presented an elegant pair of colors to the second regiment which had so bravely defended fort Moultrie. Her address on the occasion concluded thus: "I make not the least doubt, under Heaven's protection, you will stand by these colors as long as they waive in the air of liberty." In reply a promise was made, "that they should be honorably supported, and never should he tarnished by the second regiment." This engagement was literally fulfilled. Three years after they were planted on the British lines at Savannah. One by Lieutenant Bush who was immediately shot down. Lieutenant Hume in the act of planting his, was also shot down; and Lieutenant Gray in supporting them received a mortal wound. The brave Serjeant Jasper on seeing Lieutenant flume fall, took up the color and planted it. In doing so he received a wound which terminated in death; but on the retreat being ordered he brought the colors off with him. These were taken at the fall of Charlestown, and are said to be now in the tower of London.

Source: The above historical recounting is found in "Ramsay's History of South Carolina from Its First Settlement in 1670 to the year 1808" Volume 1, by David Ramsay, M.D. Preface dated "Charleston, December 31st, 1808. Published in 1858, by W.J. Duffie, Newberry, S.C. Reprinted in 1959, by the The Reprint Company, Spartanburg, S.C.


Ramsay's History of South Carolina from Its First Settlement in 1670 to the year 1808

by David Ramsay, M.D.

Preface dated "Charleston, December 31st, 1808.

Published in 1858, by W.J. Duffie, Newberry, S.C.

Reprinted in 1959, by The Reprint Company, Spartanburg, S.C.


 General Francis Marion

One of the Commanding Officers of Captain Jacob Milligan was General Francis Marion, aka The Swamp Fox.  A recent movie starring Mel Gibson showed life during in the SC Lowcountry during the Revolutionary War.

Marion was not only the commander of Captain Jacob Milligan, but was family also.  The brother of Francis Marion, Benjamin Marion, married Esther Simons, who was the first cousin (once removed) of Margaret Bennett Milligan - Jacob Milligan's wife.

In a letter of Capt. Jacob Milligan to Gen. [Francis] Marion, Georgetown, October 31st, 1782, he says:

"Sir.--I have this moment been favored with your Excellency's letter of 28th, instant, in consequence of which have made a seizure of a schooner from Mr. Lockwood, in Charlestown, deeply laden with tobacco, rice, etc., which was discharged from the sloop I mentioned to your Excellency I had seized before, and which I then cleared upon seeing a passport signed by the Governor," etc. 

Did you know?

The current SC State Flag was designed by Col. Moultrie following the battle for Sullivan's Island.

See how Jacob Milligan's contributions led to the current design, here.

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