Henry Clinton and “A Miracle on Sullivan’s Island”

By the Red Sea the Hebrew host detained

Through aid divine the distant shore soon gained;

The waters fled, the deep passage a grave;

But thus God wrought a chosen race to save.

Though Clinton’s troops have shared a different fate

‘Gainst them, poor men! Not chosed sure of heaven,

The miracle reversed is still as great—

From two feet deep the water rose to seven.[6]

–St. James Chronicle

While delegates to the Second Continental Congress debated the matter of Independence in 1776, the British brought the war to Charleston, South Carolina.  Defense of the city focused on Fort Sullivan, on Sullivan’s Island at the northern mouth of Charleston Harbor.  Major General Henry Clinton, commanding an Army expedition against the Americans, was determined to exploit the fort’s vulnerabilities.  He ultimately failed, but his effort, or lack thereof, prompted a British newspaper to craft a little ditty taunting the poor general.

Fort Sullivan
The Attack on Fort Sullivan, June 28, 1776 from Edward McCrady, The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1775-1780

Fort Sullivan stood at the southwest corner of a crescent-shaped barrier island.   Laid out as a square with bastions at each corner, it could be formidable.  To form the walls, South Carolinians had laid palmetto logs one on top of the other to a height of ten feet in parallel lines separated by some five yards, then filled the space between with sand.  The walls themselves were bound and bolted and the corners set with notched logs.   Palmetto logs themselves are rather sponge-like.  Combined with sand, they had the potential to absorb and bury artillery fire, rather than shatter under it. Embrasures, or openings in the wall, enabled cannon mounted on a platform behind the wall to fire through it.  The southeastern, sea-facing wall held six twenty-found pounders and three eighteen pounders, while the bastion at its western end sported three twenty-six pounders and two nine-pounders.  The southwestern wall faced the harbor entrance more directly held six-gun mix of twelve and nine-pounders.

On paper, Fort Sullivan was impressive.  In practice, it was vulnerable.  First, only the southeast and southwest facing curtain walls and bastions were completed.  The northeastern and northwestern sides had only been built to a height of seven feet and lacked the platform needed to support artillery.  As a result, the interior of the fort could be enfiladed by ships anchored in the harbor.  Second, the unfinished walls and weak interior defenses made it vulnerable to a landward assault.  Third, the fort was unable to defend the entirety of Sullivan’s Island, which was some four miles long.   While the mainland opposite the island was dominated by marsh, tidal pools, lowlands, bays, and creeks that made the movement of large numbers of troops near impossible, its northern end was separated from Long Island by a narrow inlet, reportedly often—but not always—fordable at low tide.  Long Island was generally undefended, making it an ideal landing place for infantry and artillery, which would then only have to cross the inlet to attack Fort Sullivan from its poorly-defended rear.[1]

After the first British ships arrived off the Charleston bar on June 4, 1776, Henry Clinton, commanding the Army contingent, and Sir Peter Parker, commanding the Naval forces, began surveying the region and determined to pursue two courses of action.  Parker’s ships would bombard Fort Sullivan from the water, while Clinton’s forces advanced from Long Island to Sullivan’s Island and took the fort in the rear.  Clinton put his troops ashore on Long Island between June 9 and 15.   Clinton’s first task was to find the fordable sections of the inlet separating Long and Sullivan’s Island.  Within days, the British determined that there was no ford; the shallowest portion was seven feet deep.  On the June 18, Clinton sent word to Parker offering to look for other ways to utilize the army.[2]

Continental Major General Charles Lee started exercising operational control over the local forces on June 9, when South Carolina’s President, John Rutledge, ordered South Carolina’s forces to recognize his orders.  Lee wanted Clinton attacked, but his direction to South Carolina Colonel William Moultrie, then commanding Sullivan’s Island and its defenses, arrived too late.  Instead, the Americans had to make due by throwing up quick earthworks on Sullivan’s Island to prevent a crossing of the inlet separating it from Long Island and more substantial earthworks down the island to prevent an overland advance in the event of a successful crossing.  These were manned by Colonel William Thompson’s Third Regiment of “Rangers,” supported by detachments from several other units, one eighteen pounder, and one six-pounder field piece.  All told it was about 780 men.[3]  Clinton had landed roughly 2200 regulars.[4]

On June 28, Parker took the initiative, unfurled his sails while Colonel Moultrie was visiting Colonel Thompson at the inlet, and made way for Fort Sullivan, where he engaged in a day-long gunnery duel with the fort.   That engagement, a British defeat, rightly receives the most attention.  But, what of Clinton?

Storms, tides, and weather frequently moved shallows, carved new inlets, and changed depths along the Carolina shores.  So, it was not particularly surprising that Clinton found no way to cross on foot once he began landing on June 9.  He decided to abort an attack on the 18th and look for new ways to use the army in cooperation with Parker.   Clinton asserted that Parker did not take him up on the offer, insisting that the Royal Navy and Marines would be enough to capture Sullivan’s Island.  So, on the 28th, Clinton simply engaged in a gunnery duel of his own with the Americans across the water, their rifles, muskets and two cannon against his mortars, cannon, floating batteries, ships provided by Parker, and muskets.  But, collectively, they could not drive Thompson away from his earthworks.   Clinton loaded his small boats to feign attacks across the inlet as a diversion, but he lacked enough vessels to attempt a crossing.  He finally gave up the attempt at dusk, pulling his men away from the inlet.[5]  By then, Parker had already lost his duel with Fort Sullivan.

Back in England, Clinton was largely ridiculed for his failure.  Had he not persisted in searching for a wadable spot to cross to Sullivan’s Island, he might have re-embarked his troops and found a better use for them by more insistently pressing the matter with Parker.  Alternatively, he might also have sought more direct assistance from Parker in reducing Thompson’s earthworks as a prequel to the Navy’s attack on Fort Sullivan.  Bad blood between the two, however, seemed to make such cooperation impossible.  Instead, Clinton accepted his useless position and largely sat idle, then merely engaged in a gunnery duel that amounted to little more than a distraction that did not affect the course of the battle.  The St. James Chronicle decided to commemorate Clinton’s end of the battle with a bit of verse entitled, “A Miracle on Sullivan’s Island.”

[1]                Edward McCrady, The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1775-1780 (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1901), 141-142

[2]                William B. Willcox, ed., The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of his Campaigins, 1775-1782, with an Appendix of Original Documents (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), 31.

[3]                McCrady, 145.

[4]                McCrady, 150; John Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse, Kindle ed. (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997), Kindle Loc. 396.

[5]                McCrady, 145; Buchanan, Loc. 388; Willcox, ed., 34-35.

[6]                McCrady, 153.

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