Today we’re going to travel back in Lowcountry history to explore the genesis and legacy of a public holiday called “Carolina Day.” Carolina Day is celebrated on the 28th of June every year, and that’s been the case since 1777. The day commemorates an important battle that took place on Sullivan’s Island, an action that could rightfully be called the first significant American military victory in the early days of our war for independence from Great Britain. For some people in our community, the story of this battle and the traditions of its anniversary are familiar, even treasured stories. I am very aware, however, that many good people in our community are new to the area and may not have heard of Carolina Day, or the events we commemorate each year on the 28th of June. With that fact in mind, I’ve assembled an overview of both stories—the Battle of Sullivan’s Island in 1776 and the traditional commemorations of that event—to help newcomers get up to speed on these important traditions. Time and space don’t permit an exhaustive account of every detail of the battle—I’ll leave that burden to other historians. For the present, my goal here is to hit the highlights of the story, bring you quickly up to the present, and to encourage you to get involved in celebrating the 28th of June like a native of the Palmetto State.
Carolina Day: A Primer for Newcomers
First, let’s time-travel back to the months leading up to the Revolution so we can understand the context of these historic events. In October 1774 representatives from South Carolina joined representatives from other states in Philadelphia, where they signed an agreement known as the Continental Association. The delegates pledged to assist each other in the ongoing efforts to negotiate trade and taxation issues with the British government, and to present a unified political front to the mother country. But the situation continued to worsen as the months went by. In early January 1775, most of the elected representatives in South Carolina’s Commons House of Assembly resolved to form themselves into a new, shadow government called the South Carolina Provincial Congress that would work to advance American rights. In late April, the Provincial Congress and a number of political agitators in Charleston created a new entity called the Council of Safety, a sort of executive board for the shadow government. In early June, these two bodies resolved to create a provincial army for South Carolina, to consist of two regiments at first, but later expanded. Our last Royal governor, William Campbell, arrived in Charleston in late June, but by mid-September the tense political climate in Charleston compelled him to sneak out of town and take refuge aboard a British warship in the harbor. In mid-November, two British warships in Charleston harbor exchanged a few shots with an armed vessel representing South Carolina’s nascent navy. When Governor Campbell finally retreated to New York before Christmas 1775, it was clear to everyone in South Carolina that the British would soon return to Charleston with a superior force in an effort to crush the rebellion.
In January 1776, South Carolina’s Provincial Congress ordered the construction of a new fortification on Sullivan’s Island, on the northern edge of the entrance to Charleston harbor. Fort Johnson, built on James Island in 1708, was the traditional guardian of the harbor, but the Provincial Congress felt that the creation of an additional fort on Sullivan’s Island would create a gauntlet, making it much more difficult for enemy ships to approach Charleston. Colonel William Moultrie, commander of the 2nd Regiment of the South Carolina Provincial Troops, was tasked with overseeing the new fort and planning its defense. The square plan of the fort followed the principles of traditional fortification design, but the builders had to improvise with the building materials. The fort was intended to be a “fascine battery,” that is, a traditional temporary work built by stacking bundles of sticks (fascines) to hold berms of earth in place. Instead, Moultrie and his engineers made use of the island’s abundant palmetto trees and created (as far as we know) the world’s first palmetto log fort. The construction included an inner and outer wall of palmetto trunks, about sixteen feet apart and about sixteen feet tall. Between these walls enslaved laborers dumped thousands of cubic yards of sand to form a sturdy rampart and parapet for the defenders. Inside the fort, parallel rows of brick pillars supported a sixteen-foot deep cannon platform that followed the outline of the rampart. If you’re interested in learning more about the construction of this fort, I suggest you come to the library to peruse Stanley South’s 1974 archaeological report, titled Palmetto Parapets. If you can’t make it to the library, you can download the report from the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Shortly after construction of this rude fortification began, South Carolina’s shadow, rebellious government continued to steer a course toward independence. After months of political debates, the members of the Provincial Congress took an important step on 26 March 1776. On that day, our elected representatives adopted a constitution that declared South Carolina to be a sovereign and independent state. Our Provincial Congress renamed itself the South Carolina House of Representatives, and we elected John Rutledge “president” of our state. As legislative assemblies in the other American colonies moved toward similar changes, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia created a Continental Army under the leadership of General George Washington. In early 1776, the several regiments of the South Carolina Provincial Army were adopted as part of Washington’s Continental Army.
In May of 1776, a massive fleet of more than fifty British warships, including ships of the line as well as supply vessels, departed from New York harbor and began to sail toward South Carolina. At the same time, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia ordered General Charles Lee to rush to Charleston to take charge of the Continental troops defending the town and harbor. Both the British fleet and General Lee arrived at nearly the same time, at the beginning of June, and the countdown to conflict began. While British sailors sounded the natural sandbars blocking the entrance to Charleston harbor, General Lee went to Sullivan’s Island to inspect the unfinished palmetto-log fort. Lee was a veteran soldier, formerly an officer in the British Army, and he was not impressed with what he saw on the island. About half of the square fort had been built, with a pair of corner bastions facing the harbor. The Americans had mounted thirty-one cannon of various sizes and vintages. Powder and shot were in short supply, and the troops stationed in the fort—just over 400 men, including militiamen and members of the 2nd and 4th S.C. Regiments—were raw and untested. General Lee declared the fort “a slaughter pen” and advised President Rutledge to order Colonel Moultrie to abandon the effort. Rutledge refused, telling Moultrie he would “sooner cut off my hand” than write such an order.
The British fleet, led by Commodore Sir Peter Parker, spent many days crossing the treacherous sandbars the blocked the entrance to Charleston harbor. Making it over the bar in mid-June, most of the supply vessels anchored in Five Fathom Hole, just north of Morris Island, while the principal warships began to take positions along the south end of Sullivan’s Island, just out of cannon range. Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the island, Colonel William Thomson and his 3rd Regiment of South Carolina riflemen were guarding the inlet or “breach” between the north end of Sullivan’s Island and Long Island (what we call the Isle of Palms today). A portion of the British fleet sailed into Dewees Inlet and slipped behind Long Island, landing approximately 3,000 troops who set up camp on the island and began reconnoitering the land. During three tense weeks in June 1776 Col. Thomson and the nearly 800 men under his command observed and harassed the British soldiers, but mostly they waited anxiously for the expected onslaught. On Long Island, scouts under the command of General Sir Henry Clinton were trying to determine the depth of the water in the breach between the two islands while the officers developed a plan for an amphibious attack.
After nearly four weeks of tense watching and waiting, with each side just out of gun range of the other, the battle was joined on the morning of June 28th. Commodore Parker brought nine warships carrying 260 cannon to bear down on the unfinished fort. One after another, hour after hour, seven of the British vessels took turns firing broadsides into the palmetto walls, but most of the shot either bounced off the spongy trees or became imbedded in the walls. One ship hurled explosive bombs over the walls, but its lone gun jammed early in the battle and the bomber was forced to disengage from the fight.
Inside the fort, Col. Moultrie’s men had just 31 cannon and a limited supply of ammunition. To compensate for this shortage, the artillery men concentrated their fire on the two largest British ships, including Commodore Parker’s flagship. The South Carolina soldiers took time to aim their cannon precisely, firing fewer shots but causing a devastating amount of damage to the enemy warships. In response, Commodore Parker ordered three British frigates to position themselves near the southwestern point of Sullivan’s Island, where they could fire almost directly into the unfinished backside of the fort. Fortunately for the American forces, the three British frigates became grounded on a shallow sandbar in the middle of the harbor, and were rendered useless for the rest of the battle.
At the height of the battle, as enemy warships were pouring broadside after broadside into the wooden fort near the south end of Sullivan’s Island, a cannonball smashed the flagstaff and the regimental colors fell on the beach outside the fort. Observers watching the battle from East Bay Street in Charleston thought that Col. Moultrie had struck his colors, and that the battle was lost, but that was not the case. A recruit named William Jasper, a sergeant in the 2nd Regiment leapt from the parapet to retrieve the flag. After fastening it to a cannoneer’s tool called a sponge staff, Jasper climbed back up the rampart wall under a hail of enemy fire and planted the improvised flagstaff atop the northeast bastion, closest to the British guns. His brave, reckless actions roused his comrades to fight on with renewed vigor, and the spectators watching from East Bay Street cheered them on.
Meanwhile, at the north end of the Island, British marines under the command of General Clinton launched an amphibious attack from Long Island (now called the Isle of Palms), across Breach Inlet. Their goal was to storm the north beach of Sullivan’s Island, overpower the smaller number of South Carolina troops under Col. William Thomson, and then attack the rear of the unfinished fort at the other end of the island. Thanks to the sharpshooting of the American riflemen, however, and faulty intelligence about the depth of the inlet, the British plan failed utterly and Clinton’s men were forced to retreat.
As the sun began to set on the 28th June 1776, the British warships slipped their anchors and sailed out of range of the American cannon. The changing tide allowed two of the British frigates to get off the sandbar, but one was firmly stuck and was purposefully set afire by the retreating sailors. The raw, untested South Carolina troops lost a dozen men, while the superior British forces suffered 220 casualties and retreated with a fleet of shattered warships. It was an amazing victory by any standards. Some called it miraculous, others called it providential, but how every you measure their military prowess, the men of South Carolina’s nascent army won the first clear victory of the American Revolution. Days before the Continental Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence, the powerful British war machine learned the strength of the American commitment to liberty.
Four days after the battle(s) at Sullivan’s Island, General Charles Lee sent a detailed description of the engagement to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Lee’s letter reached Williamsburg, Virginia, ten days later, and on 13 July 1776 the Virginia Gazette published a brief notice of the South Carolina victory. On 19 July, the journal of Continental Congress records the following brief statement about the news: “A letter from General Lee dated at Charlestton [sic], South Carolina, 2 July, instant, enclosing sundry papers, was laid before Congress, and read: Ordered, that an extract of General Lee’s letter be published.” Accordingly, on 20 July 1776, the Pennsylvania Ledger published extracts Gen. Lee’s letter, and praised the bravery of South Carolina’s citizen-soldiers.
In the months after the important victory at Sullivan’s Island, the winds of war pushed the American struggle for independence northward, and Charleston settled into a brief period of relative peace and prosperity. The significance of the battle on the 28th of June was not forgotten, however. In fact, the relative calm in Charleston allowed men time to reflect on the fortuitous nature of their victory, and they resolved that it should never be forgotten. In May of 1777, a group of men formed a new organization called the Palmetto Society, which was created for one specific purpose: to commemorate “the signal and providential Victory obtained by our gallant Troops, over the formidable Fleet and Army of Great-Britain, at Sullivan’s Island.” In the newspapers of Charleston, the Palmetto Society they gave notice of their intention to host a civic feast on the 28th of June 1777, “principally for the purpose of celebrating the anniversary of that day, with decent and chearful [sic] festivity.” Ever the hospitable gentlemen, the members of the new Palmetto Society announced:
“That they will be glad of the company of any gentlemen, Friends to Liberty and Lovers of their Country, who may incline to join them, in commemorating an Action, the most important in its consequences to this State, the most honourable to our Troops, and the most disgraceful to our Enemies, that has been known since the commencement of the present arduous struggle for Liberty.”
On the 28th of June 1777, Charleston witnessed celebratory firing of cannon, parades of proud soldiers, flags and banners waving, reverent prayers of thanksgiving, and copious feasting and drinking. Throughout the town and country, citizens raised their glasses in honor of the brave men who lost their lives on the 28th of June, to the gallant Sgt. William Jasper, and of course to Col. William Moultrie. It was likely the most ostentatious public celebration in the century-long history of South Carolina, and it set the bar for similar observances of the anniversary for all future generations.
Throughout the remainder of the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth century, the 28th of June was a major holiday for lowcountry residents, but the holiday didn’t necessarily have a name. If you look at the newspapers of the late 1700s and the early 1800s, you’ll see that it was simply called “the 28th of June.” Some people in the community apparently referred to the holiday as “Palmetto Day,” however—no doubt inspired by the wooden hero of the day and in honor of the Palmetto Society that organized the annual festivities. The earliest newspaper reference to “Palmetto Day” that I’ve seen is from June 1860, but the name was likely in use before that time.
Between 1861 and 1864, most South Carolinians were too preoccupied with the war of secession to commemorate the anniversary of the 28th of June. In the years immediately after the end of the Civil War, a sullen atmosphere prevailed in the lowcountry, and the 28th of June passed without public celebration. In June of 1871, the African-American “Carolina Light Infantry” paraded on the 28th in recognition of the holiday, and the white community took notice. The following summer, 1872, both the black and white citizens of Charleston observed the anniversary of “the 28th of June” with a modest public celebration. In 1873, the newspapers of Charleston proudly announced a more robust observance of the holiday, now called “Carolina Day.” June 1873 is the earliest use of the name “Carolina Day” that I can find, but not everyone adopted that name right away. Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, and into the early years of the twentieth century, the Charleston newspapers used the terms “Palmetto Day” and “Carolina Day” interchangeably. As the years went on, however, “Carolina Day” became the phrase most commonly used. After the summer of 1912, the phrase “Palmetto Day” seems to vanish from the newspapers, and we’ve been calling it “Carolina Day” consistently since World War I.
The date we celebrate is the 28th of June, but sometimes the anniversary falls on a day that’s inconvenient for a big celebration. When the 28th falls on a Sunday, for example, the traditional response is to hold the public celebration on Saturday the 27th instead. As our modern world grows busier and our schedules more complex, weekdays in general aren’t convenient for big parties. This year, 2017, the holiday falls on a Wednesday, so the Palmetto Society has decided to celebrate the anniversary on Saturday, June 24th. Despite the change of date, the festivities will follow a well-established pattern: at 10 a.m. prayers of thanksgiving will be offered at St. Michael’s Church at the corner of Broad and Meeting Streets. Following that service, the Palmetto Society will lead a parade of citizens and social organizations will commence from Washington Square Park, behind City Hall, and proceed down Meeting Street toward White Point Garden. Wreaths will be laid at the 1876 monument dedicated to the “Defenders of Fort Moultrie,” followed by a rousing speech and the firing of guns. Across the harbor on Sullivan’s Island, the National Park Service at Fort Moultrie always hosts a fun day of “living history” with re-enactors, black powder demonstrations, and copious discussion of the historical significance of the Battle(s) of Sullivan’s Island. If you on Sullivan’s Island, be sure to visit the recently created Thomson Park to learn more about the important “other” battle that unfolded on Sullivan’s Island in the summer of 1776.
Carolina Day is the annual celebration of an important military victory that took place here in the early days of the American Revolution. It’s not just a local story, however. It’s a story that has legitimate national significance, and I think it’s a shame that more people outside of the South Carolina lowcountry don’t know more about it. Even if you’re not a fan of military history, or of history in general, you have to admit that it’s a great story. Who doesn’t love a true story about the underdog beating the odds to win fame and glory in the face of an overwhelming invader?