The Battle of Brandywine

British General William Howe and his brother, Admiral Richard Howe spent thirty-three days at sea from the day their armada embarked from Staten Island, New York on July 23, 1777. During that time, General George Washington, who had no reliable intelligence, desperately tried to anticipate where the Howes were going. The Hudson Highlands? To Albany to assist British General John Burgoyne’s army? To take the American’s supply depots in Pennsylvania?

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George Washington

Finally, he received intelligence that the British armada was sailing up the Chesapeake Bay. Howe’s exhausted army disembarked at Head of Elk, Maryland on August 25, 1777. The army rested, foraged, and scouted. On September 9, they began their slow march north and to the west of the Brandywine River in Pennsylvania.

Washington gathered his army at Chadd’s Ford on the steep thickly wooded east bank of the Brandywine to defend what he perceived as an attempt to take Philadelphia. Howe’s objective was just that. There were numerous fords at one mile intervals northward along the Brandywine: Brinton’s Ford, Wistar’s Ford, Jone’s Ford and Buffington’s Ford. These names were not thoroughly familiar to Washington and his generals. They had not taken the precaution of having at hand someone who knew the countryside.

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William Howe

By September 10, the British army was encamped at Kennett Square, six miles west of Chadd’s Ford and twenty-six miles from Philadelphia. Here Howe and his major generals Lord Charles Cornwallis and German Wilhelm von Knyphausen laid out their strategy and employed local scouts. Knyphausen would keep Washington’s army occupied in the center over Chadd’s Ford while Howe and Cornwallis marched north along the Great Valley Road to unguarded fords at the fork of the Brandywine and perform a right flanking maneuver on Washington’s army just as they had at the Battle of Long Island.

Washington formed his army into three wings. Nathanael Greene with his division and Anthony Wayne’s Pennsylvanians were in the center while John Sullivan’s division anchored the American right to guard Brinton’s Ford. Lord Alexander Stirling’s and Adam Stephen’s division formed a second line behind Sullivan’s men. Colonel Moses Hazen, guarding Jone’s Ford on Sullivan’s right, was ordered to scout to the north and west. Henry Knox set up an artillery park at Chadd’s Ford.

Washington and his staff settled in the Ring House and setup headquarters. Unless something completely unforeseen intervened, the stage was set for one of the largest battles of the American Revolution. Nearly 30,000 troops were within a few miles of one another and prepared for action.

September 11 dawned cool, gray, and dreary. In the pre-dawn hours William Howe’s army moved out. Knyphausen’s division left at the same time and marched directly eastward toward the Brandywine. British and Hessian brigades, Royal Artillery, dragoons, and two battalions of Highlanders rumbled toward Chadd’s Ford. About a mile beyond where Howe and Cornwallis filed off, Knyphausen’s van came upon Welch’s Tavern.

Washington sent General William Maxwell’s regiment across the Brandywine to harass the enemy’s vanguard. Maxwell opened fire on Major Patrick Ferguson’s rifles and Captain James Wemy’s Queen’s Rangers as they approached the tavern. The British van was brought to halt. British field guns began a cannonade. Knox’s gunners returned fire. For two hours the cannons kept up a deafening roar.

After having been ambushed three times, the troops marching at the head of Knyphausen’s column were more cautious. British General James Grant moved up with his Regiments of Foot. The Queen’s Rangers attacked the rebels with bayonets. Maxwell’s flank was turned by the Hessians. His left collapsed and retreated.

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Captain Patrick Ferguson had only 10 casualties. He credit the small number to his new rifle, a rifle that could be loaded lying on the ground by way of a screw plug that passed vertically through the barrel instead of having to stand to muzzle load the weapon. A well-trained rifleman could fire up to six times a minute. Maxwell, on the other hand lost close to fifty men.

The Battle of Brandywine had begun.

Near Wayne’s division, Colonel Thomas Proctor’s Pennsylvania artillery unit slid into place and lobbed balls across the creek at the enemy. While the artillery exchanged rounds Knyphausen did his best to convince Washington that he was opposing Howe’s entire army. To accomplish this, Knyphausen marched his units one way and then back again, using the hills and swales to show them or hide them as he saw fit.

On the east side of the river, Washington sorted through verbal reports in an effort to determine who Maxwell had spent the morning fighting. Did his light infantry harass and fall back in the face of Howe’s entire army? If not, then a large portion of Howe’s command was no longer in his front. Exactly what was happening? Around 9:30 a.m., Sullivan’s aide, Major Lewis Morris arrived at the Ring House with a message from Sullivan.

Maj. Jamison came to me at nine o’clock and said that he had come from the right of the army, and I might depend there was no enemy there.

Washington sent scouts north of Colonel Hazen’s position to reconnoiter. However, the first warning arrived shortly afterward around 10:00 a.m. from Colonel Hazen near  Buffington’s Ford.

The British are making a flanking movement. A strong British column is to the west headed toward the forks of the Brandywine near Trimble’s Ford.

By 11:00, the conflict had lulled and there was no movement from Knyphausen. Washington began to worry that they were facing a repeat of Long Island. Indeed, Howe and Cornwallis had reached Trimble’s Ford on the west branch of the Brandywine about five miles from where they began their march at Kennett Square. The British column picked up its pace and marched toward Jeffries’s Ford on the east branch of the Brandywine.

Washington ordered Stirling’s and Stephen’s divisions to shift north to protect the army’s right flank. Greene and Maxwell were to reinforce their position behind the morass near the river in preparation to assist Stephen and Stirling. At noon a report came in from Colonel James Ross.

A large body of the enemy from every account 5000, with 16 or 18 field pieces, marched along this road just now. This road leads to Trimble’s and Jeffrie’s ferries on the Brandywine. We are close on the enemy’s rear and skirmishing with some of their elements.

While Washington’s generals executed his orders, another message arrived from John Sullivan at 12:30.

Since I sent you the message by Major Lewis Morris, I saw Major Joseph Spears of the Militia who came this morning from a tavern called Martins in the Forks of the Brandywine—he came from thence to Welches Tavern and heard nothing of the enemy about the Forks of the Brandywine and is confident they are not in that Quarter. So Colonel Hazen’s information must be wrong. I have sent to that Quarter to know whether there is any foundation for the Report and shall give Yr. Excy the earliest information.

At 1:00 p.m., the vanguard of Cornwallis’ column arrived at Jeffries’s Ford. Just east of Jefferies’s Ford, the road to Birmingham intersected with the road coming from Jeffries’s Ford at right angles, cutting through a sharp defile. It was the perfect avenue to march troops behind. Hessian Captain Johann Ewald, leading Cornwallis’ van, filed his Hessians into the defile. Cornwallis followed. Ewald rode back to Cornwallis and said, “I do not understand why the pass has been left wide open for us where a hundred men could have held up either army the whole day. Washington should have defended this spot.”

At 2:00 p.m., a message arrived from Colonel Bland forwarded by Sullivan.

Colonel Bland has at this moment sent me word, that the enemy are in the rear of my right, about two miles, coming down. There, he says, about two brigades of them. He also saw a dust back in the country for above an hour.

While Washington was digesting Bland’s report, Cornwallis’ main flanking column was pressing through the defile and Sconneltown. The local Quakers watched as the British poured across the Brandywine. Young Quaker, Joseph Townsend wrote:

Our eyes were caught on a sudden by the appearance of the army coming out of the woods into the fields belonging to Emmor Jerfferis, on the west side of the creek above the fording placed. In a few minutes the fields were literally covered with them, and they were hastening towards us. Their arms and bayonets being raised shone as bright as silver, there being a clear sky and the day exceedingly warm.

Cornwallis divided his army into three columns before continuing the advance. Washington concluded that Stirling’s and Stephen’s division would not be sufficient to check the flanking column. He ordered Sullivan to pull his infantry out of line and shift his division north. After an hour of traversing difficult terrain consisting of hills, woods, thickets, marshy streams, and farm fields, Sullivan and his 1,400 men mostly from Maryland and Delaware were still trying to get into position. He finally rendezvoused with Stirling and Stephen on Birmingham Hill. Colonel Moses Hazen added his regiment to the forces.

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Cornwallis fanned part of his force out on Osborn’s Hill two miles north of Birmingham Hill. Now halted, the solders dropped where they stood. “The troops were both sultry and dusty and rather fatigued, many remaining along the road on that account,” Captain John Montresor wrote in his journal. Generals Howe and Cornwallis had a commanding view from their position on Osborn’s Hill including the distant views of the Americans’ changing front to meet their advance.

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Cornwallis ordered Ewald to form the advanced guard. It was 4:00 p.m. As Cornwallis’ front lines began to move, the Americans opened fire with solid cannon shot. Finally, the Americans switched to grapeshot and canister rounds. The Royal Artillery responded. Grapeshot ripped through the American ranks of both Stirling’s and Stephen’s divisions. Hot chunks of iron dismembered some, and crushed and killed others.

Sullivan was trying to get into a line of battle. He left his division under a French officer temporarily in charge of the Marylanders, to establish his overall command of Stirling’s and Stephen’s divisions and confer with them. The French officer, General Philippe de Borre, spoke no English and promptly led the Marylanders in circles. The sound of beating drums and fifes and boots thudding alerted them to the approach of the British Brigade of Guards. Instead of sliding to the right to align with Stirling’s left, de Borre attempted a complicated wheeling maneuver. A strong line of the enemy troops appeared directly in front of them and fired into their faces at pointblank range.

Twenty-six Marylanders were killed. The 1st Maryland Brigade was thrown into confusion. They poured down the southern slope of Birmingham Hill. With the 1st Maryland Brigade in full retreat, the 2nd Maryland Brigade assumed a retreat had been ordered. Colonel Samuel Smith’s Maryland men took to the cornfields. Except for Hazen, Sullivan’s division had been routed.

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British grenadiers suddenly appeared within forty paces of Stirling’s line and a hot volley ensued. Confusion erupted in both armies when heavy black powder smoke billowed along the lines. The grenadiers fired another volley and then ran at the rebels with fixed bayonets. The momentum of the advancing Light Infantry Battalion, together with the Grenadier Battalion, carried them up the slope and into General Thomas Conway’s Pennsylvania brigade of Stirling’s division.

Stirling’s men fell down the southern slope. They were unable to survive the rout of Sullivan’s division on the left, withstand the heavy firing in front, and repulse the grenadier’s’ bayonet charge. All of them were retreating into Sandy Hollow. Despite Stirling’s retreat, Stephen and his men tried desperately to defend their position on Birmingham Hill, but their left flank was exposed. General Lafayette and his men were trying to mount bayonets on the muskets of Stirling’s men when Lafayette took a ball in his leg.

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The Marquis de Lafayette Wounded

The thunder of cannon rolling to the north was the signal for Knyphausen to form his column to attack the sparsely manned American defense across the Brandywine which formed Washington’s center. Colonel Thomas Proctor’s gunners fired at the British as they waded across the river. From in front, Wayne’s divisional artillery fired at their right flank.

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Wilhelm von Knyphausen

While Knyphausen’s men lead by General James Grant were crossing the river, Greene, under orders from Washington, with his brigade of Virginians and generals George Weedon and John Muhlenberg were marching north to stop the advancing British and Hessian troops and protect the fleeing survivors of the Birmingham Hill rout.

Night was falling over Pennsylvania when Washington and his staff arrived at the Brinton House north east of Birmingham Hill as the remnants of Sullivan’s three divisional commands were fleeing in disorder southeast. Henry Knox mounted his artillery on a small hill. When Greene came to the rescue, Sullivan was making an attempt to realign his disordered troops. Greene’s division moved to both sides of Wilmington Road a mile south of Dilworth

At Chadd’s Ford, the British succeeded in crossing the river under fire from Colonel Thomas Proctor’s artillery redoubt. They attacked the American artillery redoubt and poured in. British howitzers killed many American gunners. The surviving gunners fled abandoning their pieces and ammunition. The Queen’s Rangers and the 71st Highlanders marched northward to attack the American artillery park at Brinton’s Ford. The gunners fled toward a nearby buckwheat field, where they were pinned against a fence line and bayoneted.

Wayne’s division positioned on the Great Post Road on a rise with General William Maxwell’s regiment on their right flank offered some long distance enfilade. However, Knyphausen’s advancing lines opened fire. As the last remnants of light hung in the sky, most of Wayne’s men were running for their lives under heavy fire. With Cornwallis’ Brigade of Guards bearing down on him from the north and Knyphausen’s troops pushing the in front Wayne ordered a retreat.

To the north, Greene’s formed division draped across Wilmington Road on a hill outside of Dilworth to face British General James Agnew’s 4th Brigade, British Battalion of Grenadiers and Regiments of Foot, which included Ewald’s surviving Hessian jaegers who had attached themselves to the grenadiers.

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Johann Ewald

Agnew and Ewald crossed Wilmington Road and marched up the slope in their front. The exhausted British and Hessians were surprised by Greene’s expansive front. On Greene’s right, Weedon’s men held their fire until Agnew’s flanking line was directly in front. They caught part of Agnew’s regiments in an open field. Agnew returned fire. Weedon’s men opened a sustained fire while Knox’s cannon crews did the same from the knoll near the Brinton House. The British officer corps was decimated in the firing. Both sides volleyed until dark. With ammunition almost spent, firing ceased on both sides. Greene and the others pulled back southeastward.

William Howe halted pursuit and the exhausted British and Hessian troops dropped where they stood. One of Howe’s Royal Engineers, Captain Archibald Robertson advised, “It being almost dark, unacquainted with the ground and the troops very much fatigued, it shall be impossible to pursue further the advantage we have gained.”

Washington’s army was in full retreat south toward Chester. The battle had scattered the army, flooding the roads and fields with exhausted troops from various commands whom stumbled on without the guidance of officers. The dead and wounded lay scattered across the countryside, British, German, and American alike, many of the survivors crying and begging for medical help, food and water.

The Battle of Brandywine had come to an end. Washington’s army was routed again because they could not hold the field.

Resources:

Pancake, John S. 1777 The University of Alabama Press, 1997. Print.

Auricchio, Laura. The Marquis Lafayette Reconsidered New York: Penguin Random House, 2014. Print.

O’Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson. The Men Who Lost America New Haven & London Yale University Press, 2013. Print.

Puls, Mark. Henry Knox Visionary General of the American Revolution Palgrave McMillian New York, 2008. Print.

Harris, Michael C. Brandywine Savas Beatie LLC El Dorado Hills, California 2017. Print.

Philbrick, Nathaniel. Valiant Ambition Penguin Books New York, 2016. Print.

 

My award-winning historical fantasy book series:

Angels & Patriots Book One. Sons of Liberty, Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill is available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle eBook, or read for free on Kindle Unlimited. Angels & Patriots Book One

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The Battle of Long Island

On the morning of August 22, 1776, the British frigates Phoenix, Rose, and Greyhound with their sails spread open in the hot sun weighed anchor off Staten Island in New York harbor and fell down The Narrows accompanied by two bomb ketches, the Carcass and the Thunder. British Generals Henry Clinton and Charles Cornwallis with an advance corps of 4,000 of the King’s elite troops pushed off in flatboats and proceeded across the three miles of water to the long beach at Gravesend Bay on the southwest tip of Long Island.

The warships pointed their cannon at the beach. By eight in the morning, the whole coast swarmed with boats. Then, a signal gun fired from British Admiral Richard Howe’s flagship, Phoenix.

The English and Scottish artillerists disembarked first. A battalion of Hessian grenadiers with muskets in hand disembarked in order of battle ranks. The Scottish dressed in kilts and wielding muskets, pistols, bayonets, and broadswords arrived. More troops followed, including women and children whose husbands and fathers were with the army. By noon, a fully equipped army of 15,000 men and forty pieces of artillery had landed and assembled in formation.

At Kennedy House in Manhattan, General George Washington initially received erroneous information about the number of the enemy force. He was told there were 6,000. In response, on August 25, he sent General Israel Putnam across the East River with six brigades to the American fortifications on Brooklyn Heights. Putnam was to assume command from General John Sullivan and reassign him to the center at Flatbush Road with 1,000 troops. General Alexander Stirling was responsible for the Gowanus Road on the right with the elite First Maryland Regiment, a Pennsylvania battalion, and Delaware regiments. Colonel Samuel Miles was to provide protection for the left  flank of the Continental Army at Bedford Road with 800 men.

They had failed to cover a fourth pass known as the Jamaica Pass, that lay three miles north of the American left flank on the Bedford Road. It was a blind spot in the American defenses patrolled by only five young militiamen.

The Continental Army had no cavalry and no spies, and the troops were unfamiliar of the lay of the land on Long Island. A force of fewer than 3,000 inexperienced American soldiers was expected to hold a ridge four miles long, while the rest, another 6,000 remained within the Brooklyn Heights forts: Greene, Putnam, Box, and Cobble Hill.

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The white tents of the British army, spread across the Flatlands, could be seen from the heights near Gowanus Road. The sight was alarming enough to cause some of the Americans to desert.

From his headquarters in the British encampment, General William Howe laid out plans to distract the rebels and keep them stationary while the main body of the British forces executed a sweeping flanking maneuver through Jamaica Pass. Howe assigned General James Grant two brigades which would cause a diversion close to The Narrows on the enemy’s right on the coast of the Upper Bay. Hessian General Leopold von Heister’s 4,000 Hessians would occupy the Americans’ center. General Charles Cornwallis was to back up Grant on the enemy’s right with grenadiers and the Scottish. General Henry Clinton was to command the advanced guard while Howe followed with the rest of the main force of 10,000 men.

On August 26 at 9:00 p.m, the British generals moved out to their assigned positions. No one except the commanders knew of the plan.

General James Grant led 5,000 redcoats toward the Red Lyon Inn on the coast of the Upper Bay near Gowanus Road where Pennsylvania riflemen were patrolling. The riflemen were relieved around two o’clock in the morning by green militiamen. Grant sent 300 men to attack the terrified men, who fled.

General Israel Putnam was alerted to this British movement. Alarm guns sounded and drums rolled as the men in the forts fell out in response to the alarm. Putnam believed it was the frontal assault and rushed to alert General Alexander Stirling whose troops were at Gowanus Road.

The men under Stirling’s overall command marched toward the enemy. A little before day light, they saw Grant’s regiments advancing along Gowanus Road with colors flying and field artillery out front. Before they could form lines, Grant’s artillery fired on Stirling’s vanguard in a thunderous profusion of smoke and shot.

Stirling shouted for his men to deploy. “Stretch out and form a V so we may have a chance to face these rascals in their own formations!”

The rebels volleyed and then fired on the British with two cannons. Grant pulled his troops back and switched to a steady artillery barrage.

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Mordecai Gist

Major Mordecai Gist, who was in command of the Marylanders, moved them to the right flank on top of a hill.  The Marylanders successfully withstood the British cannonade which was what Grant hoped. His diversion was working.

The Marylanders, believing that they were engaged with the enemy’s main assault, valiantly stood their ground without realizing that Grant sent a detachment eastward to link up with the Hessians and General von Heister in the center to surround them.

Colonel John Chester, of Connecticut, was entrenched with the Continentals at Bedford Pass with his adjutant Lieutenant Benjamin Tallmadge. Chester’s men could not maintain their ground at the pass and were forced to retreat to Brooklyn Heights.

William Howe and Henry Clinton’s flanking maneuver was unfolding as planned. They moved their 10,000 troops from the camp at Flatbush and advanced toward Jamaica Pass along the Jamaica Road. At 9:00 a.m., Howe fired two cannons, announcing his arrival in the village of Bedford north of Jamaica Pass.

General von Heister and three Hessian brigades, that formed a line nearly a mile long, approached the center of the American lines where General John Sullivan’s troops were positioned. Sullivan’s troops panicked when they saw the Hessians with colors flying and drums beating. Without firing a shot, the Hessians pressed forward until they could employ their bayonets. They broke through Sullivan’s line on the right and ruthlessly butchered the rebels.

Sullivan struggled to keep his men from panicking. He called for a retreat and led them from the center at Flatbush Pass in the direction of the Brooklyn Heights fortifications. The Hessians kept up their bayonet assault. Hundreds of rebel troops raced through the woods and fields to reach the forts. A detachment of British General Charles Cornwallis’ grenadiers chased them right up to the walls. Sullivan and some of his troops were taken prisoner.

Less than a mile west of Sullivan’s position and with the enemy converging on all sides, Gist and five companies of Marylanders pushed through their original bivouac area. Flanking fire pelted them from both sides until they came to a marsh and a stone farmhouse where Cornwallis’ forces were positioned at the Vechte farm.

To buy time for his troops to escape, Stirling took the Marylanders on a suicidal preemptive strike against Cornwallis’ position in and around the farmhouse and the orchards.

Cornwallis’ men aimed their muskets and light cannon on the advancing Marylanders. The fusillade dropped many of the men in their tracks, severing limbs and heads, killing several instantly. The Marylanders formed into lines and charged into the hail of fire coming from the British soldiers in the Vechte house.

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Then, the Hessians attacked the Marylanders. They linked up with Cornwallis’s Scottish Highlanders and assaulted the Marylanders from the rear, while Grant’s forces pushed in the front.

Major Mordecai Gist noticed a fateful pause. The Marylanders realized to their horror that they were flanked. They heard fire on their left, and in a short time discovered part of the enemy in their rear. Surrounded on all sides by at least 10,000 men, the Americans were driven with precipitation and confusion. Maryland’s finest lay dead and dying all around.

General Alexander Stirling found himself surrounded with no hope for escape. He surrendered his sword to the Hessian general von Heister.

The Hessians and Highlanders gave no quarter and dispatched the rebels with their bayonets, pinning some to trees, after they had surrounded them. The Maryland officers were the first to be killed or captured. Sixty men were taken prisoner. The rebels were cut off from the retreat by Cornwallis, and Gowanus Creek remained the only avenue of escape for any not crushed between the British and Hessian forces.

The waters of the bay were at high tide, making Gowanus Creek and the adjoining marshes nearly impassable. The men had to wade and swim through waist-and often neck-deep water, while trying to evade the British fire. Many suffocated in the mud or drown.

The Delaware regiment scattered. They were unable to defend themselves against the ruthless men pursing them. They fled through the woods carrying their torn regimental colors.

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Samuel Parsons

General Samuel Parsons’ men, who had been holding the hill on Stirling’s left flank before he retreated, turned to see that the line they were defending was gone. With Grant pressing them, they too tried to escape but found Cornwallis blocking the road. Unable to get to the creek, Parsons’ men dispersed into the woods under pursuit and most were killed.

All night, after the guns grew silent, the Americans inside the Brooklyn defenses, expecting the British to attack, waited tensely hour after hour as nothing happened.  Stragglers who had escaped capture kept coming into the lines, bedraggled single soldiers, many badly wounded. The morning after, Mordecai Gist and nine others Marylanders returned to the fortifications. They were the only ones of the valiant Marylanders to have made it back.

General William Howe’s army had crushed Washington’s forward defense, but Howe ordered his men to halt instead of storming the American fortifications on Brooklyn Heights.

George Washington and his staff left Kennedy House in Manhattan for Brooklyn Heights after receiving a message that General John Sullivan and General Alexander Stirling were taken prisoner. General Thomas Mifflin’s brigade of Pennsylvanians, and two regiments of mariners from Marblehead, Salem, and Danvers, Massachusetts under the command of Colonels John Glover and Israel Hutchinson arrived.

Then, a storm blew in from the northeast, preventing the British ships from sailing into the East River from the harbor.

On the evening of August 28, General Howe’s engineers began digging a system of trenches called approach by advances that would shield the army as it approached and besieged the American position. They worked all night with picks and shovels, and by the morning of August 29, the British had dug a 300-yard trench parallel to the American lines and a mere 600 yards away. At the rate they were digging, the British would have been within musket shot of the rebels in less than twenty-four hours, and it would have been nearly impossible to dislodge them from their advancing trench.

Joseph Reed and Thomas Mifflin convinced Washington to make a full scale retreat from Long Island. Mifflin requisitioned every boat fit for transporting troops. With the mariners manning the boats and under cover of fog, the Americans evacuated 9,500 soldiers in a single night with all of their baggage, tents, equipment, and horses.

Resources:

O’Donnell, Patrick K. Washington’s Immortals New York: Grove Press, 2016. Print.

Schecter, Barnet. The Battle For New York New York: Walker & Company, 2002. Print.

McCullough, David. 1776 New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. Print.

My award-winning historical fantasy book series:

Angels & Patriots Book One. Sons of Liberty, Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill is available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle eBook, or read for free on Kindle Unlimited. Angels & Patriots Book One

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The Battle of Sullivan’s Island

The Siege of Boston began on April 19, 1775 after British troops retreated to Boston following the Battles of Lexington and Concord. With American artillery retrieved from Ft. Ticonderoga staring down at the town from Dorchester Heights, British General William Howe evacuated his troops and several thousand loyalists from Boston on March 17, 1776.

British army forces in North America were primarily tied up with the siege; therefore, the British planned an expedition to the southern colonies seeking bases of operations where they had more control. British General Henry Clinton was to travel to Cape Fear, North Carolina, where he would join with largely Scottish Loyalists raised in the North Carolina backcountry, and a force of 2,000 men from Ireland under the command of General Charles Cornwallis.

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General Henry Clinton

In January 1776, John Rutledge, a member of the Continental Congress, delivered information of the British plans to move into South Carolina. Rutledge organized defenses to be established on Sullivan’s Island to defend the city from an incursion by the British. Sullivan’s Island was a strategically suitable place to construct a fort, because it was a geographic shield to Charleston Harbor. Vessels sailing into Charleston had to cross Charleston Bar, which consisted of submerged sand banks south of the city.

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Colonel William Moultrie

Colonel William Moultrie and his 2nd South Carolina Regiment began building the fort on Sullivan’s Island in March 1776. The fort, named Fort Sullivan at the time, was planned as a square redoubt, with bastions at each corner. The construction was of an inner and an outer wall, made with palmetto trunks up to a height of twenty feet, with the sixteen-foot space between the walls filled with sand.

Clinton left Boston on January 20 and arrived at Cape Fear, North Carolina on March 12, expecting to find the European convoy already there. He met with the royal governors of North and South Carolina and learned that the recruited Scottish Loyalists had been defeated at Moore’s Creek Bridge two weeks earlier.

British Admiral Peter Parker’s fleet, which sailed from England with the Irish and General Cornwallis on board, encountered extreme difficulties crossing the Atlantic. Battered by storms and high seas, the first ships of the fleet did not arrive at Cape Fear until April 18, and Cornwallis did not arrive until May 3. After several weeks there,  Clinton, Cornwallis and Parker concluded that Cape Fear was not a suitable base for further operations.

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Admiral Peter Parker

Parker sent some of his fleet on scouting expeditions up and down the coast, and reports on the partially finished condition of the Charleston defenses were sufficiently promising that the decision was made to go there. By the time the British flotilla arrived off Charleston at the end of May 1776, the fort on Sullivan’s Island was unfinished, but was sufficiently advanced to provide a substantial defense to the city.

Congress had appointed General Charles Lee to command the Continental Army troops in the southern colonies. Lee arrived in Charleston shortly after the British fleet anchored outside the harbor, and he took command of the city’s defense. On seeing the uncompleted fort, he recommended that it be abandoned, describing it as a ‘Slaughter Pen’. Acting on Colonel Moultrie’s advice, Rutledge refused to leave the fort.

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General Charles Lee

Arriving there in early June, British troops were landed on Long Island (now called Isle of Palms), near Sullivan’s Island. The intent was that these troops would wade across the channel (now known as Breach Inlet) between Long and Sullivan’s, which the British believed to be sufficiently shallow to do so, while the fleet bombarded Fort Sullivan. General Lee responded to the British landing with several defensive actions.

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General Clinton encountered the first major problem of the attack plan on June 17. An attempt to wade the channel between the two islands established that part of the channel was at least shoulder-deep, too deep for troops to cross even without the prospect of enemy opposition.

On June 26, the British repositioned at Five Fathom Hole, ready for the assault. On the morning of June 28, 1776 at around 9:00 am, a British ship fired a signal gun indicating all was ready for the attack. Less than an hour later, nine warships had sailed into positions facing the fort.

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A plan of the fort was prepared by an officer of the Royal Artillery, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas James after the battle. The plan showed 28 pieces of artillery in Fort Sullivan.  One is described as a mortar and the rest as being 32 and 26 pounders. If James was correct the British ships were heavily out-gunned by Fort Sullivan.

The largest British ship, HMS Bristol, carried twenty-two 24 pounder guns, twenty-two 12 pounder guns and other smaller cannon. HMS Experiment carried the same size and number of guns. The British frigates deployed nothing larger than 9 pounders.

Around noon the frigates SphinxSyren, and Actaeon were sent on a roundabout route, avoiding some shoals, to take a position from which they could enfilade the fort’s main firing platform and also cover one of the main escape routes from the fort. However, all three ships grounded on an uncharted sandbar, and the riggings of Actaeon and Sphinx became entangled in the process. The British managed to refloat Sphinx and Syren, but Acteon remained grounded.

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At the fort, Moultrie ordered his men to concentrate their fire on the two large man-of-war ships, Bristol and Experiment, which took hit after hit from the fort’s guns. Chain shot fired at Bristol eventually destroyed much of her rigging and severely damaged both the main- and mizzenmasts.

Admiral Parker eventually sought to destroy the fort’s walls with persistent broadside cannonades. This strategy failed due to the spongy nature of the palmetto wood used in its constructions; the structure would quiver, and it absorbed the cannonballs rather than splintering. The exchange continued until around 9:00 pm, when darkness forced a cessation of hostilities, and the fleet finally withdrew out of range. The following morning, the British, unable to drag the grounded Acteon off the sandbar, set fire to the ship to prevent her from falling into enemy hands.

The flag that flew over the fort during the battle was created by Colonel Moultrie when he was ordered to take over Fort Johnson on James Island in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina in 1775. It was the first United States flag flown in the south.Ft_Moultrie_FlagMoultrie designed a blue flag with a white crescent moon in the canton with the word “Liberty” on the moon. Keeping with this theme, Moultrie’s South Carolina regiments wore blue uniforms with a silver crescent on their caps and the words “Liberty or Death.” Moultrie chose the design to honor his soldiers and continued the tradition of using the crescent as a symbol of resistance to tyrannical rule.

During the battle, the pole holding up the Fort Moultrie Flag was broken by a cannon shot and the flag fell down outside the fort. Sergeant William Jasper, risking death from the bullets and cannon balls flying all around him, allegedly cried, “We cannot fight without a flag!” He replanted the flag on the walls of the fort, earning him a place of renown in the American Revolution. Sgt-Jasper

The Battle of Sullivan’s Island was a decisive American victory over the British. The outcome on Sullivan’s Island would prevent other British efforts in Charleston for over three more years, and it revived the American spirit. The pride of victory at Sullivan Island was initiative for more Americans to support the break from Great Britain, because the victory was achieved against all odds.

Fort Sullivan was renamed Fort Moultrie in honor of Colonel William Moultrie’s success in defending Charleston. Today, the flag of the State of South Carolina is based on the Fort Moultrie Flag. south-carolina-flagIt is exactly the same as the original, except that the word “Liberty” is removed from the crescent and it has a Palmetto Tree added in the center of the blue field. The Palmetto Tree was added by the state during the Civil War. Several variations appeared during that time, but the version with the palmetto added, to represent the palmetto logs that were used at Fort Moultrie, is the one that survived as the official flag of South Carolina.

I visited Fort Moultrie recently. The following pictures are from my camera.

William Moultrie was promoted to Brigader General after the Battle of Sullivan’s Island. He died in 1805 at the age of 74 and was buried outside Charleston, in the family cemetery on his son’s property at Windsor Hill Plantation. The exact location of his body was unknown until 1977 when it was found by archeologists. On June 28, 1978, the remains of this Revolutionary War hero and early leader in South Carolina history were reinterred on Sullivan’s Island near the water at the Fort Moultrie Visitor Center. Today, William Moultrie’s grave is marked by a flagpole and a tombstone enclosed by iron fencing.

The fort that stands today reveals no traces of the fort that defended Sullivan’s Island. The original fort fell into decay and was rebuilt in 1798. It too suffered from neglect and was destroyed by a hurricane in 1804. However, Fort Moultrie was rebuilt for the third time. By 1809, a new brick fort stood on Sullivan’s Island.

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Fort Sumter is across the harbor from Fort Moultrie

After South Carolina seceded from the Union in 1860, Fort Moultrie was abandoned for the stronger Fort Sumter across the harbor. The fort was modernized several times and was used as a defense in WWI and WWII. It was maintained until 1947. The fort fell into decay once again. In 1960, South Carolina transferred Fort Moultrie to the National Park Service as a unit of Fort Sumter National Monument.

Resources:

https://www.britishbattles.com/war-of-the-revolution-1775-to-1783/battle-of-sullivans-island/ 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Sullivan%27s_Island

http://www.revolutionary-war-and-beyond.com/fort-moultrie-flag.html

http://totallyhistory.com/battle-of-sullivans-island/

https://www.nps.gov/fosu/planyourvisit/upload/William_Moultrie.pdf

Fort Moultrie pamphlet available at the visitors’ center (Fort Sumter National Monument South Carolina) issued by the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior

 

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