How Palmetto Logs May Be Used

In 1775, in Virginia, the patriots forced the royal governor, Lord

Dunmore, to take refuge on board a British man-of-war in Norfolk

Harbor. In revenge, the town of Norfolk, the largest and the most

important in the Old Dominion, was, on New Year's Day, 1776, shelled

and destroyed. This bombardment, and scores of other less wanton acts

of the men-of-war, alarmed every coastwise town from Maine to


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Early in the fall of 1775, the British government planned to strike a

hard blow against the Southern colonies. North Carolina was to be the

first to receive punishment. It was the first colony, as perhaps you

know, to take decided action in declaring its independence from the

mother country. To carry out the intent of the British, Sir Henry

Clinton, with two thousand troops, sailed from Boston for the Cape

Fear River.

The minutemen of the Old North State rallied from far and near, as

they had done in Massachusetts after the battle of Lexington. Within

ten days, there were ten thousand men ready to fight the redcoats.

And so when Sir Henry arrived off the coast, he decided, {37} like a

prudent man, not to land; but cruised along the shore, waiting for

the coming of war vessels from England.

This long-expected fleet was under the command of Sir Peter Parker.

Baffled by head winds, and tossed about by storms, the ships were

nearly three months on the voyage, and did not arrive at Cape Fear

until the first of May. There they found Clinton.

Sir Peter and Sir Henry could not agree as to what action was best.

Clinton, with a wholesome respect for the minutemen of the Old North

State, wished to sail to the Chesapeake; while Lord Campbell, the

royal governor of South Carolina, who was now an officer of the

fleet, begged that the first hard blow should fall upon Charleston.

He declared that, as soon as the city was captured, the loyalists

would be strong enough to restore the king's power. Campbell, it

seems, had his way at last, and it was decided to sail south, to

capture Charleston.

Meanwhile, the people of South Carolina had received ample warning.

So they were not surprised when, on the last day of May, a British

fleet under a cloud of canvas was seen bearing up for Charleston. On

the next day, Sir Peter Parker cast anchor off the bar, with upwards

of fifty war ships and transports. Affairs looked serious for the

people of this fair city; but they were of fighting stock, and, with

the war thus brought to their doors, were not slow to show their


{38} For weeks the patriots had been pushing the works of defense.

Stores and warehouses were leveled to the ground, to give room for

the fire of cannon and muskets from various lines of earthworks;

seven hundred wagons belonging to loyalists were pressed into

service, to help build redoubts; owners of houses gave the lead from

their windows, to be cast into bullets; fire boats were made ready to

burn the enemy's vessels, if they passed the forts. The militia came

pouring in from the neighboring colonies until there were sixty-five

hundred ready to defend the city.

It was believed that a fort built on the southern end of Sullivan's

Island, within point-blank shot of the channel leading into

Charleston Harbor, might help prevent the British fleet from sailing

up to the city. At all events it would be worth trying. So, in the

early spring of 1776, Colonel William Moultrie, a veteran of the

Indian wars, was ordered to build a square fort large enough to hold

a thousand men.

The use of palmetto logs was a happy thought. Hundreds of negroes

were set at work cutting down the trees and hauling them to the

southern end of the island. The long straight logs were laid one upon

another in two parallel rows sixteen feet apart, and were bound

together with cross timbers dovetailed and bolted into the logs. The

space between the two rows of logs was filled with sand. This made

the walls of the fort.

{39} The cannon were mounted upon platforms six feet high, which

rested upon brick pillars. Upon these platforms the men could stand

and fire through the openings. The rear of the fort and the eastern

side were left unfinished, being merely built up seven feet with

logs. Thirty-one cannon were mounted, but only twenty-five could at

any one time be brought to bear upon the enemy.

On the day of the battle, there were about four hundred and fifty men

in the fort, only thirty of whom knew anything about handling cannon.

But most of the garrison were expert riflemen, and it was soon found

that their skill in small arms helped them in sighting the artillery.

One day early in June, General Charles Lee, who had been sent down to

take the chief command, went over to the island to visit the fort. As

the old-time soldier, who had seen long service in the British army,

looked over the rudely built affair, and saw that it was not even

finished, he gravely shook his head.

"The ships will anchor off there," said he to Moultrie, pointing to

the channel, "and will make your fort a mere slaughter pen."

{40} The weak-kneed general, who afterwards sold himself to the

British, went back and told Governor Rutledge that the only thing to

do was to abandon the fort. The governor, however, was made of better

stuff, and, besides, had the greatest faith in Colonel Moultrie. But

he did ask his old friend if he thought he really could defend the

cob-house fort, which Lee had laughed to scorn.

Moultrie was a man of few words, and replied simply, "I think I can."

"General Lee wishes you to give up the fort," added Rutledge, "but

you are not to do it without an order from me, and I will sooner cut

off my right hand than write one."

The idea of retreating seems never to have occurred to the brave


"I was never uneasy," wrote Moultrie in after years, "because I never

thought the enemy could force me to retire."

It was indeed fortunate that Colonel Moultrie was a stout-hearted

man, for otherwise he might well have been discouraged. A few days

before the battle, the master of a privateer, whose vessel was laid

up in Charleston harbor, paid him a visit. As the two friends stood

on the palmetto walls, looking at the fleet in the distance, the

naval officer said, "Well, Colonel Moultrie, what do you think of it


Moultrie replied, "We shall beat them."

{41} "Sir," exclaimed his visitor, pointing to the distant

men-of-war, "when those ships come to lay alongside of your fort,

they will knock it down in less than thirty minutes."

"We will then fight behind the ruins," said the stubborn patriot,

"and prevent their men from landing."

The British plan of attack, to judge from all military rules, should

have been successful. First, the redcoat regulars were to land upon

Long Island, lying to the north, and wade across the inlet which

separates it from Sullivan's Island. Then, after the war ships had

silenced the guns in the fort, the land troops were to storm the

position, and thus leave the channel clear for the combined forces to

sail up and capture the city.

If a great naval captain like Nelson or Farragut had been in command,

probably the ships would not have waited a month, but would at once

have made a bold dash past the fort, and straightway captured

Charleston. Sir Peter, however, was slow, and felt sure of success.

For over three weeks he delayed the attack, thus giving the patriots

more time for completing their defenses.

Friday morning, June 28, was hot, but bright and beautiful. Early in

the day, Colonel Moultrie rode to the northern end of the island to

see Colonel Thompson. The latter had charge of a little fort manned

by sharpshooters, and it was his duty to prevent Clinton's troops

from getting across the inlet.

Suddenly the men-of-war begin to spread their topsails and raise

their anchors. The tide is coming in. {42} The wind is fair. One

after another, the war ships get under way and come proudly up the

harbor, under full sail. The all-important moment of Moultrie's life

is at hand. He puts spurs to his horse and gallops back to the

palmetto fort.

"Beat the long roll!" he shouts to his officers, Colonel Motte and

Captain Marion.

The drums beat, and each man hurries to his chosen place beside the

cannon. The supreme test for the little cob-house fort has come. The

men shout, as a blue flag with a crescent, the colors of South

Carolina, is flung to the breeze.

Just as a year before, the people of Boston crowded the roofs and the

belfries, to watch the outcome of Bunker Hill; so now, the old men

and the women and children of Charleston cluster on the wharves, the

church towers, and the roofs, all that hot day, to watch the duel

between the palmetto fort and the British fleet.

Sir Peter Parker has a powerful fleet. He is ready to do his work.

Two of his ships carry fifty guns each, and four carry twenty-eight

guns each. With a strong flood tide and a favorable southwest wind,

the stately men-of-war sweep gracefully to their positions.

Moultrie's fighting blood is up, and his dark eyes flash with

delight. The men of South Carolina, eager to fight for their homes,

train their cannon upon the war ships.

"Fire! fire!" shouts Moultrie, as the men-of-war come within

point-blank shot. The low palmetto cob house begins to thunder with

its heavy guns.

{43} A bomb vessel casts anchor about a mile from the fort. Puff!

bang! a thirteen-inch shell rises in the air with a fine curve and

falls into the fort. It bursts and hurls up cart loads of sand, but

hurts nobody. Four of the largest war ships are now within easy

range. Down go the anchors, with spring ropes fastened to the cables,

to keep the vessels broadside to the fort. The smaller men-of-war

take their positions in a second line, in the rear. Fast and furious,

more than one hundred and fifty cannon bang away at the little


But, even from the first, things did not turn out as the British

expected. After firing some fifty shells, which buried themselves in

the loose sand and did not explode, the bomb vessel broke down.

About noon, the flagship signaled to three of the men-of-war, "Move

down and take position southwest of the fort."

Once there, the platforms inside the fort could be raked from end to

end. As good fortune would have it, two of these vessels, in

attempting to carry out their orders, ran afoul of each other, and

all three stuck fast on the shoal on which is now the famed Fort


How goes the battle inside the fort? The men, stripped to the waist

and with handkerchiefs bound round their heads, stand at the guns all

that sweltering day, with the coolness and the courage of old

soldiers. The supply of powder is scant. They take careful aim, fire

slowly, and make almost every shot tell. The twenty-six-pound balls

{44} splinter the masts, and make sad havoc on the decks. Crash!

crash! strike the enemy's cannon balls against the palmetto logs. The

wood is soft and spongy, and the huge shot either bury themselves

without making splinters, or else bound off like rubber balls.

Meanwhile, where was Sir Henry Clinton? For nearly three weeks he had

been encamped with some two thousand men on the sand bar known as

Long Island. The men had suffered fearfully from the heat, from lack

of water, and from the mosquitoes.

During the bombardment of Fort Sullivan, Sir Henry marched his men

down to the end of the sand island, but could not cross; for the

water in the inlet proved to be seven feet deep even at low tide.

Somebody had blundered about the ford. The redcoats, however, were

paraded on the sandy shore while some armed boats made ready to cross

the inlet. The grapeshot from two cannon, and the bullets of Colonel

Thompson's riflemen, so raked the decks that the men could not stay

at their posts. Memories of Bunker Hill, perhaps, made the British

officers a trifle timid about crossing the inlet, and marching over

the sandy shore, to attack intrenched sharpshooters. Thus it happened

that Clinton and his men, through stupidity, were kept prisoners on

the sand island, mere spectators of the thrilling scene. They had to

content themselves with fighting mosquitoes, under the sweltering

rays of a Southern sun.

All this time, Sir Peter was doing his best to pound the fort down.

The fort trembled and shook, but it stood. Moultrie and his men, with

perfect coolness and with steady aim, made havoc of the war ships.

Colonel Moultrie prepared grog by the pailful, which, with a negro as

helper, he dipped out to the tired men at the guns.

"Take good aim, boys," he said, as he passed from gun to gun, "mind

the big ships, and don't waste the powder."

The mainmast of the flagship Bristol was hit nine times, and the

mizzenmast was struck by seven thirty-two-pound balls, and had to be

cut away. In short, the flagship was pierced so many times that she

would have sunk had not the wind been light and the water smooth.

While the battle raged in all its fury, the carpenters worked like

beavers to keep the vessel afloat.

{46} At one time a cannon ball shot off one of the cables, and the

ship swung round with the tide.

"Give it to her, boys!" shouts Moultrie, "now is your time!" and the

cannon balls rake the decks from stem to stern.

The captain of the flagship was struck twice, Lord Campbell was hurt,

and one hundred men were either killed or wounded. Once Sir Peter was

the only man left on the quarter-deck, and he himself was twice


The other big ship, the Experiment, fared fully as hard as did the

flagship. The captain lost his right arm, and nearly a hundred of his

men were killed or wounded.

In fact, these two vessels were about to be left to their fate, when

suddenly the fire of the fort slackened.

"Fire once in ten minutes," orders Colonel Moultrie, for the supply

of powder is becoming dangerously small.

An aid from General Lee came running over to the fort. "When your

powder is gone, spike your guns and retreat," wrote the general.

Moultrie was not that kind of man.

Between three and five o'clock in the afternoon, the fire of the fort

almost stopped. The British thought the guns were silenced. Not a bit

of it! Even then a fresh supply of five hundred pounds of powder had

nearly reached the fort. It came from Governor Rutledge with a note,

saying, "Honor and victory, my {47} good sir, to you and your worthy

men with you. Don't make too free with your cannon. Keep cool and do


How those men shouted when the powder came! Bang! bang! the cannon in

the fort thunder again. The British admiral tries to batter down the

fort by firing several broadsides at the same moment. At times it

seemed as if it would tumble in a heap. Once the broadsides of four

vessels struck the fort at one time; but the palmetto logs stood

unharmed. A gunner by the name of McDaniel was mortally wounded by a

cannon ball. As the dying soldier was being carried away, he cried

out to his comrades in words that will never be forgotten, "Fight on,

brave boys, and don't let liberty die with this day!"

In the hottest of the fight, the flagstaff is shot away. Down falls

the blue banner upon the beach, outside the fort.

{48} "The flag is down!" "The fort has surrendered!" cry the people

of Charleston, with pale faces and tearful eyes.

Out from one of the cannon openings leaps Sergeant William Jasper.

Walking the whole length of the fort, he tears away the flag from the

staff. Returning with it, he fastens it to the rammer of a cannon,

and plants it on the ramparts, amidst the rain of shot and shell.

With the setting of the sun, the roar of battle slackens. The victory

is Moultrie's. Twilight and silence fall upon the smoking fort. Here

and there lights glimmer in the city, as the joyful people of

Charleston return to their homes. The stars look down upon the

lapping waters of the bay, where ride at anchor the shadowy vessels

of the British fleet. Towards midnight, when the tide begins to ebb,

the battered war ships slip their cables and sail out into the

darkness with their dead.

The next day, hundreds came from the city to rejoice with Moultrie

and his sturdy fighters. Governor Rutledge came down with a party of

ladies, and presented a silk banner to the fort. Calling for Sergeant

Jasper, he took his own short sword from his side, buckled it on him,

and thanked him in the name of his country. He also offered him a

lieutenant's commission, but the young hero modestly refused the

honor, saying, "I am not fitted for an officer; I am only a


For several days, the crippled British fleet lay in the harbor, too

much shattered to fight or to go to sea. In {49} fact, it was the

first week in August before the patriots of South Carolina saw the

last war ship and the last transport put out to sea, and fade away in

the distance. The hated redcoats were gone.

In the ten hours of active fighting, the British fleet fired

seventeen tons of powder and nearly ten thousand shot and shell, but,

in that little inclosure of green logs and sand, only one gun was


The defense of Fort Sullivan ranks as one of the few complete

American victories of the Revolution. The moral effect of the victory

was perhaps more far-reaching than the battle of Bunker Hill. Many of

the Southern people who had been lukewarm now openly united their

fortunes with the patriot cause.

Honors were showered upon the brave Colonel Moultrie. His services to

his state and to his country continued through life. He died at a

good old age, beloved by his fellow citizens.