Revolutionary War in New York, 1776



The army under Washington, which had driven the British out of Boston, soon afterward appeared in other fields of duty, a part of them in Canada, but more at New York and in its vicinity. At the beginning of the 1776 Washington ascertained that Sir Henry Clinton was about to sail from Boston, with troops, on a secret expedition. It was suspected that New York was his destination, where Governor Tryon was ready to head a formal demonstration in favor of the crown. The Tories there were active and numerous. Disaffection prevailed extensively; and it was fostered by Tryon, whose "palace" was the armed-ship Duchess of Gordon, lying in the harbor. Fearing that province might be lost to the republicans, Washington ordered General Charles Lee, then recruiting in Connecticut, to embody the volunteers and march to New York. Governor Trumbull lent his official aid to Lee, and within a fortnight after the latter received his orders, he was in full march for the Harlem River with twelve hundred men, and the bold Son of Liberty, Isaac Sears, as his adjutant-general. His approach caused many Tories to flee, with their families, to Long Island and New Jersey; and the Committee of Safety, timorous and undecided, protested against his entering the city, because the commander of the Asia had threatened to cannonade and burn the town if "rebel" troops should be allowed to enter it. Lee did not heed the threats nor the protests. He encamped his troops in the Fields (now the City Hall Park), made his headquarters at the house of Captain Kennedy, No. 1 Broadway (yet standing), and issued a proclamation, saying: "I come to prevent the occupation of Long Island or the city, by the enemies of Liberty. If the ships-of-war are quiet, I shall be quiet; if they make my presence a pretext for firing on the town, the first house set in flames by their guns shall be the funeral pile of some of their best friends." Before these brave words the Tories cowered. The proclamation sent a thrill of patriotism among the weak-kneed in the Provincial Congress, and that body adopted measures for fortifying the city and the approaches to it, and garrisoning it with two thousand men.

Sir Henry Clinton's vessels appeared off Sandy Hook on the day when Lee arrived in New York. He was bound for the coast of North Carolina to execute a plan of the ministry for the subjugation of that province, suggested by Governor Martin the previous autumn. It was believed by the king and his advisers that the people of the southern provinces would join the royal troops when they should appear; but Dartmouth, evidently having some doubts, instructed Clinton, in case the people were not loyal, to distress them by burning any of their towns that might refuse to submit.

A fleet commanded by Sir Peter Parker, and designed to act under Clinton's orders, did not leave Ireland until February. Then the vessels were delayed by storms. Clinton, meanwhile, had been awaiting their arrival with impatience. It was May before he entered the Cape Fear River with some of them. From the Pallas he issued a proclamation (May 5, 1776) which declared North Carolina to be in a state of rebellion, ordered all Congresses to be dissolved, and offered pardon to all penitents excepting the arch-rebels Cornelius Harnett and Robert Howe. The latter was then a brigadier-general in the Continental army. The people laughed at the manifesto, and the irritated baronet vented his wrath upon the property of Whigs. Earl Cornwallis had come with troops in the transports convoyed by Parker's fleet, and he was sent, with nine hundred men, to ravage the plantation of General Howe at Brunswick. Governor Martin sent a party to burn the house of William Hooper, who was then a delegate in the Continental Congress; and some mills in the neighborhood were destroyed. Satisfied that the North Carolinians could not be coaxed nor frightened into submission, the British forces proceeded to attempt the reduction of Charleston, South Carolina, as a prelude to the fall of Savannah. General Lee, who had been ordered by Washington to watch the movements of Clinton, had made his way southward by land, and arrived at Charleston on the 4th of June.

Lee's arrival was at an auspicious moment. Four days before, John Rutledge, President of the Provincial Congress of South Carolina, had been informed that a British fleet of armed vessels and transports filled with troops lay anchored off Dewee's Island, twenty miles north of Charleston bar. Rutledge had been industriously preparing for a defence of Charleston. Almost one hundred cannon were mounted at various points around Charleston harbor, and a strong battery had been erected at Georgetown. Brigadier-General Armstrong of Pennsylvania was in command of troops there; yet the story of the formidable British force being near, spread a panic among the inhabitants. The arrival of Lee, whose experience and skill were known, inspired the patriots with confidence, and the alarm subsided. The people worked cheerfully to perfect the defences; and the garrison of Fort Sullivan labored day and night to complete that work and arm it. When, on the day of the arrival of General Lee, the British forces appeared off Charleston bar, about thirty pieces of heavy cannon were mounted on it.

The militia from the surrounding country now flocked into Charleston at the call of President Rutledge. These, with Carolina regulars and the troops from the North brought by Armstrong and Lee, made an available force of almost six thousand men. Colonel Gadsden commanded the garrison in Fort Johnson, on James Island, three miles from the city. Colonel Moultrie was at the head of the troops in Fort Sullivan, on Sullivan's Island, and Colonel Thompson commanded riflemen from Orangeburg, stationed on the eastern end of that island. A considerable force were at Haddrell's Point on the northerly side of the harbor, under the immediate command of Lee, assisted by General Robert Howe. Rutledge proclaimed martial-law in the city. Some valuable store-houses on the edge of the water were pulled down, and a line of defences were erected there. The streets near the water were barricaded; lead window-sashes were melted into bullets, and seven hundred negro slaves belonging to Loyalists, with tools, were pressed into the service.

After long delay Clinton completed his arrangements for a combined attack of ships and troops upon Fort Sullivan, which was chosen to receive the first blow. It was garrisoned by about four hundred men, mostly South Carolina regulars, with a few volunteer militia; and its only aid was a sloop, with powder, anchored off Haddrell's Point. Lee had pronounced the fort absolutely untenable, and called it "a slaughter pen;" and he advised Rutledge to withdraw the garrison and abandon Sullivan's Island without striking a blow. Rutledge refused. Lee, with sharp words and angry tone, persisted in his views, and if he dared he would have withdrawn the troops in spite of the wiser President. He annoyed Moultrie by his orders looking to a flight from the fort, directing him to build bridges for retreat to the main; but Moultrie did not believe that he could be driven from his little fortress of soft palmetto logs for he knew, better than Lee, their resisting power. Lee tried to weaken his force by ordering detachments to be sent from the fort; and up to the last moment he wished to have Moultrie removed from the command. Had he been acting in favor of the enemy he could not have given better advice; and in view of his subsequent treason, which will be noticed hereafter, the historian cannot be sure that he was not, at that time, acting the part of a traitor. The vehemence of his language impressed others. The brave Captain Lempriere, while viewing the British vessels that had come over the bar, said to Moultrie: "Well, Colonel, what do you think of it now?" "We shall beat them," Moultrie said. "The men-of-war," answered the captain, "will knock your fort down in half an hour." "Then we will lie behind the ruins and prevent their men from landing," replied the imperturbable colonel.

Clinton had landed soldiers on Long Island, a strip of sandy land separated from Sullivan's Island by a shallow creek. There he erected batteries to confront those of Thompson on Sullivan's Island, and awaited the pleasure of Admiral Parker. On the morning of the 28th of June, Sir Peter, from his flag-ship the Bristol, gave a signal for attack. The Thunder-bomb opened a bombardment on the fort; and between ten and eleven o'clock the flag-ship and Experiment, each carrying fifty guns, and the Active and Solebay, of twenty-eight guns each, moved forward and anchored within cannon-shot distance of the fort, with springs on their cables. Lord Campbell, the fugitive royal governor, was on board the Bristol, expecting to be reinstated in power the next day, for no officer of the fleet doubted the entire success of the British forces in demolishing the fort and seizing Charleston. It was supposed that two broadsides would end the fort and secure the garrison; but when these were delivered, Moultrie, who had not a tenth as many guns as were brought to bear upon him, returned the fire with spirit and effect. The broadsides of the British ships only jarred the fort. The spongy palmetto logs received the round-shot and were not fractured. The missiles were imbedded in the soft wood, and so gave increased strength to the fort; while Moultrie's guns, fired slowly and with precision, sent balls that shivered hulls and spars, and spread death over the decks. The roar of three hundred guns shook the city, where a multitude of anxious spectators beheld the terrible scene from windows, balconies, roofs, and steeples, and along the edges of the water. At length, perceiving the unfinished state of the fort on its western side, Parker ordered the Sphynx, Active, and Siren, each carrying twenty-eight guns, to take a position in the channel on that side, so as to enfilade the garrison--to fire on their flank. Had they done so, destruction or surrender would have been the fate of Moultrie and his men. But all three struck on a shoal called The Middle Ground, and could not be got off until they were severely battered by balls from the fort. One of them could not be moved. The people at Charleston, seeing this, sent up a shout of joy; but they were soon saddened. A few moments afterward the flag that waved over the fort suddenly disappeared. Had Moultrie surrendered? No! A cannon-shot from a British vessel had cut the flag-staff, and the blue banner of South Carolina, with its silver crescent, had fallen outside of the fort. Seeing this, Sergeant Jasper exclaimed: "Colonel, we mustn't fight without a flag!" and going quickly through an embrasure he picked up the precious piece of silk while cannon-balls were flying thickly around him re-entered the fort, fastened the banner to a sponge-handle, climbed to the parapet, fixed its new staff firmly there, and flung it to the breeze.

At this time, Clinton with his two thousand land troops and six hundred seamen, attempted to co-operate with the fleet by landing on Sullivan's Island and attacking the fort on its unfinished side. He opened his batteries on Long Island, upon Thompson, who had only two guns, but his Carolina riflemen were expert and dangerous sharp-shooters. Clinton embarked some of his troops in boats covered by floating batteries in the creek; but the soldiers could not land in the face of the terrible volleys from Thompson's men, and were speedily disembarked. The baronet accomplished almost nothing during the furious conflict of ten hours on that bright and hot June day. Thompson held him at bay until the battle ceased at evening.

Moultrie's powder was scarce at the beginning, and he used it sparingly. At length it was nearly exhausted, and he sent to Lee for more, notwithstanding that officer had written to him: "If you should, unfortunately, expend your ammunition without beating off the enemy or driving them aground, spike your guns and retreat." A little later, braver words were uttered and better deeds were done by President Rutledge. He wrote: "I send you five hundred pounds of powder. You know our collection is not very great. Honor and victory to you, and our worthy countrymen with you! Do not make too free use with your cannon. Be cool and do mischief." The powder was forwarded by Lee. Moultrie resumed his fire, and did such "mischief" that the British were glad to end the fight. The firing from their vessels slackened at sunset, and at half-past nine ceased altogether.

The Bristol and Experiment were nearly wrecks, so fatally accurate had been the firing from the fort. Had the sea been at all rough, the flag-ship must have gone to the bottom. The fleet withdrew out of reach of Moultrie's guns; and the next morning the crew of the Actaon, which was hopelessly aground, set her on fire, and fled in boats, leaving her colors flying. These and some of her munitions of war the Americans secured half an hour before she blew up.

In that battle--one of the most severe of the war--the British lost in killed and wounded two hundred and twenty-five men. Of the four hundred and thirty-five in the beleaguered fort, only ten were killed and twenty-two wounded, though thousands of shot and many shells were hurled against them. Charleston was saved, and South Carolina was defended from invasion by the valor of her own sons; and in honor of the brave colonel who commanded the garrison, the palmetto log-fortress was named Fort Moultrie. After remaining a few days at Long Island to repair damages, the British fleet, with Clinton's army, sailed for New York, where they joined the forces under General and Admiral Howe.

The loss on board the British ships, in this action, was frightful. Every man stationed on the quarter-decks of the vessels at the beginning of the battle was either killed or wounded. On board the flag-ship forty men were killed, and seventy-one were wounded. Governor Lord William Campbell, who was serving as a volunteer, was severely wounded at the beginning of the action. The commodore suffered a slight contusion. The Bristol had not less than seventy balls put through her. When the spring of her cable was cut, she swung round with her stern toward the fort, and instantly every gun that could be brought to bear upon her hurled deadly shot into the exposed vessel, for Moultrie, at the beginning, had said, "Mind the commodore and the fifty-gun ship."

Although the Thunder-bomb cast more than fifty shells into the fort, not one of them did any serious damage, for in the centre of the works there was a large moat, filled with water, which received nearly all of the shells, and extinguished the fuses before the fire reached the powder. Others were buried in the sand and did no harm. After the battle, the Americans picked up in and around the fort, twelve hundred shot of different calibre that were fired at them, and a great number of thirteen-inch shells.





Return to Our Country, Vol II