A British invasion force attempting to enter the Charlestown Harbor was defeated in a cannon duel with the original Fort Moultrie, then known as Fort Sullivan, on Sullivan's Island. The small, hastily constructed fort made from palmetto logs and sand was later named Fort Moultrie, after Col. William Moultrie who commanded the victorious South Carolinians.
Preparations for defense began early in 1776. The provincials established control of the entrance to Charlestown's harbor by occupying Sullivan's Island to the north of Charlestown and James Island to the south. They began construction of a fort on Sullivan's Island in January 1776. Colonel Moultrie, overseeing the construction of the fort, was forced to use materials available to him. Logs were cut from the spongy but tough palmetto trees which were plentiful on the coastal island. When the British appeared off the coast in late Spring only two sides had been completed with emplacements for 26 cannons.
They were to attack by land, while the British ships attacked the fort by sea. They were soon to discover that the inlet between Long Island and Sullivan's Island was too deep to ford. Their ships proceeded anyway believing they could easily outgun the small incomplete fort. On the morning of June 28th, at about eleven o'clock, the warships Solebay, Experiment, Bristol and Active opened fire. The first broadside from the fleet embedded balls in the soft palmetto logs, but did little damage. However, the wooden British ships were easy targets for the well-trained Patriot cannon crews.
They had beem instructed to waste few shots upon the frigates. A second division of three light frigates, the Sphynx, the Actaeon, and the Syren, were ordered to pass the line of battleships and take a position westward of the fort to attack the unfinished part of the fort. This logical maneuver which Lee feared might have decided the battle for the British. However, the three ships almost immediately ran aground near where Fort Sumter would later be built.
The British retired to safety at dark. Only Col. Moultrie's lack of powder saved the ships from being forced to surrender. The flagship Bristol had been hit seventy times. Forty of her sailors were killed and seventy-one were wounded. Her mast and rigging were badly damaged. The result of the battle was a clear victory for the patriots. At a very small cost, the British were forced to sail back and give up on plans to subdue the southern provinces. News of this victory surely gave courage to the signers of the Declaration of Independence, which was signed only a week later.
"The behavior of the garrison, both men and officers with Colonel Moultrie I confess astonished me. It was brave to the last degree. I had no idea that such coolness and intrepidity could be displayed by a collection of raw recruits."
The original palmetto log structure deteriorated in the post-Revolutionary years, and a second fortification, completed on the site in 1798, was wrecked by a hurricane in 1804. The third and final Fort Moultrie, a brick structure, was completed in 1809, and has seen many modifications since then. In December 1860 the commander of the fort, Major Robert Anderson, evacuated Sullivan's Island and transferred his garrison to Fort Ssmter. In April 1861, artillerists at Fort Moultrie participated in the bombardment of Fort Sumter-- the opening shots of the Civil War. Fort Moultrie remained in use as an active fort into World War II.