Fort Moultrie and Its Flag
A Cover A Day #35: U.S. Patriotism, Part 3
On 4 July 1968, the United States Post Office Department issued a set of ten stamps depicting Historic American Flags, listed by the Scott catalogue as #1345-1354. The cover featured today bears Scott #1345, the “Fort Moultrie Flag, 1776” according to the printed text on the stamp. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing used the Giori Press to print se-tenant panes with 5 columns of each stamp. The sheet of 200 made four such panes. There were 228,040,000 copies of each stamp. Scott #1345 was printed in dark blue and perforated 11. The first day of issue city was Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with the ceremony being held at Flag Plaza, headquarters of the Greater Pittsburgh Council of the Boy Scouts of America.
In 1775, Colonel William Moultrie was asked by the Revolutionary Council of Safety to design a flag to use during the war with Great Britain. It would become the first distinctive American flag displayed in the South, used by the “Minute Men” based near what was then called Charles Town in the British Province of South Carolina. Moultrie’s design had the blue of the militia’s uniforms and a white crescent taken from the silver insignia the men wore on their caps, inscribed with the words “Liberty or Death.”
Some some say the symbol is a gorget, others say it is a crescent moon, but all texts from the time describe it as simply a “crescent”. William Moultrie states in his memoirs:
“A little time after we were in possession of Fort Johnson, it was thought necessary to have a flag for the purpose of signals: (as there was no national or state flag at that time) I was desired by the council of safety to have one made, upon which, as the state troops were clothed in blue, and the fort was garrisoned by the first and second regiments, who wore a silver crescent on the front of their caps; I had a large blue flag made with a crescent in the dexter corner, to be in uniform with the troops …”
The flag was first flown over Fort Johnson, located on the northeast point of James Island in the Ashley River near Charleston.
Colonel Moultrie took command of Sullivan’s Island on 2 March 1776. This included a garrison of 413 men of the 2nd South Carolina Regiment of Infantry and 22 men of the 4th South Carolina Regiment, artillery. The fort was still under construction at the southern tip, supervised by Captain De Brahm. The square design, with corner bastions, was supposed to have parallel rows of palmetto logs 10 feet (3.0 m) high, filled in with 16 feet (4.9 m) of sand. However, by June only the front (the southeast and southeast curtain walls and bastions) had been completed. The northern portion of the fort was unfinished, rising only 7 feet (2.1 m) above the wooden platforms on which the artillery were mounted. A hastily erected palisade of thick planks helped guard the powder magazine and unfinished northern walls. An assortment of 31 cannon, ranging from 9- and 12-pounders to a few British 18-pounders and French 26-pounders, commanded the approach from Five Fathom Hole offshore, past the island and the Middle Ground shoal, before ships could enter the harbor.
General Charles Lee, whom Congress had appointed to command the Continental Army troops in the southern colonies, arrived at the fort in mid-June and saw its unfinished state. He recommended abandoning the fort, calling it a “slaughter pen”. John Rutledge, recently elected president of the General Assembly that remained as the backbone of South Carolina’s revolutionary government, refused. Governor Rutledge specifically ordered Colonel Moultrie to “obey [Lee] in everything, except in leaving Fort Sullivan”. Moultrie’s delaying tactics so angered Lee that he decided on 27 June that he would replace Moultrie; the battle began the next day before he could do so. Lee did make plans for an orderly retreat to Haddrell’s Point.
British Admiral Sir Peter Parker with nine British man-of-war ships weighed anchor at Cape Fear on 31 May and arrived outside Charleston Harbor the next day. Moultrie noticed a British scout boat apparently looking for possible landing points on nearby Long Island (now known as the Isle of Palms), just a few hundred yards from Sullivan’s Island; troops were consequently sent to occupy the northern end of Sullivan’s. By 8 June, most of the British fleet had crossed the bar and anchored in Five Fathom Hole, an anchorage between the bar and the harbor entrance. With the fort on Sullivan’s Island only half complete, Admiral Parker expressed confidence that his warships would easily breach its walls. Optimistically believing he would not even need General Henry Clinton’s land forces, he wrote to Clinton that after the fort’s guns were knocked out, he would “land seamen and marines (which I have practiced for the purpose) under the guns” and that they could “keep possession till you send as many troops as you think proper”.
On 7 June, Clinton issued a proclamation calling on the rebel colonists to lay down their arms. However, the inexperienced defenders fired on the boat sent to deliver it (which was flying a truce flag), and it was not delivered until the next day. That same day, Clinton began landing 2,200 troops on Long 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 actions. He began reinforcing positions on the mainland in case the British were intending to launch an attack directly on Charleston] He also attempted to build a bridge of boats to provide an avenue of retreat for the fort’s garrison, but this failed because there were not enough boats to bridge the roughly one mile (1.6 km) channel separating the island from Charleston; the unwillingness of Moultrie and Rutledge to support the effort may also have played a role. The Americans also constructed an entrenchment at the northern end of Sullivan’s Island, which was manned by more than 750 men and three small cannons, and began to fortify a guard post at Haddrell’s Point on the mainland opposite Fort Sullivan.
General Clinton encountered the first major problem of the attack plan on 17 June. 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. He considered using boats to ferry the troops across, but the Americans, with timely advice from General Lee, adopted a strong defensive position that was virtually impossible to bombard from ships or the Long Island position. As a result, the British and American forces faced each other across the channel, engaging in occasional and largely inconsequential cannon fire at long range. Clinton reported that this meant that Admiral Parker would have “the glory of being defeated alone.” The attack was originally planned for June 24 but bad weather and contrary wind conditions prompted Parker to call it off for several days.
On the morning of 28 June 1776, Fort Sullivan was defended by Colonel Moultrie, commanding the 2nd South Carolina Regiment and a company of the 4th South Carolina Artillery, numbering 435 men. At around 09:00 that morning, 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. Thunder and Friendship anchored about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from the fort while Parker took Active, Bristol, Experiment, and Solebay to a closer position about 400 yards (370 m) from Sullivan’s Island, where they anchored facing broadside to the fort. Each of these ships began to fire upon the fort when it reached its position, and the defenders returned the fire.
Although many of Thunder‘s shots landed in or near the fort, they had little effect; according to Moultrie, “We had a morass in the middle, that swallowed them up instantly, and those that fell in the sand in and about the fort, were immediately buried”. Thunder‘s role in the action was also relatively short-lived; she had anchored too far away from the fort, and the overloading of her mortars with extra powder to increase their range eventually led to them breaking out of their mounts. Owing to shortage of gunpowder, Moultrie’s men were deliberate in the pace of their gunfire, and only a few officers actually aimed the cannons. They also fired in small volleys, four cannon at a time. One British observer wrote, “Their fire was surprisingly well served” and it was “slow, but decisive indeed; they were very cool and took care not to fire except their guns were exceedingly well directed.”
General Clinton began movements to cross over to the northern end of Sullivan’s Island. Assisted by two sloops of war, the flotilla of longboats carrying his troops came under fire from Colonel William Thomson’s defenses. Facing a withering barrage of grape shot and rifle fire, Clinton abandoned the attempt.
Around noon the frigates Sphinx, Syren, 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, having moved too far onto the submerged sandbar. Consequently, none of these ships reached its intended position, a piece of good fortune not lost on Colonel Moultrie: “Had these three ships effected their purpose, they would have enfiladed us in such a manner, as to have driven us from our guns.”
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. One round hit her quarterdeck, slightly wounding Parker in the knee and thigh. The shot also tore off part of his britches, leaving his backside exposed.
By mid-afternoon, the defenders were running out of gunpowder, and their fire was briefly suspended. However, Lee sent more ammunition and gunpowder over from the mainland, and the defenders resumed firing at the British ships; Lee even briefly visited the fort late in the day, telling Colonel Moultrie, “I see you are doing very well here, you have no occasion for me, I will go up to the town again.” 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. Cannonballs reportedly even bounced off the walls of the structure. The exchange continued until around 21:00, when darkness forced a cessation of hostilities, and the fleet finally withdrew out of range.
At one point during the battle, the flag Moultrie had designed and raised over the fort was shot down. It fell to the bottom of the ditch on the outside of the fort. Leaping from an embrasure, Sergeant William Jasper recovered the flag, which he tied to a sponge staff and replaced on the parapet, where he supported it until a permanent flag staff had been procured and installed. This served to rally the troops until a flag stand could be provided.
Because of Jasper’s heroism, Governor John Rutledge presented him with his personal sword, and offered him a lieutenant’s commission. He did not accept the offer to become an officer, saying that he would only be an embarrassment since he could neither read nor write. He was also presented with two silk flags by Mrs. Susannah Elliott. He was credited by Moultrie with reviving the troops’ spirits, and later given commendations for bravery. The story of this dramatic event, along with the pivotal role of the battle itself, earned the flag a place in the hearts of the people of South Carolina, as well as cementing it as a symbol of liberty in the South and the new confederacy in general.
Counting casualties, Parker reported 40 sailors killed and 71 wounded aboard Bristol, which was hit more than 70 times with much damage to the hull, yards, and rigging. Experiment was also badly damaged with 23 sailors killed and 56 wounded. Active and Solebay reported 15 casualties each. The Americans reported their casualties at only 12 killed and 25 wounded. 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. Patriots in small boats sailed out to the burning ship, fired cannons at the British ships, took what stores and loot they could, and retreated shortly before the ship’s powder magazine exploded
The British ships had bombarded the fort for 10 hours. The gallant defense put up by Moultrie’s militia and the resulting victory saved the southern Colonies from invasion for another two years. The Continental Congress passed a resolution thanking Moultrie. He was promoted to brigadier general and his regiment was taken into the Continental Army.
Within days of the battle, Charlestonians learned of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. The British troops were reembarked on their transports, and on 21 July the British fleet withdrew northward to help the main British army in its campaign against New York City. To add insult to injury, one of the British transports grounded off Long Island and was captured by Patriot forces.
Following the battle, Colonel Moultrie gave William Jasper a roving commission to scour the country with a few men, gather information, and surprise and capture the enemy’s outposts. This commission was later renewed by Francis Marion and Benjamin Lincoln. Prominent among Jasper’s achievements was the legendary rescue by himself and a single comrade, John Newton, of some American captives from a party of British soldiers whom they overpowered and made prisoners. While Jasper did engage in a heroic action against the British, the incident was exaggerated by the storyteller Parson Weems. At the Siege of Savannah in 1779, he received his death wound while fastening to the parapet the standard which had been presented to his regiment. His hold, however, never relaxed, and he bore the colors to a place of safety before he died on 9 October 1779.
Moultrie successfully led a repulsive of the British at Port Royal in February 1779. That spring when Major General Benjamin Lincoln took the bulk of the American force towards Augusta, Georgia, Moultrie was stationed at Black Swamp with a small contingent to watch the British on the other side of the Savannah River. When the British suddenly crossed the Savannah en mass and tried to move on Charleston, Moultrie managed a skillful tactical retreat across the Coosawhatchie and the Tullifiny Rivers and all the way back to Charleston where he held off a short siege. He refused to surrender at a time when the civilian authorities in Charleston felt somewhat abandoned by the Continental Congress and were almost ready to give up.
The British eventually captured Fort Sullivan, as part of the Siege of Charleston in spring 1780, and renamed it as Fort Arbuthnot. William Moultrie was captured when Charleston surrendered to the British but was left in command of the American POWs. This required all of the patience and skill of a diplomat when advocating for his men against the harsh British commandant, Lt. Col. Nisbet Balfour. The British also attempted to lure Moultrie to their side, and he was absolutely indignant when he was approached by Charles Greville Montague. Moultrie was eventually exchanged for British prisoners and in the last year of the war, he was promoted to major general in 1782, the last man appointed by Congress to that rank.
Nevertheless, the colonists won the war during which Moultrie’s flag became the standard of the South Carolina militia When the war officially ended with the liberation of Charleston on 14 December 1782, it was presented by General Nathanael Greene’s “Southern Continental & Militia Army,” as the first American flag to be displayed in the South.
Great Britain and France began another war in 1793, heightening tensions. The United States of America thence embarked on a significant fortification program for important harbors, later called the First System of fortifications. Atop the decayed original fort on Sullivan’s Island, the Army completed a new fort in 1798 which was garrisoned by Captain Jonathan Robeson’s company of the Regiment of Artillerists in 1802. However, after years of neglect, the Antigua–Charleston hurricane destroyed the now renamed Fort Moultrie in 1804.
William Moultrie was elected by the new state legislature as 35th Governor of South Carolina (1785–87). The state constitution prohibited men from serving two successive terms as governor, an effort to keep power in the hands of the legislature. Moultrie was re-elected by the legislature in 1792, serving into 1794. William Moultrie was the first president of the Society of the Cincinnati of the State of South Carolina and served in that capacity until his death on 27 September 1805.
Fort Moultrie was rebuilt as part of the Second System of fortifications in 1808–09, under the direction of Army engineer Alexander Macomb. A report by the Secretary of War, on fortifications in December 1811, describes Fort Moultrie as:
“an irregular form, built of brick, presenting a battery of three sides on the sea front, and the whole is enclosed with ramparts, parapets, &c. mounting 40 guns. … The barracks are of brick … for five hundred (soldiers)“
Fort Moultrie’s main design did not change much over the next five decades. The Army altered the parapet and modernized the armament, but defense of Charleston centered increasingly around newly created Fort Sumter. By the time of the American Civil War, Fort Moultrie, Fort Sumter, Fort Johnson, and Castle Pinckney surrounded and defended Charleston.
Fort Moultrie began to record meteorological observations in the early 1820s. For fifty years the Army detained Native American prisoners at Fort Moultrie. Seminole Indian fighter Osceola and some fellow Seminoles were captured in late 1837 and transferred to the fort. Osceola died of malaria in January 1838; the Army buried his corpse at the front gate of Fort Moultrie and thereafter maintained his grave.
In the months leading up to the Civil War, John L. Gardner was in command at Fort Moultrie. With secession growing more imminent, Gardner had made several requests to Secretary of War John B. Floyd for more troops to garrison and defend the undermanned fortress. Each time his requests were ignored, as Floyd (who joined the Confederacy) was planning to hand the forts in Charleston Harbor over to the secessionists.
South Carolina seceded from the Union on 20 December 1860 after the first election of President Abraham Lincoln. Around this time a Federal garrison from the 1st US Artillery was sent to Fort Moultrie. Unlike the state militia at the other forts, the U.S. Regular Army defenders of Fort Moultrie chose not to surrender to the South Carolina forces. On 26 December, Union Major Robert Anderson moved his garrison from Fort Moultrie to the stronger Fort Sumter.
As for Moultrie’s flag, a palmetto was added in 1861, also a reference to his defense of Sullivan’s Island; the fortress had survived largely because the palmettos, laid over sand walls, were able to withstand British cannon. Following its declaration of secession from the Union, the newly independent state of South Carolina considered many designs for its “National Flag”, with the first official draft for a flag being finalized on 21 January, which was a white ensign with a green palmetto, and a blue canton with a white increscent. After a week of debate, they decided on an existing unofficial state flag with an upward facing crescent on a blue field, modifying it by adding a palmetto at the center of the field.
On 26 January 1861, the South Carolina General Assembly adopted a new flag by adding a golden palmetto encircled with a white background. This flag has become known as the “2-day flag” because the golden palmetto was changed to its current design after two days on 28 January to a simple white palmetto on the blue background.
On 8 February 1861, South Carolina joined the five other seceded Deep Southern states to form the Confederate States of America. Two months later, a variation of the palmetto flag unfurled over Fort Sumter on 14 April 1861, the day it was occupied by the Confederate Army, making it likely the first CSA flag flown over the fort. The flag consisted of a palmetto on an entirely white background with a red star in the upper left quadrant, and is commonly known as “The Palmetto Guard Flag.” The American Civil War had begun.
In April 1863, Federal ironclads and shore batteries began a bombardment of Fort Moultrie and the other forts around Charleston harbor. Over the ensuing twenty months, Union bombardment reduced Fort Sumter to a rubble pile and pounded Fort Moultrie below a sand hill, which protected it against further bombardment. The Rifled cannon proved its superiority to brickwork fortifications but not to the endurance of the Confederate artillerymen who continued to man Fort Moultrie. In February 1865, as General Sherman marched through South Carolina, the Confederate soldiers finally abandoned the rubble of Fort Moultrie and evacuated the city of Charleston.
The U.S. Army modernized Fort Moultrie in the 1870s with new weapons and deep concrete bunkers. Beginning in 1897, Fort Moultrie’s armament was modernized under the large-scale Endicott Program of coast defenses. Eight new reinforced-concrete batteries were completed by 1906, and part of the Second System fort was demolished to make room for batteries Bingham, McCorkle, and Lord. The fort also had a mine casemate to control a naval minefield. In 1901 Coast Artillery units were designated from heavy artillery units, and in 1907 the United States Army Coast Artillery Corps was formed to garrison the new coast defenses.
After the United States entered World War I, Battery Gadsden’s four 6-inch guns were removed for service on field carriages on the Western Front in 1917 and were never returned to the fort. Records show the guns arrived in France, but a history of the Coast Artillery in World War I states that none of the regiments in France equipped with 6-inch guns completed training in time to see action before the Armistice.
Following World War I there were several changes at Fort Moultrie as part of a forcewide partial disarmament of the coast defense system. With the outbreak of World War II in 1939 and the Fall of France in 1940, a comprehensive upgrade of U.S. coastal fortifications was implemented. In the early part of the war the Harbor Defenses of Charleston were garrisoned by the 13th Coast Artillery Regiment of the Regular Army and the 263rd Coast Artillery Regiment of the South Carolina National Guard. The Marshall Military Reservation, a sub-post of Fort Moultrie, was established in the northeast part of Sullivan’s Island to accommodate the new batteries.
On August 15, 1947, the Army lowered Fort Moultrie’s flag for the last time and ended 171 years of service. In 1960, the Department of Defense transferred Fort Moultrie to the National Park Service. NPS manages the historic fort as a unit of Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historical Park. NPS has interpreted the fort as a tour backward in time from its defenses from World War II to the original palmetto log fort constructed by William Moultrie.
A small monument to the Battle of Sullivan’s Island has been placed at the northeastern tip of the island, overlooking the inlet where General Clinton’s soldiers had hoped to cross. The monument includes historical markers describing the events surrounding the engagement. The National Register of Historic Places listed Fort Moultrie Quartermaster and Support Facilities Historic District on September 6, 2007.
Sullivan’s Island was the port of entry for over 40% of the estimated 400,000 enslaved Africans transported to Colonial America, making it the largest slave port in North America. It is estimated that more than half, if not all, of all African Americans have ancestors who passed through Sullivan’s Island. On 26 July 2008, the Toni Morrison Society dedicated a privately-funded black steel bench on Sullivan’s Island to the memory of the Africans forced into slavery, one of several planned. In 2009, the National Park Service installed a commemorative marker at Fort Moultrie describing the Sullivan’s Island Quarantine Station.
In 2016, the “America the Beautiful” quarter for South Carolina featured Fort Moultrie. There is a Moultrie Flag historical marker Greenville, South Carolina’s Peace Plaza. Moultrie himself is honored with a statue in The Battery section of downtown Charleston.
Beginning on the first anniversary of the Battle of Sullivan’s Island in 1777 Charlestonians and South Carolinians celebrate “Carolina Day” annually to commemorate this first major victory of American forces over the British. Each year local events include a parade in downtown Charleston and reenactments at Fort Moultrie.
William Jasper’s heroism at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island and subsequent death at Savannah are immortalized by a monument, unveiled in 1888, in Madison Square in Savannah. The bronze statue was designed by sculptor Alexander Doyle, and includes bas relief panels depicting Jasper’s military service. Alexander Doyle was one of the nation’s prominent sculptors of the era and three of his works are included in the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C.
Moultrie’s original design for the flag placed the crescent vertically, with the opening directing upward. The 1860s South Carolina flag also shows the crescent with upward pointing cusps. However, in 1910 — for reasons that he did not document — Alexander Samuel Salley Jr., secretary of the state’s Historical Commission, angled the crescent to its current orientation.
A widespread modern version of the Fort Moultrie flag has the word “LIBERTY” outside the crescent moon, separately, in white along the lower center of the blue field. This modern design has been adopted as the civic flag of the town of Liberty, South Carolina, with a few minor alterations of the thickness of the crescent and styling of the lettering.
In addition to being the basis for South Carolina’s flag, the Fort Moultrie flag is the official flag of Moultrie County, Illinois.