General William Moultrie

Dr. John Moultrie was born in Scotland in the year 1702.  John grew up and married Lucretia Cooper.  John was a physician and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh.  They were descendents of an ancient Scottish family.  John had heard about the new colony’s, so he and Lucretia decided to leave Scotland and move to Charles Town, South Carolina before 1729.  In 1729, Lucretia found herself pregnant with John’s first child. With the birth of there first child, John and Lucretia named him John Jr. after his father.  In 1730 Lucretia became pregnant again.  Upon the birth of their second son, they named him William.  Lucretia would give birth to three more sons over the next few years.  In total Lucretia and John Moultrie had five sons, John, William, James, Thomas and Alexander.  All of their sons grew up to lead important lives.  James Moultrie would grow up to become chief justice of British East Florida, he died in 1765.  Captain Thomas Moultrie became the commanding officer of the Second South Carolina Regiment.  Colonel Alexander Moultrie, who was born in 1776, would become the first attorney general for the state of South Carolina, dying in 1792.

On November 23, 1730 their second son was born in Charles Town.  William

Fort Moultrie

was born in the planter class.  He was a normal boy who enjoyed all the activities around him.  Growing up he especially liked the military.  In 1749, at the age of 19, William married Elizabeth Damarius de St. Julien.  William and Elizabeth had three children together, one which died in infancy.

In 1752, William Moultrie began a political career that lasted until 1794.  Moultrie was elected to the Commons House of Assembly.  By 1761, when William was 31 years of age, he owned a rice plantation and about 200 slaves.  It was also in 1761 that Moultrie was commissioned a captain in the South Carolina militia.  The commission was made during the 1759 – 1761 Cherokee War.  By the year 1774, he held the rank of Colonel.  As the capital of South Carolina, Charles Town became a center for revolutionary activity.  Charles Town even hosted an event similar to the Boston tea party, where South Carolinians dumped British imported tea into Charles Town harbor. Things were becoming heated between the Patriots and the British government. The Loyalist point-of-view was best expressed by South Carolina’s royal governor, Lord William Campbell.  Campbell assured his supervisors in Britain “that they need fear no uprising in his colony that Carolinas dominant Tory party would quickly squelch such troubles as any misguided rebels might try to start.”  The Tory party was very strong in Carolina with many folks not wanting to give up their relationship with the mother country.  In 1775, a provincial Congress was formed and elected William Multrie as a member.  In June of 1775, Moultrie was made Colonel of the Second South Carolina Regiment.

Location of Fort Sullivan

Now at that time Britain had a world-famous Navy and an army that was very well trained.  The British army had been in battles with the French and Indians.  Some of the discourse was saying that the colonies had to support Britain for some of the expense of war.  Britain started taxing Tea that was sent over.  But the colonist came back with a cry “no taxation without representation.”  More and more the gulf was getting wider between Britain and the colony.  Many colonists believed the only way to have peace was to get their independence from Britain.  But many colonists wanted to keep the ties with Britain, but work out things here at home, they were called Tories.

In Charles Town they knew that Sullivan’s Island was a strategic location at

the mouth of the Charles Town Harbor.  In December 1775, a company of Moultrie’s Regiment, 300 men, were ordered to secure the island.  Colonel Moultrie arrived on the island and assumed command in March 1776. He found a great number of men and slaves at work using thousands of Palmetto logs and sand to build a fort sufficient to contain 1000 men.  Major General Charles Lee, commander of Charleston’s patriot forces, who had been sent by General Washington, took one look at the Fort and said it wouldn’t do!  He said the British cannons would cut the fort apart. Colonel Moultrie replied,

British Ship

“We will lay behind the ruins and prevent their men from landing.”  Upset, General Lee stomped off to demand that the colonial governor, Rutledge, should order the fort dismantled.  But Rutledge gave the pompous commander no satisfaction. One of the first things Colonel Moultrie did was to design a flag.  It was dark blue, the same color as the soldier’s uniform jackets.  He placed the Crescent up in the left corner of the flag.  At that time there was not a flag for his troops, so the flag he designed would fly over the fort. It was only a few days and the test would come.  The fort wasn’t completely finished when word came that ships from the British Navy had arrived.  For three weeks the British kept the ships out of the harbor getting them ready to attack.  Then on the morning of June 28, 1776, 10 British warships commanded by Commodore Sir Peter Parker attacked Fort Sullivan.  The first ship to come in the harbor was the 28 gun frigate Actason, and behind her followed the 50-gun flagship Bristol and her sister ship of the line, Experiment with another 28 gun frigate, Solebay completing the first division.  Next in line, were the 28 gun frigates Sphinx and Syren, and lastly the mortarboat Thunderbird, chaperoned by the frigate, Friendship, also 28 guns.  The British did just what Colonel Moultrie thought they would do.  General Sir Henry Clinton had a landing party making its way toward Long island (now called Isle of Palm’s).  As General Clinton started to ford the breach over to Sullivan’s Island, he could hear the sound of cannons firing from the area of Fort Sullivan.  No sooner did Clinton’s men push their boats out into the inlet then they ran aground on hidden sandbars.  Getting out of the boats, the heavily burdened soldiers, who had been in Boston, tried to gain ground on foot, but immediately sank over their heads in unexpected water depths among the shoals.  Then the waiting Americans opened up with bullets and round shot, and there was nothing for the raging redcoats to do but go splashing back as best they could to the shore they had just left on Long Island.  They remained there the rest of the day.

Meanwhile back at the fort things were going well for the Americans.  The British ships had lined up abreast of Fort Sullivan and started shelling the fort.  The Marine sharpshooters had their muskets ready up in the rigging and were ready to pick off the American gunners hidden from the ship’s decks behind the forts ramparts.  But to the sharpshooters chagrin the ramparts were of such height and width that they screened any aerial view of the colonial troops beneath them.  With the large number of cannons firing from the ships not too much was happening.  The Palmetto logs and sand were absorbing the cannon balls.  This brought about huge frustrations for the British.  Their cannons may have been loud but here in Charles Town they didn’t do much damage.  The British fleet had 270 guns compared to Moultrie’s 31 guns. What Moultrie’s fire power may have lacked in quantity it made up in effectiveness.  The tall ships shivered from the impact of the iron balls shot against them at close range with splinters flying and water spouts erupting suddenly the Bristol was seen to shift out of line.  A lucky cannonball from the fort had cut her anchor cable.  She started drifting with the tide exposing her unprotected stern to the fort’s cannons.  It wasn’t long and the Americans were firing at the Bristol.  Her main mast was shot and crashed over the side, followed by her mizzen.  Finally, broken and all but sinking, the once proud leader drifted out of harm’s way with heavy casualties.  The Actaeon lost her bowsprit, her rudder jammed and she smashed herself hard and fast on the middle ground, the Scholl in the center of the channel that in later years would find enduring fame as the site of Fort Sumner.  During the battle, a lucky British cannonball hit the Flagstaff breaking the pole that held the flag designed by Moultrie.  Doing what he knew needed to be done;

Moultrie’s flag

Sergeant William Jasper went over the fort wall to retrieve the flag.  Amid all the gunfire and cannon shot, Jasper made it alive to the safe side of the rampart.  The flag was attached to another pole and once again flew over the fort.  Sergeant Jasper received thanks from his fellow soldiers and a sword from the state governor.  It is reported that Francis Marion “the Swamp Fox” was in the fort during the battle. The British set fire to the Actaeon and then boarded the other ships leaving the harbor.  The battle had lasted about 10 hours.  The win by the Americans over the British, did many wonderful things.  It encouraged General George Washington and many other patriots.  A few of those that sat on the fence, decided to join the Patriots.  But it was a tough time, not everyone thought America could gain its independence.  In the next week, July 4, 1776, Americans signed the Declaration of Independence and we were at war with Britain.  In September 1776 William Moultrie was promoted to Brigadier General in the Continental Army.  During this time Moultrie’s first wife died.  In 1779, he married Hannah Motte Lynch the widow of Thomas Lynch.  They had no children together.

In April 1780, the British returned to Charles Town Harbor.  This time they successfully avoided Fort Sullivan, and captured the city.  General Moultrie was among 274 American officers held as prisoners.  He was imprisoned at Snee farm, with Colonel Charles Cotsworth Pinckney, in what Moultrie said was, “excellent quarters.”  General Moultrie remained a prisoner until 1782, when he was exchanged for Major General John Burgoynean.  While in prison William Moultrie wrote his book.  The Revolutionary War was over and America had her freedom.  It was the colonies no longer but states in the United States.  The blue flag that flew over Fort Sullivan was changed; a Palmetto tree was placed in the middle.  Charles Town changed its name to Charleston.  At the end of the war, Moultrie returned to politics serving in the South Carolina House and Senate, as lieutenant governor and then he was elected Governor of South Carolina in 1785.  He was elected to his second term as Governor in 1792.  Among his accomplishments as governor was the creation of the county court system, and the agreement to move the capital from Charleston to Columbia in 1786.  In 1802, Moultrie retired to publish his memoirs entitled “Memories of the American Revolution as far as it related to the states of North and South Carolina and Georgia.”  It was published in two volumes, printed in New York by David Longworth.

Moultrie Memorial at Windsor Hill Plantation

William Moultrie died September 27, 1805 at the age of 74. Moultrie was buried outside Charleston in what is now North Charleston.  He was buried in the family cemetery on his son’s property at Windsor Hill Plantation off Ashley Phosphate Road.  On June 28, 1978, the remains of this Revolutionary War hero and early leader in South Carolina’s history were re-interred on Sullivan’s Island near the water at the Ft. Moultrie Visitor Center.  Today, William Moultrie’s grave is marked by a flagpole and a tombstone enclosed by iron fencing. The grave is seen by thousands of people each year.

General Moultrie grave stone

 

Written by: Mark D. Woodard
Research sources:
  • Bodie, Idella. The Man Who Loved the Flag. Sandlapper Publishing Co. Orangeburg, SC.
  • Stokeley, Jim. Fort Moultrie Official National Park Handbook #136.