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Party Like It’s 1777!

By Mike Walsh for The Island Eye News

Imagine this…it’s the 28th of June, and you are witnessing the “celebratory firing of cannon, parades of proud soldiers, flags and banners waving, reverent prayers of thanksgiving, and copious feasting and drinking.” “But, what?” say you. 

This can’t be the right date. This must be the 4th of July, Independence Day, the day our Republic began its noble experiment! But no. I have the date right. It is indeed the 28th of June… and the year is 1777! Thus starts the description of what we now call Carolina Day as told by one of our favorite historians, Dr. Nic Butler, in one of his excellent episodes of the Charleston Time Machine ( Dr. Butler goes on to say, “Throughout the town and country, citizens raised their glasses in honor of the brave men who lost their lives on the 28th of June, to the gallant Sgt. William Jasper, and of course to Col. William Moultrie. It was likely the most ostentatious public celebration in the century long history of South Carolina, and it set the bar for similar observances of the anniversary for all future generations.” [Emphasis is mine.] I highly recommend the rest of this CTM episode as Nic traces the fascinating history of the name change for this date, from simply “the 28th of June” to “Palmetto Day,” and finally to the current Carolina Day. So why all the hoopla? Firmly believing that there are many island citizens, newcomers and long-time residents alike, as well as many of our young folks who don’t know the story, let me try to boil it down for you. By late 1775, the last Royal Governor of South Carolina, Lord William Campbell, had been run out of Charles Town by local patriots. At the same time, an immense fleet of warships and transports loaded with troops was being formed by the British across the Atlantic. After much bureaucratic delay and a frightful crossing, the British arrived at their original destination, North Carolina, only to find they were too late to aid the Loyalists in that area who had already been soundly defeated by Patriot militia. Thus, they turned their eyes south to where they learned a palmetto log fortification was being constructed on a small island guarding the entrance to the harbor of Charles Town, Sullivan’s Island. A plan was hatched to attack and overwhelm the fort on Sullivan’s Island, occupy the island, do mischief from that base, and still make it to the northeast colonies in time for the summer campaigning season. Fast forward to June 28th, 1776. 

Nine powerful British warships, under the command of Admiral Sir Peter Parker, assault the Sullivan’s Island palmetto log fort, defended by Colonel William Moultrie and his men. General Henry Clinton and an infantry force on Long Island (now the Isle of Palms) attempt to attack the island across Breach Inlet, only to be thrown back by Col. William Thomson and his rangers. At the palmetto fort, the cannon duel began in earnest about 11 AM, and by 10 PM that evening, the Battle of Sullivan’s Island was over…and the British were defeated! Impossible! This was the world’s most powerful military, the most powerful navy. The story of how this little band of Americans overcame the world’s most powerful military should be enough to make you take a trip to the Fort Moultrie, where it’s all explained. 

Suffice it to say that this was one of the first great victories of the American Revolution, and it took place six days before the adoption of our Declaration of Independence. Yet, outside of Charleston, this battle is little remembered. So that’s why Carolina Day has been celebrated ever since those festivities in 1777. 

Most of these celebrations, however, have taken place in downtown Charleston under the auspices of the Palmetto Society. Charles Town was almost certainly the ultimate target of those British forces in 1776 had they succeeded, but we must remember that not a shot was fired from the peninsula during the battle. All of the fighting and dying took place right here on our historic island. The gallant deeds of Moultrie and Jasper occurred here. The fort soon named for Moultrie is here. The village called Moultrieville was the first incorporated part of the island. 

Yet our community has been sadly lacking in marking June 28th and remembering what happened here. Two years ago Battery Gadsden Cultural Center initiated a commemorative ceremony at Sullivan’s Island Town Hall. A new “Moultrie Flag” was presented to fly over the town. A wayside marker dedicated to the heroic feats of Sgt. Jasper was donated and placed in the plaza near the flagpole. Last year we had planned for bigger and better things. But then Covid-19 reared its ugly head, and life changed. Even though we went ahead with a modest ceremony, it was not what we had hoped. Now, with Covid retreating like the British, Battery Gadsden Cultural Center, in concert with the Town of Sullivan’s Island, WILL have a significant celebration! Because June 28th is a Monday, the event will be held on Saturday, June 26th, at 9 AM, on the plaza in front of Town Hall. The Moultrie flag will fly again. Appropriate remarks will be made, including the story of the palmetto log fort itself. Members of the Daughters of the American Revolution will take part, along with a proclamation by Mayor Patrick O’Neil. Invocation and benediction will be by Reverend Danny Massie. And this year refreshments for all. (Look kids…donuts!) I invite you to come out! Bring your young students who may be studying these events. Bring your neighbors who have just moved to the island and have no idea of what Carolina Day means. 

Support your community and its unique heritage. 

See you on the 26th, rain or shine.

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