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Party Like It’s 1777

By Mike Walsh for The Island Eye News

This painting by John Blake White depicts an epic event in the history of the Lowcountry and the United States: the Battle of Sullivan’s Island.

Imagine this: It’s June 28, 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 Fourth of July, Independence Day, the day our republic began its noble experiment.” But nay, my friend. 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 (ccpl. org/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.”  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 citizens, newcomers and longtime 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, who had already been soundly defeated by patriot militia. Thus they turned their eyes south to where they learned a fortification was being constructed on a small island guarding the entrance to the harbor of Charles Town. A plan was hatched to attack and overwhelm the fort on Sullivan’s Island, occupy the island, show the flag and do mischief from that base, and still make it to the Northeast colonies in time for the summer campaigning season.

Fast forward to June 28, 1776. Nine powerful British warships, under the command of Admiral Sir Peter Parker, assaulted the Sullivan’s Island fort, constructed with palmetto logs and defended by Col. Moultrie and his men. Gen. Henry Clinton and an infantry force on Long Island – now the Isle of Palms – attempted to attack the north end of the island across Breach Inlet, only to be thrown back by Col. William Thomson and his force of rangers. At the palmetto fort, the cannon duel began in earnest about 11 a.m., and, by 10 p.m., the Battle of Sullivan’s Island was over – and the British were defeated.

Impossible! This was the world’s most powerful military and most powerful navy. The story of how this little band of Americans overcame the British should be enough to make you take a trip to the Fort Moultrie Visitor Center, where it’s all explained. Suffice it to say, this was one of the first great victories of the American Revolution, and it took place six days before the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Yet, outside of Charleston, this battle is little remembered.

That’s why Carolina Day has been celebrated ever since those bar-setting festivities in 1777. Most of these celebrations, however, have taken place in downtown Charleston under the auspices of the Palmetto Society. That’s fine. 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 that was later named for Moultrie is here. The village called Moultrieville was the first incorporated part of our island.

Yet our community has been sadly lacking in marking June 28 and remembering what happened here.

Last year, Battery Gadsden Cultural Center initiated a commemorative ceremony at Sullivan’s Island Town Hall. A new “Moultrie flag” was presented and flew over the town all day. A wayside marker dedicated to the heroic feats of Sgt. Jasper was donated and placed in the plaza near the flagpole.

This year we had planned for bigger and better things, incorporating music and a community Lowcountry boil. But then COVID-19 reared its ugly head, and life changed. All of the downtown Charleston activities, with the exception of a service at St. Michael’s, have been canceled. However, Battery Gadsden Cultural Center, in concert with the Town of Sullivan’s Island, will have a scaled-down ceremony.

Because June 28 is a Sunday, this event will be held on Saturday, June 27, at 9 a.m., on the plaza in front of Town Hall. The Moultrie flag will fly again.

Appropriate remarks will be made, including a remembrance of the life of William Moultrie.

Members of the Daughters of the American Revolution will take part, along with the reading of a proclamation by Mayor Patrick O’Neil. The invocation and benediction will be by Father Lawrence McInerny of Stella Maris Church.

 I invite you to come out. Bring your young students who may be studying these events. Support your community and its unique heritage. But please do so in a safe fashion, considering the times we live in. Maintain social distancing. There should be plenty of room at this outside event. Strongly consider wearing a mask. By next year, we all hope to be back to a more normal world – and maybe we can finally get around to that Lowcountry boil!

See you on the 27th, rain or shine.

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