Points to Ponder
This page is devoted to issues where historical accounts are missing, unclear, contradictory or perplexing. The questions have been addressed at roundtables conducted by Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution (SCAR) http://www.southerncampaign.org/. Researchers continue to pursue answers, and we want others to participate in the ongoing research. Fresh perspectives, insights and hypotheses are welcome. You don’t have to be a historian. Just post your comments below or add questions of your own.
The following items, which apparently do not exist, could shed light on the battle.
- Casualty reports from the Battle at the Breach
- After-action reports from Thomson or other patriot officers at Breach Inlet
- After-action reports from Cornwallis, Vaughan, or other officers on Long Island
Questions where additional insights will be most appreciated:
- Why did British General Clinton plan to attack from Long Island? In hindsight, it looks like a very dangerous plan with low probability of success, even if they had been able to attack across the tidal flats and ford the inlet en masse. According to his memoirs, General Clinton chose not to land on the beach of Sullivan’s Island because of the violent surf and the presence of troops. He landed on Long Island and planned to attack across Breach Inlet assuming (1) it was fordable and (2) resistance would be slight. He was wrong on both counts.
- How many vessels were in the British squadron? Our current best estimate is show here Naval Resources in Battle of Sullivan’s Island. Most previous authors have used the round numbers of 50 ships and 270 guns. Source documents are inconsistent, although primary sources indicate a few more ships and guns (plus supporting vessels such as flatboats and victualizers). The men-of-war under Parker’s command include his flagship HM Bristol (50 guns), Experiment (50), Solebay (28), Actaeon (28), Active (28), Syren (28), Sphynx (20), Ranger (22, A.S.), Friendship (12, A.S.), Thunder Bomb (8), and Carcass (8). (This is per Parker’s Narrative p 86; other accounts show 8 guns on Ranger.) Counting the schooners Lady William (8) and St Lawrence (8) assigned to Clinton, the British had a total of 284-298 naval guns. Lady William and St Lawrence were stationed in the creeks bordering Long Island and Ranger was reported in the ocean off Long Island on June 28. These three warships with 24-38 guns apparently were assigned to support Clinton’s army, and nine warships with 260 guns were commanded by Parker to cannonade and bombard the fort.
- Exactly who fought with Colonel Thomson at Breach Inlet? We believe we know most units that participated, thanks to William Moultrie’s memoirs and other sources. The order of battle is shown on the Forces at Breach Inlet page of this site. Painstaking work by Leon Harris and Will Graves with pension applications has shed some new light on individual soldiers. But, questions remain about exactly who was there during the 10 days of combat in late June, 1776. Patriot troops were constantly moving back and forth between Sullivan’s Island and the mainland, and between the Advanced Guard and Fort Sullivan. General Lee ordered a detachment from Thomas Sumter’s 6th regiment of SC to accompany Thomson’s 3rd regiment for reconnaissance of Long Island in early June, but he remanded the order before it could be carried out. Sumter’s troops apparently did not remain with the Advanced Guard. The 8th Virginia regiment was sent as reinforcements after 5:00 pm on June 28, too late for main attacks. However, their presence may have helped avert another attack. One Virginian’s pension application says he was at the Breach during the British amphibious assault, and that some British troops actually landed on Sullivan’s Island but could not establish a beachhead. Pension applications were submitted many years later; they are useful but cannot be considered completely reliable.
- How do we reconcile reports of rifle and musket kills, when the distance across Breach Inlet was more than a mile? The most intense firing was from British or loyalist troops based at redoubts behind oyster banks with patriots based on Sullivan’s Island. Maps from the period show that the inlet was much wider in 1776 than the current 1/4 mile. All available maps show it was a mile to a mile and a half wide. A comparison of historic maps reveals that the dry land of Long Island (Isle of Palms) grew southward by a mile between 1820 and 1858, encompassing the sandbars shown in the inlet on maps from the 1770s. See 1776 Map Overlay on Current Map. British troops occupied Green Island, which extended into the inlet and was closer than Long Island to Sullivan’s Island, yet it was more than 3/4 mile away. On period maps, we have found British firing positions on an oyster bank 1/2 mile from the Advanced Guard positions on the tip of Sullivan’s Island. That closest location was far beyond rifle and musket range. Small arms of the day were effective only at short range: less than 100 yards for muskets and 200 yards for rifles. Even naval guns and cannons could not shoot effectively all the way across Breach Inlet. For example, the patriots’ brass 6-pound cannon had a range around 1/2 mile. The 18-pounder may have shot balls effectively at targets up to a mile away, but 600 yards was about the limit for grapeshot (similar to shotgun pellets the size of golf balls). Grapeshot was a critical element of the patriot victory at Breach Inlet. So, how can we reconcile the accounts of troops killed and wounded? Most casualties were caused by artillery, some occurred during patriot patrols on Long Island, and others resulted from skirmishes across the creeks and marshes. The depth of the inlet offers an explanation for other casualties. Sandbars covered most of the inlet, extending from Long Island to the channel along the shore of Sullivan’s Island. The sandbar nearest the patriot Advanced Guard was within rifle and perhaps musket range. Instances of soldiers firing from sandbars or tidal flats at low tide may have caused General Lee to issue his warning against undiscliplined firing by patriot troops. Exposed British troops in the inlet would have been at a distinct disadvantage against entrenched patriots on higher ground. Troops also may have employed harrassing fire – firing volleys at long distance to keep the enemy pinned down. One patriot wrote that when the British atacked on June 28, “every man took deliberate aim at his object … The fire taught the ememy to lie closer behind their bank of oyster shells and only to show themselves when they rose up to fire.”
- Why did the British give up at Breach Inlet on June 28? General Clinton appears to have been defeated by a combination of events leading up to the 28th. While all sources agree that the British crossing was blocked on the 28th, accounts of the amphibious assault and other actions vary. Patriot accounts say the British attempted to cross the Breach at least twice, firing continued from late morning until night, and Thomson nearly exhausted the powder supply for his cannons. General Clinton was ridiculed about his failure and went to great lengths to justify his actions. He explained the failed assaults as demonstrations. He said he was neutralized because the channel was not fordable and he did not have enough boats for a mass crossing. He said the flatboats all ran aground and blamed the terrain, currents, and Thomson’s strong defenses. Did he prudently withdraw to avoid ”manifest slaughter”, choose not to continue because he saw no way to succeed, or lose the will to win? The answer appears to be “all of the above”?
- Where are the casualty reports? We do not know how many British and patriot soldiers were killed or wounded in the 10 days of skirmishes and the assault June 28. Historians have estimated as many as 100 British killed by patriots in the attempted crossing, without documentation. We have no record of official reports by British or patriot commanders, despite multiple first person accounts of casualties. Parker and Moultrie gave detailed reports of killed and wounded in the battle at the fort … where are the reports from Clinton and Thomson?
- How did tides influence the battle? Tides played a major role in the Battle of Sullivan’s Island. We are forced to estimate the impacts based on limited data. Today, the water depth in the Charleston area typically rises more than five feet from low to high tide in about 6 1/4 hours. This has a profound effect on boating and shoreline activity. Two period maps and a ship’s log indicate the tidal range in 1776 was only three feet, and we must assume other changes over the past 235 years. For example, the sea level at Charleston has risen a foot in the past century according to NOAA. Dr. Leon Harris performed this analysis, Tides 12xi10, because we have not been able to find tide logs from 1776. Period accounts vary, but consistently indicate the tide in the vicinity of Sullivan’s Island was low mid-morning and late evening on June 28, 1776. The tide would have been high mid-late afternoon. In theory, beginning the attack on an incoming/rising/flood tide allowed the Royal Navy to anchor close to the fort for shelling and have time to withdraw without becoming grounded. The British officers at Breach Inlet would have preferred to launch their amphibious assault on an incoming or high tide to avoid shoals in the inlet and land troops high on the Sullivan’s Island beach. However, they lost the support of forward light artillery as the water level rose. Their best artillery position to support the crossing from land was a natural breastwork at an oyster bank 1/2 mile from the patriot forces. Cannons and mortars could not be fired from the oyster bank at high tide. Attempts to ford the inlet or move within small arms range by foot would have been feasible only around low or falling (ebb) tide.
- Why has this important action been nearly lost in history? Like many crucial episodes of the American Revolution, this fight was not well documented in publications of the era and soon faded from memory. Several reasons come to mind. Perhaps you can think of others.
- In the Battle of Sullivan’s Island, the dramatic victory at the fort overshadowed all other action. The frantic construction of Fort Sullivan was highly publicized as the city prepared for invasion. Nervous citizens of Charles Town watched the menacing British squadron on the horizon every day in June and July. They were enthralled by the fierce bombardment and cannonade witnessed on June 28th. The clear defeat of the British, severe damage to the men-of-war, high number of casualties, and heroic personal actions of patriots like Sergeant Jasper were a compelling story.
- The fighting at Breach Inlet was out of sight, out of mind. The far end of Sullivan’s Island and Long Island were uninhabited wilderness miles away from the city and harbor … largely unseen and unknown to the local populace. The visible part of Sullivan’s Island had been occupied for a century. Travelers by sea passed the pest house on the point commanding the harbor, but they could not see the other end of Sullivan’s Island, Long Island or Breach Inlet. No fortifications were built at the Breach before the British arrived, then simple redoubts were thrown up without fanfare. The shooting at the Breach June 18-28 could not be seen or heard on the Charles Town peninsula.
- The fight on the north end of Sullivan’s Island lacked the sizzle of the fight at the fort. The Battle at the Breach was a contest of maneuver, skirmishes and will. It was more like a chess match than a boxing match – instead of suffering a punishing one-day knockout defeat like Commodore Parker, General Clinton was checked after 10 days of sporadic and disheartening combat, and he chose to withdraw. Thomson’s defeat of Clinton was effective and absolutely essential to victory in the Battle of Sullivan’s Island, yet it lacked the drama of Moultrie’s defeat of Parker.
- Charlestonians were closely tied to soldiers in the fort, but there was little personal connection between the Charles Town citizenry and the soldiers at the Breach. Colonel Moultrie was a prominent member of the Charles Town elite and the officers and men of South Carolina’s 2nd and 4th Regiments inside Fort Sullivan were mainly Charlestonians. To citizens in the region’s preeminent city, the fight at the fort was paramount; it was personal and newsworthy to the soldiers’ wives, parents, friends and relatives in Charles Town. This was not the case for the patriots at Breach Inlet. Those officers and men were from “off” – militia, Indians, rangers and troops marched into the area from the back country, North Carolina and Virginia. With few exceptions, the people of Charles Town did not see them, much less know them.
- After sailing away in July and August, British officials turned their attention to the northern colonies and naturally wrote little about the embarrassing defeat at Sullivan’s Island. General Clinton tried to minimize the disaster to preserve his image. American leaders turned their attention to pressing matters such as a Cherokee uprising in the upper part of South Carolina and a mission to East Florida. The American written accounts of the action focused on the patriots’ glorious victory at the fort. That was the fascinating news of most local interest. Reports from the complicated, unseen, unheard action at the other end of the island were not so clear or captivating. William Moultrie was the only principal in the Battle of Sullivan’s Island to publish a history during his lifetime. His memoirs were published a quarter century after the fact, three years before his death. The popular former general and governor wrote about events that involved him personally. His involvement in the action at Breach Inlet was minimal and therefore little was included in the memoirs, which became the main source for 19th and 20th century historians’ accounts of the Battle of Sullivan’s Island. We are grateful for Moultrie’s accounts. As far as we know, Thomson and his officers left no written accounts other than those mentioned in the Timeline in the Research Aids section.
- Other than bridges previously named for Colonel Thomson, there was no enduring physical reminder of the action at Breach Inlet. The Revolutionary War redoubts soon disappeared. Fortunately, iconic Fort Sullivan/Moultrie was an active military installation until 1947 and it has been professionally maintained since then by the National Park Service.
Observations Based on Park Visitor Comments:
1. Dealing with New Information. Most park visitors with previous knowledge about the battle at Breach Inlet are intrigued by little-known facts revealed in the exhibits – the mile-wide inlet, flatboats designed for amphibious operations, fighting that extended over 10 days, etc. Much of this information was not as readily available when the first histories were written. Some park visitors find it hard to accept that stories they heard as children, such as a myth of mass drownings, may not be entirely true. Erroneous information in history books is especially difficult to dismiss. For example, quite a few writers apparently have assumed that modern maps accurately represent Sullivan’s Island and Long Island in 1776. Of course, they do not. Dramatic changes that occurred during the early 19th Century make it nearly impossible to reconcile first person accounts using maps drawn after the Revolution. Important elements of the history may have been omitted because writers disregarded accounts they could not understand. Today, we can access Revolutionary era maps in digital form and create overlays with modern maps to help piece together the puzzle.
2. Technology and History. We will be challenged to keep open minds as technology increases access to information and much more of our history is revisited. Let’s hope responsible historians will dig deep into the details, consider revisions carefully, and publish new findings only after due diligence. Bearing this in mind, we appreciate any input you can offer to enhance the quality of our efforts to shed light on this episode of American history.