In the middle of June 1776, the 3000 British regulars and loyalists encamped on Long Island saw nothing to stop them from overtaking Sullivan’s Island. They enjoyed a four to one advantage in manpower and firepower. They planned to cross Breach Inlet, overcome any resistance by troops on the Sullivan’s Island shore, then move three miles south and storm the unfinished rear of Fort Sullivan. If the navy’s bombardment proceeded according to plan, the fort would be reduced to rubble by the time they arrived. Events of the next ten days caused a shocking turnaround.
INLET TOO DEEP. General Clinton scouted Long Island for two days prior to landing the troops in mid-June, but he did not confirm the depth of the channel through the inlet, which was purported to be 18 inches at low tide. After committing his force to Long Island, he conducted personal reconnaissance at night. To his “unspeakable mortification”, he concluded the inlet was not fordable and notified Commodore Parker on June 18. Initially, he had planned to march the troops en masse across the broad tidal flats at low tide and overwhelm the patriots defending the north end of Sullivan’s Island. Maintaining formation over more than a mile of uncertain ground through shoals and tidal pools would have been a challenging maneuver; resistance by patriot defenders could have made it a very difficult one. Now that he knew the channel was too deep, he realized it is impossible. He wrote, “This of course rendered it impractical for the army to take the share in the attack of the fort on Sullivan’s Island which had been at first intended.” (1)
CROSSING IN BOATS. The alternate plan called for an amphibious attack in boats. The fleet carried 15 shallow-draft, flat-bottom boats for this purpose. Each “flat-boat” could carry a company of 40-50 soldiers, so 600-700 could cross the inlet in a wave. Rather than attacking on foot through shallow water at low tide, they would cross by boat in the deeper water of a higher tide. This was a viable approach, assuming manageable resistance at the landing. When they first arrived, the British troops on Long Island outnumbered the patriot force defending the north end of Sullivan’s Island by about ten to one. (2)
INCREASED RESISTANCE. In mid-June, the respected veteran Colonel William “Danger” Thomson assumed command at Breach Inlet. Recognizing the magnitude of the threat from Long Island, the patriots were adding troops and demonstrating their resolve to fight:
- On or about June 18, they scored the first kill of the Battle of Sullivan’s Island. Patriot leader Richard Hutson wrote in a letter to Isaac Hayne, “On their sending their first reconnoitering upon Long Island one of their men was shot by one of our Riflemen. He was dressed in Red laced with Black and had a Cockade & Feather in his Hat, & a sword by his side. By which it appears that he was an Officer …” (3)
- Patriot patrols crossed the inlet under cover of darkness. The next night, a British sentinel was shot through the leg. Then, a British Captain named Trail shot a patriot officer through the head. (4)
- On another night, a party of Thomson’s rangers paddled over to Long Island, seeking a reward offered by South Carolina President Rutledge for capture of the first British prisoner. They did not capture a prisoner, and they mistakenly shot one of their own men. (5)
- The next morning, a British patrol tracked the patriot party from the previous night to the Breach. The Advanced Guard opened fire on them with artillery. The British replied by firing platoons of musketry. Thomson’s cannons fired on the schooner Lady William and the pilot boat Raven in the creek beside Long Island (now known as Hamlin Creek beside Isle of Palms). The vessels were hit several times before they were able to move out of range. At least two patriots were wounded by small arms fire and one had his hand blown off by a premature discharge when one of the gunners neglected to sponge a cannon. The firefight lasted several hours and hundreds, if not thousands, of rounds were fired. (6) A British surgeon’s diary states the British killed about 20 patriots and lost only two men. (7)
- After three days of fighting, men on both sides had been killed and wounded and there could be no doubt the patriots had the ability and the will to resist.
WISE GUIDANCE AND FAST RESPONSE. On June 21, General Lee sent a scathing letter to Thomson through Moultrie in response to all the skirmish activity. To instill discipline and conserve the patriots’ scarce ammunition, he ordered that no small arms should be fired at targets further than 150 yards and no cannon should be fired at a distance greater than 400 yards. He also wanted Thomson’s two artillery pieces moved away from the inlet to a more secure position some 500 yards south. (8) Thomson rapidly improved the patriot defenses by implementing these instructions from an experienced general who understood artillery tactics. In just two days, a new line of defense spanned Sullivan’s Island and the cannons were in new positions. The patriot cannons were placed beyond the range of British artillery, but close enough to fire on troops and vessels in the inlet. Meanwhile, Generals Cornwallis and Vaughan took a week to get their troops in place on the southern end of Long Island.
CLINTON’S CONFIDENCE WANED. Seeing the patriots’ resolve and surveying their impressive new positions, General Clinton overestimated their strength. He wrote to Lord George Germain, “they took up some very strong ground 500 yards back, in a much more extended front than the narrow spit of land on which they had at first placed themselves, having a battery on their right and a morass on their left, razing their former work and making it a glacis or esplanade … This, my Lord, defended and sustained by three or four thousand men, was a formidable appearance, and such a one as a small army in boats, advancing singly through a narrow channel, uncovered and unprotected, could not attempt without a manifest sacrifice.” (9)
PATRIOT CONFIDENCE GREW. The enemies opposing each other at Breach Inlet engaged in combat nearly every day until June 28. In a letter, patriot Major Samuel Wise of Thomson’s 3rd Regiment observed the British on Long Island were mounting enough cannons to cover their landing in spite of all the patriots could do. He said the situation was desperate and the patriot officers expected to be sacrificed, but they would fight to the death. He observed, “… I do conceive the longer we are kept in the face of the enemy, the less we dread fighting them.” (10) As the fighting continued, the patriots gained insight into British avenues of approach and accumulated valuable experience:
- The British established forward artillery positions closer to Sullivan’s Island, on Green Island and an oyster bank. They fired on the Advanced Guard positions without effect. The oyster bank was close to the patriots, but not within effective range of rifles or muskets. Today, that critical British location is a hummock (small marsh island) known as Clubhouse Point. You can see it just inland of the bridge connecting Sullivan’s Island with Isle of Palms.
- A skirmish erupted when a small group of patriots paddled canoes into the inlet and became exposed on the British side of a large sandbar, probably near the oyster bank.
- An 8-gun British schooner and other armed vessels crept down the creek beside Long Island, approaching the inlet. Patriots fired on them early one morning, and “… some shot having struck, they were obliged to retire further into the creek.” (11)
- A party of Scottish Highlanders (loyalists) took shelter behind an oyster bank and ambushed a group of Indians in the patriot force. The Highlanders “kept up a brisk fire”. Patriot Major Wise wrote that the Indians “caused us to laugh heartily by their running and tumbling, several of them whooping and firing their muskets over their shoulder backward. I confess, though the bullets poured round me, I laughed against my inclinations.” Wise was impressed by the enemy musketry and the effectiveness of the patriot artillery. The artillery dislodged the loyalists with grape and other shot, supposedly with the loss of two or three men. (12)
- The firing the next day was not as sharp but lasted longer and was more efficient. Patriot officer Wise wrote, “Indeed, on our side, only two rifles were fired, and the 18-pounder about three of four times; after which our artillery was hauled off, and are now placed at about a quarter mile from the point of Sullivan’s Island, where the hills begin. We, fortunately, had nobody killed or wounded either day …” (13)
CLINTON NEUTRALIZED. After 10 days of maneuvering and skirmishing, General Clinton was baffled. He had no good options and no firm plans. He informed Parker that his situation “is rendered more difficult every hour, from the preparations the Rebels are making to defend themselves.” He said they were “everywhere intrenching themselves in the strongest manner.” He expected to make the amphibious assault across Breach Inlet. He also was considering the option of an attack or feint on the mainland, if the navy could provide support by stationing warships near Haddrell’s Point. He urged Parker to have his frigates advance as deep into the harbor as possible. On June 26th, Clinton told Parker his actions in the combined attack would depend on “different circumstances, subject to a variety of changes as occasions may arise, and make them necessary.” He could only repeat, “The troops under my command will cooperate with you to the utmost for the good of His Majestys Service as soon as Wind and Weather shall favor an attack of the Fleet.” (14)
In an astonishing turnaround, the patriots had seized the initiative. General Clinton was reacting instead of acting. British delays gave Thomson too much time and their indecision let him take control. By June 28, the assembled patriots were no longer raw troops; they were proven in battle. They had benefitted immensely from insights and experience gained during ten exhausting days and nights of combat. They had learned to fire the cannons accurately; they had gained the advantage through strengthened positions; they had gelled into an effective fighting force … and General Clinton knew it.
Interpreting these accounts is challenging because the distance between Long Island and Sullivan’s Island was longer that the effective range of the weapons used by both sides. Most of the combat was between enemy soldiers on small islands, marshes, and oyster banks at the edge of the inlet. For details, see Notes and Photos – Terrain, Distance, Oyster Banks