ANXIOUS CITY South Carolina patriot leaders had been preparing for an attack but when the British fleet sailed into local waters in early June, Charles Town exploded with activity. Express riders galloped to all parts of the province with the call for militia. Soldiers arriving crossed paths with residents fleeing town into the countryside. Valuable stores and warehouses on the Cooper River wharves were destroyed to clear firing lanes. Streets were barricaded and fortifications were thrown up anywhere an attack was anticipated. Lead weights in the windows of homes and shops were removed to be cast into musket balls. (1)
DANGEROUS MISSION Odd yet capable, Major General Charles Lee assumed overall command of Charles Town defenses as the British arrived. Expecting Sullivan’s Island to fall quickly under the British onslaught, he issued orders to prepare for retreat to the mainland. He thought the unfinished fort was a “slaughter pen” that would not hold out an hour, and he said the patriots’ engineer “was frightened out of his wits at the dangerousness of the situation of our Troops on the island where retreat is so precarious“. (2) However, South Carolina’s 2nd Regiment in the fort and 3rd Regiment at the inlet were confident in their commanders and determined to win. Looking across Breach Inlet at the intimidating British army, a patriot major wrote that the situation was desperate and the officers expected to be sacrificed, but they would fight to the death. (3) Thomson’s rangers from the backcountry (inland from today’s I-95) were expert marksmen. They were ready to fight with rifles and muskets, plus two cannons they had never fired. Realizing the grave threat posed by Clinton’s force of about 3,000 men, General Lee sent reinforcements to Breach Inlet. On Long Island, British commander Sir Henry Clinton observed that the patriots were entrenched in the strongest manner and estimated their strength at 3000-4000 men. Actually, Colonel Thomson’s force was only about one-fourth that size.
MISERABLE CONDITIONS That summer on South Carolina’s barrier islands was nearly unbearable, especially for those British who had endured a long voyage through terrible storms in cramped ships. An officer aboard one of the ships crossing the Atlantic said “… we met with some of the worst weather ever known at sea, and continued in that situation for sixteen days”. (4) The crossing took three months. By the time the fleet reached North Carolina, six of Lord Cornwallis’s companies were stricken with “a very bad fever” and they were isolated from the rest of the troops. The entire squadron was put on two-thirds rations of bread, beef and pork due to shortages. A British soldier encamped in the wilderness on Long Island wrote “… we have lived upon nothing but salt Pork and Pease. We sleep upon the Sea Shore, nothing to shelter us from the rains but our coats and a miserable paltry blanket. There is nothing that grows upon the island, it being a mere sand-bank, and a few bushes that harbour Millions of Musketoes, a greater plague than there can be in Hell itself … The oldest of our officers do not remember, of ever undergoing such hardships, as we have done since our arrival here.” (5) A British surgeon wrote in his diary about the conditions they encountered: “the suffocating heat … was the most insufferable I ever felt, not a breath of air stiring – thick cobwebs to push thro’ everywhere, knee deep in rotten wood and dryed Leaves, every hundred yards a swamp with putrid standing water in the middle, full of small Alligators, a thick cloud of Musquitoes every where and no place entirely free from Rattle Snakes. … spiders, their bodies as large as my coat Button … Crocodiles are very frequent and large in these places, we killed one nine feet long, which attacked a Soldier, it was with difficulty he got from him … We have only two Days provisions of rum and pork, therefore something must be done very soon … nothing to eat and drink but salt Pork, bad rum and brackish water, no other bed than the Sand and no other covering than the Sky.” (6)