The Battle Situation
The Battle of Sullivan’s Island engulfed Charles Town and all of South Carolina in June 1776. The dramatic climax occurred June 28, less than a week before the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed on July 4, 1776.
Tensions between the British government and its American colonies had been growing for years. Many colonists objected to increasingly severe taxes and restrictions imposed by the British. These American patriots wanted to govern themselves. Other colonists were content to remain under British rule. These loyalists supported the British government and many of them fought on the British side.
In 1775, patriots seized control of each of the thirteen colonial governments and armed rebellion began in Massachusetts. The outcome of the first year’s battles in the northern colonies was inconclusive. In the south, patriots had beaten loyalist forces in the battles of Great Bridge in Virginia and the Rice Boats in Georgia, but they had not faced the mighty British army or navy in a major battle.
In preparation for a southern campaign to mobilize loyalists and reassert British authority, a large force of British soldiers and sailors from England, Ireland and the northern colonies were ordered to gather at Cape Fear, off the North Carolina coast. On February 17, 1776 – before the British forces arrived – patriots won an important land battle against loyalists at Moore’s Creek in North Carolina. Without loyalist support in North Carolina, the fleet soon headed to Charles Town expecting to win a clear victory and reestablish the Crown’s presence in South Carolina. They were in for a major surprise.
Why did the British target Charles Town? South Carolina was one of the richest British colonies. The capital, Charles Town, was the largest city in the south and the fourth largest in America with a population of about 12,000. Charles Town was the seat of commerce in the southern colonies, and the busy seaport was vital to trade. American patriots took charge in 1775, overthrowing British rule and forcing the British Royal Governor to leave the city. Regaining control of Charles Town was essential for the British to restore authority in the south. They believed strong loyalist sentiment would help quell the rebellion after British authority was re-established in the capital city. Their immediate military objective was to occupy Sullivan’s Island as a base of operations to secure the port and eventually retake the city.