The British command planned a spring offensive into the Carolina colonies, hoping to stretch the limited Continental forces to a breaking point. Forces under Henry Clinton arrived in March and stationed themselves in the waters off North Carolina. It was hoped that Loyalist forces on land could be rallied, but that expectation had been dashed by the decisive defeat of the Tories at Moore’s Creek Bridge on February 27. Clinton bided his time and in May was supplemented by the arrival of a British fleet commanded by Sir Peter Parker. His 10 warships carried the army of Lord Charles Cornwallis.
Since North Carolina was firmly in the hands of North Carolinian Patriots, the British decided to move southward and strike Charleston, South Carolina. Clinton’s force arrived on June 1 and discovered that local militiamen under William Moultrie, a surveyor, were busy constructing breastwork defenses on Sullivan’s Island, an outcropping of land near the mouth of the harbor. Built largely of palmetto logs and sandbags, the redoubt was initially referred to as Fort Sullivan, but later would be known as Fort Moultrie.
On June 4, Charles Lee arrived in Charleston to take overall American command of the area. He inspected Fort Sullivan and was extremely critical of it, expressing certainty that the works could not withstand British bombardment; he also recommended Moultrie's removal. Local officials rejected Lee’s advice.
In mid-June, Clinton sent land forces ashore on Long Island near Sullivan’s Island. The battle began on June 28, when the British opened a 10-hour bombardment. Clinton had been led to believe that his army could storm Fort Sullivan by crossing the shallows between the two islands at low tide. When the favorable tide came, it was discovered that the waters were more than six feet deep. No land assault took place.
Despite Lee’s warnings, the fortifications were up to the challenge. The palmetto logs possessed an elastic quality that was highly effective in warding off cannon fire. In addition, American militiamen were able to pour heavy fire into the British ships and inflict heavy damage. At the end of the long day’s fighting, the British fleet had failed to move into Charleston Harbor, which gave the Patriots a stunning victory at the cost of 10 killed and several dozen wounded.
Clinton was forced to wait several days for favorable conditions to retrieve his stranded soldiers on Long Island. In accord with military custom of the day, Lee and Clinton exchanged written pleasantries. The former sent needed supplies to the ships waiting at sea and received from the latter a barrel of English porter.
The British effort to open a second front in the South ended in the waters off Charleston. Clinton sailed back to New York City and the effort in the South would not be renewed for two years.
The news from Charleston was met with great rejoicing by Americans. Following on the heels of the victory at Moore’s Creek Bridge and the British evacuation of Boston, it appeared that the tide of war had turned fully in the American direction. However, during the second half of 1776, a long string of defeats would occur, which drained the elation of all but the most optimistic rebels.
See timeline of the War of Independence.