2) Unquiet Shores

Sullivan’s Island

No slaughterhouse could present so bad a sight with blood and entrails
lying about, as did our ship.

–British survivor aboard the flagship Bristol


While Benedict Arnold and Richard Montgomery marched to heroic defeat in Canada, George Washington continued his struggle to forge an army from the motley Patriot forces gathered outside the gates of Boston. His first step was naturally enough to move toward more discipline and less democracy. “New lords, new laws,” observed an army chaplain, and the immediate consequence was “a great overturning as to order and regularity…. New orders from his Excellency are read to the regiments every morning after prayers. The strictest government is taking place and great distinction is made between officers and soldiers. Everyone is made to know his place and keep in it, or be immediately tied up, and receive not one but thirty or forty lashes according to his crime. Thousands are at work every day from four till eleven o’clock in the morning. It is surprising the work that has been done.” Washington was everywhere at once it seemed, and his courts martial did brisk business. Unfit officers were sent packing. As Washington wrote with grim satisfaction: “I have already broke one colonel and five captains for cowardice and for drawing more pay and provisions than they had men in their companies. There are two more colonels now under arrest and to be tried for the same offenses.” Before he was through he would make a “pretty good slam” of those unwilling or unable to meet new expectations. The Yankee in the ranks, like every soldier since the dawn of soldiering, resented the new order, but could not deny that there was less drunkenness, theft, insubordination and sloth since Washington took up the reins. As the first summer of the war (and the stalemate) wore on, it was drill and discipline, discipline and drill–along with an earnest recommendation to the men “diligently to attend Divine services” in their off-hours. Washington himself was coming to believe that “the men would fight very well,” if, he added, “properly Officered.”

As for the high command of the officer corps, Congress had already acted, commissioning four major generals. Two were already immediately to hand: Artemas Ward, who had managed at least to keep the army from unraveling before Washington’s arrival, and Israel Putnam, who had fought at Bunker Hill and was impatient to fight again. A third, Philip Schuyler, had been appointed for reasons perhaps more political than military. A Hudson River patroon of vast wealth, his influence, it was hoped, would bring New York, still largely Loyalist, closer to the Rebel cause. The last of the new major generals was a professional soldier, Charles Lee. Although an Englishman retired on half-pay from the regular army, he had cast his lot with the Americans. He had seen plenty of fighting–in the Balkans, with Braddock in the west, and with Sir William Johnson in the Mohawk Valley. He claimed a general’s commission from the King of Poland and was held by some to be brilliant. He was certainly an enigma: a tall, angular, slovenly, sharp-tongued, unpredictable character, with a pack of dogs forever at his heel and often at his table. Mercurial would be a charitable description. The Mohawk Indians, among whom he had briefly lived, called him “Boiling Water.” But on Lee and the others Washington would, at least for the time being, have to depend. Lee was posted to command the American left opposite Charlestown. (He headquartered in the stately Royall house, soon to be known, apparently in tribute to its fantastic new guest, as Hobgoblin Hall.) Rough-hewn Israel Putnam would hold the American center in and around Cambridge (with Washington looking over his shoulder daily). Old Artemas Ward would shift from Cambridge to the Roxbury lines opposite Dorchester. It was a start. It remained to be seen, however, whether Washington could break into Boston or Thomas Gage could break out.

At the end of the first summer of the war neither side was any closer to victory, and the stalemate weighed heavily on the commander of the Patriot army. With equal parts impatience and exasperation, Washington told anyone who would listen that he feared the army would fall apart in his hands before he ever had a chance to use it in battle. Congress responded to his plea for reinforcements that fall by authorizing the raising of 26 new regiments, but that plan remained a paper army. Of the 20,000 men Congress called for, only 2,500 came forward by the end of November. Most dispiriting to Washington was the failure of the eight-month men to reenlist, for around this core of veterans he hoped to build an army that could take the fight to the redcoats. Longing for his own Mount Vernon fireside, he was forced ruefully to admit that military discipline and the boredom of siege life were leading many a man to “retire into a chimney corner.” Like Arnold and Montgomery, he looked with undisguised anxiety toward the last day of December. By then, he wrote to adjutant Joseph Reed, “our lines will be so weakened that the minutemen and the militia must be called in for their defense; these being under no government themselves will destroy the little subordination I have been laboring to establish, and run me into one evil whilst I am endeavoring to avoid another.” And there seemed no end to the evils before him: disbanding one army, raising another to replace it, and all the while keeping ten thousand Regulars at bay. On New Year’s Day 1776 he learned the worst: his returns showed just 5,582 men in the ranks. These would somehow have to hold an eight-mile arc opposite Boston. “How it will end,” he wrote, “God, in his great goodness, will direct.”

If Washington was looking for a sign of God’s great goodness, he might have seen it in the strangely passive enemy camps across the water from Cambridge. Sparring, skirmishing, and cannon fire there had been on both sides of the line, sufficiently unpleasant but inconclusive. In London the ministry had seen enough of their mild general Gage, and by the middle of October he sailed for England. If they expected more aggressive action from Sir William Howe in his turn, however, they would be sharply disappointed. In fact, Howe was already giving serious thought to abandoning the Boston outpost altogether and moving on to Loyalist New York as soon as he could gather enough transport. For one thing, as John Burgoyne argued in council, New England was simply one fortified hill behind another, and no one in the British camp relished the prospect of another Bunker Hill. For another, with the British fleet to command the harbor and the Hudson, New York was a surer and safer base of operations. Then, too, Howe had sufficient problems with his own restive troops. As they shivered out a New England winter on short rations, their sick rolls rose steadily, first the scurvy cases, then the smallpox. These considerations Howe put to paper and sent to his lords across the sea, who were willing to allow him to rely on his own best judgment concerning a change of base to New York. There was another possible reason for Howe’s inertia, but of this he did not speak and probably did not see himself, though his inner circle saw it clearly enough. Something in his character, lassitude or loss of will, made him content to hold his command together and wait for spring. As it happened that winter, one Betsy Lloyd Loring contributed in immeasurable ways to the general’s content. She was the blonde, vivacious wife of Joshua Loring, Howe’s commissary of prisoners, and while Loring enjoyed the graft that went with that sinecure, Howe enjoyed the lady, along with good wine, games of chance, and amateur theatricals courtesy of Gentleman Johnny. Howe’s officers accepted “the Sultana” as a great lord’s prerogative but had to admit that dalliance in a war zone made for quite a spectacle. Francis Hopkinson, delegate to Congress, made a witty little propaganda triumph of it in a popular song, the refrain of which went:

Sir William, he, snug as a flea
Lay all this time a-snoring;
Nor dreamed of harm, as he lay warm
In bed with Mrs. Loring.

In the meantime the redcoat in the ranks made do with weak spruce beer, weevily biscuit, and moldy salt beef. As for staying warm, if he so much as stole a fence rail for his fire, he risked a flogging.

Thus, Washington, despite his extraordinary singleness of purpose, was unable to act, and Howe, regardless of his purpose, unwilling. And so the Boston stalemate wore on. South of Boston, though, hard-edged men, redcoats and Rebels alike, were eager to press the contest. The first collision came in tidewater Virginia, where John Murray, Earl of Dunmore and royal governor, had been quick to act. With just 150 Regulars on loan from the governor of Florida, Dunmore first scattered the local militia. Falling back on Norfolk’s excellent harbor at the mouth of the James, he now resolved to restore Virginia to her allegiance to the crown by all the means at his command. Those means, however, would involve an immense political miscalculation on his part and drive Virginia firmly and forever into the Patriot camp. Declaring martial law on 7 November, he called on all loyal Virginians to come to his colors or “be looked upon as traitors.” This in itself might have come to little in the larger struggle, for Virginia’s political divisions were deep and their resolution then uncertain. But he also called to arms “all indented servants [and] Negroes,” promising freedom to servant and slave alike if they would fight for the king’s cause. Firey Virginian Patrick Henry had made “liberty or death” the motto of the rebellion, but few of his fellow Virginians were prepared to think that liberty might eventually embrace the African as well as the Anglo-Saxon. More to the immediate point, the prospect of a slave insurrection in the middle of a civil war was frankly terrifying. While Dunmore raised an “Ethiopian Regiment” of barely 500, twice as many white Virginians took up arms and marched in hot haste for Norfolk. They meant to push the Earl of Dunmore into the sea and make him the last royal governor of Virginia.

In the first part of December the Rebel column under Colonel William Woodford reached the southern end of Great Bridge, the long causeway connecting Norfolk to the mainland. At the northern end was Dunmore’s “army,” the Regulars from Florida, a handful of Loyalists and marines, and his “loyal Ethiopians.” Woodford was a veteran and apparently a cool-headed character into the bargain. He halted, threw up crude works at his end of the bridge, and waited for the hot-headed Dunmore–who quickly obliged him. The attack fell to the Regulars under Captain Charles Fordyce, who as a trained soldier might have known better. The redcoats came forward to point-blank range, took a single savage volley, and fled, leaving a dozen dead men behind. A witness later counted fourteen bullet holes in the unfortunate Fordyce. The Americans had one man nicked in the hand. The “Ethiopians” likewise fled and soon the Rebels were over the bridge, rooting Toryism out of Princess Anne and Norfolk counties and sending Dunmore and his camp packing to British ships offshore. Dunmore had already done at least as much as Patrick Henry to incite rebellion in Virginia. He had one more “flaming argument.” On 2 January 1776, he ordered Norfolk burned. In this act, the Whig Virginia Gazette saw “the tyrant’s lust of despotism, stimulated by cruelty, a rancorous malice, and an infernal spirit of revenge.” The fight at the bridge had been no more than a scuffle, but Dunmore’s rashness had decided the conservatives once and for all. They were now “compelled to independency,” as Landon Carter wrote, much against their will. And if the British meant to make a lodgement in southeast Virginia in the future, they would find a charred ruin where a perfectly good port once stood.

To the immediate south in North Carolina, another royal governor, Josiah Martin, was trying to sort out a similarly volatile political situation, part rebellion, part civil war. Indeed, some large number of North Carolinians seemed to have rebellion in their blood. These were the Scots and Irish, yeoman farmers who had settled the backcountry above the fall line. For a half-century, they had nourished a resentment of the tidewater aristocrats who controlled the colony–and its purse strings. Taxes, as always and everywhere, were the heart of the issue. Seeking to “regulate” taxes and fees, the western men rose up in a brief but full-blown rebellion in 1771. These “Regulators” drove the tax collectors out, closed the courts, and established their own government. The tidewater power, however, proved too strong, and an army marching up from the coast quickly smashed North Carolina’s backcountry republic, hanging a half-dozen of its leaders in the process. By the spring of 1775, though, the tidewater planters had swapped horses. Nourishing their resentment of taxes imposed by London, they now rose to challenge the royal governor and soon forced him to flee to a British sloop offshore. At this point Governor Martin made two crucial decisions. The first, at least initially, was sound judgment. He wrote to London urging the ministry to reinforce North Carolina. With the fleet in command of Cape Fear and redcoats ashore, North Carolina would be a center of Loyalist power and an excellent base for operations against the other southern colonies. The ministry readily agreed and orders went out to Admiral Sir Peter Parker and Sir Henry Clinton. Parker’s squadron was to sail from Cork, Ireland, in December, escorting transports carrying 2,000 Regulars; since Howe apparently had no urgent need of Clinton, he would sail from Boston with a small detachment, taking command of the expedition once he rendezvoused with Parker at the mouth of the Cape Fear River.

All this was well and good, but Martin’s second decision was as unsound as the first was sound. This, like Dunmore’s before him, involved a fatal political miscalculation. Believing that the backcountry Celts, the Scots and the Irish, would be willing to march against their old Lowcountry antagonists, he called on the former Regulators to crush the new Tidewater Rebels. Most of these, however, were not persuaded that this was their fight, at least not at this point. In the end, only the Highlanders answered Martin’s call to defend the king’s colors. Why they did so perhaps only a Scotsman can understand. Newly settled in North Carolina, many had fought against George II in the rising of 1745 and nursed bitter memories of bloody Culloden Moor. But a stubborn Celtic honor bound some to the oath of loyalty they took to his grandson George III. Others, having backed the wrong prince a generation before, may simply have hoped to end up winners for once. In any case, the clansmen raised an army of sorts, about 1,400 strong though less than half were armed, and started down-country to join the redcoats expected to arrive off Cape Fear presently. While the Highlanders marched, Cornelius Harnett–the Sam Adams of North Carolina–was organizing a column of Patriot militiamen. Under the leadership of capable Colonel James Moore, a thousand men now started upcountry to confront the Scots.

They met at muddy little Moore’s Creek not far from where it empties into South River. The Patriot militia had already dug in on the east bank and pulled the planks from the narrow bridge on their front. Donald MacDonald at the head of the Highlanders, showing more courage than judgment, resolved to force the bridge in a single rush. On 27 February, the kilted Scots formed up, pipes skirling, double-edged claymores at the ready, and drove for the bridge in the rising sun. But the Scots’ terrible broadswords were no match for the musketry they ran into this morning. Scrambling over the bridge on the runners, they were shot down in heaps, fifty dead and wounded in a matter of minutes. When the rebel counterattack came, the Highlanders were hopelessly shattered. As one Patriot put it with grim economy: “The insurgents retreated with the utmost precipitation… Many of them fell into the creek and were drowned… This, we think, will effectually put a stop to Toryism In North Carolina.” And it did. What the Highlanders might have accomplished in conjunction with Clinton’s 2,000 Regulars is anybody’s guess. But Clinton did not reach the North Carolina coast until mid-March, and Parker, delayed by bureaucratic bumbling in London and bad weather in Ireland, did not reach Cape Fear in full force until May. By that time the colony was firmly in Patriot control and would be for the foreseeable future. Cornelius Harnett, far more astute than deposed governor Martin, was quick to mend fences with the broken clans, whose “errors claim our pity” and whose suffering “disarms our resentment.” More important, the skirmish at Moore’s Creek helped Harnett push the North Carolina Provincial Congress toward his most cherished goal. On 7 April that body resolved “that the delegates for this colony in the Continental Congress be empowered to concur with the delegates of the other colonies in declaring independency.”

Although Sir Henry Clinton was a fault-finder by nature, he was certainly not unjust in his evaluation of the performance of the royal governors: their aggressive action had done considerably more to incite rebellion than to suppress it in Virginia and North Carolina. They are “too sanguine,” he wrote, “and the malady is catching, ministers are soon infected.” In this he proved only half-right. When word of Moore’s Creek and its consequences reached the London ministry, Lord George Germain (succeeding Dartmouth as the American secretary) wrote the southern expedition off as a lost cause and instructed Clinton to return to Howe’s command. While those orders were making their slow way across the sea, however, Parker and Clinton resolved to strike a blow somewhere in the south–and settled on Charleston, South Carolina, as the target of opportunity. On the face of it, this was a sensible strategy. Success here would give the British a sheltered deep-water harbor and the promising base of operations that had been lost at Norfolk. Clinton, following the wishful thinking of Dunmore and Martin, seems also to have believed that a strong British presence in Charleston would inspire South Carolina Loyalists to rise in support of the crown. If so, Clinton might have thought much more carefully about the situation in South Carolina before he set sail for Charleston. Like every colony, north and south, opinion in South Carolina was deeply divided, but thus far, aside from sending money and foodstuffs off to New England, South Carolinians were biding their time in uneasy neutrality. Most important, there had been no armed rising against royal authority. Clinton might wisely have let sleeping Rebels lie. His gunboat diplomacy, however, would awaken them with a vengeance.

When Charlestonians climbed the spire of St. Michael’s Church in the first part of June, they saw anchored off the bar ten British warships, mounting some 250 guns in all. (The two heaviest–the Bristol and the Experiment–had a hundred guns between them.) Under their guns were thirty transports carrying the invaders with General Charles Cornwallis in command, nearly four regiments in all. Their arrival, however, had been anticipated for months. Already in place ashore the Patriots had a hundred guns and more than five regiments of their own, three South Carolina outfits, the 8th and 24th Virginia, and a battalion of North Carolina men. And they had a good place to defend. Here the Ashley and Cooper rivers flowed into a broad, tranquil harbor. The entrance to the harbor, though, was narrow and tricky shoal water pinched between Sullivan’s Island to the north and James Island on the south. At the southwest end of Sullivan’s Island Colonel William Moultrie had built a crude but surprisingly sturdy fort of palmetto logs and earth. Thirty big guns, an assortment of lighter pieces, and the 2nd South Carolina defended the harbor mouth on this side. A shallow inlet known as “The Breach” separated Sullivan’s from Long Island directly to the north. If the British landed on Long Island and attempted to cross the Breach to Sullivan’s, a small battery and the 3rd Carolina, dug in on its northeast tip, were ready to confront them there. If Admiral Parker intended to force the harbor mouth on the southern side, he would find on his left the heavy batteries of Fort Johnson and the 1st South Carolina on James Island. Covering the harbor proper, more American guns awaited Parker’s fleet, at Haddrell’s Point to the north and dead ahead on the wharves of Charleston. The British fleet was a formidable force, but the American defenses were sound and the confidence of the defenders high. If there was anything to shake that confidence, it came from their own camp. The Continental Congress, anxious for the safety of South Carolina, had sent Charles Lee down from Cambridge to assist in its defense. Full of windy arrogance, Lee immediately urged Moultrie to abandon his fort and shift the defense of the city inland to Haddrell’s Point. Fortunately for the American cause, the clear-eyed judgment of Council President John Rutledge prevailed. The Americans would make their fight right where they were.

Out in the harbor on the far side of the bar, Clinton and Parker were far less clear about their course of action. That Clinton was here in the first place was in large part due to the fact that William Howe had had enough of his captious subordinate. Parker found him no easier to work with than Howe–or anyone else–had. Still, Parker went about his business in a seamanlike way, sounding the shoal waters between the fleet and the inner harbor. Those soundings convinced him that, once over the bar, the fleet would have to sail the channel hugging Sullivan’s Island and pass under the guns of Moultrie’s palmetto-log fort. After a good deal of jawing, Parker and Clinton agreed on a plan. First, transports would land the infantryman on Long Island, their jumping-off point for an attack across the shallow Breach to Sullivan’s. On the day of battle they would wade across, drive down the island through the sand and sea oats, and press the fort from the rear. At the same time, Parker with the bulk of the fleet would close on the fort and take it under fire from three quarters of the compass, west, south, and east. The westernmost of his gunboats would be in a position to fire on Moultrie with their starboard guns while pounding the Haddrell’s Point batteries from the port side. Caught between two fires, Moultrie’s fort must fall, they reasoned, and with it Charleston.

On 9 June, Parker got two good regiments ashore on Long Island, the 28th Gloucesters and the 15th East Yorkshires. Once ashore, though, Clinton discovered–to his “unspeakable mortification”–that the Breach was not gaiter-deep at all but two feet deeper than his tallest man. Crossing here would require boats, which Clinton expected Parker to provide, and would be a good deal trickier than either commander expected. On the morning of 28 June, Admiral Parker got the strong following breeze he had been waiting for, raised the attack signal on his flagship, and sailed for the fort, heavy gunboats in the lead, the lighter frigates following in their wake. When the gunboats closed with the fort, however, the seamen got the shock of their lives–or rather two shocks. First, though they delivered their broadsides into the fort at musket range, their heavy balls merely piled into the spongy earth and palmetto log walls, doing almost no damage. Second, as they sailed slowly past those walls, the American gunners, though untrained and untried, poured into them a steady, deliberate, and destructive fire. Colonel Moultrie was here, directing the fire, conserving powder as best he could, and getting veteran work out of green hands. American guns hammered the attackers’ hulls, splintered their masts, tore away their rigging. Parker’s flagship, Bristol, had her cable cut, and while she swung stern-to in the channel, the Americans raked her decks. “No slaughterhouse,” said a survivor, “could present so bad a sight with blood and entrails lying about, as did our ship.” Parker was nearly the last man standing on the quarter-deck when he, too, was struck: a painful and humiliating splinter wound [see Songbook entry, “A New War Song”] that “ruined his Britches… quite torn off, his backside laid bare, his thigh and knee wounded.” The ship took seventy hits before the battle was broken off, and for a time her crew feared that they would be unable to get her out to sea again. While the Bristol and the others battled it out with the fort, the frigates came up to help–and immediately ran aground on Middle Ground Shoal. None of these would float clear in time to be any real help, and one–the Acteon–would not budge at all and had to be burned the next morning. Another generation of Americans would build Fort Sumter on this shoal, also with British invaders in mind.

The invaders immediately to hand, though, were still on Long Island across the Breach from Sullivan’s. They had not risked much and had not gained anything. Clinton later said that he “made every demonstration, every Diversion by cannonade” possible in support of Parker’s effort. The armed vessels he sent, though, ran aground, and the one attack he ordered got precisely nowhere, shot up before it was fairly started by the South Carolinians across the way. This may have been just as well for the British, for as young Lord Rawdon observed, the channel was “so narrow as only to admit one boat abreast, exposed to the fire of a three-gun battery which directly confronted them.” By nine o’clock Parker and Clinton, seamen and soldiers alike, had had enough and broke off the fight. The fleet tacked out of the harbor and anchored off the bar once more. They had 64 sea burials to conduct and 161 wounded to look after. Though they remained for three full weeks in the steamy South Carolina summer, neither Parker nor Clinton had the heart to renew the battle. At length the fleet hauled its anchors up and Clinton sailed for New York where a battle was brewing for the possession of that harbor. Charleston, however, was securely in Patriot hands and would remain so for more than two years: all at a cost of ten dead and 22 wounded. Charles Lee, who had done little except to antagonize his southern comrades, revised his estimation of them considerably: “The behaviour of the garrison, both men and officers… I confess astonished me. It was brave to the last degree. I had no idea that so much coolness and intrepidity could be displayed by a collection of raw recruits.”