10 Facts: Fort Moultrie

Fort Moultrie remains one of the most historic fortifications in the United States. Its history spans almost 250 years and the three forts at this location have played an important role in wars ranging from the Revolutionary War and Civil War to World War II. Fort Moultrie has also been the home of many interesting national figures.

Three different forts have been built on the site of the current Fort Moultrie.

Three forts have been built at this site – the first in 1776 and two others in 1798 and 1809 respectively. The 1776 Revolutionary War palmetto log fort, also known as Fort Sullivan by the British, was in disrepair after that war and was also heavily damaged by weather. The second fort, named Fort Moultrie, was intended to be more permanent but was destroyed by a hurricane in 1804. The third fort was opened in 1809 and its walls still stand today.

The forts built at this location control access to and from Charleston Harbor.

Geography is sometimes referred to as the mother of all history. This can be no more evident than in the strategic location of Fort Moultrie on the northern entrance of Charleston Harbor. As far back as the early establishment of the colony of Charles Town in the early 1670’s a signal gun station was ordered to be established by one of its earliest settlers and Irish soldier of fortune – Florence O’Sullivan to warn of the approach of French and Spanish raiders, in addition to marauding Pirates.

While other forts were in existence around Charleston harbor at the onset of the Revolutionary War, it was felt that another fortification on Sullivan’s Island would further protect the city and its harbor from sudden British attacks. This new fort was positioned close to Charleston Harbor’s main shipping channel, ensuring that any significant ship would have to pass close by the fort’s heavy guns. Even better, most enemy warships would need to pass through the Five Fathom Hole near Morris Island and head, bow first, towards the island and the fort’s guns. While the enemy ships broadsides could not engage the fort, the fort could use all of its guns against the warship’s vulnerable bow – a significant advantage in the days of wooden warships.

The first significant Patriot victory over the Royal Navy AND British Army was fought here.

On June 28, 1776, a British fleet under the command of Commodore Sir Peter Parker opened fire with its guns on an unfinished fortification guarding the shipping passage to Charleston Harbor. Inside this hastily built fort, constructed of sand and palmetto logs, were roughly 435 members of the 2nd South Carolina Regiment and 4th South Carolina Artillery under the command of 46-year-old Colonel William Moultrie. Moultrie had been tasked with finishing Fort Sullivan and manning its 31 heavy guns that would protect Charleston from a British attack. Despite being outgunned by the Royal Navy ships and being short of gunpowder, Moultrie’s forces coolly fired upon the British warships with great effect. Patriot cannonballs repeatedly smashed through the ships’ wooden hulls and savaged their rigging, while killing 78 British sailors and wounding another 152, including Commodore Parker. Parker’s flagship, HMS Bristol, was hit more than seventy times by cannonballs and chain shot fired from Fort Sullivan. Meanwhile, the spongy palmetto logs and sand that comprised the unfinished Fort Sullivan tended to absorb and deflect British cannonballs aimed at the fort. Aided by a stout defensive position guarding Breach Inlet on the far side of Sullivan Island, the Patriot forces drove off the British naval forces, and the British soldiers who had landed on Isle of Palms were forced to return to their transports in defeat.

This stunning victory over the vaunted Royal Navy and British Army bolstered patriot morale and allowed the patriot forces to consolidate their control over much of the Carolina Lowcountry. In recognition of his redoubtable leadership in the battle, the fort was renamed Fort Moultrie and June 28 was set aside as a day of annual commemoration – Carolina Day.

Impressed by the reports of this victory outside of Charleston, President George Washington insisted on visiting the remains of the old palmetto log fort that resisted the Royal Navy with General William Moultrie during his 1791 visit to the region.

The Swamp Fox Fought Here in 1776.

Francis Marion earned his legendary moniker “The Swamp Fox” as a South Carolina militia leader in 1780-81. His efforts, along with those of Thomas Sumter, Andrew Pickens, and others stymied the advance of the British after the fall of Charleston in 1780. With the fall of Charleston and the defeat at Camden, there was no longer a Continental Army presence in South Carolina. Marion filled that void using guerrilla tactics that are studied to this day.

A lesser-known fact about Marion is that he served with William Moultrie as his second in command at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island in 1776. Marion and Moultrie were friends and greatly respected each other. In his memoirs, Moultrie describes Marion as the best artilleryman he ever had and largely credits him with the destruction of the British fleet.

His legacy includes over 50 place names throughout the US named for him. Fort Moultrie is frequently visited by Army Rangers following in his footsteps as part of their training (Marion is in the Army Ranger Hall of Fame).

Osceola – one of the most noteworthy Seminole warriors – is buried at Fort Moultrie.

Osceola was a Seminole warrior who played a central role in the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). At a time when the United States sought to forcibly deport the Seminole tribes to a reservation, Osceola proved to be a talented military leader who defeated US Army Brigadier General Duncan Clinch at the Battle of Withlachoochee on December 31, 1835. Captured by the US Army, Osceola and 237 members of his tribe were eventually moved to Fort Moultrie to prevent their escape back to Florida.

While confined in the officer’s quarters with his two wives and children, Osceola’s family was provided with a fireplace to ward off the January 1838 wintery weather. As the most famous Native American of the period, he was additionally taken by some of the garrison’s officers on the evening of January 6th, 1838, to see the theatrical performance of the play – “The Honeymoon” at the nearby downtown Dockside Street Theater. To commemorate the occasion a five-verse poem was written entitled “Osceola at the Charleston Theater” by James B. Ranson. It was during this time, that the famous artists George Catlin and Robert John Curtis painted portraits of Osceola.

Suffering from malaria, Osceola’s medical condition worsened and the 34-year-old warrior died in the Post Dispensary on January 30, 1838. On the following day, the greatly respected Seminole warrior was afforded a formal military funeral and was buried outside the entrance to the fort where his remains can be found today.

Enslaved labor was used to build all three of the forts at this site.

Sullivan’s Island was a destination in the West Africa slave trade. Slave trading ships that had crossed the Atlantic used Sullivan’s Island as a place of quarantine for the enslaved people they sought to sell in Charleston’s markets. Seriously ill people from Africa and crewmembers were brought onshore and placed in a “pest house” for eight days.

Some of the roughly 150,000 to 200,000 enslaved who passed through the port of Charleston were used to construct the three different forts that have inhabited this site.

During the early morning hours of May 12, 1862, Robert Smalls, an enslaved pilot of the Confederate ship Planter, secretly navigated this ship past Fort Moultrie and Fort Sumter to freedom. Having had much experience operating within Charleston Harbor, Smalls was able to disguise himself as the ship’s captain and used Confederate signals to safely pass by the heavily armed forts.

And during the evening of July 18, 1863, soldiers at Fort Moultrie witnessed the Federal attack on Battery Wagner on Morris Island. This famous attack was spearheaded by African Americans in the 54th Massachusetts regiment. One member of the 54th, Sgt. William Carney, earned the Medal of Honor for his part in this failed attack.

Famed author Edgar Allen Poe was stationed at Fort Moultrie and his popular short story, The Gold-bug, takes place near the fort.

After lying about his age and adopting the assumed name, Edgar Allen Poe enlisted as a private in the US Army in May 1827 and was transferred to Fort Moultrie later in November of 1827. Assigned to Battery H, First Artillery, Poe’s unit was ordered to man artillery pieces that would protect Charleston Harbor. While at Fort Moultrie, Poe was promoted to the rank of Artificer, which resulted in the doubling of his monthly salary from $5 to $10 as well as in increasing his allotted rum/whiskey ration. Poe served thirteen months at Fort Moultrie before departing in December 1828.

In 1843, Poe published The Gold-Bug, a short story whose central character, William Legrand, is an officer stationed at Fort Moultrie. Outside the fort, Legrand and his compatriots engage in deciphering cryptograms and search for William Kidd’s pirate treasure. The short story proved to be one of Poe’s most successful and popular works, first published in the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper.

General William Tecumseh Sherman was once stationed at Fort Moultrie and made many lasting friendships with Charlestonians before the Civil War.

Upon graduation from the United States Military Academy in the class of 1840, William T. Sherman’s sixth-place final standing resulted in an artillery commission as a Second Lieutenant and subsequent posting to Fort Moultrie in Company G, 3rd US Artillery Regiment. The young officer would serve a total of four years from 1842-1846 at Fort Moultrie but being newly commissioned he would be periodically detached on recruiting and court martial duty. It was during the latter, as an investigating officer, that he would be forced to traverse much of the territory in northern Georgia that would forever be linked with his conquest of Atlanta and subsequent “March to the Sea” during the Civil War.

Sherman found this assignment at Fort Moultrie to be a very favorable one and he befriended many prominent Charlestonians who flocked to Sullivan’s Island to get away from Charleston’s summer heat and sicknesses. During his 1865 march through the Carolinas, Sherman would encounter many of these friends who he sought to provide aid and protection to, despite their Southern affiliations.

Fort Moultrie played an important role in the Civil War.

After dark on the evening of December 26, 1860, Major Robert Anderson moved his US Army forces from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter, becoming the first garrison to man that new fortress in Charleston Harbor. He had spiked the big guns at Moultrie, burned the gun carriages and cut down the flagstaff in anticipation of the Southern occupation of the fort, which happened shortly after his evacuation. When hostilities began on April 12, 1961, Moultrie was one of three land-based sites that fired on Fort Sumter, the others being Cummins Point and Fort Johnson. After the fall of Sumter, it and Fort Moultrie remained in Confederate hands for the duration of the war.

The Union made a major assault to retake the Charleston area in 1863. Land forces attacked Battery Wagner on Morris Island and were repeatedly repulsed with heavy casualties. A massive naval attack on Charleston Harbor was also unsuccessful. After the failed land assault, the Union set up a siege operation with large artillery on Morris Island and continued to fire on Sumter and Moultrie and even into Charleston itself. Like Sumter, Fort Moultrie took a beating but never fell. Evidence of the damage can be seen in Fort Moultrie’s walls to this day.

With William Tecumseh Sherman burning Atlanta, taking Savannah, and then moving into South Carolina to take Columbia, the Confederates were forced to abandon Charleston and it effectively fell into Union hands in February 1865. Robert Anderson, now a retired major general, returned on April 14 with much fanfare to re-raise the US flag at Fort Sumter. This symbolic event has been largely lost to history as that same evening Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in Washington DC.

Fort Moultrie defended Charleston during World War II.

During World War II, Fort Moultrie served as a harbor defense point, controlling all water traffic in and out of Charleston and monitoring for German U-Boat activity. The Germans had identified the strategic value of the harbor and launched a “mine task Charleston” initiative. Three U-boats dropped 36 mines in total in 1942 with another U-boat identified in 1943. No sinkings or loss of life resulted here from these threats. A U-Boat was sunk off the coast of North Carolina in May 1942 and its surviving captain and crew were transported to Charleston and became the first German POWs on American soil at that time.