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Attack on Sullivan’s Island

From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol I. Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.

June 29. –Our boys have pretty well thrashed Sir Peter Parker and all his forces. Yesterday morning, an attack was commenced by one of the small vessels of the British fleet, on the fort at Sullivan’s Island, and, notwithstanding our small number, a part of which was engaged in watching Clinton and Cornwallis, at the other (east) end of the island, we sustained it with the most complete success.1

A writer on board the fleet gives the following account of this action:

“The signal for attacking was made by Sir Peter Parker, on the twenty-seventh of June, but the wind coming suddenly to the northward, the ships were obliged again to anchor. The troops had been encamped on Long Island since the fifteenth, and it was intended that General Clinton should pass the neck that divides Long Island from Sullivan’s Island, 2 and attack by land, while Sir Peter Parker attacked by sea. General Lee had made such a disposition of masked batteries, troops, &c., that it is the opinion of all the officers of the army whom I have heard mention this circumstance, that if our troops had attacked, they must have been cut off; but this assertion does not satisfy the Navy, for they certainly expected great assistance from the army.

“On the morning of the twenty-eighth, the wind proved favorable, and it was a clear, fine day, but very sultry. The Thunder Bomb began the attack at half-past eleven, by throwing shells, while the ships were advancing. The ships that advanced to attack the battery were the Bristol and Experiment, two fifty-gun ships, the Solebay, Active, Actaeon, and Syren of twenty-eight guns, the Sphynx of twenty, and the Friendship, an armed ship of twenty-eight guns. With this force what might not have been expected? Unfortunately, the Bomb was placed at such a distance, that she was not of the least service. This, Colonel James, the principal engineer, immediately perceived; to remedy which inconvenience, an additional quantity of powder was added to each mortar: the consequence was the breaking down the beds, and totally disabling her for the rest of the day.

“The Bristol and Experiment suffered most incredibly: the former very early had the spring of her cable shot away, and, as she lay end on to the battery, was raked fore and aft; she lost upward of one hundred men, killed and wounded. Captain Morris, who commanded her, lost his arm. 3 Perhaps an instance of such slaughter cannot be produced. Twice the quarter-deck was cleared of every person except Sir Peter, and he was slightly wounded; 4 she had nine thirty-two pounders in her mainmast, which is so much damaged as to be obliged to be shortened; the mizzen had seven thirty-two pounders, and was obliged, being much shattered, to be entirely cut away. It is impossible to pretend to describe what the shipping suffered. Captain Scott, of the Experiment, lost his right arm, and the ship suffered exceedingly; she had much the same number killed and wounded as the Bristol. Our situation was rendered very disagreeable, by the Actaeon, Syren, and Sphynx running foul of each other, and getting on shore on the middle ground.

The Sphynx disengaged herself by cutting away her bowsprit; and as it was not yet flood tide, she and the Syren fortunately warped off. The Actaeon was burnt next morning by Captain Atkins, to prevent her falling into the hands of the Provincials.5

“Our ships, after lying nine hours before the battery, were obliged to retire with great loss. The Provincials reserved their fire until the shipping were advanced within point blank shot. Their artillery was surprisingly well served, it is said, under the command of a Mr. Masson and De Brahm. It was slow, but decisive indeed. They were very cool, and took great care not to fire except their guns were exceedingly well directed: but there was a time when the battery appeared to be silenced for more than an hour. The navy say, had the troops been ready to. land at this time,, they could have taken possession; how that is, I will not pretend to say.6 I will rather suppose it; but the fire became exceedingly severe when it was renewed again, and did amazing execution, after the battery had been supposed to have been silenced. This will not be believed when it is first reported in England. I can scarcely believe what I saw on that day; a day to me one of the most distressing of my life. The navy, on this occasion, have behaved with their usual coolness and intrepidity. One would have imagined that no battery could have resisted their incessant fire.”7


1 Clift’s Diary.
2 Sullivan’s  Island is situated on the northern side of Charleston harbor, about four miles from the city.
3 He died a week after, on board the Pigot.
4 Sir Peter’s breeches were torn off, his thigh and knee wounded, so that he was able to walk only when supported on each side. These circumstances gave rise to the following extempore, which appeared in the Constitutional Gazette, soon after the action: —

If “honor in the breech is lodged, ”
As Hudibras has shown,
It may from thence be fairly judged,
Sir Peter’s honor’s gone

5 While she was on fire, Mr. Millegan, one of the Carolina marine officers, and a party of men boarded her, brought off her colors, the ship’s bell, and as many sails as three boats would contain. —New York Gazette, July 29.
6 General Clinton was very much censured for not attempting to ford the shallow water (which was only three feet deep) between the east end of Sullivan’s Island and Long Island, where he had been encamped, and attacking the Americans there. An English correspondent says: –“My wife is quite an American, and every conquest the Americans make, every battle they win, and every one of our ships they take, she says Providence is on their side, and it is only fighting against the wind to continue the contest. I am on the opposite side, and we have many interesting broils, or civil wars about it. She has it all in her head from the famous battle of Lexington, where our arms shone in their full lustre, to the siege of Sullivan’s Island, where we came off with the worst; and this last affair, I must acknowledge, has almost set me wavering.
“One circumstance happened yesterday that fairly made me mad. My son Tommy being playing in the garden, in the middle of which is a small pond about throe feet deep; his mother (I suppose on purpose to vex me) ordered Tommy to wade through the pond, which he refused, telling her he should be drowned, as it was too deep; orders were immediately given for Tommy to sound it, which he began preparing for, by taking a leather sucker and making it stick fast to a stone, tied about four feet of string to the end of a stick, and reached it as far as he was able, and he returned and told his mother it was as deep as a certain mark on the cord which he had made; which, on measuring, was found to be three feet, one inch, and seven-eighths; which, had he attempted, would have proved fatal to him.
“I well knew the design of this burlesque, so I threw down my pipe with a vengeance, and secured a retreat, being fully sensible I could not, like the bravo Sir Peter Parker, silence her battery. As soon as I came home last night, my enemy had the daring effrontery to present me with a print, neatly framed and glazed, called Troops fording a Brook; and with an air of exultation, asked me whether the officer on the grenadier’s shoulders was not General Clinton?”–Middlesex Journal, September 7.
7 Middlesex Journal, September 14.

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