BY ROBERT ROSEN
On the eve of Lexington and Concord in April of 1775, the men of the Charleston militia were forming companies to fight the British. Gen. William Moultrie recalled, "A military spirit pervaded the whole country and Charlestown had the appearance of a garrison town." The restless population hoped for reconciliation with the king and mother country, but the city was preparing for the worst.
"When," Moultrie remembered, "on the 19th day of April  war was declared against America, by the British troops firing upon the inhabitants at Lexington, an account of which flew over the whole continent," the hope of reconciliation abruptly ended. "Recourse to arms was the only and last resort." The "shot heard 'round the world" was heard quite clearly in Charleston, but not until May 8, 1775, when news arrived by ship from Salem, Mass. The ship arrived two days ahead of the Committees of Correspondence couriers riding down the coast.
Revolutionary Charlestonians broke into the armory at the Statehouse (the historic courthouse on Broad Street) and carried off weapons and powder. (The powder magazine on Cumberland Street was not in use. It had been closed as a danger to the neighborhood.) Patriots, acting through the Council of Safety, raided British supplies. The Royal Governor of the colony requested more British ships. The Patriots captured Fort Johnson on James Island.
The British governor abandoned the city in January, 1776, and the revolutionary leadership made plans to build a fort on Sullivan's Island to protect the city from the British navy.
The British sent a squadron of warships under Commodore Sir Peter Parker, and seven regiments of infantry and two companies of artillery under Lord Charles Cornwallis to quell the rebellion of the Southern colonies.
The British orders described Charleston as "the seat of commerce of all that part of America and consequently the place where the most essential interests of the planters are concentrated." The restoration of British authority in Charleston "must and will have very important consequences."
The British fleet was to set sail on January 20, 1776. Problems in Ireland delayed it until February 12. Storms caused further delay. Parker did not rendezvous with Sir Henry Clinton, the major general in charge of the British forces, until May 3, 1776.
The British believed the fort being built on Sullivan's Island was not complete. Christopher Gadsden was senior to Moultrie and supposed to command the troops, but few had much confidence in his military skills. Thomas Lynch remarked, "My colleague Gadsden is gone home to command our troops, God save them." Fortunately, Moultrie stepped in. Maj. Gen. Charles Lee was sent by the Continental Congress to command the local forces, but in the end he deferred to Moultrie's insistence that his fort on Sullivan's Island could defeat the British. Lee called it a "very imperfect and ill plan'd fort" and "a slaughter pen."
The object of the British attack was to occupy the fort on Sullivan's Island, not the city of Charleston. But by a great deal of good luck and courage, the day was won. Breach Inlet - then much wider than it is now - proved to be impassable to British troops, whose commander thought it much more shallow than it actually was. One British officer called the inlet "this infernal ford." The deep inlet, together with Col. William "Danger" Thomson and his sharpshooters prevented the British from crossing from the Isle of Palms (then known as Long Island) to Sullivan's Island.
The British also forgot to send anyone with any knowledge of Charleston Harbor. Even with numerous warships, Commodore Parker could not get close enough to defeat Fort Sullivan.
On June 28, 1776, the British launched their attack. Ships ran aground. The British fired from too far away, although one eyewitness described it as "an eternal sheet of fire and smoke." The South Carolinians proved to be superior artillerymen whose victory was won by bravery, discipline, careful use of powder, Moultrie's extraordinary leadership, Thomson's riflemen, harbor currents and "that infernal ford," Breach Inlet.
By August 2, the General Assembly acknowledged Gen. Moultrie's leadership by naming the Sullivan's Island fort Fort Moultrie. In the early years of the Republic, June 28, "Carolina Day," and July 4th were celebrated as tandem holidays.
The palmetto fort did not long survive the American Revolution. By May 5, 1791, when George Washington visited Charleston, the fort had washed away. The President, accompanied by "several . gentlemen of great respectability," including William Moultrie, found "Fort Moultree on Sullivan's Island" was in ruins, "scarcely a trace [was] left."
Robert N. Rosen, a Charleston attorney, is the author of "A Short History of Charleston."