Small Sullivan's Island park, big role in history

The newly created Thomson Park at Breach Inlet isn't anything fancy, but it explains the June 28, 1776, fighting there that was crucial to the patriots' victory in the Battle of Sullivan's Island.

SULLIVAN'S ISLAND — The modest park at the northeastern tip of this island was designed with one goal in mind: to tell an overlooked story that bears special relevance to the holiday we celebrate today.

The creation of Thomson Park began a few years ago, when Doug MacIntyre of Charleston was listening to a Revolutionary War lecture by South Carolina's pre-eminent historian, Walter Edgar.

Edgar described the June 28, 1776, Battle of Sullivan's Island, not only the well-known story of the fighting at Fort Sullivan (later renamed Fort Moultrie in honor of its commander, William Moultrie), but also the fighting at Breach Inlet, where several hundred patriots led by Col. William 'Danger' Thomson repelled a British land invasion from Long Island (now the Isle of Palms).

'He (Edgar) talked about Danger Thomson and the action there that was not very well known. I remember sitting there thinking, somebody should do something about that. A few minutes later, I realized, I am somebody.'

MacIntyre began by researching letters and diaries from the time and soon realized even the recent historical marker at the site was inaccurate, citing the patriots as 'sharpshooters from Eutawville,' when in fact they were 700 to 800 fighters from the backcountry, including militias and Indians.

'You couldn't tell the story with just a historical marker,' MacIntyre says. 'I thought it called for more.'

He also visited the site of the battle and watched people parked in cars, looking out over the inlet.

'It's the actual site of the battle and nobody knows it,' MacIntyre says.' And it was one of the key battles of the American Revolution and nobody knows it.'

About a year ago, MacIntyre had permission to create a new park on an underused piece of public land near Breach Inlet.

Clyde Timmons, a landscape architect, agreed to help with the park's design. Timmons, who has lived on the island since the early 1970s, wasn't fully aware of the significance of what had unfolded at Breach Inlet.

'I suspect I'm not alone on that,' he says. 'It was real interesting to pull all the history back out.'

The park includes a series of wayside signs made by The History Workshop.

Timmons proposed creating a series of stacked palmetto logs — material used in the crude fortifications during the battle — to contain the signs and give the park a sense of place.

The entrance is framed with mostly native plants picked to hold up under the harsh conditions at the inlet.

The signs are positioned toward the bridge, the general direction to where the fighting occurred. 'It's maybe not the best view but historically more true to what was going on,' Timmons says.

Bill Watson of Carolina Tree Brokers installed the logs and worked with Timmons to adapt the design to the site.

MacIntyre says he understands why the fighting at the fort – where about 435 patriots turned back a British naval fleet — is more remembered. It could be seen from downtown Charleston. Some sort of fort remained on the site long after the war. Much of what we know of the battle comes from Moultrie's memoirs.

Breach Inlet, which was about a mile wide during the battle, has clinched together to about one-fourth that distance, so those looking at the battlefield today might be confused while reconciling it with the historical accounts.

When asked which end of the island saw the more significant fighting, MacIntyre responds, 'Which is more important to you, your mom or your dad? You had to have both to be here,' he says. 'They were simultaneous attacks. If Thomson hadn't done his job and the British were able to come across the inlet, the fort would have fallen and the battle would have been lost.'

MacIntyre created the park on a shoestring, with pro bono donations and less than $40,000 in contributions.

He says he still wants to install a bike rack and a fourth sign that puts the battle in the context of the American Revolution. The battle kept Charleston free for four years, and the city experienced a boom until the British returned and successfully laid siege to it in 1780.

It is fitting to visit the park on this holiday.

While the Declaration of Independence was approved well before word reached Philadelphia, about the remarkable patriot victory at the mouth of Charleston Harbor seven days earlier, many didn't sign the document until sometime later.

While it's unlikely that any of them affixed their name because of that victory, it had to give them comfort as they picked up their pen, put their life at risk and launched the great experiment that became the United States.

Reach Robert Behre at rbehre@postandcourier.com or at 937-5771.