One year after the remarkable American victory over the British in the Revolutionary War, residents of Charleston held a public celebration.
It was June 28, 1777. They fired cannons, offered prayers of thanksgiving and raised their glasses to toast providence and one another. A parade of soldiers marched along the streets waving banners.
“It was likely the most ostentatious public celebration in the century-long history of South Carolina, and it set the bar for similar observances of the anniversary for all future generations,” Charleston County Public Library historian Nic Butler wrote in his “Charleston Time Machine” series.
Back then, the commemoration was simply called the “28th of June.” Because it had been organized by The Palmetto Society, established the previous month for this purpose, and because palmetto logs played an important role in the Battle of Sullivan’s Island, the festivities eventually became known as Palmetto Day. About a century later, it came to be called Carolina Day.
Three times in the history of Carolina Day, celebrations were dampened or put on hold: during the Civil War, in the aftermath of the 2015 Emanuel AME Church shooting and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But now, pandemic restrictions are lifted and the parade once again will set forth from Washington Park, by the Four Corners of Law in downtown Charleston. The festivities begin with a special 10 a.m. June 28 service at St. Michael’s Church. Celebrants will congregate afterward in the park across Broad Street. At 11:30 a.m. the church bells will ring and the parade will begin, with the Charleston Pipe and Drum Band leading the way.
The procession will conclude at White Point Garden at the southeast corner of the Charleston peninsula, where, at noon, Robert Rosen will deliver a speech about the leaders of the Battle of Sullivan’s Island and how that experience prepared them for further service in the Revolution.
Rosen, an attorney and local historian, is the author of “A Short History of Charleston,” “Confederate Charleston: An Illustrated History of the City and the People During the Civil War” and “The Jewish Confederates.”
Rosen said it's important to note the scale of the Battle of Sullivan's Island. We remember the contributions of William Moultrie, William Jasper and John Rutledge. But many more were involved in the effort.
"This was a major battle that didn’t just involve 450 soldiers at a fort," Rosen said. "There were 6,500 American troops."
And it resulted in the first decisive American triumph over the Royal Navy.
"Really what it showed was that American troops could work together," he said. "It's a moment to stand back and look at it as a national victory."
The Palmetto Society encourages public participation and asks citizens to fly their Palmetto State flags on June 28.
Chairman Cal Stephens said he remembers learning about the Battle of Sullivan’s Island in eighth grade.
“It still amazes me that this was such a monumental victory, even before the signing of the Declaration of Independence,” he said.
Generally, the textbooks and histories seem to emphasize the big Northern battles such as the Boston, New York, New Jersey or Philadelphia campaigns. But the rebels of the South contributed a lot, Stephens said.
“South Carolinians have a whole lot to be proud of.”
The historic battle was a classic David-and-Goliath confrontation, and the American victory both emboldened patriots up and down the East Coast and disheartened the British, who realized that perhaps this war would not be an easy one to fight.
As the colonists were preparing for independence and gearing up for the confrontation required to secure it, South Carolina’s Provincial Congress ordered the construction of a new fort at the southern end of Sullivan’s Island. Already, Fort Johnson protected the other side of the harbor entrance, but the second installation would create a gantlet, making it more difficult for the British ships to penetrate into the shallow inshore waters.
Col. William Moultrie, commander of the 2nd Regiment of the South Carolina Provincial Troops, was in charge of the project, and he opted to use two walls made of palmetto logs, with sand poured in between for added strength and resilience. Enslaved people provided the essential labor that soon would prove to be so important.
It was a good idea.
In May 1776, the British sent more than 50 warships and thousands of soldiers to Charleston in a nearly overwhelming show of force. After some weeks of reconnaissance, skirmishes and strategic positioning, British Commodore Peter Parker ordered nine of his warship captains to fire their 260 cannons on the fort, still under construction.
The cannonballs bounced off the logs or became embedded in the sandy walls. An unfinished fort that initially appeared to be little more than a fool’s folly held up to the massive assault. The patriots, in turn, aimed their limited ammunition at the two largest ships in an effort to inflict as much damage as possible.
The fighting persisted. The British attempted a rearguard attack in an effort to penetrate the open part of the fort, but their troops were hobbled by American sharpshooters, and their planning went awry.
Three British ships ran aground, and other bad luck helped the rebels maintain the advantage. By the end of the day, the British were moving their ships out of range.
“The raw, untested South Carolina troops lost a dozen men, while the superior British forces suffered 220 casualties and retreated with a fleet of shattered warships,” wrote Butler. “It was an amazing victory by any standards.”
On East Bay Street, Charleston residents peered across the harbor at the battle, cheering on Moultrie and his men. It was a day, they knew, for the history books.