Every South Carolina school child learns about the patriots’ stunning defeat of the mighty British navy on June 28, 1776. They learned how heroic Sergeant Jasper recovered the crescent flag, raised it on a temporary staff and held it under fire until a new staff was installed. And they learned about William Moultrie, the commanding officer of the militia force. Some even heard of William “Danger” Thomson.
Moultrie was responsible for completing construction of fortification intended to guard the naval entry to colonial Charles Town. A British attack was expected and everyone knew that if the British could take Sullivan’s Island, they could use it as a staging area for an assault on the city.
Upon his arrival, Moultrie found free men and slaves busy building a “fort” of sand and palmetto logs. Skeptical, he studied the design. To his surprise, he decided it just might work and offered improvements.
Subsequently, Maj. Gen. Charles Lee, commander of the American forces defending Charles Town, arrived for inspection. He observed that the British cannon would cut the fortress apart. Where would the men shelter themselves from the British fire? Moultrie replied calmly, “We will lie behind the ruins and prevent their men from landing.” Incensed, Lee departed and asked Gov. John Rutledge to order the fort dismantled. Fortunately, Rutledge declined; Moultrie readied his fort.
Then on the fateful morning of June 28, 1776, ten British warships, with a combined firepower of 270 cannons, attacked Fort Sullivan, armed with only 31 guns. Meanwhile, a second British force of hundreds of soldiers landed at nearby Long Island (today called the Isle of Palms) and prepared to cross the narrow inlet between the two islands and attack from the rear.
It was a dual disaster for the British. Their cannon pounded the little fort relentlessly, but the cannonballs merely lodged in the 16 feet of sand behind the spongy palmetto logs and did little damage. Whenever the Americans fired back, their cannonballs did tremendous damage to the British warships, made of stout English oak. First one “lucky” shot, then another and yet another and soon three warships were disabled. One had to be abandoned and was burned by its own sailors. The fleet, or what was left of it, limped away after nine hours of battle. Adding to the disgrace, their commanding officer, Sir Peter Parker, had his breeches shot off.
British raiders from Long Island fared worse. When they attempted to cross the supposedly “gentle and shallow” inlet that separated them from Sullivan’s Island and the fort, they discovered that their heavy boats lodged in the inlet shoals and ran aground. When they debarked and attempted to swim, the water was far deeper than suspected and contained treacherous cross currents. Once the patriots began shooting, the British scampered back to the safety of Long Island. There they remained, useless, until the battle ended.
The Battle of Sullivan’s Island (and its Fort Sullivan, later renamed Fort Moultrie) was the first great colonial victory of the Revolutionary War. Moultrie was hailed as an American hero and Continental Congress voted to promote him to brigadier general. Sgt. Jasper’s heroism was also appropriately recognized.
Connections past and present
What about the other “hero” in the engagement? Enter architect Christopher Liberatos, a profile of whom appeared in the January 25, 2011, Charleston Mercury. Since that time, he and his wife Jenny Bevan have become the directors of the Engelsberg Summer School in Classical Architecture in Sweden.
Scandinavia is noted for its centuries-old tradition of log construction and because of his Charleston roots, Liberatos decided to research the log construction of Fort Sullivan. To his amazement, he discovered that he was a direct descendant of the man who supplied the palmetto logs to the fort, Cornelius Dewees. Being a typical Charlestonian, he researched his ancestor further.
Cornelius Dewees was of Dutch descent. His grandfather had settled first in New Amsterdam in the 1660s and later in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Cornelius’s father William Dewees founded the second paper mill in North America and was sheriff of Germantown and a member of council. Two of William’s sons went on to be prominently connected to some of the most famous events in the Revolutionary War.
The elder son, William Dewees, Jr, was high sheriff of Philadelphia and an owner of Valley Forge, an early, proto-industrial community located on the west bank of the Schuylkill River, 18 miles northwest of Philadelphia. When the British forces captured Philadelphia in December 1777, Washington led his 12,000-man army into winter quarters at Valley Forge because the site was considered defensible and was strategically located on trade routes near farm supplies.
During that unusually harsh winter, Washington’s dwindling army endured bitter cold, lack of clothes, semi-starvation, gross commissary and transport mismanagement and public criticism. However, thanks to the training provided by Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, the rag-tag Continental Army emerged from Valley Forge a well-disciplined, efficient fighting force that marched into history. Unfortunately, William Dewees’ resources were completely depleted and he was forced into a bankruptcy from which he never recovered. His sad fate is practically forgotten today.
William’s younger brother fared better. He moved to South Carolina about 1760 and purchased two islands — Capers and Timicau. He made his home on the latter (now bearing his name, Dewees Island) and there established a prosperous rice plantation and a shipyard that built and launched at least one brigantine before the Revolution.
In early 1776, South Carolina was preparing for the war that loomed on the horizon. To protect the city, the Provincial government ordered a fort of palmetto logs to be built on Sullivan’s Island. Cornelius Dewees was directed to “furnish palmetto logs not less than 10 inches in diameter in the middle. One third are to be 18 feet long. The other two thirds 20 feet long.”
The fort was rectangular in plan with bastions at the corners and double walls built of Dewees’ palmetto logs, held together with iron bolts and placed 16 feet apart with sand filled between. History has proven that British canon could not penetrate this seemingly-crude, very spongy wall system. Thus, another hero of the Battle of Sullivan’s Island became the palmetto tree that held the sand. As a result of the remarkable victory, colonial Charles Town became known as the “Palmetto City”; South Carolina became known as the “Palmetto State”; and the palmetto was eventually incorporated into the state flag, where it remains to this day.
Both Cornelius and his son William fought at Fort Sullivan and the Dewees family continued to contribute to society after the Revolution. William became a prominent planter and factor who is buried at St. Philip’s Church. His daughter Jane Dewees married the eminent Bishop Christopher Edwards Gadsden, who, among other things, presided over John C. Calhoun’s funeral, the largest funeral the state will ever witness. (The story of this remarkable funeral appeared in the December 2019 Mercury.) His son John Dewees was a “steward” of the Charleston Orphanage. His granddaughter, Jane Dewees Wright, became the beloved matron of the Confederate Home. So, stay tuned: There may be more about this fascinating family.
Today, Dewees’ descendent Christopher Liberatos practices architecture in Charleston and continues to teach with Jenny Bevan in Sweden. Samples of his work dot the town: If you are interested in seeing an excellent example of classical architectural design, check out the new Charleston single house recently completed at 151 Queen St.
My appreciation to Christopher Liberatos for bringing this story to the writer’s attention in time to celebrate Carolina Day. Mendel Rivers contributed research on William Moultrie.