Carolina Day’s link to a secret gunpowder plot: Bermudians helped patriots grasp dramatic victory
By Hartley Watlington
Thomas Tudor Tucker, a remarkable man with a most audacious plan ... and it worked. Photos provided by the author.
It is amazing how one thing can lead to another — sometimes.
There is a sign along those lines, posted just outside the Charleston Library Society on King Street. It says: “A child who reads becomes an adult who thinks.” Inside that building there are many treasures, but perhaps none finer than the history books that describe how the young America of 1776 was able to read a certain news item spreading up the East Coast from way down South.
It was all about how a powerful British military force arriving in a fleet of seven British battleships, with the aim of capturing Charleston, had been defeated by Col. William Moultrie at his unfinished palmetto fort on Sullivan’s Island that prevented them from entering the harbor and forced them to retreat back out to sea at nightfall, mashed-up and empty-handed. Recall, of course, the other part of the news, less well known at the time, that Col. William “Danger” Thomson built other fortifications of palmetto logs and sand and dug a pair lines of entrenchments in the dunes and myrtles overlooking the inlet; these 780 men stopped the Brits from invading by land and taking advantage of the open side of Moultrie’s defenses.
News traveled much slower in those days, but on reading about this victory in South Carolina and thinking about it for a bit, America gave herself the confidence she needed at this early, critical stage in their war with Great Britain, and she began to feel a lot more hopeful about the chances of eventually achieving independence.
The Continental Congress at that time had just been doing up the wording of a document concerning all of that. The good news from Charleston arrived at a particularly auspicious time, when the actual signing of the Declaration of Independence was still going on as of August 2, 1776. Hearing about this victory at Charleston turned out to be just the thing the unsigned-up delegates needed to hear get the Declaration of Independence over the fully-signed-up finish line, and in fairly short order, which was all rather important for a good reason.
It allowed the 13 original states to finally move forward, officially in unison, as the United States of America for the first time.
The logical thinking underlying their new confidence was pretty clear and well founded: If the labor and materials creatively deployed by a group of chaps in a small fort made of sand dunes and palmetto logs on Sullivan’s Island could defeat the might of the Royal Navy, despite being outnumbered more than three to one in men and guns, then just maybe the rest of America could do some of that too!
If so, one thing might lead to another and independence might eventually be arrived at. And because that is exactly what happened, the battle of June 28, 1776, at Charleston remains to this day profoundly significant in U.S. history. In a very real sense, America stands on the shoulders of the men of the Carolina militia who achieved that victory.
To no lesser extent, America also stands on the shoulders of all the people who helped supply those heroic men with all the materials they needed to get the job done. Of those materials, the one that is always particularly hard to come by, especially in time of war, is gunpowder. The story of how enough of that stuff was rounded up for the fort to defend successfully the entrance to Charleston Harbor is both an interesting and dramatic tale that is worthy being better known.
The beautiful, deceptively calm scene off Bermuda’s western shores, where America’s future once stood in the balance until Dr. Tucker’s Bermudians came to the rescue in their rowing boats, towing two becalmed American “getaway” ships laden with stolen gunpowder safely through miles of reefs to the open ocean to make their escape safely back to America with a decisive, war- winning cargo.
Bermuda and back
This story became interesting to me, personally, as your correspondent from Bermuda, because a letter to General Washington, written later in the war by a Boston sea captain, came to light fairly recently. It pointed out that my family was one of the 25 families in Bermuda living at the time in the old capital of St. Georges who actively helped their Americans friends steal the entire supply of Bermuda’s gunpowder!
It all took place in the middle of the night. The gunpowder was taken from an unguarded building on the grounds of the governor’s residence while the governor slept, blissfully unaware of what was going on less than a couple hundred yards outside his bedroom window.
Evidently, this was a well-plotted, secretly planned operation that was so well organized from top to bottom that it was carried out without a hitch by a group of American sailors working in concert with their Bermudian friends and relatives.
The barrels of powder were quietly rolled half a mile overland down to the sheltered cove at Tobacco Bay, where they were loaded on to a small fleet of multistation gigs, which were then rowed all the way up north shore to the west end of Bermuda, where just outside the waters of Mangrove Bay, the gunpowder was duly loaded onto two waiting American sailing ships sent there for that purpose.
One, the Lady Catherine, had been sent from Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin and his colleagues in the Philadelphia Safety Committee; the other was a small coastal-trading schooner, The Charleston and Savannah Packet, that had been sent from Carolina by the Charleston Safety Committee. (These committees were the local governing bodies charged with, among other things, the defense of their respective areas in time of war.)
This daring, well-planned mission had been flawlessly carried out by Americans and Bermudians working together in common cause. The only small hiccup was that when the sailing ships were ready to leave after taking delivery of the gunpowder, they found themselves in very light airs, virtually becalmed.
It was certainly a bit of a tricky situation. The two ships were well inside a vast network of reefs, unable to get properly underway and put out to sea. If things stayed that way, they would be sitting ducks if the governor of Bermuda were able to catch up to them.
It was left to the Bermudians in their rowing gigs, who had just rowed heavy laden with gunpowder the entire length of the island, to come to the rescue. The rowing boats took these much larger sailing ships in tow and gradually rowed them out through the maze of reefs off the West End, and finally out through Western Blue Cut to the open sea, where the ships were able to get fully underway and make good their escape back to America.
Eighteen hundred pounds of much-needed gunpowder made its way to General Washington at Philadelphia, and the remainder, on the schooner The Packet, went directly to Charleston, where it was taken straight out to its main, front-line defense, the fort on Sullivan’s Island guarding Charleston’s front door, the entrance to the harbor.
This was all done by early September 1775, well ahead of the time when it was eventually going to be needed on that famous day of battle in June 1776 … the day that has been so rightly celebrated annually ever since that time.
This year, dear reader, perhaps spare a moment to think of that daring secret operation to Bermuda and back that supplied gunpowder General Moultrie and his heroic militia needed to succeed on the day. That successful secret plan had many authors, but fortunately for Charleston, and for America, the main one was a particularly capable, forward-thinking, well-connected Bermuda-born American doctor in his early 30s named Thomas Tudor Tucker, who headed the Charleston Safety Committee.
Later in life, in 1801, he was to go on to become his friend Thomas Jefferson’s treasurer of the United States. He turned out to be so good at that job, too, that succeeding administrations simply would not let him leave, keeping him in office until 1828, a length of term that is unlikely to ever be surpassed.
Indeed, he would have stayed longer but died with his boots on, still working in his Treasury office.
What a guy, America … surely this man Tucker deserves to be better known.
The young doctor from Bermuda
Having chosen his ancestors wisely, Thomas Tudor Tucker was born into one of Bermuda’s most prominent and much blessed families, which had a long reputation for producing individuals capable of getting difficult things done in challenging circumstances.
Thomas Tudor Tucker was very much in that family tradition, and as luck would have it, this confident fellow was an early supporter of American Independence.
As a young doctor he had moved to Charleston mainly to serve the large proportion of its population that was made up of Bermudians in that era. Many were involved at the Charleston end of Bermuda’s vast intercolonial merchant shipping industry. Other Bermudians had also established a sizable farming community on James Island, as well as a shipbuilding industry there.
Being extremely well connected in both America and Bermuda, Tucker was the right man at the right time to have on the Charleston Safety Committee. He knew way ahead of time that when war broke out with Great Britain, a whole lot of gunpowder was going to be needed to win, and he also knew way ahead of time where a whole lot of gunpowder could be rounded up. America could use a fellow like that — and they did.
He managed to convince Gen. George Washington to write a letter addressed “To the people of Bermuda,” which Thomas Tucker was able to deliver to his father, Col. Henry Tucker, a leading Bermuda politician and a merchant shipping magnate with pro-American sympathies.
Col. Henry Tucker, Thomas Tudor Tucker’s father, the senior Bermudian politician and merchant shipowner, who handled things at the Bermuda end of the well-organized gunpowder heist.
The letter quietly received a most receptive audience in Bermuda because, in return for help in getting hold of Bermuda’s gunpowder, America had offered to consider exempting Bermuda from its upcoming trade embargo that it was imposing on Great Britain and all her overseas colonial possessions. The Continental Congress had voted for the embargo in 1774, and it was due to come into effect on September 10, 1775.
With no time to waste, Col. Tucker immediately headed a Bermuda delegation to Philadelphia to lobby the Continental Congress. In a secret meeting with Benjamin Franklin, among others, a deal was finally arranged, where it was clearly established that the price for continued trade with America was going to be Bermuda’s supply of gunpowder, as well as any other munitions Bermudians were able to round up elsewhere during their extensive merchant shipping activities, with their fleet of some 84 ships that they had in operation by the early 1770s.
The bold theft of Bermuda’s gunpowder duly took place on the night of August 14, 1775. The governor was quite understandably furious when he woke up to find out about the theft, but he was to soon find out that he could make little headway in identifying, let alone punishing, any of the numerous people involved, despite offering huge rewards for any useful information. The virtual “wall of silence” in Bermuda held, and in a dispatch to his superiors back in England, the old gov was forced to accurately conclude that “The people of Bermuda have early on embraced the American side.”
The Gunpowder Plot had simply been too well planned “by persons high enough placed” that no one was ever prosecuted.
Over in America, in contrast, the audacious gunpowder theft was regarded as very good news both in Charleston and Philadelphia and became widely and very favorably reported in newspapers elsewhere up and down the East Coast. The overall effect was to give the American public a most positive impression of Bermuda and Bermudians, who became generally perceived as being actively in support of the American position.
And so it all came to pass a few months later, His Majesty’s gunpowder was successfully used by Sullivan’s Island gunners in repelling His Majesty’s Royal Navy on a rather glorious day for America in June.
At Charleston’s Library Society, the second oldest library in America, history books will tell you that it was a victory that had “critical significance for the course of the war.”
Little Bermuda had played its part.
If thanks on the American side is eternally due to all concerned who helped make this happen, then spare a fair share for a small boy reading books in Bermuda, who grew up to become the learned, forward-thinking adult, Dr. Thomas Tudor of Charleston, aforementioned.
May the good Lord shine his everlasting light down upon his memory … and on his earthly remains resting in peace in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington.
On June 28, 1776, like so many other good people, this Bermuda-born fellow heading up the Charleston Safety Committee was only just getting started … but that is another story for another time.
The author, Hartley Watlington, descended from Bermuda patriots.
Hartley Watlington lives beside the waters of Mangrove Bay in Somerset, Bermuda, on the exact same latitude as Charleston, South Carolina. He comes from an old sailing family that can trace its origins in Bermuda back to the wreck of the Sea Venture in 1609. His roots in Charleston stretch back to the first governor, William Sayle, whose name presently resides in the top right-hand corner of the Watlington family tree in the front hall at home.