Moultrie Playground’s latest memorial
General William Moultrie (1730-1805) by Rembrandt Peale. Image courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of Art/Carolina Art Association.
By Peg Eastman
Located on the west end of Broad Street is a large playground named in honor of the Revolutionary War hero General William Moultrie. His importance in South Carolina history cannot be overemphasized.
Born in Charles Town in 1730, Moultrie was the second son of a prominent Scottish physician. At 19 he married Damaris Elizabeth De St. Julien, who had inherited Northampton Plantation from her brother Peter St. Julien.
A citizen-soldier, Moultrie participated in the Anglo-Cherokee War in 1761 and rose to the rank of colonel. With passions for independence from Britain growing, in 1775, Moultrie was commissioned a colonel in the South Carolina militia, and by March of the following year, Moultrie was made the commanding officer of the militia forces ordered to secure Sullivan’s Island and complete the construction of a fort built in preparation for a British naval attack.
The commanding general of the forces defending Charles Town, Major General Charles Lee, arrived for inspection. Thinking the British cannon would demolish the crude palmetto log fort, he asked Moultrie how the men sheltered 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 Governor John Rutledge to order the palmetto log fort dismantled.
Fortunately, Rutledge declined, and the rest is history. As many readers may recall, on the morning of June 28, 1776, ten British warships, with a combined firepower of 270 cannons, attacked Fort Sullivan, but their cannonballs lodged in 16 feet of sand held up by the spongy palmetto logs and did little damage. Astonishingly, after nine hours of battle, the patriots’ 31 cannons had disabled three warships and disgraced their commanding officer by shooting off his pants. The fleet and British pride, or what was left, burned one ship and departed.
During the encounter, Moultrie flew the famous flag he designed; it was an indigo blue flag with a crescent moon in the upper left field. When the flagstaff was shot down, Sergeant William Jasper bravely placed it on a temporary staff and held it under fire until a new staff was installed. (Later South Carolina adopted Moultrie’s design as part of the state flag; the palmetto was not added until 1861.)
Meanwhile, on the other end of Sullivan’s Island, a rearguard of British soldiers attempted to cross the narrow inlet that separated Sullivan’s Island and Long Island (now the Isle of Palms), but their heavy boats lodged in the inlet shoals and ran aground. Totally unprepared for the inlet’s depth and crosscurrents, as the redcoats struggled to wade across, they were perfect targets for Col. William “Danger” Thompson and his marksmen and cannons. They lost no time in retreating.
Repulsing the mighty British armed forces was the first major victory of the Revolutionary War. Moultrie was hailed an American hero, and the Continental Congress voted to promote him to brigadier general. The British did not return until May 1780. Until then, General Moultrie saw action throughout South Carolina but mostly around Charles Town. When the besieged town fell, Moultrie was among the 5,000 Patriots captured.
According to local tradition, Moultrie is best remembered for his patriotic and poignant rejection of Lord Charles Greville Montagu’s offer to not only release him from POW captivity but to also serve under him as his second in command. Montagu had served as provincial governor of South Carolina and acted as a diplomat during the war. He participated briefly in a British scheme, later abandoned, to invade Spanish Nicaragua using a corps of former American POWs who would be released from captivity if they agreed to serve in this strange military adventure. When he promised them that they would not have to fight their American compatriots, many accepted the tempting offer.
Then he approached General Moultrie. In a famous exchange of letters, Lord Montagu argued that General Moultrie could honorably quit the revolution and move to Jamaica to sit out the war. Moultrie rejected with indignation:
Would you wish that man whom you have honored with your friendship play the traitor? Surely not! You say, by quitting this country for a short time I might avoid disagreeable conversations, and might return at my own leisure and take possession of my estates for myself and family; but you have forgotten to tell me how am I to get rid of the feelings of an injured, honest heart, and where to hide myself from myself. … The repossession of estates; the offer of the command of your regiment and the honor you propose of serving under me, are paltry considerations to the loss of my reputation. No, not the fee simple of that valuable island of Jamaica should induce me to part with my integrity.
Moultrie remained a prisoner until he was exchanged for Major General John Burgoyne in 1782.
Moultrie was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1782 and as lieutenant governor in 1783; he was elected governor the next year. As governor, he was instrumental in creating the county court system and in moving the state capital from Charleston to Columbia. He was later elected to the state senate and to a second term as governor. He remained in public office until 1794.
In 1802, he published Memoirs of the American Revolution, still considered the best firsthand account of the struggle for independence in the Southern states. William Moultrie died in Charleston on September 27, 1805, and was buried in the family cemetery on his son’s property at Windsor Hill north of Charleston.
Fast-forward to 1922 when Mayor Thomas Stoney began a landfill program that included the west end of the peninsula. Envisioned as a possible playground, a park was opened in 1930, originally larger than it is today. Later, amid great opposition, the city sold part of the land to the developers of the Sergeant Jasper apartments. The playground, quite naturally, was named after the great Revolutionary War hero William Moultrie.
Since 1777, the stunning victory at Fort Sullivan continues to be commemorated in Charleston on June 28; most recently, the Palmetto Society has sponsored a Carolina Day parade from Washington Park to White Point Garden, where a resounding speech is made by a prominent historian. In 2007, a full-length statue of Moultrie was erected in White Point Garden. Unsurprisingly, the victorious general faces the fort that he bravely defended nearly 250 years earlier.
Also, in 2007, Darla Moore, one of the state’s most accomplished businesswomen, founded and was the initial benefactor of the Charleston Parks Conservancy. Its mission is “to inspire the people of Charleston to connect with their parks and together create stunning public spaces and a strong community.”
By 2008 and 2009, the newly formed conservancy began laying plans for a redevelopment of both Colonial Lake and the adjacent Moultrie Playground. In November 2016, a group of neighbors began fundraising to revitalize Moultrie Playground and raised more than $300,000 to renovate the basketball courts and provide additional seating. In partnership with the city of Charleston Parks Department and generous donors, the conservancy also added a pickleball court and renovated walkways.
When Steve and Ann Rhodes moved to Charleston, they fell “in love with Charleston’s gardens.” It was not long before they joined their neighbors in committing to the redevelopment of Moultrie Playground.
Once the city and the Charleston Parks Conservancy agreed that capital donors could be recognized with a plaque, the Rhodeses chose to honor a “man of color” who had made significant contributions to horticulture because of “his gentleness, his compassion, his horticultural passion, his commitment to science, his enormous courage in facing racism throughout his life and his desire to help poor sharecroppers across the South.”
Moultrie Playground plaque honoring George Washington Carver. Image provided.
Son of enslaved parents, George Washington Carver was born on a farm near Diamond Grove, Missouri, in the 1860s. He learned to read and write at home, started his formal education at age 12 and went on to become the first African American to enroll at Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (Iowa State University). Because of Carver’s work in botany and horticulture, Booker T. Washington invited him to join the faculty of Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). Carver earned an international reputation for his work promoting crop rotation of peanuts, developing more than 300 uses for the peanut and other Southern products such as soybeans and sweet potatoes. Products Carver developed improved the lives of millions worldwide.
The cast bronze plaque is just one of a series of recognitions Carver has received. He was an honorary member of the Royal Society for Arts in London, and in 1943 President Franklin Roosevelt honored him with a national monument in a park near Carver’s home. In 1977, he was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans and was registered in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1990. Carver’s latest memorial will be mounted on a granite base near the basketball court and playground area at Moultrie Playground.
So, into the 21st century Broad Street continues to evolve and live up to its reputation as one of the ten great streets in America.
My appreciation to Mendel Rivers, Bob Stockton and Leslie Wade, programs director, Charleston Parks Conservancy, for contributing to this article. It is abbreviated from a chapter in The Evening Post’s upcoming book, Broad Street, Charleston’s Historical Nexus of Power. Anyone with a good Broad Street story is invited to contact firstname.lastname@example.org.