Pluff Mud Chronicles: A progression and celebration of Carolina Day discovery
By Robert Salvo and Charles W. Waring III
The attack on Fort Moultrie, Sullivan's Island, South Carolina, on June 28, 1776. Image in the public domain.
I am at an age and stage in life where I have to think about car seats. Once upon a time, a younger me cared about engine displacement and wide tires; now it’s safety latch placement and wide rear seats that dictate vehicle purchases around my house.
One of the things you learn (or rather, relearn) when you’ve got wee ones in car seats is that the driving world looks very, very different in the back than in the front. Deep steel, foam and fabric buckets cradle our family’s precious cargo as snugly as the cockpit of Lewis Hamilton’s F1 racer … but they don’t lend themselves to sightseeing.
Case in point: I cross the Cooper River Bridge at least twice a week with children in tow. My eldest (he’ll be seven this summer) just realized the USS Yorktown exists last year.
I mention all this, Charles, when I ponder your question “When did I first become cognizant of Carolina Day?” That would be way back when I was of car seat age myself. See, in those days (and right on up through adulthood), family outings were most often tied to history, be it of our country, our state or simply our family.
Sometimes this meant a summertime trip to national parks or historic sites; other times it meant winding drives up some interminably long mountain road, just to arrive at a shack in a nondescript clearing. At this point my father would announce, “This was your great-aunt’s mountain cabin when I was little. Well, my great-aunt, your great-great aunt. I came up here when I was your age. It was great.”
History lesson over, he would then find a place maybe-possibly wide enough for a three-point turn (cliff face on one side, gaping chasm on the other), turn the big Chevy sedan around and head right back down that mountain road for another interminably long drive back to where we started.
Trips East of the Cooper were rife with such observations. I would get detailed stories about which great-grand-someone once worked on the sunken hulk in the Cooper River, which kin and relations rest eternally in which Old Village cemetery, borrowed tales of the old Pitt Street Bridge and my grandfather’s youthful adventures on Sullivan’s Island; the list goes on.
However, there were, usually, two exceptional aspects to these Mt. Pleasant journeys, times when I would get out of the backseat and get to see and do something. The first was the mandatory stop at Randy’s Hobby Shop, where I could watch the HO scale train make its unceasing loops, drool over cars in 1/25th scale and stare into the glass case filled with exotic miniature engines for remote-controlled airplanes and boats. The other was the sometime destination of these trips: Fort Moultrie.
Out of the car and into the fresh and briny breeze! History not just as a tale from the front seat but a physical place to see and explore. And oh, what a place for a lad to be … colorful signal flags dancing above a high tower, tunnels and bunkers and ramparts and cannons, Osceola’s grave and palmetto trees and maritime scrub — and cannons, of course, cannons, keeping silent sentry over the sea-lanes to Charleston. Well, silent to the fanny-pack clad crowds, of course, but in a young boy’s mind, booming thunderously at my command, rebuffing the pirates and Jack Tars and German U-boats that prowl the imaginary littoral.
You could fill Battery Jasper with a platoon of Disney Imagineers, and they couldn’t conceive of a more thrilling setting for a boy’s imagination than the sands of Sullivan’s Island. But what’s a great setting without an intriguing cast? A few more visits and a few more history lessons and now I was scaling the parapet with brave Sergeant Jasper, my make-believe banner defying the British guns; I was imagining the sound of orders from gallant Col. Moultrie, coolly delivered as the cannonballs sank harmlessly into sand mere yards away.
Time has gone by and my spot in the car has shifted from the backseat to the driver’s seat. I am now the dad regaling a captive audience with tales from history. And I still love Fort Moultrie and its story of Carolina Day. It’s a narrative that’s almost impossibly rich with characters … fickle Charles Lee, stalwart “Dictator” Rutledge, pastor and patriot Peter Muhlenburg, future legends Marion and Motte, the Pee Dee Indians of the Raccoon Company, pantsless Peter Parker, the anonymous messenger chiming “Three Blind Mice,” the notably strange failures of Britain’s harbor pilots, the poor nameless sods Sir Henry Clinton thought could gingerly wade across murderous Breach Inlet …
So I’m still a fan of Carolina Day, and I suppose I’ll be until I’m in the backseat again, with Stuhr’s in the driver’s seat. Speaking of driving, isn’t it time for the Carolina Day parade to have floats? Why not have some folks in the sea of seersucker tossing Charleston Chews to viewers along the parade route? Our post-lockdown world is longing for community events … how about surrounding June 28 with the “Tournament of (Palmetto) Roses”? A 3.106-mile run (we didn’t beat the British just to use kilometers, right?) or a Little Miss Palmetto Logs competition?
I’ve run all these ideas before an insightful exploratory committee, i.e., my children in the backseat; they think they’re all winners.
Palmetto Society, when you’re ready, call me.
Bricks sure as heck don’t look like palmetto logs, so early on I had a problem with the Carolina Day story as I first peeked at the fort from my sandcastle perch on the beach near the barn-red rambling clapboard house where the extended Waring family had been visiting for decades. Then, by the second Nixon administration, Aunt Mary and Uncle Andrew had a house less than 200 yards away to the north, so I picked up more intel but not the way you would assume. I recall overhearing from Aunt Mary that she had purchased blazer buttons for Uncle Andy from the gift shop at Fort Moultrie and that these were replicas of the buttons worn by Col. Moultrie and his fellow officers.
I quickly figured that this Moultrie guy was important. At some point in the mix, my mother purchased some record that she played so that sister Dede and I could learn about the Battle of Sullivan’s Island. Sergeant Jasper quickly became known to me as more than just a place on Broad Street where you went to eat ice cream with neighbors Mary Ann and Ricky Hanckel when your baby sister (Laura) was coming into the world during the year of the state’s tricentennial. Dramatic moments seem to stick in the brain more than others, but I digress as I put a year on my youthful baby sis.
We rolled into South Carolina history in the third grade at Charleston Day School with Dottie Rhett, and we heard a little more about the great victory in Charleston Harbor. Sponge-like palmettos and soft sand caught the British cannonballs and some pompous Brit lost his trousers and mooned the fleet shortly before departing in defeat, which was the translation of the battle summary for a ten-year-old boy. More battle details would surface as Dr. Joe Waring held court on the porch of his cabin near Cashiers, North Carolina; as my mother worked as an editor for him, I suspect he may have been the one who made sure that the record of the battle story ended up at my house. “Dr. Joe,” as he was known to many, was in those days a retired pediatrician and active medical historian who was also a S.C. history scholar among other things. He was a renaissance man and had the demeanor of a Southern saint who could never exist, except that he did. When Dr. Joe attached importance to Carolina Day, everyone took notice.
I do not think I took much of a deeper notice of the great victory until the early 1990s when the S.C. Historical Society through C. Patton Hash and Gen. James Grimsley started working with the Palmetto Society to revive Carolina Day. Before long we saw photographs from parades in the daily newspaper, and some of us began marching with various history-minded groups. Richard Hutson, Jr., was an early president of the Palmetto Society, and then came John Paul Trouche who asked me to help him with media matters, and I have been involved ever since then. For those trying to keep this straight, Sam Howell followed Paul, and I followed Sam and now Cal Stephens is our president.
Today’s Palmetto Society is established as an independent board and has been so since about 2016, but it still does what it has since 1777, commemorating the great victory. Its early mission included looking after widows and orphans from the Battle of Fort Sullivan, and as much as many locals embody tradition, not one sober person alive knows someone who knew a veteran of the conflict, though that was not the case a century and a half ago.
In my 22 years with this newspaper, my understanding of the important points of the victory has been a most rewarding journey, and I can only tell about just some of the historical nuggets. Along the way, I asked Seabrook Wilkinson some 17 years ago to write about the impact of the battle on those supporting the Declaration of Independence. Seabrook explained that not one person knew about the victory on July 4 but that all who signed the document did know on August 2, known to some at the “Second Independence Day.” You can imagine the steaming hot room in Philadelphia and nervous patriots thinking of swinging from the gallows, but the buzz, as learned from letters and newspapers read in taverns by candlelight, is that these boys in Charleston Harbor kicked some British a*&. It is not too hard to imagine that many began to believe that they could actually win this war, and with that thought, they inked the famous document. We owe the late Seabook a huge debt for what he pulled together. The late Arthur Manigault Wilcox told our writer that he was dern proud of him, and Admiral Wilcox did not toss around compliments like candy.
Another one of our writers, James Rembert, tackled another assignment from the wretch, and he studied the ballistics of the British cannons and found that no cannonball could travel more than about 15.5 feet in sand. The specs on planning the fort brought 16 feet of sand in between the palmetto logs. It was at that point that I realized we barely escaped being the “Sand State.”
Around this same time, Doug MacIntyre was busy investigating the role of Col. William “Danger” Thomson at Breach Inlet. I finally had a light bulb go off when I remembered that the palmetto fort was unfinished. If the Brits had come ashore, they would have wiped out Col. Moultrie, but such was not the case. It was a slaughter pen for the Brits. Roughly three years ago, I learned that my great uncle (seven times back), a Capt. William Caldwell of the S.C. Third Regiment, had served under “Danger” Thomson, giving me extra reason to celebrate on June 28.
Meanwhile, the late Jeffrey Kaplan wrote an essay for us about three years ago and proved that at least two persons of the Jewish faith had faithfully served at the palmetto fort. The Carolina Day tent continues to grow as we learn more about those who participated in what Dr. Chip Bragg calls the most dramatic military victory in American history. I hope all readers will join us June 28 and fly your state flag; when you understand some of the details and how it was that David did defeat Goliath, Carolina Day — and all the reasons for our state flag — comes into clear focus amid a sea of seersucker. March to White Point Garden with much-deserved pride to be part of the family of the victorious who helped bring about this nation’s independence.
If we had space, we’d tell more, but there will be more space and more stories in the 27th month of the Charleston Mercury Newsletter, available only by subscription by going to our website. The wise participants will receive the feature “Crab Pot” — where the liveliest parts of a “Pluff Mud” bubble over to tantalize all. To make sure you don’t miss out on all the action, subscribe today to the digital Charleston Mercury Newsletter.
If you have a legend for us to uncover or a quirky historical point you wish for us to address, please send same to email@example.com.