The Improbable Victory that Made Us a Nation

June 28, 2019



Remarks of Executive Director Jack D. Warren, Jr.
Charleston, South Carolina


Today our ideas can reach distant lands in less time than it takes us to write them. We can set out in the morning and watch the sun set on the other side of the world. We can solve problems that once seemed too challenging, even for the greatest imagination.

It is becoming harder every day for us to imagine a time when these things were not so, and to remember how we won the confidence that has defined us as a people—the confidence that we can overcome any obstacle.

News now travels around the world in an instant. But it moved slowly in 1776. The news of the improbable victory at Sullivan’s Island took weeks to reach distant places.

Word of the victory rippled out from Charleston on the night of June 28, at first garbled and uncertain. The Royal Navy had been repulsed, but it was not immediately clear how badly the fleet had been mauled by American fire, and not known how many casualties the British had sustained. Nor was it clear that the fleet would not make a second attempt.

That first news reached the South Carolina backcountry in the following days and rippled outward to Savannah and Wilmington, hopeful news but uncertain, joyous but still tentative.

By the second of July it was becoming clear that the fleet would not make a second attempt, and more information had been gathered about the damage to the British fleet and the dead and wounded on them. The extent of the victory came into focus.

Official reports rippled out from Charleston—a second wave of information headed west to the interior, south to Savannah, north to North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland—the news spreading, here and there garbled in transmission, as facts were misreported. Reports that American fire had ripped the seat out of the British admiral’s pants, exposing his bottom, were true. Reports that American fire had ripped through the British ships and sent them all to the bottom were false.

As reports of the improbable victory rolled northward in official dispatches and private letters and by word of mouth, passing from person to person—men, women, free, enslaved, patriot and loyalist—they met a ripple of news spreading outward from Philadelphia.

The Continental Congress had voted on the second of July that the united colonies should be, and now were, free and independent states. Two days later Congress had adopted a declaration of independence, justifying this decision to the world.

The news of the victory at Sullivan’s Island and the news of the Declaration of Independence, rippling outward, splashed into one another in Virginia in the second week of July. To patriots inclined toward faith in Divine Providence, and to hope that the Lord would smile on the American cause, the convergence of this news was no accident. The victory at Charleston was a sign that the Great Disposer of Events, the Divine Master of the Universe, had decided to cause the separation of the colonies from Great Britain.

The first wave in the ripple from Charleston—the one of rumor and incomplete but giddy exultation—reached Philadelphia in the middle of July. Excited congressmen wrote home to their wives and friends reporting the miraculous victory, praising General Charles Lee, the Continental major general they had sent south to oversee the defense of Charleston, but who in fact had had little faith in Fort Sullivan and had contributed little to the victory. He had called the fort a “slaughter pen,” and had urged the South Carolinians to abandon it. Lee’s official report, laid before Congress, claimed much more credit for the victory than he deserved.

Congressmen quickly learned to praise men they had never met, and whose names many of them were hearing for the first time—William Moultrie’s most of all.

Within two days more, it had reached George Washington in New York, who had the news announced to the thousands of Continental soldiers and militia assembling there to defend the city against the Royal Navy and the largest British army—indeed the largest European army—ever sent overseas.

The lesson was clear: victory, however improbable, against a foe of extraordinary strength, was possible. It had been achieved in South Carolina. It could be achieved again.

By the summer of 1776 the war—which had become a war for independence—had been going on for over a year. Massachusetts militia had battered British regulars in skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, outside Boston, in April 1775. Joined by thousands of New England men they had surrounded the British army in Boston in a siege that lasted until the British evacuated the city and sailed away in March 1776. It was an extraordinary moment. Congress ordered a gold medal struck to be presented to George Washington in honor of the victory.

But Boston had been won without victory on a battlefield. During the siege, the British and Americans had fought only one pitched battle—on the Charlestown peninsula on the north side of Boston Harbor—remembered as the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Bunker Hill is the storied battle of the Revolution. Americans fought valiantly and inflicted appalling casualties on the British regulars who conducted three frontal assaults on the American position. The battle is celebrated in American memory—so much that we neglect to remember that it was a defeat in which the patriots, after a courageous defense, were driven from the field.

Perceptive patriot leaders who recognized the punishment inflicted on the British regarded it as a kind of victory. Yet through the summer and fall of 1775 Americans debated the reasons why they were driven from the field. The battle became a point of pride in hindsight, and the courage and fortitude of the men who fought at Bunker Hill was easy to admire after the war, when the sting of defeat had faded.

The truth was that when the British fleet arrived off Charleston in June 1776, Americans had nowhere defeated the British in a pitched battle.

That changed at Sullivan’s Island, in a victory it would have been foolhardy to predict.

The British were not the preeminent military power of the late eighteenth century. We sometimes say that the American revolutionaries faced the world’s most powerful nation, but this is far from true. The British army was a fraction of the size of the French army, which was the greatest army in Europe. Britain relied for its defense—and to project military power around the world—on the Royal Navy, which was the most powerful navy of the age.

The great warships of the British navy were extraordinarily powerful instruments of war. The largest carried seventy-two or more heavy cannons, and the British had dozens of warships of that size. They were floating fortresses—immensely expensive, immensely powerful, technological marvels—each with crews of several hundred men, capable of remaining at sea for many months, carrying sufficient powder and ammunition to fight two major battles without resupplying, and never needing to refuel, because they relied on the wind for motive power.

A single large warship of this kind could command a port city at a time when most Americans lived within a few miles of a port, and nearly all the colonists lived within two hundred miles of the coast.

If the British were going to impose their will and reimpose their rule on the American colonies, they would do it with sea power. Far more than the British army, American patriots dreaded the Royal Navy, and for good reason. It had grown to prodigious strength. The French and the Spanish navies were nearly as large, and the French navy was, in many respects, technologically superior. But the British were used to winning at sea. They had crushed the French navy in the last war and expected to have their way with whatever paltry defense the rebels could mount on the North American coast.

Sullivan’s Island was the first test of American will to resist this apparently irresistible force. It was the Bunker Hill of the South, fought against the greatest navy in the world. And unlike Bunker Hill, it was an American victory—the first great victory of American forces against the British in battle in the war.

At one stroke, Americans had declared their independence and demonstrated by force of arms that they could defend it.

As news of the victory rippled out, it stirred the American imagination. It emboldened patriots. It persuaded thousands that the improbable was possible—that determination, courage and ingenuity could overcome any obstacle.

That has been, ever since, a defining part of the American spirit—shared by Americans of all regions, by Americans of every class, of all races, of both sexes. We occasionally despair, but we rarely surrender. The idea that we cannot overcome great challenges is alien to us. Like Sergeant Jasper—in many ways the defining hero of our Revolution—we wave our flag in defiance, without fear.

The confidence we found at Sullivan’s Island, and that rippled outward in the days that follows, ripples outward still. The confidence that we can overcome any foe, solve any problem, win any struggle, and resolve any crisis has, in times of trial, bound us together. It can do so again. It should bind us together always.