Preserving the culture of art and history on Sullivan’s Island

Carolina Day 2021 On Carolina Day 2021, Mike Walsh, Battery Gadsden Cultural Center Board President, shared this story…

The Palmetto Log Fort

Today we pause to honor… a tree. A noble tree. A famous tree. And an important tree in the history of our island. Some of you, particularly newcomers to the area, when you see a tree such as this may be tempted to call it a palm tree. That’s not exactly right. It’s a palmetto tree, a slightly different species. But I’m not here to discuss the horticultural fine points of this plant. Let’s talk about the role it has played in explaining why we don’t all speak today with a British accent.

Let me take you back to January of 1776. The Committee of Safety for the newly declared independent state of South Carolina has authorized the construction of a fortification on Sullivan’s Island at the mouth of Charles Town harbor, apparently to defend against a British attempt to regain control of the colony, an attack that they soon learned was coming. You can imagine whoever was in charge, and we’re not quite sure who that was at the beginning, looking around and saying, “Hmm. What shall we build this fort out of? Stone? No, there’s not much of that around. Brick? That’s not really handy. Ah! Let’s make it out of logs made from local trees.” There must have been an abundance of our noble tree in the area, because a contract was struck with one Cornelius Dewees. Yes, the same name as the island two islands north of here. The contract called for Dewees to supply as many logs as quickly as possible. Each was required to be at least 10 inches in diameter. One-third of them were to measure 18 feet in length and two-thirds were to be 20 feet. In return Dewees was paid one shilling per linear foot of logs. Over the months from January to June, 1776, probably thousands of those logs were floated to Sullivan’s Island and man-handled into place.

The final design was to make the fort walls out of two parallel rows of palmetto logs, sixteen feet apart, and filled with sand in between. Now, if you research this and try to find out if this was the genius design of some military engineer of the day or just a matter of using what you had at hand, it appears it was just using what you had at hand. In March of 1776, Col. William Moultrie, a member of a local planter family, a former Indian fighter, and commander of the 2nd South Carolina Regiment of infantry, was sent over here to supervise completion of the fort. When he arrived he found about a thousand workers constructing the fort, many of them slaves from surrounding plantations. However, as the inevitable battle approached, the fort was still not finished, only the part facing the water. Not everyone was impressed by the structure. Maj. Gen. Charles Lee of the Continental army took one look and pronounced that the place would become a “slaughter pen.” He encouraged the authorities to abandon the effort. Governor John Rutledge wrote to Col. Moultrie and said that Gen. Lee had recommended abandoning the fort. He said, “You will not do so without an order from me, and I had rather cut off my right hand than write such an order.”

We come to June 28th, 1776, the date we celebrate 245 years later. You have probably all heard some of the details of the Battle of Sullivan’s Island, so I’m not going to recount all of those. Let me just summarize with a few numbers. For about 11 hours, nine powerful British warships mounting nearly 300 guns poured fire into the palmetto log walls protecting William Moultrie and his 435 troops who manned only 30 guns. During that time the Americans expended 4766 pounds of powder, fired 960 rounds, striking the British ships about 70 times. The British on the other hand consumed 34,000 pounds of powder, firing approximately 12,000 shots at our fort. Now, there are several reasons why the British attack failed that day, but one of the most significant reasons has to do with our tree. It turns out that the internal architecture of the palmetto is very spongy and resilient. Between the palmetto logs and the sand, the British cannonballs either buried themselves into the logs without shattering them or were seen to simply bounce off the fort walls! What an incredible stroke of luck based only on what those Patriots had at hand locally to construct that fort.

Well, the British departed in the wake of one of the first great American victories of the Revolutionary War, six days before the adoption of our Declaration of Independence. The fort was completed and shortly thereafter was renamed Fort Moultrie in honor of the man who so gallantly defended it. Unfortunately, the British were not gone forever. They returned in 1780. They took a different approach, coming in through the southern islands and waterways. When it came to the palmetto log fort, I suppose in a display of good judgement based on the 1776 experience, on April 8th, 1780, the new fleet under the command of Admiral Mariot Arbuthnot sailed right past Ft. Moultrie and Sullivan’s Island, pausing only long enough to unleash a single broadside from each ship. The return fire from the fort did some damage, but not enough to stop the fleet from entering the harbor. The British then lay siege to the town. A final assault on Ft. Moultrie was planned for May 6th. Feeling the situation futile, the fort was surrendered by Lt. Col. William Scott on May 8th without firing a single shot, much to the disgust of now Gen. William Moultrie. The stars and stripes were hauled down and replaced by the British flag, and the fort was renamed Fort Arbuthnot in honor of the admiral.

It remained British Ft. Arbuthnot until December of 1782, when the war was winding down and the British finally evacuated Charles Town. The name of our fort was changed once again to Ft. Moultrie, but sadly, with the end of the war in April of 1783, the palmetto log and sand structure was abandoned and neglected. Through the forces of wind, tides, storms and scavengers looking for building materials the fort simply disappeared into the ground. When President George Washington came through Charleston on his famous Southern Tour in 1791, he asked to come over to Sullivan’s Island to see the site of the famous battle. When he got here there was nothing left to see.

So, when you go down to Ft. Moultrie today or tomorrow, and I hope that you will, you will see no actual remnant of the palmetto log fort. But our famous tree lives on. It was added to the South Carolina state flag in 1861 at the beginning of the Civil War, and now you know why the nickname of our state is the “Palmetto State.” So the next time you feel like hugging a tree, be sure to hug a palmetto.

If you or someone you know has “a story to tell” about their or their family's connection to Sullivan's Island, please put them in touch with Battery Gadsden Cultural Center at: