Siege of Charleston
The 1776 Siege of Charleston, South Carolina, was a short but important military episode in the early years of the American Revolution.
William Moultrie was a planter, legislator, and South Carolina’s highest-rankling Continental officer, finishing the Revolutionary War with the rank of major general. After the war he served as the president of the Society of the Cincinnati of the State of South Carolina from 1784 until his death, and also served as governor of South Carolina from 1785–87 and 1792–94.
Moultrie likely came to George Washington’s attention for the first time in mid-1776 when Washington learned of Colonel Moultrie’s brave and dramatic June 28 defense of a small fort constructed of sand and palmetto logs on Sullivan’s Island at the entrance to Charleston harbor. Moultrie’s success against what seemed to be an irresistible British naval attack denied Charleston to the British and temporarily prevented the establishment of a British foothold in the south. Maj. Gen. Charles Lee wrote to Washington a few days after the battle that Moultrie deserved the highest honors. Moultrie subsequently received the thanks of the Continental Congress and a promotion to the rank of brigadier general.1
In 1779 General Moultrie managed a brilliant tactical retreat through the South Carolina lowcountry and successfully withstood a short British siege of Charleston from the landward side by Brig. Gen. Augustine Prévost. Moultrie was second-in-command under Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln when Charleston finally capitulated to Maj. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton in May 1780. As the senior ranking Continental prisoner of war in Charleston, he honorably advocated on behalf of his fellow captives against their sometimes-harsh British captors. When offered an opportunity to desert to the British in order to regain his freedom and lost property, he reacted with abhorrence. To the former British governor of South Carolina Charles Greville Montague he declared, “Could I be guilty of so much baseness I should hate myself and shun mankind.”2
William Moultrie and George Washington became personally acquainted on August 30, 1781, when their paths crossed at a dinner given in Philadelphia at the home of Robert Morris. Moultrie was on parole from captivity in Charleston and Washington was en route to Yorktown. The two generals did not meet again for a decade though they periodically corresponded on such matters as the Society of the Cincinnati, the construction of a canal in South Carolina, and coastal defense.3
President Washington visited South Carolina during his 1791 southern tour, and during that period Moultrie served as his host and escort, accompanying the president to parades, balls, banquets, tours, and private dinners. They visited the site of Moultrie’s 1776 triumph against the British on Sullivan’s Island, and they walked the battle lines of the catastrophic 1780 siege of Charleston.4
Moultrie entertained Washington in his home on the evening prior to the president’s departure from Charleston, and afterwards he shipped to Mount Vernon a number of plants desired by Washington. It is evident from their correspondence during this interval that the two old soldiers had formed a bond of friendship. Moultrie always considered the time of Washington’s visit among his happiest days. Both men anticipated with pleasure the fulfillment of Washington’s open invitation for General and Mrs. Moultrie to visit Mount Vernon.5
A lasting friendship between Washington and Moultrie was not to be. An escalation of the French Revolution (1789–1799) threatened to draw the nascent United States into an international conflict. Moultrie, in 1793 during his second term as governor of South Carolina, embraced republican ideology and subverted the president’s foreign policy by allowing the arming of French privateers in Charleston. The Washington administration ordered him to end his support of the French, and for a while rumors circulated in the press that he would face impeachment for his actions.6
Nor was Moultrie’s estrangement with President Washington lessened by Moultrie’s friendship with the young French minister Edmond Charles Genet (Citizen Genet). Genet’s defiant and intemperate behavior toward Washington, combined with his efforts to circumvent presidential authority, provoked the president to demand his recall by the French government. For his involvement with Genet, Moultrie was excoriated in the Federalist press.7
Financial misadventures left Moultrie practically destitute in his latter years, yet in 1802 he managed to assemble and publish his personal papers as the two-volume Memoirs of the American Revolution, an important primary source that is often quoted in other works and is still regarded as one of the best personal accounts of the Revolutionary War. William Moultrie is credited with designing South Carolina’s first state flag, “a large blue flag made with a crescent in the dexter corner,” and his heroic 1776 defense of Sullivan’s Island was later commemorated by the addition of a palmetto tree to the flag. This rendition of South Carolina’s flag remains in use to the present.8
C. L. Bragg
1. Charles Lee to George Washington, July 1, 1776, Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series 5:168–70; John Hancock to William Moultrie, July 22, 1776, Papers of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, National Archives microfilm series M247, roll 177 (vol. 2): 533, 539.
2. William Moultrie to Charles Montague, March 12, 1781, The Correspondence of Lord Montague with General Moultrie, 1781, compiled by William Ashmead Courtenay (New York: T. L. De Vinne, 1885), 13–15.
3. Pennsylvania Packet (Philadelphia, Pa.), Saturday, September 1, 1781; William Moultrie to George Washington, February 23, 1787, Papers of George Washington: Confederation Series 5:48; Moultrie to Washington, April 7, 1786, Washington to Moultrie, May 25, 1786, and Moultrie to Washington, August 7, 1786, Papers of George Washington: Confederation Series 4:6–7, 73–75, 201–2; Moultrie to Washington, February 15, 1793, and Washington to Moultrie, March 15, 1793, Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series 12:147–48, 321–22.
5. bid.; Moultrie to Washington, July 10, 1791, and November 28, 1791, George Washington Papers, LOC, Series 4, General Correspondence; Washington to Moultrie, August 9, 1791, Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series 8:415; Washington to Moultrie, November 8, 1791, and Moultrie to Washington, December 29, 1791, Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series 9:154–55, 346; Washington to Moultrie, March 14, 1792, and Washington to Moultrie, May 5, 1792, Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series 10:109, 355.
6. City Gazette (Charleston, S.C.), January 15, 1793, and January 21, 1794; William Moultrie to the Council of Safety of France, August 9, 1794, Moultrie Papers, box 1, folder 21, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, S.C.; Edmond Charles Genet to Thomas Jefferson, May 27, 1793, American State Papers, Foreign Relations 1: 149–50; Editorial note accompanying Henry Knox to George Washington, May 24, 1793, Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series 12: 623, 624n2.
7. Moultrie to Washington, April 21, 1793, Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series 12:463; Columbian Herald (Charleston, S.C.), November 9, 1793.
Bragg, C. L. Crescent Moon Over Carolina: William Moultrie and American Liberty. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2013.
City Gazette (Charleston, S.C.), 1791–1800.
Columbian Herald (Charleston, S.C.), 1793.
Courtenay, William Ashmead, comp. The Correspondence of Lord Montague with General Moultrie, 1781. New York: T. L. De Vinne, 1885.
Moultrie, William, Memoirs of the American Revolution so far as it Related to the States of North and South-Carolina, and Georgia. 2 vols. New York: David Longworth, 1802.
Moultrie, William. Papers, 1757–1963. Manuscripts Plb. Manuscripts Division, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, S.C.
Pennsylvania Packet (Philadelphia, Pa.), 1781.
U. S. Congress. American State Papers. Indian Affairs, Vol. 1 [1789–1814] and Foreign Relations, Vol. 1 [1789–1797]. Edited by Walter Lowrie and Matthew St. Clair Clarke. Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1832–1833.
Washington, George. The Papers of George Washington. 56 vols. in 5 series. Edited by W. W. Abbott, et. al. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983–2011.