The History of Carolina Day
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26 Jun 2019
Nearly 243 years ago, the beautiful city of Charleston was the largest and most profitable port city in the colonies. The rebellious energy of revolution had swept the new Americas and a war with the strongest navy in the world was just taking shape. In June 1776, less than a month before the Declaration of Independence was signed, British ships sailed into Charleston harbor planning to take over the port and quickly crush the revolution.
Unprepared for battle, Colonel William Moultrie and his men were tasked with quickly constructing a fort on Sullivan’s Island to protect the entrance to the Charleston harbor. The men built a fort using the abundance of Palmetto logs on the island, sand, and some bricks.
On June 28, 1776, before the fort could be completed, 9 British warships carrying 260 cannons began to fire at the fort’s walls. Greatly outnumbered, Moultrie and his men only had 31 cannons and limited ammunition to defend themselves. Both armies were shocked as the impact of the cannonballs was absorbed by the durable palmetto logs keeping the fort intact. Due to their limited supplies, Moultrie ordered his men to fire few shots and aim precisely at the larger ships. The Americans caused devastating damage to the British ships.
In the middle of the battle, one of the British ships fired a cannonball that smashed the fort’s flagstaff causing Moutrie’s regiment flag to fall. Spectators on the Charleston peninsula saw this and thought that the battle was lost. A brave young soldier, William Jasper, leapt from the fort under enemy fire to retrieve the flag. He heroically returned to the fort and made a makeshift flagpole returning the flag high above the fort. The spectators saw this and cheered reinvigorating the soldiers with a new sense of victory.
As the sun set that evening the damaged and defeated British warships began to retreat out of the Charleston harbor. The South Carolina soldiers lost a little over a dozen men while the British suffered 220 casualties. This incredible and improbable success was the first true victory of the Revolutionary War.
News of this victory spread throughout both the Lowcountry and the Colonies strengthening the revolutionaries’ confidence. After the battle, Colonel Moultrie designed an indigo blue flag featuring the crescent of his regiment and a Palmetto tree in tribute to fort they built. In January of 1861, this design was adopted as the official South Carolina state flag. Every year following the victorious Battle of Sullivan’s Island, the people of Charleston celebrate “Palmetto Day (now called Carolina Day)” with artillery salutes, parades, feasts, and other festivities.