This Week in American Military History

June 28, 1776: In what has been described as the “first decisive victory of American forces over the British Navy” during the American Revolution, the garrison at Fort Sullivan, S.C. (today Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island in Charleston harbor) under the command of militia Col. William Moultrie repulse Royal Navy forces under the command of Admiral Sir Peter Parker.

The 12-plus hour battle begins around 9 a.m. when Parker’s ships open fire on the fort: many of the British shells sinking harmlessly into the soft palmetto logs of which the fort is constructed. The ships, on the other hand, (some of which run aground on the harbor’s shoals) are constructed of oak, which Moultrie’s artillerists quickly shatter sending deadly splinters into the unfortunate British crews.

Moultrie is destined to become a Maj. Gen. in the Continental Army and a S.C. governor. And S.C. will forever be known as “the Palmetto State.”

(AUTHOR NOTE: My five-times great grandfather, Capt. Thomas Woodward – commanding a company of S.C. Rangers on Moultrie’s extreme left – helps thwart an attempt by Royal Marines to land on the island.)

June 28, 1778: The Battle of Monmouth, N.J. is fought between Gen. George Washington’s Continental Army (including the legendary Molly Pitcher) and British forces under Gen. Sir Henry Clinton. Though tactically inconclusive, the battle is a strategic victory for the Americans who prove they can go toe-to-toe with the British Army in a large pitched battle.

July 1, 1898: U.S. Army Lt. Col. (future U.S. pres.) Theodore Roosevelt leads several of his “Rough Riders” – a crack regiment of U.S. cavalry troopers during the Spanish American War – in the famous charge up San Juan Hill, Cuba.

For his actions, Roosevelt will receive the Medal of Honor. A portion of his citation reads: “Lieutenant Colonel Roosevelt, in total disregard for his personal safety, and accompanied by only four or five men, led a desperate and gallant charge up San Juan Hill, encouraging his troops to continue the assault through withering enemy fire over open countryside. Facing the enemy’s heavy fire, he displayed extraordinary bravery throughout the charge, and was the first to reach the enemy trenches, where he quickly killed one of the enemy with his pistol, allowing his men to continue the assault.”

July 3, 1863: Day-three of the Battle of Gettysburg: Confederate Maj. Gen. George Pickett leads his ill-fated division against Union Army forces under the command of Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock positioned on Cemetery Ridge. Said to be “the highwater mark of the Confederacy,” Pickett’s charge will fail.

Gen. Robert E. Lee – commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia – had ordered the charge. Lee’s subordinate (corps) commander, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, had argued against such a charge. But following Lee’s orders, Longstreet directed Pickett to attack.

Years later, Pickett will be asked why his attack failed. His reply: “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”

Nobel prize-winning author William Faulkner will write, “For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position… .”

July 4, 1776:  The American colonies – already at war with Great Britain – declare their independence.

July 4, 1802:  The U.S. Military Academy at West Point opens its doors.

July 4, 1863:  The Confederate city of Vicksburg, Mississippi falls to Union Army forces under the command of Maj. Gen. (future U.S. pres.) Ulysses S. Grant. It will be decades before the city celebrates the 4th of July again.

Let’s increase awareness of American military tradition and honor America’s greatest heroes by supporting the Medal of Honor Society’s 2010 Convention to be held in Charleston, S.C., Sept. 29 – Oct. 3, 2010 (for more information, click here).

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