Bringing A Historical Footnote To Life
Thomson Park at Breach Inlet commemorates one of the least known yet most pivotal battles in America’s War of Independence. By Sarah Kirk. Photos by Steve Rosamilia.
I t was during a talk by Dr. Walter Edgar, a noted historian and author, that Charleston resident and ninth generation South Carolinian Doug MacIntyre learned of a little-known but pivotal patriot victory during the 1776 Battle of Sullivan’s Island.
“Dr. Edgar was frustrated by the limited knowledge people had about what happened on the two opposite ends of the island.” MacIntyre said. Most residents and visitors are aware of the action at Fort Moultrie and that end of the island — but few are aware that it was a combined land and sea attack by the British Navy on the fort, and across Breach Inlet by the British Army. “It was just one of those important events that was lost in history,” MacIntyre said. “I was sitting there in the audience and thought, ‘Well somebody should do something about that.’” Quickly he realized that somebody was him.
On June 28, 1776, Lieutenant Colonel William “Danger” Thomson led 780 men at Breach Inlet to thwart the 3,000-strong British Army’s land attack. “It was a battle that changed the course of the American Revolution, after that debacle the British changed their strategy,” MacIntyre said. “Since they were not able to take Charleston, they concentrated their e orts on the northeast, a move which kept the ports open in Charleston for another four years.”
That ability to bring in trade caused an economic boom in Charleston and allowed the state of South Carolina to support the patriots’ war in the North. “ e cumulative elect of that land and sea battle gave some of the patriots the courage to sign the Declaration of Independence, because a lot of them were on the fence,” Isle of Palms resident Jim Thompson, who helped finance the project, said. “It’s American history’s front door.”
MacIntyre decided Thomson and his battle deserved recognition, and so the idea for Thomson Park was born. His initial idea soon become a well-planned community project on a small slice of land o Middle Street, just before the H. L. Hunley bridge that connects Sullivan’s to Isle of Palms. It is erected on the dunes where Thomson’s advance guard dug in to turn back the British troops advancing from Long Island (today’s Isle of Palms).
MacIntyre cites a list of 150 people who were supporters one way or another. “A lot of people really chipped in,” he said. “It became one of those projects that people wanted to be part of.” After negotiating with the joint owners of the land (the Town of Sullivan’s Island and the Department of Transportation), conducting a peer review from other historians in the community, and securing funding, MacIntyre convinced local landscape architect Clyde Timmons to lend his talents to the project.
Inspired by the site’s history and natural beauty, Timmons selected many plants native to the island and looked to the lore of the Palmetto tree (that so “skillfully” defeated the British Navy at the other end of the island) when creating the site’s footprint. “Since we don’t know what the location looked like in 1776, I thought the use of Palmetto logs helped convey the idea of a Revolutionary War-era fortification that echoed Fort Moultrie,” Timmons said.
The park opened to an enthusiastic crowd in June 2011 and has been welcoming visitors ever since. Residents, tourists, beachgoers, school and church groups are just a few of the visitors who enjoy the park’s panoramic views of Breach Inlet and engage with the wayside exhibits detailing the historical events that happened there.
“It just became a labor of love for a number of people who wanted to set history straight, and it’s such a great location,” MacIntyre said. The park, which sits just above a beach access, fits seamlessly into the natural environment while simultaneously marking the spot where patriots served during the American Revolution.
Keeping History Alive
Today the park relies on maintenance by the Town of Sullivan’s Island, to which it was gifted, and occasional volunteer groups that dedicate time to care for it. However, MacIntyre credits “unofficial groundskeeper” Wayne Stelljes with being his ever-present man on the ground. “He’s been such a blessing,” MacIntyre said. “Wayne is out there several times a week. It’s Wayne who more often than anyone will fly the flag on holidays. He tells people the stories, sends them to the website when they want more information. He’s our man on-site.”
Stelljes lives just two blocks from Thomson Park and happily helps with keeping the site tidy. “Five generations of my family have lived on Sullivan’s Island during some portion of their lives, starting when my mother and her family moved here in the 1930s,” Stelljes said. His tremendous sense of community and civic pride is evident when he speaks about the park. But to this faithful volunteer, it is clearly more than just community service that motivates him.
“While Thomson Park memorializes all those, who fought and perished during those military events, the feelings of hope have never left that location,” he said. “Today, the hopes are as diverse as those who visit. Some are simple, and some are far-reaching.” From the hope to catch some fish or see the bottlenose dolphins, or just to enjoy a relaxing day on the beach, Stelljes feels that the once-somber location is now characterized by serene beauty and has an almost spiritual quality where many come to enjoy quiet and reflective moments.
Today, Thomson Park attracts historians with an interest in the Revolutionary War, sheds a light on an overlooked battle that put Sullivan’s Island on the map, and helps connect visitors with the history of South Carolina. It is also a place where they may encounter a friendly, helpful face, and experience a bit of warm Southern charm. “It has accomplished its objective in telling the untold history,” MacIntyre said.
It has accomplished its objective — and so much more.
For more information on Thomson Park visit thomsonpark.wordpress.com.