Rum essential to building of Gadsden's Bridge to Sullivan's Island

  • Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Christopher Gadsden, designer of the Gadsden flag, also paid for and supervised the building of a bridge to Sullivan’s Island.


Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places in all of Mount Pleasant (if not the entire Lowcountry) is the park and promenade at the "old" bridge that once connected the old village and Sullivan's Island. Also known as the Pitt Street Bridge, this was the site of the trolley bridge erected in the early 1900s to carry people to Sullivan's Island and the new resort called Isle of Palms. When the causeway was built in the 1930s, it was dismantled.
While there was also a bridge to the island during the Civil War, the really old bridge dates to the Revolutionary War. It was called Gadsden's Bridge and was built under the direction of one of Charleston's great patriots, Christopher Gadsden, well known as the designer as the "Don't Tread on Me" flag.
The idea for a bridge to the island came up even before the Battle of Fort Sullivan in June 1776. With news of an advancing British fleet, William Moultrie was given the job of building a fort on Sullivan's Island. This story we all pretty much know - the fort was made of palmetto logs and even though Fort Sullivan was outmanned and outgunned, when the British did arrive, the little resolute fort withstood the barrages and ultimately, Moultrie and his men routed the British and sent them packing.
Before the battle, however, the commanding general, Charles Lee, had no hopes that the fort would survive the attack. He called the fort a "slaughter pen" and was adamant that a bridge be built to the island so the men had a way to leave the island when they were overrun by the British troops.
Easier said than done. The mile-long crossing passed over a wide expanse of salt marsh made of that gloppy, gooey, non-traversable substance called plough mud. People had been known to sink up to their waists in it. Trying to move an army across it was impossible.
They first attempted building a "bridge of boats," but there were not enough boats to be had.
They next tried constructing a floating bridge made of empty hogshead barrels, buoyed at certain distances and joined by planks. Moultrie wrote, "this would not answer, because when Col. Clark was coming over from Haddrell's, with a detachment of 200 men; before they were half on, it sunk so low, that they were obliged to return."
Ultimately no bridge was erected and Moultrie and his men successfully fought the British without an escape route to the mainland.
Almost immediately after the battle, however, the building of a bridge became a priority again. Christopher Gadsden, who agreed with General Lee that a bridge was needed, was given the job and apparently agreed to pay for most of the work. A permanent bridge would not only help better fortify the harbor, it would provide a way to move men and munitions quickly to the fort if the enemy returned.
Work started in September with Gadsden in charge, assisted by the well-known (and wealthy) carpenter, Daniel Cannon. (As an aside, Cannon Street in Charleston is named for him).
Their plan was to build a bridge 18-feet wide that would sit on wooden pilings anchored in shell 25 feet apart at the channel and 14-feet apart elsewhere. The bridge would be overlaid with sheets of iron and be able to take the weight of troops and heavy cannons. It would also be high enough for small vessels to pass underneath.
The construction itself was done by men in Gadsden's regiment aided by hired workers and carpenters. One of the first things Gadsden needed to keep these men happy was a large supply of rum.
At one point Gadsden wrote urgently to the commissary officer, Col. John Lewis Gervais, "We are out of rum, of which for the Work I am about, I am obliged to use a great deal."
If he received the rum it went quickly, for not two weeks later he sent Gervais another note urging that he send, "a Hogshead of Rum for the Regiment by first Opportunity. I am oblig'd to give a great deal of Rum to the Labourers etc. about the Bridge."
It took nine months of steady work to build the bridge. But on June 7, 1777, almost a year after the Battle of Fort Sullivan, the bridge was finished. Some sections of the roadbed were still empty, but Gadsden assured his superiors they could be installed within 24-hours, if necessary.
The finished bridge was 3,517 feet long, wide enough for 10 or 12 men to march across breast to breast and, wrote Gadsden, "as capable of withstanding the tides below as London Bridge."
The General Assembly thanked him and officially named the work Gadsden's Bridge. An observer wrote that "their bridge from Sullivan's Island is an amazing work; nothing like it on the continent."
Indeed, the finished bridge actually zigzagged across the marsh. Perhaps this was because of a lack of skill or to miss deeper sections of mud and water. One also can't help but wonder if all that rum didn't somehow play in the bridge's often random wanderings.
At any rate, Gadsden proudly wrote that the harbor was now "almost as strong as Gibraltar.
Thank God we seem to be in a fine Way to drive the Tyrants from America."
What happened to Gadsden's Bridge? My bet is that it was claimed by a later hurricane, perhaps the Great Gale of 1804. When Revolutionary War historian Benson John Lossing visited Sullivan's Island in 1849, it was gone, as was the original palmetto fort.
Wrote Lossing, "On the northwestern side of the island are the remains of an old causeway or bridge, extending to the main, nearly upon the site of a bridge of boats, which was used during the battle in 1776.
It was constructed after that conflict, at the cost of Christopher Gadsden, and was called Gadsden's Bridge."
(Suzannah Smith Miles is a writer and Lowcountry and Civil War historian.)

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