(1721–December 21, 1811)
Parker is best remembered for commanding the ill-fated expedition against Charleston, South Carolina, in 1776. Intensely brave and a fine sailor, he overcame this defeat to serve as Admiral of the Fleet and was a patron of the famous Horatio Nelson.
Peter Parker was born probably in Ireland in 1721, the son of Adm. Christopher Parker. After serving several years aboard ships as a cabin boy, he followed his father into the naval profession by becoming a lieutenant in 1741. Parker then served with a succession of warships in the Mediterranean and elsewhere, rising to captain in 1747. His first command, the small frigate HMS Margate, returned to the Mediterranean for two years before sailing home at the conclusion of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1749. Parker was subsequently placed on half-pay and stationed ashore until 1755, when he directed construction of the HMS Woolwich at Bristol. He then conducted that vessel on several successful cruises before returning to half-pay status at the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763. Parker spent the next decade ashore, receiving a knighthood but scarcely any employment. In 1773, he was placed at the helm of the 50-gun vessel HMS Bristol and, three years later, received control of a small naval squadron with the rank of commodore. Parker then departed England for service in American waters during the Revolutionary War.
In February 1776, Parker sailed from Plymouth en route to North Carolina. He conveyed seven army regiments as reinforcements for Gen. Henry Clinton, with whom he would rendezvous off the Carolina coast. Bad weather interrupted his journey for several weeks, and it was not until May 1776 that his squadron reached its destination. Parker and Clinton united for the purpose of landing and establishing a safe haven for numerous Loyalist sympathizers in the region. These forces were supposed to secure a landing zone for the fleet in advance, but in the wake of their defeat at Moore’s Creek Bridge, this proved impractical. Parker and Clinton then decided to hit a secondary target, the South Carolina capital of Charleston, which was rumored to be lightly defended. Its seizure would facilitate the reconquest of the South and serve as a rallying point for thousands of Loyalists.
Charleston was, in fact, imperfectly defended. Its major fortification was a small fort on Sullivan’s Island in the harbor, commanded by Col. William Moultrie. He directed a small garrison of 26 guns and 430 men. Another 600 riflemen were stationed at either end of the island. The fort itself was only half-finished, being covered with sand and newly sawed palmetto logs. Based on initial appearances, Sullivan’s Island did not appear capable of putting up much resistance. Parker and Sullivan certainly concurred when they anchored off Charleston on June 1, 1776. The British armada consisted of nine warships carrying 280 guns, as well as an invasion force of 2,500 soldiers. However, the British lacked navigation charts, and nearly four weeks lapsed before soundings could be taken and the battle commenced. The Americans put this respite to good use by shoring up Sullivan’s Island, awaiting the inevitable onslaught.
On the morning of June 28, 1776, Parker’s squadron entered the harbor and expertly assumed bombardment positions. The fleet then ladled the American position with a heavy concentration of solid shot and exploding mortar balls. Much to the surprise of both sides, little damage was inflicted upon Moultrie’s fort. The sand embankment absorbed much of the exploding shells while the spongy wood of the palmetto logs did the same to the round shot. By comparison, Moultrie’s gunners kept up a steady stream of heated balls at Parker’s vessels, damaging several. One round cut the cable of Parker’s flagship, and it drifted around, permitting a raking fire. Numerous shots killed and wounded virtually everybody on the quarterdeck while the crew worked furiously to right the vessel. Parker himself had a very close call when a red-hot ball tore most of his clothes off, burning him. Clinton, meanwhile, tried to land boatloads of troops on the island, but he was repulsed by the riflemen. Worse, three frigates were grounded, and one, the HMS Acteon, became lodged and had to be burned. After a lopsided engagement of 10 hours, the twice-wounded Parker finally conceded defeat and withdrew. British casualties numbered upward of 250 men; the Americans sustained just 12 killed and 25 wounded. The defeat at Charleston, minor in military terms, subsequently became a tremendous symbolic victory, a rallying point for the entire nation.
Parker’s squadron limped back to New York, where it joined forces with Adm. Richard Howe. In this capacity he participated in the landing of British troops on Long Island in August 1776, which resulted in the American abandonment of New York City and vicinity. That December, Parker conveyed Clinton on another expedition against Newport, Rhode Island, which was quickly seized. He remained on station there for several months, until the rank of rear admiral was conferred on April 28, 1777. The following June he gained appointment as commander in chief of Jamaica, and two years later he was promoted to vice admiral. Parker ventured back to England in 1782, conveying the captured French Admiral de Grasse and several of his officers. For his Revolutionary War services he was made a baron. Parker remained in the service for many years thereafter, rising to admiral in 1787 and also serving as commander in chief of Portsmouth Harbor in 1793. There he struck up a cordial relationship with a young naval lieutenant, Horatio Nelson, the future victor of Trafalgar, and facilitated his early career. Parker was one of the foremost mourners at Nelson’s state funeral in 1805. By the time Parker died in London on December 21, 1811, he had been elevated to Admiral of the Fleet following the death of Lord Howe. Parker’s unfortunate defeat off Charleston was but a minor episode in a long and distinguished naval career, but it is the incident for which he is best remembered in America.
Bibliography Bearss, Edwin C. The Battle of Sullivan’s Island and the Capture of Fort Moultrie. Washington, DC: Division of History, Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, U. S. Dept. of the Interior, 1968; Farley, M. Foster. “Battering Charleston’s Walls.” Military History no. 6 (2000): 38-45; Ireland, Bernard. Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail. New York: Norton, 2000; Lambert, Andrew. War at Sea in the Age of Sail: 1650-1850. London: Cassell, 2000; Miller, Nathan. The Age of Fighting Sail, 1775-1815. New York: Wiley, 2000; Ralfe, James. The Naval Biography of Great Britain. Boston: Gregg Press, 1972; Reid, Ronald D. “The Battle of Sullivan’s Island.” American History 33, no. 5 (1998): 34-39, 70-72; Stokely, Jim. Fort Moultrie: Constant Defender. Washington, DC: National Park Service, 1985; Syrett, David. The Royal Navy in American Waters During the Revolutionary War. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998; Tilley, John A. The British Navy in the American Revolution. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987; Tracy, Nicholas. Navies, Deterrence, and American Independence: Britain and Seapower in the 1760s and 1770s. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1988.