Chart of Charleston, South Carolina from The Atlantic Neptune

The HARBOUR of CHARLES TOWN in South-Carolina from the Surveys of Sr. Jas. Wallace Captn. In his Majestys Navy & Others, with A VIEW of the TOWN from the SOUTH SHORE of Ashley River. London: J.F.W. Des Barres, Esqr., Nov. 1, 1777.
Engraving with etched detail, 33”h x 24 ½”w at neat line plus margins, some wash color. Minor offset and soiling, top and left margins trimmed close with some loss to left outer neat line. Still, better than very good.

Spectacular Revolutionary-era chart of the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, likely compiled from Colonial-era surveys and British reconnaissance just before the 1776 Battle of Sullivan’s Island. Published in the Atlantic Neptune, it was for its time by far the finest printed chart of the area.

Blessed by a large, sheltered harbor and proximity to the Lowcountry indigo and rice plantations, Charleston, South Carolina had the largest urban population south of Philadelphia and was the wealthiest city in Britain’s North American Colonies. During the American Revolution it was much coveted by the British and was the target of two major campaigns. In the first, which culminated in the June 1776 Battle of Sullivan’s Island, an American army under General Charles Lee withstood a British attack on the fortifications guarding the outer harbor. In May 1780 however, the city fell when the American General Lincoln surrendered his 5000-man army after a six-week siege.

Offered here is a rare and important chart of the city and its immediate surroundings. The chart depicts Charleston; its large and complex harbor, formed by the junction of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers; and several miles of the South Carolina coastline. Hundreds of soundings are given, scattered offshore but dense around Charleston Bar and at the inner harbor and Ashley River. Clearly visible is the difficult channel through Charleston Bar, which required an approach from the east, followed by a sharp northward turn to avoid Cummins Point. The city itself is shown in tiny plan view, its central square, fortifications and outlying neighborhoods clearly visible.

The chart gains much appeal from an inset view at upper left, depicting Charleston as seen from the south shore of the Ashley River. The city’s harbor-side fortifications are clearly visible, as is the steeple of St. Michael’s Church (Episcopalian), built in the 1750s.

Per the National Maritime Museum (Greenwich), this is the second state of the chart, with the view of the city completely re-engraved. In the third state Sullivan’s Island is re-engraved and the view rendered in aquatint.

The Battle of Sullivan’s Island
As this chart indicates, the narrow harbor entrance forced approaching vessels to pass close to the southern end of Sullivan’s Island. In March 1776 Colonel William Moultrie, commander of the colonial militia, had the island occupied and ordered construction of a long, low fortification of palmetto logs to command the channel. An assault on the city from the sea would absolutely require the reduction of the fort as a precondition for landing troops in the city.

A British force under General Henry Clinton and Admiral Peter Parker arrived before Charleston in June of 1776. Recognizing the significance of Sullivan’s Island, Clinton planned a two-pronged attack. He placed a force on Long Island just north of Sullivan’s, as he had received intelligence that the channel between the two could be forded at low tide. The fleet was to bombard the fort at the southern end of the island, while infantry crossed the ford and attacked the island by land from the north.

The attack took place on June 28 but was a complete debacle: As indicated on this chart, the channel between Long and Sullivan’s Islands was in fact no shallower than seven feet at low tide, and Clinton’s infantry was essentially marooned on Long Island during the battle. Meanwhile, the fleet’s bombardment of the fort failed to damage its resilient palmetto-log walls, and three frigates ran aground on a sandbar. After heavy losses, Clinton and Parker abandoned the attack and sailed north to glory in the Fall campaign to capture New York City.

False attribution to James Wallace
The chart cites as its source the “Surveys of Sr. Jas. Wallace Captn. In his Majestys Navy & Others.” Wallace (1731-1803) had entered the Navy in 1746, made Lieutenant in 1753, Commander in 1762, and Post Captain in 1771. Most of the first four decades of his career were spent on the American Station, and he and his ships saw much action during the Revolution. There is, however, no evidence that he was present at Charleston in June 1776, during which time he was more likely commanding the HMS Rose further north.

In July 1776 Wallace took command of the HMS Experiment, 50 guns, which had seen action at Charleston, suffering serious damage and dozens of fatalities, while its Captain Alexander Scott was severely wounded. We surmise that upon taking command of the Experiment from Scott, Wallace took possession of hydrographic surveys of Charleston Harbor that had been in Scott’s possession. Presumably these were a combination of Colonial-era surveys, perhaps even including work overseen by William Gerard de Brahm in the 1750s as Surveyor General of South Carolina, along with reconnaissance surveys undertaken in June 1776 by the British in advance of the assault on Sullivan’s Island.

When Wallace was sent to England with dispatches in early 1777, he would have had an opportunity to deliver these to London, providing J.F.W. Des Barres, who at the time was in London producing The Atlantic Neptune, with access to the surveys. Whether the chart’s attribution to Wallace was the result of careless by Des Barres or willful deception by Wallace is simply not known.

It is worth noting that Wallace is credited as the artist of the aquatint The Phoenix and the Rose, Engaged by the Enemy’s Fire Ships and Galleys (1778), which also appeared in The Atlantic Neptune. In that case Wallace, commanding the Experiment, was present at the event depicted, which took place on August 16, 1776 on the lower Hudson River.

The Atlantic Neptune
The chart was issued in The Atlantic Neptune, an atlas of North American waters published in London by J.F.W. Des Barres and used by British navigators throughout the American Revolution. The charts were of an extraordinarily high quality, remained the standard for decades, and were often copied and reissued by American and European engravers and publishers.

Copies of the Neptune were apparently made up to order, and new charts, maps and views were being produced throughout the Revolutionary years, and there was thus no standard collation. The most complete versions extended to five volumes, covering in turn Nova Scotia, New England, the River and Gulf of St. Lawrence (based on the work of James Cook), the coast south of New York, and American coastal views. The volumes integrated nautical charts, recognition views and sailing directions to provide seamen with multiple, (hopefully) complementary data sets for navigating the often-difficult waters off the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico.

The Harbour of Charles Town in South-Carolina is just one of three charts in the Atlantic Neptune related to Charleston. The others, A Sketch of the Environs of Charlestown in South Carolina and A Sketch of the Operations before Charlestown the Capital of South Carolina, both relate to the British capture of the town in 1780 and are based on surveys taken at that time.

In all, a rare, informative and visually appealing chart of one of the most important harbors in British North America, shedding light on an important American victory in the early years of the American Revolution.

Phillips, A List of Maps of America, p. 221. Parke-Bernet Galleries, The Celebrated Collection of Americana formed by the Late Thomas Winthrop Streeter, #706 (the entry for the Atlantic Neptune, with Charleston chart included as vol. III item 19). Sellers & Van Ee, Maps and Charts of North America and the West Indies, #1537. Stevens Atlantic Neptune Collection, #162B.

For background on the Atlantic Neptune, see above all Stephen Hornsby’s Surveyors of Empire: Samuel Holland, J.F.W. Des Barres, and the Making of the Atlantic Neptune and Alex Johnson’s The First Mapping of America.