• Charleston, 28 June 1776 By H. Charles McBarron (Source: U.S. Army Center of Military History)

    Charleston, 28 June 1776 By H. Charles McBarron (Source: U.S. Army Center of Military History)

    Those of us who talk about servant leadership often point to well known figures like Ghandi, Mother Theresa, and Martin Luther King. Each has an inspiring story to be sure. But many participants in my workshops tell me that they have trouble relating to these examples. The refrain I hear is along the lines of: I’m not trying to save the world. I’m only trying to make a difference in my job, or small group, or my business. So I keep my eyes open for every day examples of servant leadership.

    During a recent visit to Fort Sumter, South Carolina, I came across the compelling story of Sergeant William Jasper, a soldier in America’s Patriot forces (known later the Continental Army) during the American war of Independence. Fort Sumter, of course, is famous for being the setting for the first hostile action of the American Civil War. But 85 years earlier, a palmetto log and sand fortress on nearby Sullivan’s Island in Charleston Harbor was the scene of one of the first decisive victories in the American Revolution.

    On June 4, 1776, British Admiral Sir Peter Parker arrived off Charleston’s coast with a fleet of 9 warships armed with nearly 300 guns and many support ships. Major General Sir Henry Clinton gave him support by landing 2,200 British Army regulars on nearby Long Island (Isle of Palms). Squeezed between the two overwhelming forces, the Patriots, commanded by Colonel Moultrie, hunkered down in their makeshift fort (which had been referred to by some as the “slaughter pen”) as the British fired over 7,000 cannonballs at the fort, but the palmetto logs and sand absorbed much of the impact and little damage was done. The Patriot gunners, returning fire, aimed all of their shot carefully for maximum effect and to conserve their small supply of ammunition. The British fleet was forced to retreat.

    During the bombardment, the fort’s flagstaff was shot away causing the regimental flag to fall outside the fort. In a book entitled, Anecdotes of the Revolutionary War in America, with Sketches of character of persons the most distinguished in the Southern States for civil and military services, author Major Alexander Garden documents the story of Sergeant William Jasper. According to the story, Jasper approached Colonel Moultrie saying, “Colonel, Don’t let us fight without our flag.” Moultrie replied, “How can you help it? The staff is gone!” Jasper answered, “Then, sir, I’ll fix it to a halberd and place it on a merlon (battlement) off the bastion, next to the enemy.” Outside the protection of the fort, Jasper retrieved the flag, attached it to a staff and placed it on top of the wall shouting, “God save Liberty and my country forever!” This unselfish brave act inspired the soldiers to continue fighting with great determination. After the battle, South Carolina Governor William Rutledge presented Jasper with a silver handled decorated sword, and an officer’s commission. Modestly, he declined saying, “I am not fit to keep an officer’s company, I am but a sergeant.” Jasper never learned how to read or write. On October 9, 1779, Sergeant Jasper died during the siege of Savannah. He was trying to plant a flag on a British position, when he was killed by enemy fire.

    Segeant Jasper’s story is a fine example of servant leadership. Originally an indentured servant who immigrated to America from Germany, Jasper joined the Patriot forces, as did so many Americans, for the steady pay. He rose quickly through the ranks to Sergeant. When called to lead after his bravery during the attack at Ft. Moultrie, he chose instead to simply serve.