Eutaw Springs, South Carolina
Eutaw Springs, South Carolina
EUTAW SPRINGS, SOUTH CAROLINA. 8 September 1781. After Ninety Six, Major General Nathanael Greene spent over a month in the High Hills of the Santee resting his army while drilling Continental and militia infantry in battalion-level firing. His cavalry augmented partisan activity as the British were kept off balance and denied current knowledge of American movement and intentions. As September arrived, Greene began to move toward the main British force protecting Charleston by slow, easy marches to allow more men to join him and deceive the British. Sufficiently reinforced, he surprised the British army under Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Stewart at Eutaw Springs near Nelson's Ferry on the Santee River.
Leaving his overnight camp at Burdell's Tavern at 4 a.m. on 8 August, Greene moved toward Eutaw Springs, only seven miles away. The marching column was arranged to allow immediate deployment in planned battle lines, so there was a surprising number of militia near the front. Lieutenant Colonel John Henderson led the column with his detachment of seventy-three South Carolina state troops, its subunits commanded by Lieutenant Colonels Ezekiel Polk and Hugh Middleton, and Lieutenant Colonel Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee's Partisan Legion. Colonel Francis Marion, who joined Greene on 7 September after a four-hundred-mile march, followed with his partisans, Colonel Francis Malmedy's militia, the Marquis de Malmedy's two North Carolina militia regiments, and General Andrew Pickens's two South Carolina militia regiments. Each Carolina brigade had an eastern and a western regiment. Local companies were raised, largely by respected leaders in the vicinity, then consolidated and marched to the main army. The western troops were led by western officers, the eastern troops by officers from their region. They followed very different routes to join Greene.
Next in the column came General Jethro Sumner with three small North Carolina Continental battalions under Lieutenant Colonel John Baptiste Ashe and Majors John Armstrong and Reading Blount. An understrength Virginia Continental brigade under Lieutenant Colonel Richard Campbell followed. Its two battalions were led by Major Smith Snead and Captain Thomas Edmonds. Colonel Otho Holland Williams's Maryland Continental Brigade, with two battalions commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John Eager Howard and Major Henry Hardman, were further to the rear. Lieutenant Colonel William Washington's Third Continental Light Dragoons and Captain Robert Kirkwood's Delaware infantry company brought up the rear. The American artillery had two three-pounders under Captain-Lieutenant William Gaines and two six-pounders commanded by Maryland captain William Browne in the column. After the initial contact, Gaines would be sent to the advanced party with a guard of North Carolina Continentals. Greene had about twenty-two-hundred men in this force.
Stewart had between eighteen hundred and twenty-two hundred effectives. Flank companies of the Third, Nineteenth, and Thirtieth Regiments constituted Major John Marjoribanks's "flank battalion," with some three hundred men. The line regiments included the recently arrived Third Foot, the "Buffs," as well as the understrength Sixty-third and Sixty-fourth Foot, Colonel John Harris Cruger's New York and New Jersey Provincials, and Major John Coffin's South Carolina horsemen. Stewart's artillery included two six-pounders, one fourpounder, a three-pounder, and at least one swivel gun.
THE PRELIMINARY BOUTS
Stewart had been sending out foraging parties around dawn to dig sweet potatoes. On 8 September the detail was drawn from Marjoribanks's battalion and the Buffs. Unarmed, and with a small guard, the foragers left camp about 5 a.m. An hour later, two North Carolina deserters were brought to Stewart with a story that Greene was approaching with 4,000 men. Stewart reported that Major John Coffin was already reconnoitering in the direction from which Greene would approach with 140 infantrymen and 50 cavalry, but other accounts suggest Coffin went out after the deserters were interrogated. Coffin made contact about four miles from Stewart's camp around 8 a.m.
Major John Armstrong, commanding a party of North Carolina vedettes, reported Coffin's approach to Henderson, who promptly set up a hasty ambush. When Coffin's dragoons incautiously pursued Armstrong, they came under small arms fire from both flanks and then were enveloped by the legion cavalry under Major Joseph Egleston as Captain Michael Rudolph led the legion infantry in a bayonet charge. Coffin escaped with his cavalry to warn Stewart, but four or five of his infantry were killed and about forty, including their captain, were captured. In the follow-up to this encounter, many of the foraging party were also taken prisoner. Numbers vary from one hundred to as many as four hundred, but whatever the total, this loss was an attrition of British strength at a crucial time.
The initial contact caused Greene to deploy into his planned fighting formations well over three miles from the actual battlefield. Since Stewart sent out a delaying force, this was not necessarily wrong. The delaying party actually executed an ambush on the American advance some two miles from the British camp, slowing the approach. Although the British advance party was driven off by the South Carolina state troops, Greene's men were forced to move cautiously through the woods, creating difficulties in maintaining their linear formations.
After sending out the force to delay Greene, Stewart deployed on even ground west of his camp. Major John Marjoribanks's light infantry and grenadiers were posted in a blackjack thicket some distance beyond the British right flank. Cruger commanded the main line. The infantry was arranged with the Third Foot on the right; then Cruger's New Jersey and New York Provincials; and the Sixty-fourth, Eighty-fourth, and Sixty-third Foot spread south across the River Road. The Sixty-third and Sixty-fourth Provincials were worn down by the summer's hard campaigning and were much reduced in strength. Coffin's horse and foot troops were posted as a reserve. Major Henry Sheridan of Cruger's Provincials was ordered to occupy Roche's brick house and hold it should the Americans break through. While there was a ravine beyond the British left and the Santee River beyond its right, both flanks were largely unprotected. The two armies are shown as the main battle commenced just west of Roche's Plantation.
PHASE I: GREENE'S MILITIA ATTACK
Shortly after 9 a.m., heavy firing began as the militia advanced against the British line. The first American attack line, under General Francis Marion, was Carolina militia with Malmedy's North Carolina Brigade flanked by the two South Carolina regiments. In generalized terms, Marion commanded the left, Malmedy the center, and General
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Andrew Pickens the right segments of the first line. Gaines's guns went out of action, one disabled, the other damaged by enemy fire, after a short exchange that silenced one British gun. The militia performed admirably, firing seventeen volleys before retiring. Lee tried to turn the enemy left but was fought off by the Sixty-third Foot.
PHASE II: BRITISH COUNTERATTACK ROUTS THE MILITIA
With both flanks in the air, unprotected by terrain features, and concerned that American dragoons would turn his flanks, Stewart held back, in part because he saw that Greene's line was largely militia. For some reason, the British left advanced and was followed by the remainder of the line. As the militia infantry gave way, Lee's legion stood its ground against the Sixty-third, and the South Carolina state troops held off the Third Regiment. Greene responded adroitly to the new situation by ordering General Jethro Sumner's North Carolina Continentals forward to take over from the militia.
The North Carolina Continentals were composed of voluntary enlistees, plus men forcibly drafted because they had allegedly fled at Guilford Courthouse. Some of these men had been in continuous service since March. Most had been subjected to intense training in the last month but about one hundred additional men had arrived only the night before. The North Carolina Continentals were led by outstanding officers with considerable combat experience. Although the men were relatively inexperienced, Sumner drove the British back to their original positions and began forcing them rearward.
PHASE III: SUMNER IS DRIVEN BACK
Stewart now committed his reserve. Coffin's cavalrymen took position to protect the left flank against the threat posed by Lee's dragoons; his infantry reinforced the faltering front line. Heavy fighting continued on both flanks as the opposing commanders were occupied with restoring their centers. The American left faltered momentarily when Henderson was wounded, but Hampton rallied them to push back the Buffs and take one hundred prisoners. Lee's legion held the right without undue pressure.
After fighting so well, Sumner's Continental infantry—weakened because all of its field grade officers and many of its captains were wounded—were finally forced back by the reinforced British center. A shortage of ammunition also contributed to their giving way.
When the British advanced to create a new breakthrough, Greene sent the Maryland and Virginia Continentals of Colonel Otho Williams and Lieutenant Colonel Richard Campbell forward. The Continentals advanced with muskets at the trail and delivered their first volley at forty yards, then followed up with a bayonet charge. Almost simultaneously, Captain Michael Rudolph led the infantry of Lee's legion against the vulnerable British left flank. The left half of Stewart's line collapsed and retreated in confusion through their camp. The Buffs obstinately held a short time against Lieutenant Colonel John Eager Howard's Second Maryland Regiment, but they were driven back after a bayonet fight that left the dead "transfixed by each other's bayonets."
PHASE IV: STEWART'S STRONGPOINTS HOLD
Despite the collapse, Marjoribanks's flank battalion still held the blackjack thicket on the British right. Washington's cavalrymen could not penetrate the thicket, and when they wheeled to bypass it by going nearer the river, nearly all the officers were shot down by a volley from Marjoribanks's position. Washington was bayoneted and captured when his horse was shot. Colonel Wade Hampton rallied the Continental dragoons and then charged together with his South Carolina horse. The attack was repulsed with heavy losses.
Even with the British right holding off the American horsemen, Greene's men were doing well until they found food and liquor in Stewart's camp. Both Continentals and militiamen took advantage of the opportunity and the attack broke down except for Howard's Second Maryland.
Greene's loss of effective control can now be seen in the unsuccessful attempt to drive Coffin from the field. Greene was personally directing the fighting on the left, while Lee was directing his legion infantry on the right. When Lee realized that defeating Coffin's cavalry would eliminate Stewart's mobile reserve, he wanted to send his legion cavalry against the British left. When he sent for Egleston and prepared to lead the legion cavalry forward, Lee found Egleston had already been committed on the left flank. Hampton finally attacked Coffin and drove the Loyalist horsemen back, but when Hampton pursued up the road, he was exposed to fire from Marjoribanks's second position in the palisaded garden next to the brick house and driven back.
PHASE V: MARJORIBANKS'S COUNTERATTACKS
With the British infantry line collapsing, Sheridan had moved his men into the Roche Plantation's house. This brick structure was a natural fortification that could not be taken if resolutely defended. Kirkwood's Delaware and some legion infantry nearly got through the door before Sheridan's Loyalists could secure it. Captain Lawrence Manning, who commanded Lee's infantry at this point, used a British officer as a shield while withdrawing from the yard. Others did likewise since many British soldiers had been unable to get inside the house because the American pursuit was so rapid.
Four six-pounders, two American and two just-captured British guns, were brought up to break down the door but were placed too near the house. The gunners were shot down by British musket and swivel gun fire. The British began rallying around Sheridan's strong point. Some entered the house from the rear while others took position behind the garden palisades. Marjoribanks now led his flank battalion in a gallant sally that captured the American artillery. Continuing their counterattack, his men engaged Second Maryland elements as Howard, personally leading Captain Edward Oldham's company, attempted to slow the advance but was wounded. Marjoribanks was mortally wounded as the sortie fought its way though the British camp, but his counterattack changed the fortunes of the day. Other British troops reinforced his battalion and the battle was soon over as Greene opted to retire rather than risk destruction of his command.
NUMBERS AND LOSSES
As for detailed estimates of numbers, Greene had some 1,256 Continental infantrymen, and another 300 Continental dragoons and light infantry under Lee, Washington, and Kirkwood. At the very least, there were over 200 North Carolina and 300 South Carolina militia, plus Marion's 200 militia and 73 South Carolina state troops, serving as infantry. Marion brought 40 horsemen, who augmented the South Carolina state troops cavalry, numbering seventy-two. Of this approximate total of 2,400, some 200 were detached as baggage guards at Howell's Ferry on the Congaree. Component strengths of the British force included some 280 men in Marjoriebanks's flank battalion and 300 in the Third Foot, while the Sixty-third (96), Sixty-fourth (180) and Eighty-fourth (82) were well understrength. Cruger's three battalions of Provincials numbered approximately 180 men. The South Carolina Royalists numbered approximately 70 cavalry and 100 infantry. Most of Stewart's troops were British regulars. Cruger's Tories were veterans and of the caliber of regulars. Only Coffin's troops were relatively inexperienced militia, and they had seen hard duty since early April.
Approximately 2,200 Americans were engaged and suffered over 500 casualties (139 killed, 375 wounded, and 8 missing, a total of 522). Officers took heavy losses as 60 were killed or wounded. Of the seven Continental officers commanding infantry regiments, only two emerged unscathed. Richard Campbell was among the dead. Militia leaders Pickens and Henderson were wounded. In the enlisted ranks, at least two North Carolina Continental companies reported over 90 percent of their men as casualties.
The British suffered very high proportionate losses. Starting with approximately 1,900 effectives, they lost 693, according to official returns. Stewart, wounded himself, reported 85 officers and men were killed, 351 wounded, and 257 missing. There is some question about British prisoner numbers; much of it centers on the foraging party losses.
Eutaw Springs, the last major engagement in the Deep South, was one of the hardest-fought actions of the Revolution. Troops on both sides fought exceptionally well, and there is little fault to be found with the tactical performance of either commander. Greene scored a fine tactical surprise and followed through well to exploit it. Stewart recovered promptly and made an excellent deployment, particularly in assigning Marjoriebanks's flank battalion and preparing to defend the brick house. An even fight until the Americans reached the British camp and were distracted by plunder, the British outfought the Americans after that, rallying repeatedly to retake their position and drive them off. On a day marked by gallantry, John Marjoribanks was conspicuous and, as with other field grade officers on both sides, he paid the price.
For the fourth time, Greene failed to win a battle in the South, but he won the campaign. The British army was so weakened by losses at Eutaw Springs that it withdrew toward Charleston. With the British holding only Charleston and Savannah, the South was nearly regained after sixteen months of occupation. Confined to a narrow coastal belt, it could not adequately supply itself and would evacuate the South in 1782.
Part of Greene's success in this campaign was due to his interdiction of virtually all British intelligence prior to the battle. Camped only seven miles from the Continentals, Stewart did not know their proximity until two deserters informed him on the morning of the engagement. These men may have been deserters, or they may have been sent ahead to frighten Stewart by reporting an excessively large American force. In either case, Greene's approach was a surprise.
Conrad, Dennis, ed. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. Vol. 9. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Tarleton, Banastre. A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Provinces of North America. 1787. Reprint. Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1967.
revised by Lawrence E. Babits