Ninety Six, South Carolina
Ninety Six, South Carolina
NINETY SIX, SOUTH CAROLINA. 22 May-19 June 1781. Being the most important interior post after Camden, South Carolina, Ninety Six became Nathanael Greene's objective after the British abandoned Camden. Francis Lord Rawdon ordered Ninety Six evacuated, but his message was intercepted. At the time of Greene's approach, this strategic post had been considerably strengthened by Lieutenant Henry Haldane, a British army engineer. A stockade surrounded the village. On the east end was the Star Fort, a strong, star-shaped redoubt encircled by a ditch and abatis. Connected by a covered way to the west end of the village was an outpost called Fort Holmes, which consisted of a stockade to protect parties going for water from a little stream. The tactical weakness of the position came from the lack of a more protected source of water. At the time Lieutenant Colonel John Harris Cruger commanded a garrison of some 550 Loyalists at Ninety Six. Provincial units were the Second Battalion of James De Lancey's Brigade (New York; 150 men) and part of Skinner's New Jersey Volunteers (200 men), backed up by 200 South Carolina militia. The northern troops were veterans who had started their operations on Long Island and who had been seasoned not only by the partisan warfare of the South but also by service with British regulars at Savannah, Charleston, and around Camden; they were dedicated Loyalists who believed that loss of their fort would devastate the region's Tories. Provisions were adequate, but their artillery was limited to three three-pounders.
The Southern Department army under Greene reached Ninety Six on 22 May in a driving rain. Henry Lee's Partisan Corps was off supporting Andrew Pickens's militia in the siege of Augusta (22 May-5 June), Thomas Sumter was still fighting his own war and not paying attention to Greene, and Francis Marion was occupied dogging Rawdon's heels from Camden to the vicinity of Charleston (at Monck's Corner) and then patrolling the lower Santee (after taking Georgetown, South Carolina on 29 May). Greene had about one thousand regulars at Ninety Six and hoped to be reinforced as the detachments completed their missions. However, he had to start operations against a strong position with the forces immediately available. His most reliable troops were his two weak infantry brigades—the more experienced Maryland and Delaware veterans and the reconstituted Virginians—backed up by a small North Carolina militia contingent. Lacking heavy artillery—which were too difficult to bring along the wretched road network—Greene had no choice but to undertake formal siege operations by regular approaches.
After a hasty reconnaissance by his engineer, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, Greene—who was inexperienced in this type of operation—committed two errors right off the bat that would hobble the American siege. First, he directed his main effort against the strongest point of Cruger's defenses, the Star Redoubt, instead of against his water supply. Second, he started his works too close to the enemy's lines.
Cruger had seen Greene's scouts appear on 21 May and the main army arrive the next day to make camp at four points around his post. The morning of the 22d a rebel trench was seen a mere seventy yards away from the abatis that surrounded the Star. At 11 a.m. Cruger had completed construction of a gun platform on which his men had been working for several days. Covered by a surprise artillery fire from this platform and by small arms fire as well, Lieutenant John Roney sallied forth to wipe out the rebel work party. He was followed by militia and black laborers who filled in the trench and withdrew with the enemy's tools before Greene could react. It was a brilliant little coup, although Roney was mortally wounded.
The night of 23-24 May, Greene started his trenches a second time, at the respectable distance of four hundred yards. The defenders sent out raiding parties at night to interrupt this work, but by 3 June the second parallel of the formal siege's three-step approach was completed and the rebels were at about the point where Roney had scored his victory, some sixty yards from the Star Fort. Using the Fort Motte experience, Greene had also erected a Maham Tower. Cruger reacted by adding three feet of sandbags to the Star Fort but was unable to set the tower on fire with artillery hot shot. Greene now went through the formality of summoning the garrison to surrender, which Cruger refused, although he had already run out of fresh food and estimated that he only had a month's worth of supplies left. On the positive side, his losses to date had been insignificant and, unknown to the garrison, a powerful force of three fresh regiments from Ireland had just landed in Charleston to reinforce Rawdon.
As Greene's artillery raked the Star and the village from the completed portion of the approaches, work on the third and last leg of Kosciuszko's parallels went on night and day. Cruger ordered trenches dug for the protection of the refugees. When the attackers tried to set fire to the buildings with fire arrows, Cruger had the shingle roofs stripped off. When enemy artillery made the gun platform in the Star untenable during daylight, the defenders used them only at night.
On 8 June Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee arrived from the successful capture of Augusta with major reinforcements in the form of his Second Partisan Corps. The defenders had momentarily hoped this troop movement was Rawdon coming to their rescue, knowing neither that he had only set out from Charleston the day before nor that his relief column had to take a roundabout route to avoid being ambushed. Now, as part of Lee's force marched within artillery range of the fort with its prisoners from Fort Cornwallis at Augusta, Georgia, the Ninety Six garrison assumed that Greene was conducting psychological warfare. They particularly objected to the thought that the rebels were using prisoners to shield themselves from retaliatory fire. Henry Lee presented a different picture, saying that the officer commanding this detachment took the wrong road and was "very severely reprimanded by Lieutenant Colonel Lee, for the danger to which his inadvertence had exposed the corps."
Lee's reinforcements allowed Greene to begin additional siege operations from the north, correcting the flaws in his original attack plan by finally applying pressure against Fort Holmes with a view to cutting off the enemy's water supply. Although Lee said in his Memoirs that Kosciuszko's "blunders lost us Ninety Six" and comments on his failure to attack the water supply, Lee does not claim credit for proposing that his troops be assigned this mission; the historian Christopher Ward, on the other hand, has said in The War of the Revolution that Lee "immediately suggested" the plan, and others have echoed this opinion. (Most likely, the belief that Lee made the proposal is a logical assumption that just happens to be wrong, since false modesty was not one of Lee's character defects.)
Cruger continued to maintain an active defense, sending out frequent patrols under the cover of darkness to check on American activities and to try slowing down the siege by damaging the artillery and trenches. On the night of 9-10 June the defenders sent two raiding parties. One overran a four-gun battery but lacked the specialized equipment needed to spike the tubes and put them out of action; on the other hand, this party discovered the mouth of the mine that had been started north of the Star. The other group of raiders attacked the covering party in Lee's sector.
On 11 June, Greene got a message from Sumter saying that British reinforcements had reached Charleston and were marching to the relief of Ninety Six. He responded in two ways. First, he ordered Pickens and William Washington, with all his cavalry, to join Sumter and Marion in blocking this movement. Then he redoubled his efforts to reduce the little fortress. At 11 a.m. on the 12th, covered by "a dark, violent storm … from the west, without rain," a sergeant and nine privates of the Legion infantry crawled toward Fort Holmes in an attempt to set fire to the stockade; they were discovered in the act of starting the fire and the sergeant and five men were killed (Lee, op. cit., 373). But by the 17th the Americans were finally able to cut the garrison off from normal access to its water supply.
Cruger's hopes rebounded that same day, however, when the first messenger from Rawdon finally made it through the besiegers' lines. He reported that the relief column was on the march. Sumter had assumed that Rawdon would march by way of Fort Granby, and by trying to block that route he took himself out of position so that Rawdon slipped past the trap.
Greene now had three alternatives: give up the entire operation and retreat; move against Rawdon; or storm the fort before Rawdon could arrive, even though the parallels had not yet been completed. With only half the number of regular infantry as Rawdon, Greene adopted the third alternative. According to Lee, Greene probably would have retreated, but:
his soldiers, with one voice, entreated to be led against the fort. The American army having witnessed the unconquerable spirit which actuated their general … recollected, with pain and remorse, that by the misbehavior of one regiment at the battle of Guilford, and of another at Hobkirk's Hill, their beloved general had been deprived of his merited laurels; and they supplicated their officers to entreat their commander to give them now an opportunity of obliterating their former disgrace. This generous ardor could not be resisted by Greene.
A coordinated attack by Lee and Lieutenant Colonel Richard Campbell was to be made against Fort Holmes and the Star Redoubt, covered by an artillery barrage and snipers in the Maham Tower. The advance team, known in the era as the Forlorn Hope, was commanded by Captain Michael Rudolph on Lee's front and by Lieutenants Isaac Duval and Samuel Seldon on Campbell's. Another team, equipped with iron hooks on long poles to pull down the sandbags and fascines to bridge the ditch, followed the Forlorn Hope at the Star. Assault forces moved into position in the trenches at 11 a.m. on the 18th. A signal cannon fired at noon began the assault.
Rudolph fought his way into Fort Holmes, which was now lightly held; the rest of Lee's infantry and Kirkwood's company followed. Lee then awaited the outcome of Campbell's attack and prepared to attack across the stream. The assault groups of Duval and Seldon moved forward as planned. Axmen cut gaps through the abatis at two points; others used the fascines to fill in the ditch, and the men with the hooks began pulling down sandbags. Campbell's main body waited for the gaps to open while the remaining Virginia and Maryland Continentals fired by platoons from their trenches.
Cruger had chosen to mass his three small guns in an attempt to make them decisive, and he personally directed their fire. He first engaged Lee but then shifted the guns against Campbell with greater effect. The Star was defended by Major Green and 150 New York Loyalists. Seeing that passive measures would lead inevitably to defeat, he gambled and launched most of his men in a counterattack. Two thirty-man groups under Captains Thomas French and Peter Campbell exited from a sally port behind the Star, circled in opposite directions to the front, and attack the rebels who were in defilade in the ditch. American supporting fire prevented the defenders from engaging troops in the ditch by sweeping away anyone who exposed himself in an effort to lean over. This aggressive solution succeeded in defeating the Forlorn Hope in desperate hand-to-hand combat after both Duval and Seldon were disabled by wounds. At that point Campbell's attack failed and the men retreated. Forty-five minutes after it had begun, the assault was over.
Greene had been beaten again; although his men performed as well as any commander could ask, he, Kosciuszko, and Sumter had made too many mistakes against an enemy that was energetic and well-led. Lee's forces withdrew from Fort Holmes after dark, and Greene lifted the siege on the 19th. That day he fell back ten miles to put the Saluda River between his men and Rawdon. The cavalry rejoined him there, and the Americans then retreated in the direction of Charlotte, North Carolina, to begin refitting and preparing for their next mission. Rawdon reached Ninety Six the morning of the 21st, having marched almost two hundred miles under a blazing sun through desolated country with two thousand troops. After a dramatic welcome by Cruger and his garrison, Rawdon pursued Greene, but when he reached the Enoree River (about thirty miles northeast of Ninety Six), he received intelligence that convinced him he was too far behind and so returned to Ninety Six. In spite of Cruger's heroics, the strategic situation rendered Ninety Six untenable. Rawdon had no choice but to abandon the post and fall back toward Charleston, harassed by the American cavalry and militia. Marching back and forth caused particular suffering for his three new regiments (3d, 19th, and 30th Foot), which had just completed the arduous voyage from Ireland and had not yet acclimated themselves.
During the 28-day siege, the rebels lost 185 killed and wounded, according to Lee. Ward has said they lost 147: 57 killed, 70 wounded, and 20 missing. Cruger lost 27 killed and 58 wounded. Only one officer was killed on each side, Roney and George Armstrong (First Maryland).
The siege of Ninety Six marked the last gasp of the crown's southern strategy. Local Loyalist support had not been sufficient to exert a hold on the interior portions of Georgia or the Carolinas, and the ministry never had enough regular troops to commit to hold all of the ports and inland settlements. Greene's policy of preserving his main Southern Department force of Continentals and maneuvering it in a manner that tied up Rawdon's regulars, while at the same time using Lee and Washington to "stiffen" the southern partisans, succeeded. Although he never won a decisive battlefield victory, his subordinates systematically eliminated all of the outlying posts. The siege would also be Rawdon's last engagement before he started back to Britain (and was captured at sea).
SEE ALSO Augusta, Georgia (22 May-5 June 1781); Cruger, John Harris; De Lancey, James; Kosciuszko, Thaddeus Andrzej Bonawentura; Lee, Henry ("Light-Horse Harry"); Marion, Francis; Monck's Corner, South Carolina; Pickens, Andrew; Rawdon-Hastings, Francis; Southern Campaigns of Nathanael Greene; Sumter, Thomas; Washington, William.
Bass, Robert D. Ninety-Six: The Struggle for the South Carolina Backcountry. Lexington, S.C.: Sandlapper Store, 1978.
Cann, Marvin L. "War in the Backcountry: The Siege of Ninety Six, May 22-June 19, 1781." South Carolina Historical Magazine 72 (January 1971): 1-14.
Lee, Henry. Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States. 1827. Revised edition. New York: University Publishing, 1869.
Ward, Christopher. War of the Revolution. New York: Macmillan, 1852.
revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.