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American Revolutionary War Battles

The Battle of Ninety-Six (Second)

May 22-June 9, 1781 at Greenwood County, South Carolina

Battle Summary

The Siege of Ninety Six was a siege in western South Carolina in the fortified village of Ninety Six. The 28-day siege centered on an earthen fortification known as Star Fort. Despite having more troops, Major General Nathanael Greene was unsuccessful in taking the town, and was forced to lift the siege when Lord Rawdon approached from Charleston with British troops.

Facts about the Battle of Ninety-Six (Second)

  • Armies - American Forces was commanded by Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Greene and consisted of 1,000 Soldiers. British Forces was commanded by Lt. Col. John Harris and consisted of unknown number of Soldiers.
  • Casualties - American casualties were estimated to be 150 killed/wounded. British casualties were about 85 killed/wounded.
  • Outcome - The result of the battle was a Loyalist victory. The battle was part of the Southern Theater 1775-82.
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Prelude

The British Army's "southern strategy" for winning the Revolutionary War, which had been successful in taking Charleston and winning submission of much of South Carolina and Georgia, hit a stumbling block in March 1781, after Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis defeated Greene at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in Greensboro, North Carolina. Cornwallis had suffered significant casualties and subsequently moved his army to Wilmington, North Carolina. Greene, whose army was still largely intact after that battle, took advantage of Cornwallis' move to march into South Carolina and begin operations to eliminate the British from that state.

With the assistance of militia commanders Thomas Sumter, Francis Marion, and Andrew Pickens, the Patriot forces took a number of British outposts in the backcountry of South Carolina; others were abandoned to them. By mid-May, the only places in the state with significant British garrisons were Ninety Six, in the northwestern part of the state, and the port of Charleston, nearly 200 miles southeast on the Atlantic coast.

Battle Begins

The British outpost at Ninety Six was garrisoned by 550 experienced Loyalists, such as De Lancey's Brigade, formed into Provincial regiments (regular army troops who had been recruited from Loyalists in New York, New Jersey, and South Carolina) under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Cruger. Occupied by the British since 1780, the defenses consisted of a palisade surrounded by a deep ditch and abatis (felled trees with sharpened branches facing out).

A large redoubt called the Star Fort provided a place for defenders to enfilade attackers on two of the stockade walls, and a smaller redoubt provided similar cover for the remaining walls and the water supply. Cruger had three small (three pound) field pieces.

On May 22, Greene and about 1,000 men arrived outside Ninety Six, the same day that Brigadier General Andrew Pickens and Colonel Henry "Light-horse Harry" Lee began to besiege nearby Augusta, Georgia. They immediately began siege operations, targeting the Star Fort, under their chief engineer, Colonel Thaddeus Kosciuszko of Poland. Cruger did what he could to interfere with the siege works, frequently sending out parties at night to harass the workers. In one notable incident, his forces drove the workers away and captured some of their digging tools.

By June 3, Greene's men had dug a trench within 30 yards of the Star Fort. They used a tactic similar to one used by Gen. Marion to capture Fort Watson, whereby they constructed a wooden Maham Tower, about 30 feet tall, with a protected platform at the top. Under this elevated cover, American sharpshooters would have a clear firing line into the fort. At first, the crack snipers in the tower were able to pick off a number of Cruger's artillerymen.

Cruger quickly countered by using sandbags to raise the height of his parapet, giving enough cover so his own marksmen could fire on the tower through slats between the bags. He also tried to set the tower on fire with heated shot, but was unable to get the balls hot enough. The attackers fired flaming arrows into the fort, in order to set anything flammable within the fort on fire. Cruger had work crews remove the roofs from the buildings in the fort to prevent them from burning.

On June 7, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Rawdon left Charleston with 2,000 British forces to relieve the siege.

On June 8, Pickens and Lee arrived, having successfully captured Augusta. Greene did not learn of Rawdon's move until June 11. With the situation becoming critical, Greene decided to try an assault on the fort. (Cruger learned of Rawdon's approach the next day when the messenger, posing as a Patriot, got close enough to the fort to race the remaining distance on his horse.)

Greene planned to have one party capture the smaller redoubt, while a larger attack force went after the Star Fort, where some men would pull down the sandbags to expose the defenders to fire from the tower. When the attack began on June 18, all went to plan at first—the smaller redoubt was taken, and men successfully penetrated the abatis and pulled down the sandbags.

At this point, Cruger launched a counterstrike with a pair of sorties to strike at the flanks of the attacking party. In a fierce battle dominated by bayonets and the use of muskets as clubs, the leaders of the attack were killed and their men forced to retreat back to their trenches. With the failure of the attack, and Rawdon only 30 miles away, Greene called off the assault and ordered a retreat.

Before the formal siege operations could be completed, news of an approaching British relief force heading towards Ninety-Six was given to Greene. He was persuaded to make an unsuccessful assault against the post. When the British relief force arrived, Greene had no choice but to withdraw because of being in the face of a superior British force.

Kirkwood: “22nd {May] This Day Crossed the Saluda. Surprised a party of Tories within sight of Nienty Six, Killed four, Spent the day in reconnoitering the Garrison, which was commanded by Col. Cruger. Marched ….9 [miles]."

At Night were employed in raising a three Gun Battery, about 130 yards from their works and under a Scatering Fire from the Enemy all night.”

Seymour. "Next day, being the twenty-second, we crossed at Island Ford, and encamped before Ninety-Six. Nine miles. This day we took and killed eleven of the Tories in their encampment. We were employed this night and the next day in making breast-works and batteries before the town."

MacKenzie: "By eleven o'clock in the morning of the 22d of May, the platform in the salient angle of the Star, nearest to the Americans, was completed, and mounted with guns, to fire en barbet. These, with incessant platoons of musquetry, played on the works constructed by the enemy the preceding night, under cover of which, thirty men, marching in Indian-file, entered them, and put every man they could reach to the bayonet. This party was immediately followed by another of the loyal militia, who, in an instant, levelled those works, and loaded a number of negroes with the entrenching tools of the Americans.

Though General Greene put his whole army in motion to support the advanced corps, they were intirely routed before he could effect his design. The handful of brave men that performed this service, retired into the Star, without any loss, excepting that of the officer who led them, Lieutenant Roney. He was mortally wounded, and died the following night, much esteemed, and justly lamented."

Aftermath

Greene's losses amounted to 150 men, while Cruger's casualties were under 100. Greene retreated toward Charlotte, North Carolina, allowing Rawdon to join forces with Cruger. Rawdon sent a sizable force after Greene, but heat and the toll of the long forced marches slowed them. The force was recalled to Ninety Six, which Rawdon then abandoned.

Greene blamed the failure of the operations against Ninety Six in part on Sumter and Marion, who failed to act in support of his operations in a timely manner. Later, other officers blamed Greene and Lee for failing to cut off the defenders' water supply at the Spring Branch.

Writing in his memoirs, Lee singled out Kosciuszko for much of the defeat. He believed the engineer began the first parallel too close to the Star Fort, as well as underestimating the lengthy amount of time his undermanned and ill-equipped sappers needed to excavate the rock-hard soil enough to make a trench to support the siege. Though these issues contributed to the failure of the operation as a whole, Greene commended Kosciuszko's efforts in carrying out his orders, noting that given more time, his chief engineer's plan might well have succeeded.

When Greene learned of Rawdon's retreat from Ninety Six, he tried to pull all of the elements of the Patriot military forces together to attack Rawdon before he reached Charleston. He failed because of Sumter's and Marion's apparently tardy movements. Greene rested his men for most of July and August in the High Hills of the Santee before engaging the British again outside Charleston at Eutaw Springs on September 8, in the last major battle in the South.