In 1779 and early 1780, the British mounted their southern strategy against the rebelling colonies: Capture Georgia, then South and North Carolina, and then on to Virginia and the war would be over. Georgia was conquered, and on May 12, 1780, Gen. Benjamin Lincoln surrendered his 5,000-man American Army to Gen. Sir Henry Clinton and his British forces. South Carolina's civil government collapsed when most of the leaders fled, were made prisoner or took the oath of allegiance to the crown. Clinton sent swift-riding bands of Red Coats into all of South Carolina and occupied every post of strategic value. Key among these was Ninety Six. The British aim was to give their Loyalists time to organize. Gen. Charles Cornwallis became the British southern commander.
When the British occupied Ninety Six, they made it into one of the best-fortified forts in the southern back country. It was an important link in a chain of posts because it protected the Loyalist elements in the neighborhood. It also kept a check on the Patriot settlements to the west, and the fort was in a position to maintain communications with the Cherokees, who favored the British. The fort also served as an excellent recruiting station for Loyalists in the area.
The village already had a stockade, but it offered little or no protection against a fully equipped army. So the garrison set about making it impregnable. The stockade, which had surrounded the village, now was protected by the digging of a deep ditch with an abatis (chopped-down trees piled on top of each other, the branches toward the attackers and the dirt from the ditch's evacuation piled up outside to form a high bank). At the eastern end of the village stockade, connected with it but lying outside the enclosure, was erected a strong star redoubt of large size. The Star Fort had 16 salient and re-entering angles, as well as a dry ditch and an abatis.
On the western end of the village was a large spring from which a creek ran down a gully. This was the only water supply for the town, and in order to protect it, the jail, which was within the stockade on the west corner, had been fortified. On the western bank of the gully, the British also had constructed a small but heavily palisaded fort, called Holmes' Fort, containing two blockhouses. This fortification was connected with the main stockade by a covered walkway.
All of the fortifications had been built by an able British engineer, Lt. Henry Haldane, an aide to Cornwallis. When the garrison heard of the approach of Gen. Greene, they immediately set to work, "officers cheerfully sharing in the labor with the common soldiers" to get the fort in shape to withstand a siege.
The garrison of the fort, manned entirely by Loyalists, consisted of 150 men of the 2nd Battalion of the Loyalists of New York, a brigade raised by Gen. Oliver De Lancey, a man of wealth and social position in that state. They sometimes were dubbed De Lancey's Brigade. Two hundred more men, the 2nd Battalion of New Jersey Volunteers, were also present, as were 200 South Carolina Tory militia commanded by Col. Richard King. Commanding the fort was Lt. Col. John Harris Cruger, a native of New York and son-in-law of De Lancey. He was an able and energetic officer, and he and his men, in active service since the beginning of the Revolution, were now "perhaps equal to any troops" in America.
Besides the garrison, there were a considerable number of Tory civilians who had sought refuge on hearing of the approach of the American army.
Cruger had ample supplies and provisions and had three small pieces of artillery mounted on wheel carriages. The Achilles heel was the British soldiers' water supply; it could be captured, and there was no water within the village. Cruger had tried unsuccessfully to dig a well.
By the middle of 1781, the British had begun to lose or evacuate their posts in the back country. Lord Rawdon (Francis Hastings, who had seen a great deal of action at Bunker Hill, Monmouth, White Pines and Long Island, was anything but handsome and has been called the "ugliest man in England"), Cornwallis' successor in South Carolina as commander, gave up Camden in May. Orangeburg surrendered to Gen. Thomas Sumter. Gen. Francis Marion and Lt. Col. Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee captured Fort Motte. Augusta was captured on June 5. In the entire back country, only Ninety Six remained in British hands. So Gen. Nathaniel Greene, American commander of the Southern Department, decided to attack it. For a month (May 22-June 19, 1781), the Americans engaged in a useless and unsuccessful siege.
GREENE'S ARMY - it hardly could be called that - consisted of fewer than 1,000 men (even though sources written after the Revolution suggested the number was 4,000). He had two regiments of Maryland and Delaware Continentals consisting of some 427 men fit for duty. To these could be added 431 men of the Virginia Brigade, plus a North Carolina battalion of 66 men and 60 of Capt. Kirkwood's light infantry.
Greene and his advance group appeared before the fort on the evening of May 22, and his main forces arrived the next day. The Americans set up their camp in the woods near the four corners of the fort. Unfortunately for Greene, he had no battering cannon, and after seeing how strong the fort was, he knew he must besiege it in the classic manner - by parallel approaches (trenches approaching a fortification by a series of zig-zags).
Greene immediately turned over the direction of the siege to Col. Count Thaddeus Kosciusko, a fairly successful military engineer. Acting rather disdainful of the garrison inside, the Pole began digging the parallels within 200 feet of the Star Redoubt. He instead should have concentrated on the water supply, the only vulnerable part of the fort. Lee took Kosciusko to task in his memoirs after the war when he said, "He was very moderate in talent" and "his blunders lost us Ninety Six."
Cruger, watching the Americans, placed his three cannon on a platform in the salient of the star nearest the American trenches, and by noon of the next day had manned his parapet with infantry. Thirty men under the command of Lt. Roney sallied out of the star, attacked the besiegers and bayoneted all who got in the way, destroying the American works. Some of the slaves from the fort captured the "entrenching tools." All of the Tory raiding party returned to the fort before an American rescue unit could reach the scene. The only casualty suffered by the Loyalists was the death of Lt. Roney.
Kosciusko, learning his lesson of digging too close to the fort, now began a series of parallels 1,200 feet from the star. Day and night the American digging went on, interrupted only by Cruger's sallying forces to harass Greene's engineers. By June 3, the second parallel had been completed, and Greene called on Cruger to surrender. The Loyalist commander replied:
I am honored with your letter of this day intimating Major General Greene's immediate demand of the surrender of his Majesty's garrison at Ninety Six; a compliance with which my duty to my Sovereign renders inadmissible at present.
Kosciusko also decided to dig a tunnel (the jargon of the day called it a "mine") toward the star from the north, with the intent of blowing up the Star Redoubt. But the tunnel trick did not succeed because it did not come close enough to the fort and was discovered by the Tories.
While the men were digging the parallels near the star, Greene directed his artillery in a constant crossfire on the fort. He also began constructing a Mahan tower. Named after Maj. Hezekiah Mahan of Marion's Brigade, this was a log tower higher than the fort, from which sharpshooters could fire down into the star. When the third parallel was complete, the tower, about 40 feet high, was placed 40 yards from the abatis around the star. But the fort's commander answered the challenge by putting sandbags on his parapet, leaving an opening between each bag so sharpshooters could operate. Thus, the tower was rendered useless for the time being.
Greene next tried to burn the star out by firing hot shot into the fort, but he did not have facilities to make the balls hot enough to set fire to the wooden timbers. Then the Patriots tried fire arrows, shot by muskets, but this danger was thwarted when Cruger "directed all the buildings to be unroofed," though it exposed the garrison to "the bad effects of the night air."
On June 8, Col. Lee and his legion arrived in the American camp, fresh from capturing Augusta. After surveying the siege, Lee told Greene the fort could be captured by going after its water supply. Greene gave him permission to dig his own parallels toward the small outside stockade. Lee erected a battery of one gun to cover the American diggers. Cruger hindered Lee by sending out nightly sallies, which resulted in fierce and bloody combat.
BY JUNE 11, Gen. Sumter had sent Greene a dispatch that carried a copy of an early June issue of the Royal Gazette, published in Charles Town, to the effect:
We have the happiness to congratulate our readers on the safe arrival of a large fleet from Corke with a powerful reinforcement for the Royal Army. They came to anchor this afternoon off our bar. Mr. Greene, we are well assured, lately took occasion to announce in general orders to the army that the fleet above mentioned had been captured by the French.
Sumter further stated that Rawdon was on his way to relieve Ninety Six. Greene sent a message to Sumter to delay Rawdon, if possible, and ordered Pickens and his militia forces to reinforce Sumter. Greene also sent a message to Marion to join Sumter in delaying Rawdon's march. Despite his orders to Sumter and Marion, Greene began to despair of reducing Ninety Six "to submission before Rawdon's arrival."
Greene tried for a third time to burn the fort out. This time, an American sergeant with nine men, crawling on their bellies at night under the cover of an approaching storm, tried to fire the fort. But the sergeant was discovered in the act of setting the fire, and he and five of his men were killed; the other four made it safely back to their lines.
Only Lee and his men had any success. On June 12, the Loyalist garrison of Holmes' Fort had to evacuate their position, when deadly fire from Lee's Legion rendered it untenable. Ninety Six's water supply was partially cut off. The only way the fort could get water was at night, by sending out naked African-Americans "whose bodies in the darkness were not distinguishable from the trees surrounding" the fort.
On June 17, an incident occurred that brought new hope to the Loyalists. A man on horseback, riding hard, was observed being chased and shot at by Patriots. Putting spurs to his horse, the rider made straight for the gates of the fort and, safe inside, gave Cruger an oral message from Rawdon, informing him a relief force was on its way. Cruger, with this knowledge, fought all the harder.
Rawdon had been at Monck's Corner, about 30 miles from Charles Town, when he heard of the arrival of fresh British troops on June 3. Going immediately to Charles Town, he picked up the new troops and by the 7th was on his way to relieve Ninety Six. In his force were the 3rd, the 19th and the 30th British regiments. At Monck's Corner he picked up his own troops. With these, his force numbered about 2,000 men, including 150 horsemen.
It was 200 miles from Monck's Corner to Ninety Six, and in order to avoid Sumter, the British commander went to the right. By the time Rawdon's message reached Cruger, he was only 30 miles away. Now Greene must act.
THERE WERE TO BE two simultaneous assaults on the fort. At the star, Lt. Col. Richard Campbell of the 1st Virginia Regiment, with a detachment of Virginia and Maryland Continentals, stood ready. The third parallel had been completed, and two trenches had almost reached the ditch surrounding the fort. Fascines (bundles of sticks tied together and used for filling ditches to permit the passage of troops) were ready, as were long poles with iron hooks, which were to be used to pull down the sandbags from the parapet. The storming party, led by lieutenants Duval of Maryland and Seldon of Virginia, included axmen who would cut through the abatis. Following them would be the hook-men. Bringing up the rear would be the main force, which would swarm out of the trenches and over the stockade.
The first attack would come from the west, where Lee's infantry and Kirkwood's light troops were to enter the town from that quarter. The assault group was to be led by Capt. John Rudulph.
With the firing of the second gun at noon on June 18, Rudulph and his men gained the ditch, with the rest of the force close on his heels. They got into the fort, the Loyalists retreating. Once inside, Lee's men waited for news of the success of Campbell's attack on the star before entering the village.
At the Star Redoubt, Greene's small battery began the bombardment of the fort. With Greene's infantry firing by platoons, the sharp-shooters in the tower were keeping up a constant fire on the parapet; Duval and Seldon with their assault force left the third parallel and ran to attack the abatis at two different points. The axmen followed them, hacked through and entered the ditch, with the hookmen close behind. The parapet bristled with pikes and bayonets, but they could not reach the Americans, because they would in turn be picked off by the American sharpshooters in the tower.
The hookmen went to work on the sandbags, pulling them into the ditch. If they could clear a space, Campbell and his men could leave their trenches and fight hand-to-hand inside the stockade. But Maj. Greene, who commanded 150 men in the star, did not wait to be attacked. He resorted to drastic action.
With 60 men, divided into two equal parties commanded by captains French of the De Lanceys and Campbell of the New Jerseys, they ran out of the sally port at the rear of the star and fell upon the axmen and hookmen with their bayonets. There was much hard fighting in a small space, and when Duval and Seldon were wounded, the surviving Americans retreated back to their lines, leaving two-thirds of their attacking party killed and wounded.
Greene, appalled at the slaughter of his men, called a retreat. He also ordered Lee, who chafed to enter the town, to merely hold the stockade. Then Greene called for a cease fire to bury the dead. But Cruger refused, saying the victor, whoever he may be, could attend to that task.
Greene decided the capture of the fort was doubtful before the arrival of Rawdon, and not wanting to sacrifice any more men, he ordered a general retreat. After a 27-day attack, the siege was ended. The Continentals had lost 185 killed or wounded, while the Loyalists had lost 27 killed and 48 wounded. Capt. George Armstrong of the Maryland line was shot through the head during the assault of June 18. He was the only Ameri-can officer killed, while Lt. Roney was the only enemy officer killed.
The defense by the Tories at Ninety Six was in vain, for on July 3, Rawdon evacuated the fort and burned the village. The Patriots, unable to seize the fort by direct assault, now won it by default.