The Siege of Ninety Six was a siege late in the American Revolutionary War. From May 22 to June 18, 1781, Continental Army Major General Nathanael Greene led 1,000 troops in a siege against the 550 Loyalists in the fortified village of Ninety Six, South Carolina. The 28-day siege centered on an earthen fortification known as Star Fort. Despite having more troops, Greene was unsuccessful in taking the town, and was forced to lift the siege when Lord Rawdon approached from Charleston with British troops.
The British Army's "southern strategy" for winning the American Revolutionary War hit a stumbling block in March 1781, when General Lord Cornwallis defeated Continental Army General Nathanael Greene at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in Greensboro, North Carolina. In spite of being victorious, Cornwallis 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, a number of British outposts in the backcountry of South Carolina fell or were abandoned to Patriot forces. By mid-May, the only places with significant British influence in the state were at Ninety Six, in the northwestern part of the state, and the port of Charleston nearly 200 miles southeast on the coast.
The British outpost at Ninety Six was garrisoned by 550 experienced Loyalists formed into Provincial regiments (regular army troops that 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.
Greene and about 1,000 men arrived outside Ninety Six on May 22, the same day that Andrew Pickens and Henry "Light-horse Harry" Lee began to besiege nearby Augusta, Georgia. They immediately began siege operations, targeting the Star Fort, under their chief engineer, the Pole Col. Thaddeus Kosciuszko. 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, not only did he drive the workers away but he also captured some of the digging tools.
By June 3 Greene's men had a trench within 30 yards (27 m) of the Star Fort. They then used a tactic similar to one used by Gen. Marion to capture Fort Watson, whereby they constructed a wooden Maham Tower, about 30 feet (9.1 m) 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 Riflemen 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 the parapet, giving enough cover so his own marksmen could fire on the tower through slats in between the bags. He also attempted to set the tower on fire with heated shot, but was unable to get the balls hot enough for this to be effective. The attackers then fired flaming arrows into the fort (a tactic that had worked when Fort Motte was captured), in order to set anything flammable within the fort on fire. Cruger had work crews remove the roofs off the buildings in the fort to prevent them from burning.
On June 7 Lord Rawdon left Charleston with 2,000 men to relieve the siege. The next day, Pickens and Lee arrived, having successfully captured Augusta on June 6. Greene did not learn of Rawdon's move until June 11. With the situation becoming critical, Greene decided to attempt 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's plan of attack was 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 were able to pull 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 (48 km) away, Greene called off the assault and ordered a retreat.
Greene's losses amounted to 150 men, while Cruger's 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 took their toll. The force was recalled to Ninety Six, which Rawdon then abandoned.
General 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. Lee, writing in his memoirs, singled out Col. Kosciuszko for much of the defeat. This may be due to the engineer's mistake of beginning 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 for the siege to work. Though these issues did indeed contribute 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 may well have succeeded.
Regardless of the spread of blame, 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, but failed once again because of Sumter's and Marion's apparent 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, the last major battle in the South, on September 8, 1781.
Ninety Six National Historic Site was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1973.
The Loyalists who were saved in the siege eventually settled in the Rawdon, Nova Scotia. They named the township after Lord Rawdon for rescuing them.
- Pancake, p. 213
- Pancake, John (1985). This Destructive War. University of Alabama Press. ISBN 0-8173-0191-7.
- Morrill, Dan (1993). Southern campaigns of the American Revolution. Nautical & Aviation Publishing. ISBN 1-877853-21-6.
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