This week marks the 235th anniversary of one of the most protracted, yet forgotten, battles of the American Revolution: the siege of Ninety Six.
It is late spring 1781. At this point in The War of Independence, the Americans had been defeated in a series of major battles in the South, but their strategy was taking a toll on the British. The Americans had been defeated at Guilford Courthouse and Hobkirk’s Hill, but the British ceded key territory to the Patriots. The British controlled a series of outposts that stretched across the state of South Carolina – the Patriots reduced them, methodically, one at a time. General Nathanael Greene had split his forces, sending small groups under the command of Francis Marion, Thomas Sumter, and Harry Lee to mop up the outposts at Fort Motte, Granby, Watson, and Orangeburg. Now, the only major exterior British posts remaining were at Ninety Six in South Carolina and Augusta in Georgia; although, the Redcoats still retained control of Charleston and Savannah. The Americans were winning strategically, forcing the British to abandon their outposts and lose influence and control over territory, as well as over the Loyalist population that they were trying to protect and maintain on the side of the Crown. The British were forced to retreat and retrench farther toward their main base in Charleston.
In late May, Greene and the main American army set out to take Ninety Six. The story of their siege on this British outpost is recounted in a new bestselling book, Washington’s Immortals, which chronicles the efforts of the elite troops of Maryland, some of whom played a key role at the fort. This unique book is the first Band of Brothers treatment of the American Revolution, capturing the most important elements of nearly every significant battle of The War of Independence.
Reportedly named because it was ninety-six miles from the Indian settlement at Keowee, an important trading post, the town of Ninety Six, South Carolina, was home to a garrison of around 550 Loyalist troops. The British fortifications included a palisade wall surrounded by a deep ditch and an abatis, a row of sharpened logs constructed to deflect an attack – the eighteenth-century equivalent to razor wire. To the west, newly erected defenses protected Ninety Six’s water supply. To the east was the Star Fort, an impressive works with sharp angles designed to maximize the defenders’ line of fire and prevent assault parties from approaching the fort’s walls. A trio of three-pound guns was also on hand to shower an attacking Patriot force with lead and iron.
To assault the fort, Greene brought with him about 800 Maryland and Delaware Continentals, plus approximately two hundred militiamen. The Patriots outnumbered the Loyalists nearly two to one, but given the strength of the defenses at Ninety Six, Greene felt that his troops were insufficient for a direct assault. Instead, they settled in to lay siege to the town. Assisting Greene in planning was his Polish chief engineer, Thaddeus Kosciuszko.
Born in 1746 in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (now Belarus), Kosciuszko graduated from a military academy before traveling to France to study drawing, painting, and architecture. In 1776, he sailed to America to aid the Patriot cause, and the Continental Congress soon put his civil engineering skills to use.
Inexperienced in siege warfare, Greene first directed Kosciuszko to begin digging entrenchments about seventy yards from the Star Fort. The Loyalists soon moved one of the three-pounders into position and began to fire a devastating cannonade. Supported by this covering fire, Loyalists sallied forth and pounced on the Patriot working party constructing the trench, putting them to the bayonet.
Stung by this first failure, Greene moved his sappers back hundreds of yards from the Star, and again began digging parallel trenches designed to get them closer to the walls of the fort. It took days to get back to the point where they had first begun digging. The fort’s defenders became masters of the counterattack, and the excavation parties were frequently interrupted by sorties from the strongpoint – even Kosciuszko was bayonetted (in the buttock) during one of the counterattacks. Despite the Loyalists’ seemingly relentless assaults, the Patriots persisted, and their entrenchments inched closer to the fort.
Greene’s men continued digging until they were within thirty yards of the walls, where they constructed a Maham tower. A tactic first attempted at the earlier successful siege of Fort Watson, the Maham was a log tower that lifted riflemen up high enough to shoot over the fort walls, while providing cover from incoming fire. Ordinarily, the tower would have allowed Greene’s riflemen to shoot down into the fort, but the Loyalists inside countered the threat by piling sandbags on top of their existing fortifications, leaving slits through which they could fire back at the Patriots. They also attempted to set the tower on fire by launching heated cannonballs—but to no avail, as the tower was constructed of green wood. In response, the Patriots shot flaming arrows into the town, forcing those inside to tear the roofs off all the buildings within. As June progressed, the scene was beginning to look more desperate for the besieged; the Loyalists were now so harried by Greene’s men that they could counterattack only at night.
Next, Kosciuszko went medieval on the Star Fort and began constructing a massive siege tunnel or mine. He planned to place explosives under the fort to breach its walls. Patriot sappers’ pickaxes and shovels bit into the earth, tunneling 125 feet from the Patriot lines toward the Star Fort.
Greene also ordered an attack on the water supply—a small creek on the west side of the town – impeding the Tories’ access to water. They sent slaves to the creek under the cover of darkness, but the supplies they were able to bring back could not satisfy the needs of the town. Still, the tenacious Loyalists held on.
In early June, a messenger brought Greene the unwelcome news that two thousand British reinforcements, led by Lieutenant Colonel Francis, Lord Rawdon, were on their way to Ninety Six.
Several days later, a Loyalist messenger casually approached the town on horseback. He chatted easily with Greene’s forces, posing as a friendly local, merely curious about the standoff. In this manner, the messenger gradually made his way toward the front lines, where he suddenly spurred his horse and took off, galloping directly toward the gate, while shouting and waving a letter above his head. Somehow, the messenger managed to evade fire and make it safely behind the walls of the fort. Almost immediately, the Loyalists let out a great cry of celebration, and the sound of a feu de joie was heard from within the fort, sending the Patriots a clear message that the Redcoat reinforcements were on their way.
Now nearly out of time, Greene had all but depleted his options. He first attempted to set the fort on fire, but the Loyalists discovered his plan and thwarted the effort. With British reinforcements arriving any day, and just thirty feet from their goal, the Patriots were unable to complete Kosciuszko’s tunnel. Today, the partially brick-lined, three-and-a-half-foot-tall mine is the only military tunnel from the American Revolution still in existence.
Exhausting all of his options, Greene devised plans for an assault on both sides of the fortifications. It would be an all-out attack whose impact could be momentous.
Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of ten books. Washington’s Immortals is his newest book. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah (We Were One — selected for the USMC Commandant’s Professional Reading List) and speaks often on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and for documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickKODonnell.com @combathistorian