235 years ago this Father’s Day week, another generation of Americans fought for our nation’s future in a place called Ninety Six, South Carolina. This forgotten siege and desperate assault on a British-held fort, at a moment when the outcome of the Revolution was far from certain, captures the essence of who we are as Americans.
The story of this nearly unknown battle 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 Ninety Six. This unique book is the first Band of Brothers treatment of the American Revolution, detailing the most important elements of nearly every significant battle of The War of Independence.
The siege of Ninety Six began in May 1781. American General Nathanael Greene was in the process of methodically defeating British outposts the Crown had garrisoned to control South Carolina. About 550 Loyalists manned the British fortifications at Ninety Six, which 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. The position seemed impregnable to Greene’s lightly armed troops.
The American force included about 800 Maryland and Delaware Continentals, plus approximately two hundred militiamen. They surrounded Ninety Six and began digging trenches in an effort to get closer to the walls. The Patriots also attempted a tactic that had been successful in other sieges, building a Maham tower to shoot over the walls into the town. But the Loyalists successfully turned back both attacks.
Greene tried several more tactics: attacking the town’s water supply, attempting to set the town on fire, and even constructing a tunnel underneath its walls. But time was running out. On June 17, a Loyalist messenger brought the besieged garrison the news that two thousand British reinforcements were on their way to Ninety Six. The Loyalists cheered, knowing that they only had to stand firm for a few more days.
The Patriot tunnel had nearly reached its goal but was still yards short of the Star Fort, and the Americans simply did not have sufficient time to complete it. Out of options, Greene decided to gamble everything on an all-out assault.
At noon on June 18, the Patriots fired a signal gun. Men in the trenches and in the wooden Maham tower they had constructed outside the fort began to fire, as small groups of men raced towards the Star Fort. Known as a “Forlorn Hope” because their chance of survival was so low, this brave group of men attacked the abatises with their axes. The teams consisted entirely of volunteers, “desperadoes led by officers of distinguished merit.” The most ardent Patriots volunteered to be part of the Forlorn Hope, which they considered such an honorable post that volunteers sometimes drew lots to determine who would join. On this day, the men of the Forlorn Hope worked to cut through the sharpened logs while under fire from the Loyalists in the fort—practically a suicide mission.
In the wake of the Forlorn Hope came a second group of men armed with hooked poles. Their goal was to pull down the sandbags that topped the fort’s walls, making it easier for the men in the towers to pick off defenders inside. With the sandbags out of the way, and with the benefit of the covering fire from the tower, the plan called for the Forlorn Hope to scale the walls and take the fight inside the fortifications.
For forty-five minutes, the men fought in the trenches breaking through the abatis, as the hookmen struggled to pull down the sandbags and breach the Star Fort’s walls. The Patriots surged forward toward the town “amid the thunder and smoke” from the firing weapons. Taking advantage of the Star Fort’s angles and loopholes, the Loyalists poured rifle fire on them from every direction. And for those who dared attempt to scale the walls, the enemy was waiting with a deadly array of pikes and bayonets.
American officers and men fell on every side. Captain Armstrong of the 1st Maryland Regiment was killed, and numerous others, including Captain Perry Benson and Lieutenant Samuel Selden, were wounded. Benson might have perished had it not been for Thomas Carney, an African American veteran who threw Benson over his shoulder and carried him to the surgeon. Carney, an unsung hero of the Revolution, bayonetted five British soldiers at Guilford Courthouse and had fought in numerous battles with the Maryland Line since 1777. The two men developed a lifelong friendship.
Selden’s arm wound required amputation. The accepted remedy of the time was for the surgeon to amputate the arm while his assistants held down the patient. But Selden refused to be restrained, choosing instead to hold his own doomed limb steady. “To this end Selden would not submit. It was his right arm he was about to lose. He sustained it with his left during the operation, his eyes fixed steadily upon it, nor uttered a word, till the saw reached the marrow, when in a composed tone and manner he said, ‘I pray you, Doctor, be quick.’”
In all, 127 of Greene’s men had been killed or wounded, and another twenty were missing. With British reinforcements now just thirty miles away, Greene had no choice but to abandon the siege on June 19. Morale among the Patriot troops fell to an all-time low with their failure to capture Ninety Six. “Greene alone preserved his equanimity; and highly pleased by the unshaken courage displayed in the assault, announced his grateful sense of the conduct of the troops.”
Citizen-soldiers – amateurs – fought and sacrificed their lives and fortunes at places such as Ninety Six to battle the most formidable army in the world. Over the course of a brutally long eight year conflict that pitted brother against brother in America’s first civil war, Washington’s Immortals fought and marched 4,600 miles (in a two-and-a-half year period alone!), bloody and barefoot, often unpaid, underequipped, and poorly fed, sacrificing themselves for an unknown and uncertain future. Tenacious and stalwart, even in the dark days of defeat, these citizen-soldiers prevailed.
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 bestselling book, featured for Father’s Day at Barnes & Noble. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah, and was nearly killed by Chechen terrorists during a firefight. 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