Following the epic battle of Guilford Courthouse on March 15, 1781, General Nathanael Greene reentered South Carolina to liberate the state from British occupation. His Southern army included a core backbone of elite troops from Maryland and Delaware who were known as “Washington’s Immortals.”
Before the battle, Cornwallis had moved his army north towards Virginia, while Greene quickly returned to South Carolina, where he hoped to destroy the British, who had various outposts scattered throughout the state. By cutting off certain chokepoints, he could put his enemy out of supply.
A key link in this chain of outposts was Fort Watson, located near present-day Summerton, South Carolina. Fort Watson seemed impregnable. Earlier American attacks against the fort had failed.
Augusta had been taken by Southern Loyalists under Lt. Col. Thomas Brown in 1780. When threatened by Patriot forces early in 1781, he had built a bastioned fort of earth and logs on the site of the earlier Fort Augusta. Named after Lord Cornwallis, the British commander in the South, the fort was supported by two smaller outposts: Fort Grierson about one-half mile away and the stockaded home of Loyalist trader George Galphin about 12 miles away. The Siege of Augusta began in a small way on April 16, 1781. The famed Georgia leader Elijah Clarke had contracted smallpox and was sick in camp, so Lt. Col. Micajah Williamson assumed command of his force of militiamen. In company with the forces of Colonels John Baker and LeRoy Hammond, he arrived outside Augusta on April 16. Williamson and the militiamen fortified a position on the outskirts of Augusta and hovered around the city, taking occasional shots at the Loyalists holding Fort Cornwallis and Fort Grierson.
The arrival of the Patriot militia from the back-country created alarm in Augusta, where their forces were greatly over-estimated. Col. Brown sent out a call for help and Loyalist militia companies from elsewhere began a march to his relief. To prevent support from reaching Augusta from the British ost of Ninety Six in South Carolina, General Andrew Pickens placed himself between the two points with 400 men.
Colonel Clarke recovered sufficiently from his smallpox by May that he arrived in Augusta with 100 additional men and assumed personal command of the Patriots there. The siege now began in earnest.
At the same time, General Nathaniel Greene of the Continental forces was moving to lay siege on Ninety Six. Hoping to eliminate Augusta in the meantime, he ordered the famed Patriot horseman “Lighthorse” Harry Lee (father of Robert E. Lee) to join forces with Clarke. Lee drove his men at a rapid pace, marching 75 miles in just three days. The combined forces attacked the fortified home of George Galphin 12 miles from Augusta on May 21, 1781. After a fight in intense heat, the British surrendered. Pushing on into Augusta, the Patriots moved on Fort Grierson next. As they formed to encircle the small fort, its garrison panicked and tried to escape to the safety of the larger Fort Cornwallis. Eighty Loyalists under Col. Grierson were captured, refused quarter and slaughtered. Brown’s forces had done the same to Patriot forces in the past and now they exacted their revenge.
The slaughter of Grierson’s force completed, Clarke and Lee, now joined by Pickens, began their attack on Fort Cornwallis.
On May 31, Brown was given another chance to surrender his forces, which he again declined. In making their approaches to Fort Cornwallis, the Americans dug trenches, and later used Maham towers, the first erected on the night of 30-31 May, on which they mounted a six-pounder, which disabled Brown’s own six-pounder (or else two cannon, one of which was a six-pounder.) Brown had tried unsuccessfully, by means of sorties, to sabotage both the trench (when it was being worked on), and the Maham tower.
The Maham Tower was a display of quintessential American ingenuity, Lieutenant Colonel Hezekiah Maham came up with a novel solution: the Patriots would build a large tower, later dubbed a “Maham Tower,” out of trees from the area. By climbing the structure, the men could shoot down into the enemy fortifications, while the heavy logs protected them from return fire.
Manned by some of Oldham’s crack riflemen, the tower loomed over the walls of the fort, and at first light the Marylanders started picking off the defenders inside.
Brown devised a plan to sent a Tory that masqueraded as a “deserter” to the American lines. The deserter’s mission was to burn down the tower and get Lee’s force to burn down the house to clear their field of vision. Brown had planned on blowing up the house when the Americans surrounded it on their way to attack the fort. Lee sniffed out the Tory plan and jailed the deserter. Lee then had the house destroyed.
Compared to earlier sieges of the British outposts, Augusta was long and trying, involving much shelling, and sniping between the besiegers and the garrison. Two of Brown’s field pieces were dismounted on June 2nd.
On June 4, Lee’s force formed up for a final assault on the fort when Brown agreed to consider a conditional surrender. Brown decided he could no longer hold out against the artillery and riflemen mounted in the towers. Despite what had been vigorous and spirited defense on the part of himself and his provincials, he was force to surrender the fort to Pickens and Lee, the former as ranking American officer, and the latter representing the Continental Army.
On 5 June. Fort Cornwallis at Augusta surrendered to Pickens and Lee. Lee returned to join Greene at Ninety-Six. Pickens remained at Augusta removing stores taken there, but by the 17th had likewise joined Greene. After Pickens left, Major, now Lieut. Col., James Jackson took command of the post. The liberation of the Georgia upcountry from British occupation, made possible the revival of more normal state government. Among its first measures was to form militia and state troops to cooperate with the Continentals. Although a Georgia State Legion was subsequently raised under Jackson, the state had no funds to pay them. Instead land, slaves, horses, clothing, provisions, salt, usually confiscated from Tories, were used. Former loyalists were given the opportunity to prove their new American allegiance by serving in the militia or state troops. “But for the need of many to prove their loyalty to the United States, it is doubtful if there would have been any state troops worth mentioning.”
British casualties, based on immediate after siege reports were 52 killed, and 334 captured, i.e. Brown plus, 7 officers, 7 loyalist officers, 162 Provincials, and 130 Tory militia and “about” 200 Blacks. Americans had sixteen killed and thirty-five wounded. The loss of the British was fifty-two killed; and three hundred and thirty-four, including the wounded, were made prisoners of war. The officers taken were paroled to Savannah, while the rank and file were sent north as prisoners. These latter were escorted to Ninety-Six by Maj. Samuel Hammond’s regiment, and the detachment of N.C. Continentals, which were now under the command of Capt. Robert Smith. Smith had replaced Maj. Pinkertham Eaton, after Eaton’s death on the 24th. during the fighting before Fort Grierson. No mention is made of the Creek Indians who were present in April, but who apparently were able to escape homeward some weeks before the surrender.
British hold off Americans at Ninety-Six, SC
The town of Ninety Six, so named because it was ninety-six miles from the nearest Cherokee village, was once a main crossroads of western South Carolina. In the 1700s, twelve roads passed through the town–more than passed through Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in 1863.
War came quickly to Ninety Six, where patriots and loyalists were already sharply divided by the struggle with the frontier Cherokee. In July 1775, when patriots suspected that the loyalists were supplying the Cherokee, they initiated a three day battle for control of the town that culminated in an uneasy truce. This, the first engagement outside of New England, brought a national character to the burgeoning revolution.
Tensions simmered through the 1770s while the British Army continued to focus on the war in New England. Failing to subdue those colonies, open conflict returned to Ninety Six when the British implemented the Southern Strategy of 1778. A savage civil war broke out in the Carolinas as the British poured troops into the region. Despite bloody battles and constant terror, years passed with neither side gaining the upper hand. In March 1781, Lord Cornwallis moved the main British force into Virginia. American General Nathaneal Greene responded by launching a new campaign to retake the Carolinas.
Like heat lighting, Greene captured a number of lightly-held British forts throughout the month of April. British remnants concentrated at Ninety Six and at Charleston. Greene moved on Ninety Six first, expecting to meet determined resistance.
Ninety Six was protected by the formidable Star Fort and the smaller Stockade Fort. Its garrison was made up almost entirely of loyalist colonists. Greene’s soldiers laid siege to the town, cutting trenches that zig-zagged towards the British positions.
Greene’s siege lasted from May 22-June 18, one of the longest sieges of the Revolution. The loyalists managed to maintain control of the Spring Branch water supply, however, thus averting a major crisis. Meanwhile, Greene divided his force and sent “Light Horse” Harry Lee to capture Augusta, South Carolina, which they did, returning on June 8.
Soon after, Greene received word that British troops were marching from Charleston to relieve Ninety Six. With one last chance to make good on his siege, Greene launched an all-out assault on June 18.
The fighting was bloody. American storming parties tore apart loyalist sandbags and captured both forts with supporting fire from snipers in a tower on the American lines. The stubborn redcoats rallied, however, and retook the forts with bayonets and clubbed muskets. Greene broke off the attack and withdrew, ending the siege. The loyalists eventually withdrew as well, burning the town behind them.
The Americans suffered 147 casualties; the British 85. Although Greene had failed to take Ninety Six, he had begun his campaign boldly. His continued operations in the Carolinas would prove essential to overall American victory in the war.