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Revolutionary War Trails:
Ninety Six

 

Article by Tom Straka

Photographs by Pat Straka

Fort sign Star Fort Sign

Two interpretative signs give a feel for the size and shape of the fort. Note the sharpened stakes, sandbags, and ditch.

Which state can claim the most Revolutionary War battle sites? Probably Massachusetts or Virginia came to your mind. South Carolina can claim that distinction with 250 Revolutionary War battle sites. One of the major battle sites is Ninety Six. In the 1700’s it was at the edge of the frontier, strategically located at the intersection of major Indian trails and, supposedly, 96 miles from the Cherokee Indian village of Keowee. The location made it a trading hub.  In 1760 frontier friction between Indians and settlers developed and a stockade was quickly built at Ninety Six. Fort Ninety Six offered protection from two Indian attacks.  A peace treaty allowed settlement up to the Keowee area.

Cannon

The approach to the star fort, remnants of
trenches and parallels in the foreground
.

By the time of the Revolutionary War it was a commercial center that included a courthouse at the critical crossroads on the road from Charleston to the frontier.    It was also the most westward British outpost in the colonies. The first Revolutionary War battle south of New England occurred in Ninety Six in 1775.  About 600 patriots had built a stockade at Ninety Six and held off about three times as many loyalists. Both sides agreed to a truce and the fort was razed. Later the patriots attempted to sweep the loyalists from the area. Patriot and loyalist factions left the area primed for a major battle of the war.

The second British campaign to conquer the South from 1778 to 1781 resulted in the capture of Savannah and Charleston. Charleston was the commercial capital of the South and its fourth largest city.  By 1780 loyalists held most of Georgia and South Carolina. General Lord Cornwallis moved his army northward but suffered major losses at Kings Mountain in late 1780 and at Cowpens in early 1781. Patriot General Nathanael Greene soon faced Cornwallis at Guilford Courthouse, N.C. and suffered heavy casualties while winning that battle. Cornwallis was forced to move towards the safety of the coast and Greene did not follow. Instead Greene decided to attack the British chain of backcountry outposts.

Rifle tower

The ten-foot rifle tower (original was thirty-feet).

Ninety Six was a major loyalist outpost garrisoned by 550 men. The village was stockaded and a star-shaped fort had been built.  The eight-sided star allowed marksmen perfect lines of sight for any attack.  The fort was surrounded by a ditch and its side was covered by sharpened stakes; sandbags on top extended its height to 14 feet. The village and fort were connected by a covered trench walkway. At night this trench was used to obtain water. The remains of a 25-foot well inside the fort remain today from an unsuccessful attempt to secure water from directly inside the fort.

When Greene and his 1,000- man army arrived in May of 1781, the   impregnable fort discouraged any type of direct attack.  Instead a siege was the tool to take down the star fort.

Colonel Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a renowned Revolutionary War military engineer, was assigned the task of directing the siege. Sappers (trench diggers) began to dig a series of approach trenches and parallels. Each parallel would be closer and closer to the fort. Within two weeks the third parallel was complete and the patriots were within musket range of the fort. During the cover of darkness a 30-foot log tower was built that allowed marksmen to shoot down into the fort. Then Greene got word that 2,000 British troops were marching towards the fort as reinforcements. It was time to storm the fort or become trapped between the two British forces.

Stockade

The stockade that surrounding the village.

Colonel Henry “Light-horse Harry Lee” captured the stockade fort and 6-pounder cannon fired on the star fort. But the thick earth fort walls were too much for the cannons. Greene sent 50 men to clear a path for the main force.  Axes were used to cut the sharpen stakes and sandbags were pulled off the top of the fort with hooks. Loyalist troops entered the ditch and hand-to-hand combat drove the patriots back with great losses. This had to decide the battle as the British relief column was approaching. Greene was forced to move his forces northward. However, the outpost was weakened and within a month the loyalists abandoned Ninety Six and moved closer to the coast.

What is there today? The star fort still exists, weathered through time, certainly no longer 14-feet tall, but very easily discernable.  The approach trenches and parallels are also clearly visible.

There is even the only tunnel used in warfare during the Revolutionary War. Kosciuszko had a 6-foot deep vertical shaft dug and then sappers started a trench towards the fort’s wall.  Once at the fort, power charges would be used to blast open the wall. The tunnel was not completed before the siege ended. A10-foot reconstruction of the log rifle tower is on the battlefield. The communications trench between the village and fort is intact. Stockades, cabins, cannon, village sites, and parts of colonial roads and Indian trails are all parts of the historical site.

CabinReenactors  
Frontier log cabin is part of the site

Reenactors are often on the site with living history demonstrations. Robbie “Capt.” Gilbert amd David Blackwelder (in the tricorne).

 
There is a modern visitor center, with a museum, bookstore, restrooms, and short video film.  All of the sights are on a one-mile walking tour. The path is paved and the route is circular. There is an observation platform that allows a wonderful overview of the fort and battlegrounds. Interpretative signs, with photographs, maps, and text are strategically located on the trail. While the theme is the battle site, there are log cabins and displays that highlight colonial frontier life.  

When I began the walking tour, starting out in a small woodland area, I could hear a colonial fife, barely audible, playing in the distance. I assume it was part of the walking tour, probably triggered electronically. But you never know. The place certainly could harbor Revolutionary War ghosts. It is one of those places you can feel the spirit of, with history clearly in view.

Ninety Six is located between Greenville, S.C. and Augusta, Ga. It is a couple of hours from Cowpens and Kings Mountain historical sites.  The combination would make a great Revolutionary War tour.  Periodically the site has historical reenactments and special events.  

 

Author: Thomas J. Straka is a forestry professor at Clemson University in South Carolina.

 

For more info:

National Park Service, Ninety Six National Historic Site (Official Website)

 http://www.nps.gov/nisi/index.htm

 South Carolina Department of Archives and History (Photographs)

http://www.nationalregister.sc.gov/greenwood/S10817724001/index.htm

South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Video (Park Tour)

http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=1094911183507

 Explore Southern History Website (History and Photographs of Ninety Six)

http://www.exploresouthernhistory.com/ninetysix.html

 National Park Service, Southeast Archeological Center (Archeology and History of Ninety Six)

http://www.nps.gov/history/seac/96arch.htm

 National Park Service, Southeast Archeological Center (Archeology and History of Ninety Six)

http://www.nps.gov/seac/96arch-bg.htm

 History Comes Alive at Ninety Six National Historic Site

http://www.discoversouthcarolina.com/files/smiles-pdfs/NinetySix.pdf

  

Author: Thomas J. Straka is a forestry professor at Clemson University in South Carolina.