Ninety-Six was a stop on the Cherokee Path, a noted travel way for traders, European and Native American. It was a vital political and economic center in the backcountry of South Carolina. In 1780 Lieutenant Colonel John Cruger took command of the garrisonof 550 loyalists. After taking command, Cruger used soldiers and slaves from nearby farms to reinforce the town's walls and build the Star Fort.
In 1778, with neither side gaining much ground, the British turned to the South, hoping to salvage something of the American Colonies. They started with a successful assault on Savannah, Georgia. On 12 May 1780, the British captured Charleston, South Carolina. It seemed that the patriots would lose the south.
However, on 7 Oct 1780, General Lord Charles Cornwallis lost his entire left offensive arm at the Battle of Kings Mountain. On 17 Jan 1781, he lost his right striking force at the Battle of Cowpens. Although Cornwallis forced the Continental Army under the commad of General Nathaniel Greene from the field at Guilford Courthouse, Greene did it at such a cost that Cornwallis and his loyalist army needed to retreat to the coast. Greene did not pursue Cornwallis. Instead, he made a conscious decision to reduce the number of backcountry posts held by the British and turned his eye toward Ninety-Six.
Greene led his army of 1000 patriots to the Star Fort, arriving there 21 May 1781. Without heavy artillery, only a siege could bring down the formidable defenses of Ninety-Six. Colonel Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a Polish native and military engineer, directed the siege operations for Greene. He directed that three parallel trenches be dug at intervals. These trenches were dug four feet wide and three feet deep and were connected by zigzag approach trenches. These trenches were dug through hard clay and the exhausted laborers also dealt with intense head, mosquitos and cannon fire from the fort.
The first parallel was dug about 200 yards from the fort and was completed 1 Jun. The second parallel was about 70 yards and completed 3 Jun. The third parallel was completed 40 yards from the fort on 10 Jun. The diggers also dug a six-foot vertical mine shaft from the third parallel. From the shaft, sappers dug toward the Star Fort, planning to blast open a wall so they could enter. The siege ended before the mine was finished so it was never used. This is the only use of a mine in the American Revolution. On 13 Jun, the patriots built a thirty-foot tower of logs close to the fort for suppressing cannon fire. Greene then learned of British relief troops, 2000 strong, were marching to Cruger's aid.
On 18 Jun 1781, at noon, the onslaught began. Colonel Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee, father of Robert E lee, with his legion, captured the Stockade Fort, west of the village. Greene, meanwhile, launched an attack on the Star Fort from the third parallel. Greene attempted to use four six-pounder cannons, but the cannon fire could not breach the ten-to-twelve-foot thick earthen walls. Greene ordered 50 soldiers forward to prepare the way for the rest. Axes were used to cut the sharpened stakes that extended from the fort walls. Hooks were used to pull down sand bags. Cruger ordered troops into the ditch surrounding the fort and hand-to-hand combat commenced. The loyalists drove the patriots off, but both sides took heavy losses.
Greene chose not to organize a general attack with the relief column near. Before dawn 20 Jun, Greene and his army moved north on Island Ford Rd and across the Saluda River before the loyalists could give chase.
Although Greene lost the siege, the offensive weakened Cruger's stronghold. In Jul 1781, the loyalists abandoned Ninety-Six, burning the village, firing all buildings, filling in siegeworks and attempting to destroy the Star Fort.
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