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Leaders of the Siege
Robert Wilson oil painting
Date: April 21, 2006
Marion, Pickens, Lee, Koscuizko, Greene, and Cruger. Some of these names sound familiar while others were forgotten after the last test in school. But these men were some the leaders of the American Revolution in South Carolina and most were here at Ninety Six.
Francis Marion is probably the most famous South Carolina Patriot leader. Many people remember him by his nickname “The Swamp Fox” but few know why or how he got the name. Bananstre Tarleton, one of the most hated British officers in South Carolina during the Revolution actually gave Marion his nickname. He chased Marion and his militia for 26 miles in 7 hours through the low country swamps around Georgetown and could not catch him. Tarleton supposedly remarked, “Let us go back and we will find the “Gamecock” (Thomas Sumter). As for this old fox, the devil himself could not catch him!” Marion passed through Ninety Six in the 1760s during the Cherokee War, but was not here during either the 1775 or 1781 engagements. During the Siege of Ninety Six, Marion helped delay British reinforcements that were on their way from Charleston to relieve the Loyalists in the Star Fort. Many believe that the character Benjamin Martin in the movie, The Patriot, was based on Francis Marion, but the character was actually a combination of several South Carolina Patriots including, Marion, Thomas Sumter, and Andrew Pickens.
Many Patriot leaders in South Carolina were not from South Carolina. Andrew Pickens was originally from Pennsylvania and was at Ninety Six during both Revolutionary War battles (1775 & 1781). During the Revolution he lived around Long Cane, which is in Abbeville County today. Supposedly early in the war, Pickens had the opportunity to fight with the British as a Colonel, but refused. A British officer told him, “You will campaign with a halter around your neck. If we catch you, we will hang you.” In 1775, Pickens fought at Ninety Six as a 36 year old Militia Captain. After fighting for a few years, Pickens was caught by the British and paroled. He went home to quietly farm, but Loyalists burned his home and plundered his property so he returned to fighting for the Patriots. He returned to Ninety Six in 1781 after helping to win a Patriot victory at Augusta, GA. With “Light Horse Harry” Lee, Pickens besieged the Stockade Fort. Pickens had a brother killed during the siege of Ninety Six and had other family members fight here. He was ordered to help Thomas Sumter delay British reinforcements and left Ninety Six before the end of the siege leaving Lee to besiege the Stockade alone.
The name Lee is very familiar to people, but because of Henry Lee’s son, Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Lee’s legacy endures misrepresentation daily at Ninety Six when visitor’s view his painting. Have you ever been judged by what you wear? Many are not familiar with Henry Lee as a Patriot leader and upon seeing his painting insist that he is the Green Dragoon, British Cavalry commander Banastre Tarleton. Although this painting is an artists’ rendition, Lee’s Legion did wear green uniforms similar to that of Tarleton’s, which allowed them to operate in enemy territory and blend with the landscape. Henry Lee achieved success as a Patriot leader throughout the Revolutionary War. He started out his military career in 1776 as a Captain in the Virginia Light Cavalry and soon proved himself as an outstanding cavalry leader. He skirmished with British Captain Banastre Tarleton in Pennsylvania and shortly after received his nickname, “Light Horse Harry” for his speed, horsemanship, and daring rides against the British. Lee and his Legion, almost three hundred men, reported to the new commander of the Southern Department, General Nathaniel Greene, in South Carolina in January 1781. For a short time, Lee continued his success in the South winning battles and capturing forts at Fort Watson, Fort Motte, Fort Granby, South Carolina, and Augusta, Georgia, but his victories did not continue. On June 18, 1781, when the Battle for Star Fort was taking place, Lee made a final attempt on the Stockade. After successfully securing the Stockade, Lee wanted to attack the fortified jail and town of Ninety Six, which would force the Loyalists to divert their attention from the Star Fort. But with victory in sight, Lee was ordered by General Greene to end his assault when he witnessed the attack on Star Fort fail and called off the twenty eight day siege entirely. Lee blamed Kosciuszko for the defeat at Ninety Six and took the loss personally. Lee wrote, “‘His blunders lost us Ninety Six.’”
Thaddeus Kosciuszko was another leader of Ninety Six who was not from South Carolina, in fact he was not even from America. Kosciuszko was born in Poland and was a military engineer. During the Siege of Ninety Six it was Kosciuszko who laid out plans to besiege the British held Star Fort. He believed that the Star was the strongest position and convinced General Nathaniel Greene to besiege the Star and not the town of Ninety Six or the Stockade Fort. Kosciuszko believed that if the Star fell so would the other locations. Soon after the siege began, he directed trenches to be dug toward the Star Fort. Slowly the Patriots dug in the hard clay and moved toward the Star. The digging wore out the Patriots quickly so to try another tactic, Kosciuszko ordered that a Maham Tower be built. The original was 30 feet high. It was made from green wood so that when the Loyalists fired heated cannon balls it would not burn. Patriot sharpshooters could go up into the tower and fire down into the Star Fort from the top. Another tactic that Kosciusko tried was to dig a mine (tunnel). It was dug from the 3rd parallel of the Patriot trenches. The idea was to dig it under the Star Fort, fill it with gunpowder and blow a hole in the Star to allow the Patriots to attack. But the mine was never used because the siege ended before it could be completed. The mine still exists today as the only one left from the Revolutionary War. Recent pictures taken by archeologists show that pick and shovel marks from 1781 can still be seen. Currently the mine is not open to the public. It is just one of the examples of Kosciuszko’s military engineering at Ninety Six.
The Loyalist commander at Ninety Six during the Siege was Lt Colonel John Harris Cruger. Not as much is known about Colonel Cruger although he did have previous military experience in the war. He was a merchant from New York and forty three years old when he was in command at Ninety Six. Cruger took command in early August of 1780 and quickly started fortifying the area. He commanded the 1st and part of the 2nd battalions of DeLancey’s Brigade along with New York, New Jersey, and some South Carolina militia.
For more on the people that made History at Ninety Six, see our people page.
Did You Know?
The Revolutionary War in the South Carolina Backcountry was a civil war. Neighbor fought neighbor & family member fought family member. The Ninety Six District was no exception that is one of the reasons Ninety Six National Historic Site has two Revolutionary War battles on its grounds.