SEAC: In the Footsteps of Light-Horse Harry
Ninety Six National Historic Site
Ninety Six was originally a geographical term. Traders out of Charleston thought that this stopping place was 96 miles from the Cherokee town of Keowee in the Blue Ridge foothills. Following an ancient path worn by Indians, they packed firearms, blankets, and trinkets into the backcountry and swapped them for deer skins and furs. By 1700 or so this trail, known as the Cherokee Path, was a major commercial artery. Over it flowed goods essential to the prosperity of the young colony.
The region then was a wilderness paradise, with temperate climate, rich soil, vast for-ests of hardwood, clear-running streams, abundant game. After the power of the Cherokee was broken in 1761, settlers flooded into the country beyond the Saluda River. Ninety Six lay in the middle of this land boom. The first settler here was one Robert Gouedy, who opened a store in 1751. A veteran of the Cherokee trade, he parlayed that hazardous enterprise into a huge business that rivaled that of some Charleston merchants. He grew grain and tobacco, raised cattle, served as a frontier banker, and sold cloth, shoes, beads, gunpowder, tools and rum. He eventually amassed over 1,500 acres, and at his death in 1775 some 500 persons were in his debt.
On the eve of the Revolution, Ninety Six was a thriving village of 12 houses, a sizable courthouse, and a sturdy jail. At least a hundred persons lived in the vicinity, and the land was cleared for a mile around. On the question of independence, sentiment was probably even more divided than along the coast. In what has been called the first major land battle in the South, 1 ,800 loyal-ists on 18 November 1775 attacked one-third that number of patriots under Maj. Andrew Williamson gathered at Ninety Six. After several days of fighting, the two sides agreed to a truce. But patriot spirit was running high, and the low-country leaders soon mounted an expedition that swept away organized loyalist resistance. Yet crushing the King's friends did not bring peace to the backcountry. Instead, a savage war of fac-tions broke out that lasted until 1781.
Greene's siege that year left the village a smoking ruin. The departing loyalists set fire to the few buildings still standing and even tried to destroy the star fort. Within a few years a new town began to arise near the site of the old one. Taking the name Cambridge in 1787, it flourished for a while as a county seat and the home of an academy. The loss of the courthouse in 1800 started a decline from which the town never recovered. By mid-century, both old Ninety Six and newer Cambridge were little more than memories.
The Longest Siege of the War
The siege of this frontier post grew out of one of the great dramas of the Revolution: the second British attempt to conquer the South. The campaign opened in late 1778 with an assault on Savannah. By autumn 1780 the British held Georgia and most of South Carolina, and a powerful army under Cornwallis was poised to carry the war northward. At this point the fortunes of war turned abruptly against Cornwallis. He lost one wing of his army at Kings Mountain and another at Cowpens, and he himself, early in 1781, faced a resurgent Continental Army under the resourceful generalship of Nathanael Greene. Cornwallis drove Greene from the field at Guilford Court House in mid-March, but at such cost that he had to retire to the coast with his battered army. Choosing not to pursue the main force, Greene set out to reduce the chain of posts the British held.
This post was essential to British influence in the region. It was garrisoned by some 550 battle-toughened American loyalists led by Col. John Cruger. When he took command the year before, Cruger strengthened the already formidable defenses with a stockade on the west and a star fort on the east. Lacking heavy artillery, Greene opened siege operations on May 22. His engineer Thaddeus Kosciuszko began digging a system of parallels and approach trenches. By June 10 the third parallel was finished, and a few days later a wooden tower, from which riflemen could suppress fire from the fort, was put up. When Greene learned that a powerful relief column was marching to Cruger's aid, he resolved to storm the post before he was trapped between the two forces. His plan was simple: mount simultaneous attacks on the left and right.
onslaught began at noon on June 18. Light-horse Harry Lee's legion fought
their way into the west redoubt (stockade fort), but at the star fort,
the Continentals met stiff resistance and were driven off by a fierce counterattack,
with much bloodshed on both sides. This repulse decided the contest. The
rescue column was too near for Greene to organize a general attack. Gathering
his wearied army, Greene slipped away before dawn on the 20th, moving down
the Island Ford Road and across the Saluda River before the British could
give effective chase. Once again Greene emerged from a battle as a tactical
loser but a strategic victor. Within a few weeks the British abandoned
the ruined village and pulled back the garrison to an interior post nearer
Views of old Ninety Six today:
Restored early 19th century log cabin.
The historic road that passed
through the village.
The Well dug by loyalists defending the star fort.
Visitor Center Exhibits and Video:The Ninety Six National Historic Site Visitor Center is a good place to begin a visit to the park. The modern Visitor Center offers several interesting and educational opportunities. You will see an informative 10-minute video titled, "Ninety Six, A Frontier Crossroad" in the 50-seat auditorium. This presentation provides visitors with a brief introduction to the park's fascinating history. Also in the Visitor Center is a self-guided museum containing several exhibits with interpretive texts and a wide array of artifacts, many of which were found at Ninety Six. Historical themes associated with the exhibits include Native Americans; African Americans; Colonial Settlers; the Cherokee War (ca. 1760) era; the Revolutionary War; and Archeology. The park bookstore and souvenir shop offers a large selection of items for children and adults. All sales merchandise are of high quality that complement the historical and natural themes.
A Tour of the Park:Old Ninety Six figured in both war and peace. Through the middle decades of the 18th century, this crossroads hamlet was an economic and political center of the South Carolina back-country. During the Revolution, it was the scene of repeated confrontations between loyalists and patriots, culminating in the longest siege of the war conducted by the Continental Army.
To see the main features of the park, take the mile-long walking trail shown on the map [105 K]:
1. Historic Island Ford Road Decades of travel cut this road to its present depth. Seven miles north, it crossed the Saluda River at Island Ford and joined roads leading to Charlotte and Camden.
2. Siege Lines The siege was conducted strictly by the manual: three parallels deep enough for infantry, and zigzag approach trenches (saps) that could not be enfiladed by enemy fire. The operations were directed by Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the Polish military engineer and aide to General Greene.
view of the Star Fort [24 K].
5. Jail Site A two-story brick jail-the first in these parts-was built here in 1772. The jailer and his family lived on the first floor, the prisoners on the second. During the siege, a V-shaped earthwork
6. Stockade Fort This strongpoint--the west redoubt attacked by Lee's legion--was built around the farm of one James Holmes, an active loyalist, to guard Spring Branch, the only reliable water supply for the village.
of the reconstructed stockade (Holmes') fort. The fort was attacked
by Colonel "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, whose soldiers caused the fort's evacuation
on June 18, 1781 [57 K].