Sunday, November 5, 2023

ARP287 Fort Ninety-Six

Last week we left off with the patriots retaking Augusta, Georgia.  After Cornwallis limped away from the battle at Guilford Courthouse and moved his army to Wilmington, North Carolina on the coast, British control of the southern colonies was pretty much limited to the coastal towns of Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia.

Fort Ninety-Six

The last inland hold-out was Fort Ninety Six in the South Carolina backcountry.  Ninety Six had been a frontier town for decades.  It got its name because it was believed to be ninety-six miles from the Cherokee village of Keowee.  Since its founding in 1737, Nine-six had been an important trading post between colonists and native tribes.  By the Revolution it had grown into a town of several hundred people, with a courthouse, a jail, and various taverns and shops.

After the British occupied South Carolina in 1780, they had set up a string of outposts in order to pacify the colony.  Fort Ninety Six became one of the key British outposts.  Deep in the backcountry, Ninety six is about 150 miles north west of Charleston, and about fifty miles north of Augusta.

Fort Ninety Six sat on the high ground near the town.  It was a well defended earthen star fort, with two block houses and ditches around the exterior.  When the British moved north, Cornwallis left Lieutenant Colonel John Harris Cruger in command of the fort.

John Harris Cruger

Cruger was a New Yorker.  His family had a large sugar and molasses business in Jamaica, but lived in New York.  Cruger went to school at King’s College and managed the family business.  Before the Revolution, Cruger was a prominent member of New York society.  He was governor of King’s College and sat on the Governor’s Royal Council.  

When the war began, Cruger had to lay low given his loyalist leanings. Once the British took New York in late 1776, Cruger took a commission as a lieutenant colonel in the British army and took command of a battalion in the brigade commanded by his father-in-law Oliver De Lancey.

Most of Cruger’s men were New England loyalists.  His unit traveled south for the first real British incursion in the region, helping to capture Savannah in late 1778.  He also led his men at the Siege of Charleston and the Battle of Camden.  In June, 1780, shortly after Charleston fell to the British, Cruger took command at Fort Ninety Six.

John Harris Cruger

Cruger wasted no time building up the defenses.  He laid out the star fort design and had militia and slaves spend months building up huge earthen walls and other defenses.  The fort became a loyalist base of operations for raids and for holding rebel prisoners.  

As a result, the fort became a target once the Continentals under General Nathanael Greene began to reassert control of the region.  With the British withdrawal from Camden back to Charleston in the spring of 1781, Fort Ninety-six became the largest in-land loyalist stronghold in the south.

Cruger knew that the Continentals would target his fort.  He spent the prior year building up defenses and preparing for an attack.  His star fort on the high ground was only part of that.  Cruger’s men also built a series of embankments and trenches, securing a local water supply in case of a siege.  

For his garrison, Cruger had his own First Battalion of 165 New York Loyalists, along with the Third Battalion of 253 New Jersey loyalists.  He also had several  hundred local loyalist militia at the fort.  To support the garrison, he had three small brass cannons.  Cruger offered to let the militia leave.  If they were defeated in battle at the fort, there was a good chance they could be executed.  Most of the militia, however, stayed.  If they returned home, they were almost as likely to be killed by patriot partisans.  These men were ready to die at the fort, in support of king and country.

Before Lord Rawdon had left Camden, he had ordered Cruger to abandon Fort Ninety-Six and withdraw to Augusta.  Cruger never received those orders since the patriots intercepted the couriers.  

The Siege

In May, 1781, Greene’s Continental Army arrived at Fort Ninety-Six.  Greene had over 900 Continentals, supplemented by several hundred more militia.  Even with his overwhelming numbers, Greene was doubtful that he could push through the fort’s defenses, at least not without suffering heavy casualties.  Additional forces under Andrew Pickens and Light Horse Harry Lee were still besieging Augusta when he arrived and might become available later.  Greene, therefore opted to besiege the fort and compel its surrender.  The siege began on May 22.

The Polish engineer, Colonel Thaddeus Kosciuszko, oversaw the siege.  Kosciuszko had been a key to building the American defenses at West Point and other places, but had come south with Horatio Gates to lend his services there.  When Greene replaced Gates, Kosciuszko remained.  Under Greene, Kosciuszko was critical to getting the army across various rivers as they dueled with the British under Cornwallis.

Tadeusz Kościuszko
He used the traditional siege tactic of digging zig-zag trenches, moving closer to the fort walls over time, while protecting his men from approaching over an open field.  Cruger countered by sending out raiding parties to attack the trenches during the night.  He also fired on the trenches with his cannons.  These efforts slowed down the advance, but could not stop it.  

After about two weeks, the Americans had dug trenches within 30 yards of the fort’s walls.  The attackers also built a tower, a tactic they had used to take several other smaller forts.  The tower allowed the Americans riflemen to kill some of the artillerymen in the fort. Cruger countered this by using sandbags to increase the height of one of his own towers in order to shoot the Americans in their tower.  He also tried to use hot shot from his cannons to set the American tower on fire.

The Americans were able to protect the tower, and countered by using flaming arrows to fire into the fort.  Cruger had to destroy several wooden roofs to prevent them being set on fire.

On June 3, Greene sent his adjutant, Colonel Otho Holland Williams to approach the fort under a flag of truce to demand its surrender. Cruger refused and the siege continued.

Several days later, on June 7, Light Horse Harry Lee arrived with his legion of 150 men.  Lee had taken Augusta and left the militia in command there so that he could get to Fort Ninety-six and assist Greene. His legion had with them prisoners captured at Augusta.  Part of his legion, with the prisoners, passed along the road right next to the fort. 

Although Lee later said that this march was made by mistake, Col. Cruger took it as a provocation: marching prisoners in front of his men.  He ordered his cannons to open fire on the column, killing both the enemy and their prisoners.

Lee used his men to focus on the blockhouse on the other side of the fort.  He was trying to cut off the fort’s water supply.  Cruger continued to use night raids to keep the attackers at bay.  Cruger also became aware of his vulnerability to losing his water supplies.  He dug a well inside the fort, but it came up dry.  Instead, he had some of his black loyalists use a communications trench to sneak down to the water supply at night and carry water back to the garrison. Despite his efforts, Cruger knew that the British garrison’s days were numbered unless a relief force could come for them.


Fortunately for Cruger, that is just what the British hoped to do.  Lord Rawdon became aware of the situation from his new headquarters in Charleston.  During the siege, a British fleet arrived bringing Rawdon three new regiments of British regulars.

Even so, two things made it difficult for Rawdon to launch a relief force to rescue the garrison at  Fort Ninety-Six.  First, he was really sick with malaria.  For some time, it was unclear if he could even remain in a saddle.  

Lord Rawdon

Second, he was not in command at Charleston.  The man left in charge of Charleston, Lieutenant Colonel Nisbet Balfour approved of Rawdon’s plan to relive the fort.  However, the arrival of reinforcements also included Lieutenant Colonel Paston Gould, who commanded one of the regiments. Colonel Gould had seniority over both Balfour and Rawdon, giving him authority to make all command decisions.

Rawdon wanted to take two of the three new regiments with him to relieve Fort Ninety Six.  Gould was concerned about the defenses at Charleston and refused to let Rawdon march away with the majority of his regulars.  There were rumors that a French fleet might be on its way to Charleston.  If the bulk of the army was inland when the French arrived, it could spell disaster.

Finally, the officers reached a compromise.  The three regiments would remain in Charleston, but Rawdon could take with him the light infantry and grenadier companies from each of the regiments. In all, Rawdon had about 1800 men in his relief force.  If you add in the Fort Ninety-Six garrison British forces would outnumber the Americans by nearly 2-1 once Rawdon arrived.

General Greene had good intelligence.  He learned of the relief column even before it left Charleston.  He sent dispatches to General Sumter and Colonel Marion, hoping they could use militia forces to attack the column before it could reach the fort.

If the British had command disputes, they were nothing to what the Americans seemed to face.  At first, Sumter gathered his forces, promising 600 militia, but instead of attacking the British on the march, he ordered his men and Sumter’s to march to Fort Ninety-six where they could face the relief column together.  Then Sumter got the idea that Lord Rawdon’s actual target was Fort Granby, where Sumter had his supply base by this time. So instead of marching his troops, he held back to see if he needed to defend Fort Granby instead.  Marion, who did not seem to want to fight alongside Greene nor Sumter, simply wrote to Greene that he could not give up his current position without allowing the enemy access to the region’s food and supplies.

By the time everyone got on the same page, Rawdon’s relief column had passed through Orangeburg and was headed directly to Fort Ninety-Six.  Sumter’s militia army was behind them.

One of Sumter’s militia regiments did attack   Rawdon’s rear guard.  Rawdon had deployed foragers and it looked like the Americans could strike a devastating blow.  South Carolina militia Colonel Charles Myddleton led between 150 and 200 militia horsemen against the British rear.

Unfortunately, Rawdon had made it look like his rear was in disarray in order to invite just such an attack.  British mounted infantry, hidden nearby, charged the militia, landing a devastating blow.  The surprised militia lost 34 killed.  Myddleton returned to Sumter’s camp with only 45 militia.  The remainder had likely fled into the woods and scattered.  The British suffered the loss of four officers and between twenty and thirty soldiers killed.


With Lord Rawdon’s relief column approaching the fort, and with Sumter and Marion nowhere around with their militia armies, General Greene decided he could not continue the siege.  Colonel Kosciuszko had been trying to dig a tunnel under the fort wall to blow it up, but it would not be completed in time before the relief column arrived.  The only decision was whether to try to storm the fort before the relief column arrived, or just withdraw.

Colonel Lee strongly supported an attack on the fort.  Withdrawing without a fight would harm morale and might impact the willingness of militia to turn out in the future.

On the morning of June 18, two regiments under the command of Colonel Richard Campbell stormed the fort wall.  They sent forward a “forlorn hope” to cut through the defenses while the rest of the attackers kept up a stream of fire against the fort to prevent them from firing on the attackers.

Seeing this attack, Colonel Cruger, sent two companies of provincials out of the back of the fort.  Each unit ran around the fort from a different direction, storming the American forlorn hope from both sides with bayonets.  The Americans put up a fight but were heavily outnumbered and took heavy casualties.  In the end, they withdrew back to the main American lines.

The following morning, Greene’s army packed up and withdrew, leaving the British in control of the fort.  For once, a conflict ended without bloody recriminations.  Greene had left a guard at a house several miles from the fort to protect Cruger’s wife and children.  When he pulled out, he left that detachment behind.  Cruger, grateful for Greene’s thoughtfulness to his family, allowed the detachment safe passage to rejoin the army.

The Chase

Two days after Greene’s departure, Lord Rawdon’s relief column arrived at Fort Ninety-Six.  The following day, Rawdon learned that the Continentals were camped only sixteen miles away.  Leaving behind his baggage at the fort, Rawdon launched a night march on the night of June 22, to attack Greene’s army.

Southern Army Movements
As he did with Cornwallis, Greene continued to withdraw, avoiding an engagement with a superior force.  Rawdon pursued for a time, but was not ready to embark on a campaign that would chase the Continentals across hundreds of miles, like Cornwallis had done.  After marching about forty miles, Rawdon gave up the chase and returned to Fort Ninety-Six.

Rawdon believed that Fort Ninety-Six would remain an inviting target once he returned to Charleston.  He informed the local militia leaders that they could come with him and take possession of patriot plantations within the British lines.  If they wanted to remain, he would leave a small force of regulars to help them defend the area.

While the locals were deciding, Rawdon left about half his force at the fort, and took the other half to march back to Orangeburg, then moving toward Fort Granby to the north.  As he did, he requested another regiment of regulars from Charleston.  Although a regiment started to march, it ended up retreating due to some miscommunications.  Rawdon ended up fearing that Greene would catch him isolated with only half his forces, and withdrew again back to Fort Ninety-Six.

Greene, however, was not thinking about any sort of attack.  He was retreating back toward Charlotte, North Carolina.  He wanted to engage in a battle, but not before he had more troops.  Greene wrote to Isaac Shelby, hoping he could bring 1000 over-mountain men from the frontier.  But Shelby responded that he was in negotiation with the Cherokee and could not have his men leave their homes for at least a few weeks. 

Greene also attempted to get his promised reinforcements from Virginia.  But with the British army already in Virginia and threatening to take more of the state, Virginia was not only not sending its promised reinforcements, it was keeping any reinforcements that tried to pass through the state, to fight against the British there.  Greene wrote other leaders in the Carolinas and Georgia, but no one would commit to showing up with the numbers he needed.  Without reinforcements, Greene kept his distance.

Rawdon had marched up to the Congaree Creek, near Fort Granby, by July 1.  The brutal summer heat had taken its toll. The British had fifty soldiers die from heat exhaustion during the march.  They found themselves harassed by the enemy.  Colonel Lee managed to lure a British foraging party into an ambush, capturing three officers and 45 men, along with taking their horses and weapons.

The ambush and loss of his cavalry, convinced Rawdon to pull back to Orangeburg.  Soon thereafter, Green finally got some reinforcements after Sumter and Marion showed up.  He advanced on Orangeburg, but found the British in a good defensive position and declined to attack.  Instead, he marched around them, hoping to draw the British out of their defenses.  The British refused to take the bait.

Continental spies returned to Fort Ninety-Six, only to find that the garrison was packing up and preparing to leave. Cruger was going to join Rawdon at Orangeburg.  Before Cruger could combine his forces with Rawdon, Greene withdrew his Continentals to give them time to rest and recuperate in the high hills, away from some of the most brutal summer heat

Lord Rawdon had also had enough.  Although his army remained in Orangeburg, Rawdon sought to exercise the leave of absence that Cornwallis granted him months earlier.  He had fought this campaign through the brutal summer heat, while still suffering from malaria.  With the Continentals having withdrawn for the moment, Rawdon returned to Charleston and got on a ship bound for England.

With the British having abandoned Fort Ninety-Six, the patriot militia occupied the fort without a fight, and with it claimed control over all of South Carolina, outside of a small area around Charleston.  The Carolina militia would continue to harass the enemy over the summer, but we will have to leave those skirmishes for a future episode.  

Next Week: We're going to return to Virginia as General Cornwallis, with his larger force, attempts to control the state, including a raid on Governor Thomas Jefferson, at his home at Monticello.

- - -

Next Episode 288 Raid on Monticello 

Previous Episode 286 Sumter's Law

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Further Reading


Kyte, George W. “Strategic Blunder: Lord Cornwallis Abandons the Carolinas, 1781.” The Historian, vol. 22, no. 2, 1960, pp. 129–44. JSTOR,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Crow, Jeffrey (ed) The Southern Experience in the American Revolution, Univ. of NC Press, 1978.

Greene, George Washington The Life of Nathanael GreeneVol. 1Vol. 2, & Vol. 3, New York: Cambridge Univ. Press 1867-1871. 

Hartley, Cecil B. Life of Major General Henry Lee & The Life of General Thomas Sumter, New York: Derby & Jackson, 1859. 

Weigley, Russell Frank The Partisan War: the South Carolina Campaign of 1780-1782, Univ. of SC Press, 1970 (borrow only). 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Bass, Robert D. Gamecock: The Life And Campaigns Of General Thomas Sumter, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1961 (borrow on

Carbone, Gerald Nathanael Greene: A Biography of the American Revolution, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010 (borrow on 

Ferling, John Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021. 

Golway, Terry Washington's General : Nathanael Greene and the triumph of the American Revolution, H. Holt, 2006. (borrow on

Lumpkin, Henry From Savannah to Yorktown: the American Revolution in the South, Univ of SC Press, 1981 (borrow on 

Nelson, Paul D. Francis Rawdon-Hastings, Marquess of Hastings, Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 2005 (borrow on 

Tonsetic, Robert L. 1781: The Decisive Year of the Revolutionary War, Casemate, 2011 (borrow on 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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