We last left General Nathanael Greene and the southern Continental Army back in Episode 287 when the patriots forced the British to give up most of their outposts in South Carolina, including the large base at Fort Ninety-Six. By this time, Greene's Continental soldiers were exhausted. The summer heat and spreading malaria finally convinced Greene to give his men a rest. In mid-July 1781, Greene set up camp in the High Hills of the Santee where the heat was a bit less oppressive, and the mosquitoes a bit less unbearable.
Greene wasn’t sure of his next steps. With Sumter’s state troops mostly gone home, the Continental soldiers under his command felt abandoned, and not particularly motivated to defend a state where the locals seemed to be taking a break. One possible course of action was to march his Continentals back to North Carolina and take the loyalist stronghold at Wilmington. Greene was still concerned that the larger British army under General Cornwallis might march south once again to confront his army. If he took Wilmington, then marched north to link up with Lafayette's division in Virginia, the two of them might take on Cornwallis there.
Moving his small Continental army north, however, might give the appearance that the patriots were ceding South Carolina. With discussion of a European peace negotiation, leaving the state might cause a negotiation to cede South Carolina to the British. There was also word of a French fleet sailing up from the West Indies, which Greene hoped might cooperate with him in an effort to retake Charleston. In the end, Greene opted to remain in South Carolina and continue to harass the British presence there.
Maintaining an Army
On August 5, Greene deployed the cavalry under Colonel Light Horse Harry Lee to reconnoiter the enemy. Several days later, Lee reported using his sixty horsemen to attack a British supply train escorted by 300 British infantry. The enemy held formation and repulsed Lee’s attack. Lee believed he could continue to harass the British on the outskirts of Charleston, and requested that Greene send more infantry to back up his cavalry.
But with most of the state soldiers having gone home, Greene did not think this was the right time to risk his army in a major assault on Charleston. There was also the issue of marching back through swampy lowlands at the height of malaria season. Only Colonel Marion’s militia remained active in the field around this time.
Instead, Greene focused on rebuilding an army that could be a real threat to the British in South Carolina. Greene wrote to Colonel William Henderson, who had taken command of what was left of Sumter’s Brigade, and also to Andrew Pickens to assist in the enlistment of 500 men for one year to support the Continentals in South Carolina. He also wrote to General Jethro Sumner to recruit an army in North Carolina that could be of assistance.
It was also around this same time that word spread of the execution of Isaac Hayne in Charleston. This assisted with recruiting as South Carolinians were inspired to fight to avenge Hayne’s murder.
In early August, Governor John Rutledge returned to the state, arriving in Greene’s Camp. Rutledge meant that Greene could coordinate with a civil authority that might also help to get more men to join the fight.
Greene and Rutledge had known each other for nearly a year by this time. There is a funny story about Greene and Rutledge having to share a bed shortly after the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Each man complained during the night that the other was hogging most of the space in the bed and nearly pushing the other one out of it. After a time, they realized that an actual hog had climbed into bed with them and was looking for it's own warm night’s rest as well.
The two men had a good working relationship. Both men agreed that they needed to raise more troops and do whatever was necessary to keep people from failing to pick a side.
Shortly after his arrival, Rutledge issued a proclamation to prevent the militia from plundering civilian homes. This was a concern that might cause popular opinion to turn against the cause. Rutledge also issued orders to Marion that no soldier should be granted leave for any reason other than sickness. Any man who refused to serve should be sent to British lines and have his property confiscated. The family of any man who was serving with the British would also be removed from their homes and sent to the British. He also ordered arrest and property confiscation of several merchants who had cooperated with the British in the past, despite their current willingness to back the patriot cause, as well as the execution of any “negroes” who granted any aid or assistance to the enemy.
Greene also realized he needed to ensure the soldiers under his command did not show signs of mutiny. Making an example was considered an important part of this. Sergeant John Hadley was brought up on charges of being disrespectful to an officer, and of stating that he would never again endeavor to injure the enemy. Essentially, the sergeant was saying that he was done with the war and would no longer take orders. Greene ordered a court martial.
Perhaps due to bad timing, the court martial met on August 5, the day after the British execution of Isaac Hayne. The court found the sergeant guilty and ordered his execution. The following day, General Greene ordered the army to parade and bear witness as Sergeant Hadley was shot and killed.
Greene also hanged other soldiers around this same time. All of these were Continental soldiers who had deserted and had joined with loyalist forces against the patriots. Several others convicted of desertion or plundering were punished with severe lashings.
Return to the Field
One August 23, 1781, Greene’s Continentals broke camp and took his army back into the field. His army has spent just over one month in camp and was ready to reengage with the enemy.
The largest remaining British force in South Carolina, outside of Charleston, was the force that Lord Rawdon had left at Orangeburg after giving up Camden and Fort Ninety-Six. After Rawdon gave up his command and returned to London, command fell to Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Stewart.
Back in June of 1781, Colonel Stewart had arrived in South Carolina in command of the 3rd Regiment of Foot, one of three regiments sent to Charleston as reinforcements. Stewart was an experienced officer, a veteran of the Seven Years War, about 40 years old and with over 25 years in the army. This, however, appears to have been his first deployment in North America.
Stewart was the officer who opposed the plan by Lord Rawdon and Nisbet Balfour to send a relief force to protect the British outpost at Fort Ninety-Six. There was also a fight about overall command in the South. General Cornwallis had left Rawdon in command, but the newly arrived Stewart outranked him. Eventually Rawdon led the attempt to relieve Fort Ninety-Six. Stewart brought out his own relief force to assist Rawdon, eventually settling in Orangeburg, about 70 miles northwest of Charleston.
The British force at Orangeburg held a good defensive position, which is why Greene avoided an attack there before giving his army a rest in August. That said, many South Carolina leaders wanted to remove this last British outpost and force all of the enemy back into Charleston.
While the Americans were in camp, the British had begun to spread out again. Stewart had taken a position as McCord’s Ferry, about twenty miles north of Orangeburg and only about 15 miles south of Greene’s Camp in the high hills.
Flooding, however, made a direct approach for either army impossible. Greene marched his Continentals north to Camden so that they could approach the enemy from another direction. Greene left his soldiers who were too sick for duty in Camden, then marched the rest toward the British camp. By September 1, the Continentals were camped near Beaver Creek, just outside of the loyalist stronghold at Orangeburg. Greene remained there for several days, awaiting expected reinforcements under Henderson and Pickens.
By September 7, the Continentals were at Burdell’s Plantation, only about seven miles from the enemy. Most of the militia and state troops had arrived, and Greene planned his attack for the following morning.
Plan of Attack
Using an unorthodox deployment that had worked well for him in recent battles, Greene deployed his militia in front. Of course this time, the lines would not simply be awaiting a British attack. He expected those troops to advance on the enemy. Most of the militia were experienced soldiers. There were two battalions from South Carolina and two from North Carolina. The right flank fell under the command of Colonel Marion. Andrew Pickens led the left flank.
The two center battalions were led by Continental Colonel François Malmédy-Gray, better known as the Marquis de Malmédy. I haven’t mentioned Malmédy before. He was one of the first French officers to join the Continental Army, arriving in Rhode Island in late 1776, nearly a year before Lafayette. Before that he had been serving as a lieutenant in the French army in Martinique. Lieutenant Malmédy briefly served as a brigadier general with the Rhode Island militia, before receiving a colonel’s commission in the Continental army. Malmédy complained to Washington that he was not commissioned as a general, but got nowhere. Later Washington transferred him to serve under General Horatio Gates.
Malmédy appears to have remained a troublesome officer. After Gates was defeated at Camden and Greene took command, Malmédy spent time badmouthing Greene and calling for his removal. Greene eventually sent Malmédy to North Carolina to recruit militia and obtain more supplies. Malmédy returned with a brigade of North Carolina militia in time to participate in the battle. Greene gave him command of the center of his front line.
Backing up this front line of militia were two small field cannons, three pounders. The artillery came under the command of Captain Lieutenant William Gaines.
Continentals made up the rear line. On the right, the North Carolina line marched under the command of General Sumner. Colonel Otho Holland Williams commanded the right, made up of the Maryland line. In the center, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Campbell led two regiments of the Virginia Line.
Greene also deployed an advance force of about 200 South Carolina State troops under the command of Lieutenant Colonel William Henderson and Light Horse Harry Lee’s cavalry. In reserve, Greene held William Washington’s Continental Dragoons, and the Delaware line under Captain Robert Kirkwood. Greene formed his men into four columns and began the march before dawn on September 8.
Despite his proximity to the enemy, the British commander had no idea that an attack was imminent. The British had lost most of their cavalry and were unable to conduct effective reconnaissance.
At around 6:00 AM, two American deserters entered the British camp and told Colonel Stewart that he was about to be attacked. Stewart deployed Major John Coffin with 140 infantry and 50 cavalry to investigate.
After marching about three miles, Coffin spotted the American advance force under Henderson and immediately ordered a charge. The South Carolina soldiers held their ground and returned fire, killing five and wounding others from the attacking force.
Greene moved his army from columns into lines. The British advance force under Coffin continued to return fire as it slowly fell back. By about 9:00 AM the American advance made contact with the main British force.
Stewart had three regiments of British regulars, supplemented by Provincial regiments, primarily from New York and New Jersey. These were mostly experienced soldiers who had been fighting in the southern campaign for over a year. Provincial Lieutenant Colonel John Harris Cruger, the former commander of Fort Ninety Six, commanded the advance line. Stewart also deployed Major John Majoribanks in a blackjack thicket along the river to cover the British right.
Behind the British right flank was a large brick house that gave coverage to the entire battlefield and whose walls were strong enough to block musket balls. Stewart ordered a detachment of New York Provincials to take cover in the house and fire from the second story windows if the Americans were able to push forward.
Greene probably expected that his front line of militia would break and fall back after a few volleys. While many of the militia had fought in skirmishes before, few of them were experienced in field battles that required them to stand in lines and exchange fire with the enemy. The British fired into their line, including using field cannons. The militia, however, held their lines and continued to fire volleys back at the British.
Colonel Williams later noted that “It was with equal astonishment that both the second line and the enemy second line and the enemy contemplated these men, steadily, and without faltering advance with shouts and exhortations, into the hottest of the enemy’s fire, unaffected by the continual fall of their comrades around them.”
The two lines stood and continued fire for some time. Eventually, the North Carolina militia under Malmédy began to falter. Greene pushed forward the Continentals under Sumner to hold the line. Eventually, patriot lines began to run low on ammunition. As the rate of fire began to decrease, the loyalist provincials rushed forward with a bayonet charge.
The patriots withdrew in good order, then pushed forward again. Williams’ command of the American right flank advanced into the British lines. On the American left, the British fire from the blackjack thicket took a heavy toll on the Maryland line. Greene ordered Colonel Washington to advance into the thicket with his dragoons and the Delaware infantry to clear out the enemy fire. Washington charged his horsemen into the thicket quickly, with the infantry unable to keep up.
When the British held their position, Washington’s horsemen found themselves in the midst of the wooded thicket, unable to maneuver their horses effectively. The British fire decimated the horsemen. Washington’s horse was shot. When it fell, the colonel was trapped under his horse. A British soldier rushed forward and bayoneted Washington in the chest. The cavalry were decimated by the time the Delaware infantry finally arrived and was able to push back the British line in the thicket.
As the American left advanced, the British defenders took their position inside the brick house ,as planned. Some of Lee’s infantry chased the British into the house, hoping to gain access before they could close the doors. There was apparently a real struggle at the door, but the British managed t close it. The Americans had to pull back, using prisoners as human shields against the fire from inside the house.
As the Americans pushed into the British camp, behind the main lines, the army seemed to dissolve. Exhausted and hungry soldiers fell out of line and began pillaging the tents for food and anything else of value. As the American lines fell apart, the British counter attacked.
Greene had brought up his six-pounder cannons to use against the brick house as the Americans tried to push back against the British counterattack in their camp. Colonel Campbell fell, mortally wounded. The artillery crews drew heavy fire from provincial riflemen inside the house, taking heavy casualties. The British then pushed forward and seized the cannons from the enemy and pulled them back to their own line. They also drove the American looters out of their camp and sent them running.
Although the British successfully recaptured the camp, their leader, Major Majoribanks was fatally wounded in the fighting. The Americans pulled back to a wood line, then rallied again. By this time, the fight had been in full engagement for hours. The Americans were running low on ammunition and water. At this point, General Greene opted to pull back and withdraw.
Given the ferocity of the fighting and the unwillingness of either side to back down, the casualty rates were extremely high. The well-directed rifle fire from the house particularly took its toll on American officers. 56 Officers and 40 sergeants were killed or wounded. Colonel Washington managed to survive his bayonet wound to the chest, but was taken prisoner. Militia General Andrew Pickens also survived a bullet wound to the chest, which troubled him for the rest of his life. In total, the Americans took over 500 casualties - about a quarter of those engaged. The British suffered an even higher casualty rate, of about 450 killed and wounded, and another 350 captured.
|Greene Medal for Eutaw Springs
Stewart claimed a British victory to his superiors, since he had held the field at the end of the day. However, the British casualties forced him to withdraw over the following days, eventually having to pull back to the main British lines around Charleston. From a strategic level, that was Greene had hoped to accomplish in the first place. Greene also withdrew. A week later, his army was back in camp in the High Hills of Santee.
A few skirmishes continued in the following days, but both sides needed to contend with their large numbers of wounded. Eutaw Springs would be the last major battle of the war in the Carolinas.
Next week, we move north again, as George Washington attempts to move the combined French and Continental Armies south toward Virginia.
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Previous Episode 295 New London Raid
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Kyte, George W. “General Greene’s Plans for the Capture of Charleston, 1781-1782.” The South Carolina Historical Magazine, vol. 62, no. 2, 1961, pp. 96–106. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27566339.
(from archive.org unless noted)
Hartley, Cecil B. Life of Major General Henry Lee & The Life of General Thomas Sumter, New York: Derby & Jackson, 1859.
Lee, Henry Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States, Washington: Peter Force, 1827.
McCrady, Edward The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1780-1783, New York: The Macmillan Co. 1902.
Ramsay, David The History of the Revolution of South-Carolina, from a British province to an independent state, 1749-1815, Vol. 2, Trenton: Isaac Collins, 1785.
Simms, William G. The Life of Francis Marion, New York, Derby, 1854.
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 Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Buchanan, John The Road to Charleston, Univ. of Va Press, 2019.
Dunkerly, Robert M. & Irene Boland Eutaw Springs: The Final Battle of the American Revolution’s Summer Campaign, Univ. of SC Press, 2017.
Golway, Terry Washington's General : Nathanael Greene and the triumph of the American Revolution, H. Holt, 2006. (borrow on Archive.org)
Lumpkin, Henry From Savannah to Yorktown: the American Revolution in the South, Univ of SC Press, 1981 (borrow on archive.org).
Oller, John The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution, Da Capo Press, 2016 (borrow on archive.org).
Swager, Christine R. The Valiant Died, The Battle of Eutaw Springs, September 8, 1781, Heritage Books, 2019.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.