The Most Interesting Revolutionary War Battlefield You’ve Probably Never Heard of-and Almost Certainly Never Visited
I am in Ben Bernanke’s home town, Columbia, SC. (Psst. Don’t tell anyone that my great-great-great-great uncle helped burn the place down in February, 1865.) No, I am not making a pilgrimage to Ben’s birthplace. I am on a mini-vacation with my dad, visiting some historical sites.
Today we visited the Ninety Six National Historical Site. You have to want to go there, because it’s not on the way to anywhere. At least now. Back in the mid-18th century, it was a fairly important place, because it was on the way between Charleston and the Cherokee lands to the west. The most common explanation of the name is that the settlement was 96 miles from the Cherokee town of Keowee, but only per the measurements of a drunken surveyor: the actual distance is in the mid-80 mile range.
Ninety Six was the site of bookend battles in the American Revolution. It was the location of the first major action in the South, in November 1775. It also saw a major battle a few months before Yorktown, when Nathaniel Greene (the most underrated general in American history) unsuccessfully besieged the place in May-June, 1781 before being driven off by a relief force under General Rawlinson. All the combatants on both sides in both battles were Americans: the war in the South was a civil war, with all of the bitterness and horror that entails.
Most Revolutionary War sites are underwhelming. The battles were small, with a few thousand on each side even in the bigger battles. The siege at Ninety Six involved less than 2000 combatants. The combatants didn’t mark the fields, as was done with big engagements in the Civil War. Some battlefields are dimly understood: the general locations are known, but lack of documentation makes it impossible to know precisely what happened where. So sometimes visiting a Rev War site is about as interesting as looking out into your back yard, or visiting a local park.
Ninety Six is an exception. The site contains one of the best preserved earthworks from the War: the British “Star Fort” that Greene (and his chief engineer, Thaddeus Kosciusko) unsuccessfully besieged. There are remnants of the American sap trenches and parallels, the last of which was within a stone’s throw of the fort. The Americans were so close you would think they could have taken the place in a rush, but obstacles including abattis (interlaced tree branches) and chaveaux des frises (sharpened stakes) and a moat/ditch slowed attackers: a forlorn hope attack by 60 Americans was beaten back with 50 percent casualties. There is also the remnants of a mine that the Americans were digging under the work, but which they abandoned when Rawlinson’s Rawdon’s army approached, lifting the siege.
The Park Service has also reconstructed the palisade fort where the 1775 battle took place. Everything is well marked, and pristine: civilization really does not encroach, so the visitor can get a feel for what it was like in 1775 or 1781. The visitors’ center has a nice 20 minute film. NHS and NBP films are highly uneven: some are truly cringeworthy. But the Ninety Six film is quite well done (except for the ahistorical exploding shells: the artillery used in the battles was capable only of firing solid ammunition): it won an award at a Houston film festival last year. The staff is also cheerful and helpful.
There are few Revolutionary War battlefields I think worth an extended visit. Ninety Six is definitely one of them. It is out of the way, but if you are in western NC (where my parents live) or western or central SC it is worth a trip. Especially if you can go with your dad.
Here are a couple of pics. The first is a view of the last American parallel (and the site of sharpshooter’s tower) from the rampart of the fort.
The second is a view of the fort (in the background) with the American saps and parallels in the foreground.