Streetwise Professor

July 20, 2012

The Most Interesting Revolutionary War Battlefield You’ve Probably Never Heard of-and Almost Certainly Never Visited

Filed under: History,Military — The Professor @ 6:23 pm

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.

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  1. We need to break out some muzzleloaders and invade England just for old time’s sake. It would be a ton of fun to say hi to Queenie (HRH).

    (Email me if you get to head to D.C.)

    Comment by Charles — July 20, 2012 @ 6:36 pm

  2. Sounds like a plan, Charles. I was in DC last month for several days, but was jammed up with a trial. I will probably be back sometime in the fall.

    Thought of you when I saw this. I am sure they have everything totally under control now. Totally. Watch out, bad guys!

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 20, 2012 @ 6:59 pm

  3. There is a wonderful description of the siege of 96 in a historical novel by Kenneth Roberts “Oliver Wiswell”. It is the story of the American Revolution as told by a Tory. I am not sure adults will enjoy it as much as I did in 8-12th grade, but is an interesting exercise in point of view narratives. He also wrote a series of novels about the fighting leading up to the victory at Saratoga – through the characters largely tracing the actions of Benedict Arnold, who was the hero of the entire northeastern campaign from the Invasion of Canada to Saratoga. The last book of the series is called “A Rabble in Arms.” I think the first is “Arundel”

    As regards to a civil war, this was true in the North east as well – over 20 regiments of Loyalist troops garrisoned Long Island, many from New England, adn New York State was profoundly riven. Just for example the DeLanceys were a prominent Loyalist family from NJ and lead Tory troops, and yet even after the war the NYers never changed the street named after them. The most beautiful park in NY (at least in spring and summer)is on the northern end of Manhattan, is the site of the Cloisters and is named Fort Tryon Park. Tryon was the last Royal governor Of New York and the fort guarded the northern approaches to the city.

    Comment by sotos — July 21, 2012 @ 6:54 pm

  4. “Oliver Wiswell” sounds very interesting.

    I agree that all colonies had large numbers of loyalists, and that the Revolutionary War had the character of a civil war throughout the continent. But in the southern colonies-the Carolinas in particular-it was characterized by an internecine savagery unmatched in the northern colonies. I think in part that was because the British control in northern areas was well-established and delineated, whereas in the South everything was in flux. Loyalists could flourish in New York behind British ramparts and under the guns of the Royal Navy. The British presence in the Carolinas was much less pervasive, and more intermittent, due to the size of the area and its lack of development. Add to the mix the inherent violence of frontier regions and the nature of the Scots-Irish who were so prevalent in the region and you have a whole different level of savagery in the Carolinas.

    A similar example is Missouri, and especially the Missouri-Kansas borderlands, during the Civil War.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 22, 2012 @ 8:07 pm

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