Situated in the South Carolina backcountry at the crossroads of important trade routes, Ninety Six was a newly established courthouse town on the eve of the Revolutionary War. The question of independence deeply divided the inhabitants of the district. For many colonists, land grants and protection from Indian incursions created strong devotion toward Great Britain. Others thought that the crown had shirked promises of better government to backcountry settlers and favored independence. With mounting tensions and the absence of British authority, conflict began in the South Carolina backcountry as a civil war.
On July 12, 1775, patriot forces seized nearby Fort Charlotte on the Savannah River. Returning to Ninety Six with captured ammunition, the triumphant party was met by a group of Loyalists who had been informed by a defector from the patriot ranks. The affair ended without bloodshed, and the gunpowder was returned to the fort. Fighting was narrowly averted again a few weeks later when Tory forces gathered and threatened. Whig political leader William Henry Drayton and Major Andrew Williamson countered with a show of force, and the standoff ended with both sides agreeing to a truce on September 16. Weeks later a force of eighteen hundred Loyalists attacked one-third that number of patriots under Williamson, who gathered Whig forces in a hastily erected stockade near Ninety Six on November 18, 1775. The two groups had been jockeying for control of a supply of gunpowder and lead sent to the Cherokees by the colonial government. After three days of fighting with few casualties, the two sides agreed to a brief truce. Although neither side admitted defeat, Loyalist forces failed to recover the ammunition and withdrew. A month later, a substantial patriot force mounted an expedition, the so-called “Snow Campaign,” to crush organized Loyalist opposition.
The following year saw an increase in attacks on settlements in Ninety Six District by hostile Cherokees. In late July 1776 Williamson, now a brigadier general, mounted a punitive expedition into the Cherokee Nation, which ended in October. The village of Ninety Six experienced a period of relative peace for the next few years. Although Loyalists remained in the region, the courthouse village retained Whig rule. Crown forces, however, shifted their strategic focus from the northern to the southern colonies with the capture of Savannah in December 1778. Charleston fell in May 1780. Lieutenant Colonel Nisbet Balfour was quickly dispatched up the Cherokee Path to deal with any patriot militia still under arms in the upcountry. Arriving at Ninety Six in late June, he found that rebel leaders had surrendered the fort and munitions to royal authority a few days earlier. By the end of the year, the British had strengthened the old fort’s defenses and established Ninety Six as a depot and meeting ground for Tories.
Losses at King’s Mountain, Cowpens, and other engagements set the British on less than sure footing in South Carolina by February 1781. After the Battle of Guilford Court House in North Carolina in mid-March, the British commander in the South, Lord Cornwallis, retired to the North Carolina coast with his battered army. Instead of pursuing, the American commander, Major General Nathanael Greene, set out to reduce the chain of posts in occupied South Carolina. Royal forces soon surrendered or abandoned many positions in the northern and central parts of the state, and Greene turned his attention to the western garrison at Ninety Six. American forces arrived in late May. With his chief engineer, Colonel Thad- deus Kosciuszko, Greene surveyed the fortifications and decided to lay siege to the Star Fort, then under the command of New York Loyalist Colonel John Harris Cruger.
For twenty-eight days the small American army steadily dug siege lines and defended them against frequent sallies by the fort’s defenders. Other means were tried as well. But on June 17 word of a British relief column reached the besieged village. Greene reluctantly ordered an assault the next day, and for nearly an hour his soldiers bravely tried to breach the fort’s defenses without success. When Cruger’s men counterattacked successfully, the American commander ordered a retreat. The American army withdrew from Ninety Six two days before British reinforcements arrived. Afterward British commanders deemed the post untenable and abandoned their position within the week. The departing British Army demolished the fortifications and set fire to the few buildings still standing. The civil war would linger in the region for many months, but the withdrawal marked the end of a British presence at Ninety Six.
Bass, Robert D. Ninety Six: The Struggle for the South Carolina Back Country. Lexington, S.C.: Sandlapper Store, 1978.
Cann, Marvin L. “Prelude to War: The First Battle of Ninety-Six, November 19–21, 1775.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 76 (October 1975): 197–214.
———. “War in the Backcountry: The Siege of Ninety Six, May 22–June 19, 1781.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 72 (January 1971): 1–14.
Greene, Jerome A. Ninety Six: A Historical Narrative. Denver, Colo.: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1978.