Ninety Six National Historic Site | HISTORY OF NINETY SIX

"The Struggle for the Star" by Robert Wilson, 1977

“The Struggle for the Star” by Robert Wilson, 1977

Ninety Six was the site of the American Revolution’s very first land battle in the southern colonies. But why would a battle take place in the backcountry of South Carolina to begin with? Why would the Patriots (colonists who wanted to break from England) and Loyalists (colonists loyal to England) be fighting over a place in the middle of nowhere? The answers to these questions are quite interesting and reveal a little known history about the war.

Pre-war History

The significance of Ninety Six began nearly twenty-five years before the American Revolution in 1751 (some accounts say 1753) when trader Robert Gouedy formerly opened a trading post along the Charles Town Road. This was the major trade route between Charles Town (what Charleston, South Carolina was called back then) and the Cherokee Indians. Gouedy was not the first settler in the area, but he went on to become the most prominent.

Gouedy’s trading post was near the junction of three significant roads: the Charles Town Road; the Whitehall Road, which led to Augusta, Georgia; and the Island Ford Road, which connected to a ferry that crossed the Saluda River. The roads were wide, well-worn dirt paths, and many were former Indian trails. They were in use long before Gouedy’s trading post, having served as the trade routes between the white settlers who traded guns, blankets, and other goods to the Cherokee Indians for rice, indigo, and deer skins. In fact, Gouedy himself was a seasoned Indian trader. He had traveled the roads many times before settling down at one spot to open a business.

The name Ninety Six first showed up on a map in 1730, so it was coined long before Gouedy. The origin of the name is unknown, though tall tales and folklore provide many possibilities. One suggests that the name came from the “fact” that Ninety Six was 96 miles from the Cherokee village of Keowee (near present-day Clemson).

The Indian Wars of 1760-1761

Throughout the 1750s, tensions grew between the Indians and the increasing number of white settlers who came to the area. In 1759, a stockade was built around Gouedy’s barn, house, and outbuildings to give local residents a place to gather during threats and attacks from the Indians. The stockade became known as Fort Ninety Six. In 1760, two major attacks by the Cherokee were thwarted by the fort, though all buildings outside the walls were burned down. The violence eventually prompted the British to send troops. Colonel Archibald Montgomery was in charge of the campaign, and on his way to engage the Overhill Cherokee he stopped at Fort Ninety Six and left behind fifty men. Montgomery ultimately failed at his effort to subdue the Cherokee, prompting the British to start another campaign under Lt. Colonel James Grant. He sent Major William Moultrie and 200 soldiers to Ninety Six to set up a base camp, which led to the building of a new fort near the old one. This site is believed to be where the original town of Ninety Six was started.

In 1761, the British and the Cherokee signed a peace treaty. Being the victors, the British gained land from the Cherokee, and the Cherokee agreed not to travel beyond Keowee. In the meantime, the British promised protection and free land to anyone willing to settle the area, and the town of Ninety Six soon formed not far from the original trading post at the intersection of the aforementioned roads. Gouedy’s post was eventually abandoned, and all traces of it disappeared. Today you can walk past the site along the Gouedy Trail.

Site of Robert Gouedy’s trading post

Site of Robert Gouedy’s trading post

At first there was no law enforcement in the new town and crime was rampant. Settlers took matters into their own hands by forming what they called Regulators: men who often acted as judge, jury, and hangman. In 1769, the South Carolina General Assembly agreed to provide law enforcement in the backcountry, and by 1772, Ninety Six had a jail and courthouse. By 1775, the town had twelve houses, and more than 100 people lived in the area.

Ninety Six and the American Revolution

The sentiment among the backcountry settlers about independence from Great Britain was split. Many were satisfied just to be left alone since they were rather far from the hub of the colonial government in Charleston. The British also provided protection from the Indians, not to mention that most of their trade goods were bought for sale back in England. These settlers remained loyal to the British and were thus called Loyalists. Others felt the colonial government had not followed through on promises to help out financially and were therefore inclined to seek independence. This led to the first battle of the American Revolution in the southern colonies (November 19, 1775). The little known historical fact referred to earlier is that this battle was fought between colonists, not between colonists and British soldiers. An army of 1,900 Loyalists engaged 600 Patriots at Ninety Six for two days, with the battle ending in a draw. However, this is not the battle that Ninety Six is remembered for. It was just one of many skirmishes near Ninety Six between Loyalists and Patriots for the next six years, many of which were caused by personal disputes among settlers rather than for independence from the British.

The British controlled most of South Carolina and Georgia through 1780. However, starting in 1781 things began to change, first with the British defeat at Kings Mountain, South Carolina, then at Cowpens, South Carolina (both are now National Park sites). After these defeats, the British and Loyalists retreated back to the coast, leaving only two backcountry outposts manned with soldiers, one at Augusta, Georgia, and one at Ninety Six.

The Loyalists built two forts in the Ninety Six area, sandwiching the town between them. On one end was the Star Fort (finished in early 1781), an earthen fort with walls 14 feet high and thick enough to stop a cannon ball.

Artist rendition of the Star Fort

Artist rendition of the Star Fort

Patriot cannon aims at the remains of the Star Fort

Patriot cannon aims at the remains of the Star Fort

On the other end of town was the Stockade Fort (aka Holmes Fort), with walls made of timbers driven into the ground to create a fence. The forts were manned by 500 Loyalists—not British soldiers—under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Cruger.

Historically accurate reconstruction of the Stockade Fort

Historically accurate reconstruction of the Stockade Fort

In May of 1781, Patriot forces in South Carolina decided to attack both Augusta and Ninety Six. General Nathanael Greene and an army of 1,000 men were assigned to attack Ninety Six; colonels Henry Lee and Andrew Pickens were sent to attack Augusta. Greene and his men marched down the Island Ford Road and arrived at Ninety Six on May 21, 1781.

Original Island Ford Road, used so much that travelers wore the path into the ground

Original Island Ford Road, used so much that travelers wore the path into the ground

Engineer Thaddeus Kosciuszko—who has a National Park site in Philadelphia, the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial—convinced Greene to first attack and capture the Star Fort, for once that fell the town and the Stockade Fort would be easy pickings. Realizing there was no way to mount a direct assault due to the fortifications of the Star Fort, Greene commenced a siege on the fort: a long, drawn out attack meant to cut off the Loyalists from supplies and to wear them down until they surrendered.

Kosciuszko’s idea was to get troops close enough to the fort to attack, but marching them over open ground would be suicide. The siege tactics of the day dictated digging zigzagging lines of trenches closer and closer to the target. The trenches provided cover for the attacking soldiers. An initial trench was dug parallel to the target, then another trench branched out forward and to an angle, and after a certain distance another parallel trench was dug. However, digging trenches in what amounts to clay, the soil in the area, was no easy task. It took the Patriots nearly three weeks to finish three parallel trenches. This got them to within musket range.

Trenches dug by the Patriots so that they could approach the Star Fork under cover of the high walls

Trenches dug by the Patriots so that they could approach the Star Fork under cover of the high walls

At this point, Kosciuszko began to dig a tunnel towards the fort with the intention of filling it with gunpowder and blowing a hole in the fort walls. This is the only known tunnel dug for this purpose during the entire American Revolution. In the meantime, Colonel Henry Lee, having taken Augusta, arrived and began a siege of the Stockade Fort. This cut off the Loyalist in the Star Fort from their water supply. They attempted to dig a well within the fort, but after 25 feet and no water, they gave up. The hole still exists.

The digging of the tunnel was abandoned once the Patriots received word that the British were sending 2,000 reinforcements. On July 18th, realizing that time was running out, Greene ordered a simultaneous attack on both the Star Fort and the Stockade Fort. While the attack on the Stockade Fort was successful, the attack on the Star Fort failed. As a result, Greene decided to abandon the Stockade Fort and retreat before the reinforcements arrived. The Patriot losses were 185 killed or wounded, and the Loyalists had 27 killed and 58 wounded.

One month later, the British decided Ninety Six was too far away to protect, so Cruger had the entire town burned to the ground. The Loyalist troops and civilians retreated back to Charles Town.

After the war, in 1787, former settlers returned and established the town of Cambridge, this time near to where the Stockade Fort was once located. Former Ninety Six residents were given the chance to exchange their old lots for ones in the new town. At its high point, Cambridge had a population of around 300, and even had a college. However, restructuring of the political districts in South Carolina less than a decade after the town’s founding led to the exodus of the local merchants. By 1803, the college had closed. In 1815 a flu epidemic killed off many of the remaining residents. In 1860, the post office was closed and Cambridge officially died.

In 1852, the town of Lodi was renamed Ninety Six by the Post Office. This is the Ninety Six that still exists today.

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Last updated on October 15, 2019
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