Ninety Six National Historic Site

Location: Greenwood, South Carolina

Webpage: National Park

Brochure

General Description: In 1751, Ninety Six became a stopover for traders when Robert Gouedy opened a trading post on the Cherokee Path from Charles Town (Charleston).  The reason for the name is a mystery, although the most common explanation is the distance to the Cherokee town of Keowee, near today’s Clemson.  Robert Gouedy grew a business that rivaled some of Charleston’s merchants, growing grain, tabacco, and cattle, serving as banker, and trading all manner of goods to the Cherokee and early settlers.  However, tensions between settlers and the Cherokee was on the rise so a stockade was built around the trading post and it became Fort Ninety Six until 1760 when the Cherokee unsuccessfully attacked the fort twice.  In 1761, the Cherokees signed a treaty limiting them to the west of Keowee.  The British enticed settlers into the region by offering financial aid, free tools, and free land and the town of Ninety Six became the major outpost in the frontier.  By the time of the American Revolution, Ninety Six was a prosperous community with homes, a courthouse, and brick jail.  Sentiment about independence was divided throughout the area, since protection from the Cherokees created strong loyalties to the Crown, while others through the crown shirked on its promises.  On November 19, 1775, just months after Lexington and Concord, Ninety Six saw the first major land battle in the South.  1,900 loyalists attacked about 600 patriots gathered at Ninety Six under Major Williamson in an attempt to seize ammunition and supplies.  After two days of fighting, the two sides agreed to a truce, but the fighting did not end there.  A savage war of factions continued throughout the frontier between loyalists and patriot militia and armed bands.  The strong support of the loyalists in the South was a major reason Great Britain turned their attention to the South after the Revolutionary War had bogged down in the North in late 1778 with an assault on Savannah.  In May, 1780, loyalists captured Charleston after a lengthy siege and by September, 1780 the loyalists led by General Lord Cornwallis had control of Georgia and the coast of South Carolina.  Appearing unstoppable, General Cornwallis was poised to take the war north into Virginia.  However, he had not counted on the patriot support of the frontier Scots-Irish.  On October 7 he lost his entire left offensive arm and its commander Major Ferguson at Kings Mountain, South Carolina.  On January 17, 1781 he lost his right striking force under the command of Colonel Tarleton at Cowpens, South Carolina.  In addition, Cornwallis faced a resurgent Continental Army now under the command of General Nathaniel Greene.  Using hit and run tactics, Greene continued to harass Cornwallis as he moved towards Virginia finally clashing with the Continental Army at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina.  While technically a victory for Cornwallis, he suffered such great losses along with a lengthy supply line back to Charleston, that he withdrew back towards Charleston instead of pursuing Greene.  Rather than pursue Cornwallis, General Greene set out to reduce the chain of backcountry posts held by the British leading eventually to Ninety Six in May 1781.  The hamlet of Ninety Six was now a political and cultural center for the South Carolina backcountry, garrisoned by Lt. Col. Cruger and 550 loyalists.  When Cruger took command in 1780 he used the loyalist soldiers and slaves to reinforce the walls of the town’s stockade and Stockade Fort on the hill overlooking the town to the west.  He also built a formidable Star Fort to the northeast of town interconnecting all three with communication trenches that provided cover from attacks.  When General Greenealong with 1000 regulars and militia arrived on May 21, 1781 these formidable defenses along with a lack of heavy artillery, convinced him that they only way to capture Ninety Six was with a siege.  The patriots cut off access to the roads and lay siege for 28 days.  Concentrating on the Star Fort, Col Kosciuszko, a military engineer and aide to Greene, began the construction of trenches.  The first parallel was completed on June 1, the second on June 3, and the third on June 10.  The patriots were now in firing range of the fort and they constructed a 30 foot wooden tower to fire down into the fort.  However, the loyalists increased the height of their earthen wall using sand bags to protect the troops.  A tunnel was began to undermine the walls, however, word of approaching reinforcements forced General Greene’s hand.  Around noon on June 18, General Greene ordered an assault beginning with the taking of the Stockade Fort by Light-horse Henry Lee who joined Greene after their victory in Augusta.  Launching the attack from the third parallel, men with hooks axes to cut through the sharpened stakes surrounding the fort and hooks to pull down the sandbags, stormed the fort.  The assault failed when Cruger ordered soldiers to circle from both directions from the rear of the fort and trap the patriots in the ditch.  By now the rescue column from Charleston was by now too close, so Greene withdrew his army before dawn on Jen 20.  Being unable to maintain control of the frontier, the loyalists also abandoned Ninety Six by July, moving to a post closer to the coast and burning the town.  Following the Revolutionary War, Ninety Six never did regain its prominence and faded into history.  Today all that remains of the town and fort are the earthworks walls of the Star Fort.  In 1973 and 1974, archeologists found evidence of the siege trenches and restored the outlines which can be seen by a wooden viewing tower constructed on the north end.  They have also partially reconstructed the wooden tower used by the patriots to fire down into the fort.  Finally, the Stockade Fort has also been reconstructed giving visitors a good sense of the size and defenses used at the time.

Impressions:

1) The Visitor Center at Ninety Six has a small museum that cover the history of the town and Revolutionary War, along with many artifacts found in the area.  There is a short movie that does a great job giving the event leading up to the siege in 1781 along with the major characters in the battle on both sides.  The movie uses actors to portray the characters and even included real life actors constructing the Star Fort, as well as, the parallels dug during the siege.  By combining animation overlaying the actual ground you get a very good understanding of what you will see at the site.

VisitorCenter

2) There is a short walk from the Visitor Center to the battlegrounds.  The walk first travels up the Island Ford Road which is still an easily seen sunken road from all the historical traffic.

SunkenRoad

3) The walk then goes to an observation platform which gets you high enough to easily see the siege trenches and walls surrounding the star fort.  This is an amazing view.  The walk then snakes around the siege trenches to the rifle tower and mine entry.

TrenchesFromTower

4) The Star Fort was never anything more than an earthen structure with sand bags on top, ditch in front, and abatis of sticks and brush beyond the ditch.  Although the walls have eroded some since then, they are still very visible structures on the landscape.  Inside the walls, you can see the well they attempted to dig to provide water in the fort, but after 30 feet had not struck water.  Water had to be supplied from the town using the communication trenches.

StarFort FailedWell

5) The path continues to the outline of the town of Ninety Six, which is all that remains.

Townsite

6) Finally the path takes you up the hill to the Stockade Fort which has been partially reconstructed so you can get a better sense of the defensive structure of the fort.

StockadeFortDitch

7) When you are at the town site, you can take a side trip along the Gouedy Trail, a 1.5 mile loop through the bottomland hardwood forest.  The trail takes you to the site of Robert Gouedy’s trading post and the original Fort Ninety Six, the grave of Robert’s son, James, an unmarked graves site which was likely a slave cemetery, and Ninety Six Creek.

GouedyTradingPostBottomlandHardwood

8)  Near the Visitor Center they have brought in a log cabin built in the late 1700s using rough hewn planks as an example.  They use the cabin as an educational and demonstration center during the summer.

LogCabin

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