Located in the backwoods of western South Carolina is a tiny hamlet known as Ninety Six. There’s a lot of speculation of as to how the town got its name, but no one really knows. The town says it most likely got its name when a Cherokee maiden rode her horse ninety-six miles from the capital city of the Cherokee nation, Keowee. She rode to an outpost to warn them about the approaching attack by the Indians.
Today, the thriving 1.5 square mile metropolis boasts a population of about 2,000. Located about 8 miles east of Greenwood, South Carolina on State Route 34, most people might drive right through Ninety Six without really noticing it or realizing its historic past.
In the 1770s, Ninety Six was a bustling outpost with about a dozen buildings, including homes and businesses. The outpost’s most prized feature was the two-story brick jail and courthouse. Someone at the time described Ninety Six as:
“Ninety Six is situate[d] on an eminence in a flourishing part of the country, the land round about it is generally good. Natural growth is Oaks, Black Walnut, Hickery, etc., which are very large and thrifty. The land is cleared for a mile round the Town. It produces wheat, Indian Corn, oats, Hemp, Flax, Cotton, and Indigo.”
You would think that such a small community would be fairly tight knit and close, but that wasn’t the case as seen with the news of the beginning of the Revolutionary War. The community and surrounding area quickly divided into two groups – British loyalists and Patriot Whigs. Among the Loyalists were Thomas Brown, Patrick Cunningham, David Fannin and Joseph Robinson. On the Whig side was wealthy landowner James Mayson.
Even the colony of South Carolina was in turmoil over the war. Arthur Campbell, the Royal Governor fled, leaving the Committee of Safety in Charleston to take over governing the colony. The Committee of Safety supported the colonial effort to win their independence from Great Britain.
In early July, 1775, Mayson knew the conflict between the two sides, deep in the South Carolina backwoods, would come to a head so he moved a couple of cannons, munitions and other supplies from Fort Charlotte to the Ninety Six. However, the Loyalists quickly learned of his bold move and arrested Mayson, placing him in their jail while they confiscated all of the weapons, munitions and supplies. Once the Loyalists had the supplies, they let Mayson out of jail.
Mayson wrote about what happened:
“…a party of about 200 dissafected People . . . Headed by Robt & Patrick Cunningham, and major Robinson . . . came to Ninety Six all armed with Rifles . . .and . . . demanded the Powder . . . for the King . . .”
Willian Henry Drayton and Rev. William Tennent were sent buy the Committee of Safety to the backcountry, including Ninety Six, to explain to the people the necessity to side with the Patriots in order to preserve their way of life, families and freedoms. After arriving at Ninety Six, Drayton began fortifying the town, writing about it saying:
“The courthouse was not musket proof, and the prison could not contain a third of our men. I fortified the prison by mounting a gun in each room below, in each of which I placed a small guard, I lodged the powder in the dungeon.”
Towards November 1775, Patriots quickly banded together and built a fortification in the Ninety Six area. They used fencing and rails for a perimeter and even dug a well inside so that they would have a supply of water.
On November 19-21, 1775, about 500 Patriots in Ninety Six came under attack by a larger Loyalist force. After 3 days of fighting with losses on both sides, an uneasy truce was called and the battle ended. Even though Ninety Six was hidden in the backcountry of western South Carolina, this three-day battle was the first Revolutionary War land battle in the southern colonies.
By early 1781, Ninety Six was not only under the control of the Loyalists, but a contingent of British troops had also arrived. The small outpost was considered to be a strategic location in the area. They built a star-shaped fort around the perimeter of Ninety Six. The outermost part of Star Fort was protected with a large earthen wall. Inside the earthen embankment, the British had dug tunnels.
On this day, May 22, 1781, Patriot Major General Nathaniel Greene led 1,000 Patriot troops in an attack against the British at Star Fort and Ninety Six. British Lieutenant Colonel John Harris Cruger was outmanned, having about 550 Loyalists, but he managed to repel Greene’s assault.
Before arriving at Ninety Six, Greene and Brigadier General Francis Marion, nicknamed the Swamp Fox, had already taken 5 outposts from the British. Greene was sure that Ninety Six and Star Fort would be number 6.
Failing to take the fort and city, Greene laid siege to Star Fort and Ninety Six. They built trenches and structures designed by Thaddeus Kosciusko, a famed engineer of the Continental Army. Greene staged his cannons and troops to begin the long siege against the Loyalists.
On June 18, 1781, Greene learned that British Lieutenant Colonel Francis Rawdon was on his way with more Loyalists and British troops to help reinforce the Loyalists at Ninety Six and Star Fort. Greene knew it was now or never, so he launched another attack to take the Loyalist stronghold, but was once again driven back.
On June 19, 1781, Rawdon arrived and Greene withdrew his Patriots from Ninety Six. The 28-day siege of Ninety Six and Star Fort turned out to be the longest siege of the Revolutionary War.
On July 1, 1781, Rawdon and Cruger left Ninety Six in the hands of the Loyalists. Not only was Ninety Six the site of the first land battle in the South but it also ended up being the last Loyalist fort left in all of South Carolina. For a tiny little hamlet hidden in the hills and woods of western South Carolina has quite a history for their part in the War for Independence.
Sources for the above includes: Chaos in the Backcountry: Battle of Ninety Six; Local History; The Siege of Ninety-Six; Ninety Six: Leaders of the Siege; Patriot Siege of Ninety Six, South Carolina, Begins; Maps of Ninety Six, South Carolina (1781); Revolutionary War Tunnel Preserved, Explored in Ninety Six.