Chaos in the Backcountry: Battle of Ninety Six

A Frontier Crossroads

Today a remote and quiet corner of South Carolina, Ninety Six was once a bustling center of activity, and one of the most important sites in the state at the start of the Revolution.  It began as a trading post that saw service in both the Cherokee War of the 1750s and the Regulator Movement a decade later.

One of the likely reasons that the backcountry was so bitterly divided during the Revolution was lingering tension and bitterness from the Regulator conflict.  Feeling neglected by the government in Charleston, facing high taxes, crime, and Indian raids, settlers on the frontier demanded more law and order, or regulation, in the backcountry.  Vigilantes took justice into their own hands: patrolling roads, hunting criminals, and whipping offenders.  Eventually the crisis ended without much violence, but unrest among settlers lingered.[1]

By the early 1770s, Ninety Six contained approximately twelve houses, public buildings and businesses.  The town boasted an imposing two story brick jail and a courthouse.  One observer described the town: “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.”

South Carolina, like nearly all the colonies, had militia laws in place in the eighteenth century.  Militia kept law and order and performed other public services like building roads.  Militia service was mandatory for nearly all free white males from age sixteen to sixty.

War comes to South Carolina

As news of the fighting at Lexington and Concord reached the South, civilians of the backcountry began choosing sides.  Divisions left over from the Regulator period influenced the choices of many.  Families and communities had many old scores to settle with neighbors.  The local militia split into two camps: Loyalist and Whig.

Royal Governor Arthur Campbell had fled, and a Committee of Safety in Charleston was now running the colony.  The Committee oversaw efforts to put the province on a footing for waging war.  Their mission varied by region: the threat of slave insurrection and British assault on the coast, Cherokee attacks on the exposed western frontier, and the fiercely divided interior with many Loyalists organizing to take up arms.

In the Ninety Six District, Thomas Brown, David Fanning, Joseph Robinson, and Patrick Cunningham were charismatic leaders who began mobilizing Loyalist forces.

On the Whig side, James Mayson, a wealthy landowner who resided a few miles from Ninety Six, began to take the lead in organizing Whig forces.  In early July, 1775, Mayson moved supplies from Fort Charlotte, on the Savannah River, to Ninety Six.  He wrote that he “took out the two Brass Pieces [cannons] and Some ammunition & sundry other Articles.”  Area Loyalists moved to intercept him.

On July 17th, Mayson wrote that “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 . . .”  They arrested Mayson and placed him in the jail, and removed “everything that came from Fort Charlotte” and left that evening.  As they departed they released Mayson.[2]

The Committee of Safety ordered Col. Thomas Fletchall to get the Upper Saluda militia to sign their names to the Continental Association, the colonial boycott of British goods.  Writing in July of 1775 he wrote that “I don’t remember that one man offered to sign it and it was out of my power to compel them to.”  Loyalism was very strong in region, and the Whigs would have a hard time coercing the population.[3]

In fact, Fletchall illustrates the issues facing many settlers.  Henry Laurens insisted that he openly declare for the Whigs.  Fletchall replied “I am heartily sorry that I am looked on as an enemy to my country . . . But . . . I am resolved, and do utterly refuse to take up arms against my King . . .”   To Fletchell’s mind, as with many of his neighbors, his “country” was England, and he could not actively participate in efforts to challenge its authority.[4]

The Committee of Safety sent William Henry Drayton and Rev. William Tennent mission to backcountry.  The Committee of Safety instructed them “to explain to the people at large the nature of the unhappy public disputes between Great Britain and the American Colonies- to endeavor to settle all political disputes between the people- to quiet their minds, and to enforce the necessity of a general union in order to preserve themselves and their children from slavery . . .”  They appeared at militia musters and other public gatherings to explain the actions taken by the Provisional Congress and Committee of Safety, and to build support for the Whig leadership in Charleston.[5]

While at Ninety Six, Drayton fortified the town, and wrote that, “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.”[6]

A confrontation was nearly at hand, as Fletchall’s and Drayton’s troops were near each other.   Tempers cooled, however, and both sides negotiated at Ninety Six on September 16th.  Here they agreed on a treaty, and blamed the crisis on misunderstandings that “too often precipitate men and friends into quarrels and bloodshed.”   With this pledge of neutrality neither side was willing to act first in shedding blood, yet both sides dissatisfied with the agreement.[7]

The next event to occur in the region escalated into open conflict.  The Committee of Safety had sent wagons with 1,000 pounds of gunpowder to ensure the Cherokee’s neutrality.  Keeping the Indians pacified on the western frontier was a primary concern for the fledgling state government.  Rumors began to spread in the backcountry that the powder was to arm the Cherokee to attack the Loyalists.  Led by Cunningham, Loyalists set out to confiscate the wagons and their precious cargo.

On October 31st, just eighteen miles from Ninety Six, Patrick Cunningham and 150 men stopped the convoy and raided the wagons.  One of the wagon drivers stated that, “up came a large body of armed men, in number, I suppose one hundred and fifty, headed by Patrick Cunningham and Jacob Bowman.  Cunningham ordered his men to halt, and then came up to the deponent and said, I order you to stop your wagon in his majesty’s name, as I understand you have ammunition for the Indians to kill us, and I am come on purpose to take it in his majesty’s name. He then ordered the deponent to take off his wagon cloth, which he refused; upon which Cunningham mounted the wagon himself, loosed the strings of the cloth, and took up a keg of the powder, ‘there’ said he, ‘is what we are in search of.  I immediately took the keg from him and laid it in the wagon.’  Cunningham said, ‘it is in vain for you to attempt to hinder us from taking this ammunition, as you have no arms;’ he then handed out every keg to his men who were along side the wagon and prepared with bags to receive it.”[8]

Major Andrew Williamson, a nearby militia commander, wanted to retrieve the powder, and both sides began to mobilize and moved towards the village of Ninety Six.    Drayton wrote that, “Maj. Andrew Williamson, who had the command of the militia at Ninety-Six, went in pursuit of the party that seized the powder, but was obliged to retreat before superior numbers.”[9]

Williamson, at the head of 562 men, arrived at the village of Ninety Six on November 19th.  They fortified the buildings of a farm west of the town, overlooking a small ravine.  In the meantime, 1,500 Loyalists under Cunningham closed in on them.[10]

Mayson recalled that, “We had, at most, not more than five hundred men.  At first consultations with Major Williamson, we agreed to march and meet the opposite party and give them battle; but, upon consideration, we thought it most prudent to march all our men to Col. Savage’s old field . . . as our numbers were small, compared with the other party, and to fortify the same place with the rails thereabouts.  We arrived there about day break, and in about two hours a square of one hundred and eighty five yards, was fortified in such manner as to keep off the enemy . . .”[11]

This force consisted of militia from the Ninety Six District; the modern day counties of Greenwood, McCormick, Edgefield, Abbeville, Laurens, Saluda, Lexington, Anderson, Aiken, Union, and Spartanburg Counties.  He wrote that his troops marched from their camp at Ninety Six to “the cleared ground . . . where we could use our artillery with advantage, and there fortify our camp till we should receive more certain information . . .”[12]

The Reconstructed fort at Ninety Six.  Based on archaeology, it shows the shelter used by the Whigs in the battle. Source: National Park Service
The Reconstructed fort at Ninety Six. Based on archaeology, it shows the shelter used by the Whigs in the battle. Source: National Park Service

First Blood: The Siege of Ninety Six

Williamson’s fort consisted of “old fence rails joined to a barn and some out houses, which before we had quite completed they had surrounded us with a large body of men with drums and colors.”  Three of Savage’s farm structures were connected by upright logs, or palisades, and the entire compound was enclosed with an earthwork.[13]

Soon almost 2,000 Loyalists arrived at Ninety Six, taking over the town and fortifying the jail.  Although on higher ground, the Whigs were outnumbered, and the Loyalists had good cover in the buildings of the town.  The entrenched Patriot force had enough supplies and gunpowder to withstand a siege of several days, but no water.  From the town and jail just 160 yards away, the confrontation began.  Robinson insisted that the Whigs deliver their arms and disperse.  Williamson refused.

The tense standoff was broken when the Loyalists captured two Whigs who had ventured out of the fort, apparently to get water.  A “warm engagement ensued, which continued with very little intermission from three o’clock in the afternoon of Sunday, until Tuesday sunset, when they hung out a white flag from the jail, and called to us that they wanted to speak to the commanding officers.”  With this firing, the first major battle of the war south of New England had begun.[14]

For two days the Loyalists tried to take the fort.  Williamson’s defenders had two swivel guns (small, mobile artillery pieces) that kept the Loyalists at a respectful distance.

At first the Loyalists did not try to storm the fort, but fired at it from the jail and other buildings in the town, as well as from cover on other sides of Williamson’s Fort.  On the second day they tried to burn the defenders out, igniting the field and fences near the fort.  Using this as a smokescreen, a force under Major John Robbins advanced using a wooden shelter of sticks and branches.  As they approached the fort, however, their shelter caught on fire, forcing them to retreat.[15]

Desperate for water, Williamson’s men dug a well inside their cramped fort but never reached water.  A small spring about 100 yards to the east was their closest source.

Mayson noted that “our men began to be outrageous for want of bread and water, and we had not above sixteen pounds of gunpowder left.”[16]

Williamson claimed that from 2,000 pounds of gunpowder, they were reduced to thirty, a tremendous amount for a three day period.  The defenders probably returned fire sparingly over the course of the three days and two nights.[17]

David Fanning wrote of the siege that, “I was at that time Sergeant, under the command of Major Joseph Robinson [and] laid siege to a Fort, erected by the Rebels at Ninety- Six; commanded by Col. Mason; which continued for the space of three days, and three nights- at the expiration of which time the Rebels were forced to surrender, and give up the Fort and Artillery.”[18]

By now Williamson’s defenders were out of water and ready for a truce.  Williamson met Cunningham fifty yards from the gate.  They then proceeded into the fort and negotiated.  They agreed to meet the next morning, when they signed the following truce:[19]

Agreement for a cessation of arms between Maj. Joseph Robinson, Commander of a body of his majesty’s militia now under arms for himself and the troops under his command, of the one part; and Major Andrew Williamson and Major James Mayson, commanders of the fort at Ninety Six for themselves and the troops therein under the direction of the provincial congress.[20]

1st.  That hostilities shall immediately cease on both sides.

2nd.  That Major Williamson and Major Mayson shall march their men out of the fort and deliver up their swivels.

3d.  That the Fort shall be destroyed flat without damaging the houses therein, under the inspection of Capt. Patrick Cunningham and John Bowie, Esq., and the well filled up.

4th.  That the differences between the people of this District and others disagreeing about the present public measures shall be submitted to his Excellency, our Governor, and the Council of Safety, and for that purpose that each party shall send dispatches to their superiors- that the dispatch shall be sent unsealed and the messenger of each party shall pass unmolested.

5th.  That Major Robinson shall withdraw his men over Saluda, and there keep them embodied or disperse them as he pleaseth until his Excellency’s orders be known.

6th.  That no person of either party shall in the meantime be molested by the other party either in going home or otherwise.

7th.  Should any reinforcements arrive to Major Williamson or Major Mayson, they also shall be bound by this cessation.

8th.  That twenty days be allowed for the return of the messengers.

9th.  That all prisoners taken by either party since the second day of this instant shall be immediately set at liberty.

In witness thereof the parties to these articles have set their hands and seals at Ninety-six this twenty-second day of November, one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five, and in the sixteenth year of his Majesty’s reign.

Joseph Robinson
A. Wmson.
James Mayson

Present
Patrick Cunningham
Richard Pearis
Andrew Pickens
John Bowie

 

James Birmingham was the first South Carolinian killed in the Revolutionary War.
James Birmingham was the first South Carolinian killed in the Revolutionary War.

The truce gives insight into the minds of participants in 1775, who had no idea that the war would escalate, and that full scale rebellion against England would break out the following year.  There is a glimmer of hope in their proceedings.

The Whigs viewed it as a close call; Williamson wrote that it was “lucky for us” as his defenders had limited food and ammunition, and no water.  Loyalists saw it as a victory: Robinson wrote that “We defeated them and destroyed their fortifications…”[21]

On the morning of the 23rd, the Loyalists withdrew across the Saluda River and the Whigs leveled their defenses.  Casualties were relatively light for both sides: the defenders suffered one fatality, James Birmingham of the Long Canes Militia, and twelve wounded.  Birmingham was buried inside the fort.  Robinson’s Loyalists lost one killed as well, and fifty-two wounded.

Aftermath

The stalemate was significant because combined with failed British efforts at Moores Creek, North Carolina, and Fort Moultrie in Charleston, the South remained firmly in Whig hands.

While the Whigs maintained control of the South Carolina interior, resentment and a desire for revenge grew among the Loyal population.  They lived in fear and suffered oppression. When they had the chance for revenge in 1780, they took full advantage, resulting in a full scale civil war, as bloody and violent as any waged anywhere.

The 1775 siege of Ninety Six also brought the conflict to South Carolina.  Until then, the war was seen as a northern or New England phenomenon.  The fighting had started in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, in April.  Bunker Hill followed in June.  At the time of the events at Ninety Six, Boston was under siege.  With the outbreak of violence in South Carolina, the war was seen as part of a larger struggle, and South Carolinians now were in common cause with New Englanders.  The main characters at the 1775 siege of Ninety Six went on to play prominent roles in the Revolution in South Carolina.

 


[1] Richard Brown, The South Carolina Regulators, Cambridge, MA, Belknap Press, 1963, 113.

[2] James Mayson to William Thomas, July 18, 1775, in “Papers of the Council of Safety of the Revolutionary Party in South Carolina.  June-November 1775, The South Carolina Genealogical and Historical Magazine Vol. I (January 1900), 44-47.

[3] Robert W. Gibbes, ed., Documentary History of the American Revolution, New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1855, 123; Robert Lambert, South Carolina Loyalists in the American Revolution, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987,  35

[4] Ibid., 124.

[5] Ibid., 106; Lambert 37

[6] Gibbes, 174.

[7] Ibid., 185, 188; John Hairr, Colonel David Fanning, Erwin, NC: Averasboro Press, 2000, 21.

[8] William Moultrie, Memoirs of the American Revolution, New York: Arno Press, 1968, 97-98.

[9] Ibid., 101.

[10] Edward McCrady, History of South Carolina, New York: MacMillan Co., 1901, 90.

[11] Gibbes, 70.

[12] Ibid., 217.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 217-218.

[15] Jerome Greene, Historic Resource Study and Historic Structure Report: Ninety Six, A Historical Narrative, Denver: National Park Service, 1978, 70.

[16] Ibid.

[17]Gibbes, 218; Hairr, 27.  A rifleman’s horn typically held about a pound of powder.

[18] Walter Clark, State Records of North Carolina, Vol. XXII, Wilmington, NC: Broadfoot Publishing Co., 1994, 183.

[19] Gibbes, 218.

[20] Ibid., 214-215.

[21] Ibid., 218; Statement of Services of Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Robinson, 1797.  Montreal, Canada: University of Montreal Archives.

[22] Guy Prentice and Wendy M. Nettles, Ninety Six National Historic Site: Archaeological Overview and Assessment, Tallahassee, FL: Southeast Archaeological Center, 2003, 69;

 

 

More from Robert M. Dunkerly

Chaos in the Backcountry: Battle of Ninety Six

A Frontier Crossroads Today a remote and quiet corner of South Carolina,...
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10 Comments

  • Thanks! As you know, I feel passionately about that place! I think its one of the most under-appreciated and yet significant sites in the Carolinas.

  • I know very little about the Southern campaigns in the War of the American Revolution other than the names of major battles. I have been reading about and studying the Northern part of the war since I live in Pennsylvania and was raised in northern New Jersey. I also spent 10 years in upstate NY living near Saratoga. I also traveled the Mohawk and Schoharie regions extensively as well. It appears that the civil war experienced in the Southern states was brutally similar to what was happening up North. I still believe the 1777 Battle of Oriskany in the Mohawk Valley of upstate NY, the 1778 Wyoming,PA and Cherry Valley, NY massacres and the 1779 Clinton-Sullivan expedition all represent the back country partisan border warfare at it`s worst. The border warfare in NY & PA continued desperately into 1780, 1781 & 1782.
    I need to learn more about the Southern experience since some of it appears to be pretty bad – very similar to the Northern back country situation. I have looked at your bibliography which is fine. However, is there one definitive book in your opinion that covers the less known back country conflicts in the South?
    Thanks for the very interesting read on 96. Incidentally, what does 96 stand for? 96th township?
    Thanks.
    Regards,
    John Pearson

    • The etymology of Ninety Six is as confused at any place name in South Carolina (and we have lots of odd place names). There are some who believe that it has to do with the distance to the Cherokee settlement at Keowee, SC (but it’s not ninety six miles). Others think it was the number of creeks you crossed on the way to Columbia (but that doesn’t work out either). There’s an odd theory about measurements on a map involving surveyors chains but that works out to ninety, not ninety six.

      My favorite version of the story is that Ninety Six was named from a mispronunciation of “nant-sych”, a Welsh expression for a dry gulch. If you know the story of the dry well at the Star Fort, dry gulch seems to fit. If’ you’ve driven the back roads of South Carolina mispronounced names abound (Huger Street in Columbia is pronounced You-jee, Wofford University is pronounced Wa-fud… There’s a great book called Correct Mispronunciations of Some South Carolina Names that will help should you decide to visit)

  • Thanks for a great article. I teach military history at the University of South Carolina and lead Army “Staff Rides” at Ninety Six, I plan to make your piece required reading for my class.

  • Mr. Dunkerly,

    I love the article! I am a direct descendant of Major James Mayson and love finding any perspective I can on these events, though information about Major Mayson seems to be quite scarce. He’s downright mysterious. Even the published history of Ninety-Six, SC has few mentions of him and basically no background information, let alone portraits (as some of his peers had) or many quotes. Yours are the most extensive quotes I’ve seen. I’d love to know where you got them. I have not been able to find out anything about his role in events in Scotland, though I know there were “land clearances” going on during the 18th century.

    If you anyone else has any other information at all about Major Mayson or his grandson please feel free contact me at rhyzium@gmail.com. I am very interested in hearing back from anyone who has any information. Thanks a lot!

    William Hegwood
    A.E.K.D.B.

  • Enjoyed this article as well as your book of eyewitness accounts of King’s Mtn.My ancestor James Cozby and his brother Robert Cozby lived in Calhoun’s settlement and were in the battle on the patriot side. Robert was hit in the left knee by a musket ball and was permanently crippled. Read all about it in S24966.

    When we visited the battlefield maybe 10 years ago I got a self-published booklet (that I have misplaced) which quoted some pre-1775 deeds that mention “the creeks called the 96”. As traders came along the Trading Path to the Cherokees they noticed that the creeks they crossed were running in the opposite direction, making them think they were approaching their goal. But only 3 creeks did that, then back to the old direction. So 96 means something like topsy-turvy

  • Very Good article, I am a direct descendant of Joseph Sapp whom was shot by a musket ball while scaling the wall in an attempt to set fire. He was part of the ” Forlorn Hope”

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