Ninety Six National Historic Site
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Decades before Richard Pearis founded Greenville in 1770, another town was the largest and most important “metropolis” in Upstate South Carolina. That town was Ninety Six.
As the most westerly English settlement from the coast, Ninety Six became an important administrative, trade, and strategic outpost as well as the site of two battles during the American Revolution.
Situated Along the Cherokee Path
The Cherokee Path was a pack trail that ran from Charleston, through Fort Congaree near present day Columbia, and on to the Cherokee Town of Keowee. From there it connected with existing Cherokee trade routes between the other Lower Towns and the rest of the Cherokee Nation.
It was along this path that Thomas Brown received a land grant of 200 acres with the intention of building a trade hub in 1738. While it seems that he never developed the land, there are some records of trade along the path in the area of Ninety-Six around 1737. However, it wasn’t until Robert Goudey bought the land after Brown’s death in 1747 that the area began to take shape.
Goudey’s Trading Post
Robert Goudey had lived among and traded with the Cherokee for many years before settling at Ninety Six. He brought with him a supply of firs and other goods, and was quickly able to establish his trading outpost as a vital link between Keowee and Charleston.
By 1753 the town of Ninety Six was primarily Goudy’s Trading Post, his home, barn, and outbuildings. He supplied traders with such items as rum, sugar, and gunpowder.
Ninety Six District
Thanks to it’s location on a vital trade route, Colonial Ninety Six continued to grow and prosper. In time the village grew to over 100 settlers including merchants, lawyers, hotel keepers, and physicians. The town also had a library, an academy, and a church.
Due to it’s growing importance and the fact that 12 roads passed through the town, Ninety Six was the logical location for the administrative seat of the 96 District. By 1768 the most westerly district in the province of South Carolina was established and centered at the town of Ninety Six.
A courthouse and gaol (jail) were built just outside the town perimeter. The juridical district not only included the surrounding areas of modern day Greenwood and Newberry Counties, but stretched as far away as Spartanburg and Union, and included parts of Cherokee and Greenville Counties as well. All that lay west of 96 District were Cherokee lands.
Of Patriots and Loyalists
Far away in Charleston, the wealthy merchants and land owners along the coast were taking up the Patriot Cause. The Provincial Congress was formed as a shadow government in 1775 and sought to wrestle power away from Lord William Campbell, the last British Governor of South Carolina.
As Lord Campbell felt his hold on power loosening, he did his best to discredit the Provincial Congress and the Patriot Cause in the Carolina back country. Even as he fled his home for the safety of the British warship HMS Tamar, his efforts in the back country paid off.
While Charleston was firmly in the hands of the Patriots in 1775, the Loyalists had a strong following in the back country. The divisions between Patriots and Loyalists in South Carolina would persist throughout the entire war. Making the War of Independence in the Carolinas not only bloody but America’s first Civil War as well.
The Looming Shadow of War
By August of 1775, both Patriots and Loyalists had massed large militias. The Carolina back country was a powder keg just waiting for a spark. That spark came in October when Loyalists captured a shipment of gunpowder and ammunition that the Provincial Congress sent to the Cherokee.
Major Andrew Williamson was already in the area recruiting for the Patriot cause. In November, he and his army of 560 men approached Ninety Six. After hearing that Captain Patrick Cunningham and Major Joseph Robinson were leading a large Loyalist force in his direction and believing the town to be indefensible, Williamson moved his men to the nearby plantation owned by John Savage and ordered the construction of an improvised stockade.
The next day, a Loyalist force of 1900 surrounded the camp. From November 19th to 21st 1775, the Loyalists lay siege to Williamson’s army. For two days they tried to route the Patriots to no avail. Finally word came that Patriot Colonel Richard Richardson and his Camden militia of over 4000 men may be in the area searching for the stolen munitions, the Loyalists approached the fort under a flag of parley. Both Loyalists agreed to withdraw and the Patriots agreed to destroy the fort.
The Loyalists lost four men during the siege while the Patriots lost only one. James Birmingham was the first Patriot casualty in the Carolinas during the Revolution, but he wouldn’t be the last.
A Loyalist Stronghold
The back country may have had split loyalty, but the administrative town of Ninety Six quickly became Loyalist stronghold.
After retaking Charleston in 1780, Ninety Six became the linchpin of British plans in the back country. From here they hoped to control the interior of the state, recruit and protect Loyalists, and pacify Patriot forces in the back country. To that end, they set about fortifying the town.
The major fortification was the Star Fort. Built on the eastern side of the town, the bastion fort of about a half acre consisted of 14 foot earthen walls surrounded by sandbags for a total height of 17 feet. The eight pointed star design gave the troops garrisoned inside command of a 360 degree area around the fort with no blind spots.
A smaller stockade fort was built on the Western side of town across a small stream to not only protect the town but also the stream. The town was also garrisoned.
Siege of Star Fort at Ninety Six
After a number of blunders by Horatio Gates, Nathanael Greene as appointed commander of the Southern Department of the Continental Army on October 14, 1780. He immediately set about harassing British forces and lead a guerrilla campaign against Cornwallis during the winter of 1781.
When Cornwallis moved into Virginia in April, Greene turned his attention to eliminating the British presence in South Carolina. He captured a number of small British forts during April and on May 22, he arrived at Ninety Six intending to do the same.
Greene’s engineers began by digging zig zaging trenches towards the Star Fort. By June 10, they were within 30 yards of the fort.
In attempt to resolve the siege, Patriot engineers dug a tunnel under the battlefield to try to get explosives under the walls of the fort. When the walls were breached, Patriots from nearby trenches could storm the fort. However, the mine would not be finished by the time of the assault. Work began on June 9.
On June 13, British defenders awoke to find that the Patriots had constructed a rifle tower so they could fire down into the fort. The British quickly countered by placing sandbags around the earthen walls of the fort and the siege continued.
Then word came of British reinforcement marching from Charleston to help defend the fort. Greene had to decide whether to attack before all preparations were made or to abandon the siege. After consultations with his men, on June 18 a final push was made to capture the fort. After heavy losses, Greene ordered a retreat and the longest siege of the American Revolution Ended.
American forces suffered 147 casualties compared with 85 British. Although the siege wasn’t successful, it made the British reconsider having an outpost so far away from their supply lines in Charleston. So as Nathanial Green was retreating with his men in advance of a British force from Charleston, Ninety Six and all fortifications were abandoned and burned by the British.
Post War Resurgence and Decline
After the Revolution, the Ninety Six was rebuilt just a few hundred yards away from the original settlement. In 1785 the 96 District was subdivided into counties. Each county was responsible for maintaining courthouses and jails and the importance of Ninety Six as the administrative center of the large district declined and its courthouse shut down.
Also in March of 1785 it became the site of one of three colleges established by the General Assembly. By 1787, Ninety Six had renamed itself Cambridge in honor of the local college. But the school soon failed, and by the 1820’s one of the most fought over towns in South Carolina was almost gone.
Visiting Ninety Six National Historic Site
The remains of the earthwork of the Star Fort may not be as high as they were in 1781, but they are still viable today. Seen from above, the fort still maintains its eight point star outline and is widely considered that best remaining example of Revolutionary earthwork fortifications in the nation.
The fort sits about halfway through the Battlefield Trail at Ninety Six Historic Site just 2 miles outside the modern town of 96 in Greenwood County, South Carolina. The trail is paved and has interpretive signage telling the story of not just the siege of 1781, but the 1775 siege, the history of the town, a memorial to James Birmingham, and a late 1700’s home moved to the site to demonstrate how settlers lived at the time of the Revolution.
Other trails run through the site. They aren’t paved and most don’t have any additional signage. The Charleston Road/Goudey Trail is the exception. This trail passes the site of Robert Goudey’s 1751 trading post, James Gouedy’s grave and an old cemetery.
The visitor center has maps and a recorded walking tour available. The tour hasn’t been updated so it can accessed by phone, so you sill need to check out a mp3 player. They also have a 22 minute video about the site.
Fast Facts About Ninety Six National Historic Site
|Type:||National Historic Site|
|Location:||1103 SC-248, Ninety Six, SC 29666|
Things to do: Walking, learn about history, picnicking, audio tour