Washington and Lee University

Life of Major General Henry Lee
Cecil B. Hartley

CHAPTER XVII.

Siege of Ninety Six—Kosciusko chief engineer—His blunders—Lee placed in command on the left besieges the stockade—Resisted by continual night sallies—Greene receives intelligence of Lord Rawdon's approach—Orders Marion and Pickens to delay Rawdon and retains Lee with him at Ninety Six—Lee attempts to burn the stockade fort, but fails—Rawdon's messenger reaches Cruger—Active operations—Near approach of Lord Rawdon—Greene resolves to storm the fort of Ninety Six—The storming—Lee and Campbell lead the assault—Desperate conflict in the Star Fort—Lee's Legion captures the stockade fort—He is ordered by Greene to hold the stockade—Losses—Retreat ordered—Sad reverse—Greene's equanimity.

WHILE Lee and Pickens had been engaged in capturing Augusta, General Greene with the main army of the South had been prosecuting the siege of Ninety-Six. Lieutenant Cruger the commandant at that post was a New York loyalist, an excellent soldier. The garrison numbered 550 men, of whom 350 were regulars, loyal Americans, and the residue were loyal militia of South Carolina led by Colonel King.

On the left of the village of Ninety-Six ran a small rivulet which furnished water to the town and troops. The defences were a stockade fort, a fortified garrison, and the principal work, called, from its form, the Star Fort.

On commencing the siege General Greene had entrusted the engineering operations to Colonel Kosciusko, the Polish officer who subsequently became so famous, but who on the present occasion showed utter incapacity, and by his blunders caused the failure of the siege.

Neglecting to cut off the enemy's supply of water from the rivulet, he directed his attention wholly to the Star Fort. His first works were promptly demolished by a vigorous sally of the besieged. General Greene now broke ground at a greater distance from the enemy's works, and proceeded with more caution, still marching under Kosciusko's advice, the Star Fort the single object of attack.

As soon as the corps of Lee entered camp, that officer was directed to take post opposite to the enemy's left, and to commence regular approaches against the stockade. Very soon Lee pushed his ditch to the ground designated for the erection of the battery, under the cover of which the subsequent approaches would be made. In the course of the next day this battery was erected, and Lieutenant Finn, with a six pounder, took possession of it. The besiegers advancing closer and closer with caution and safety, both on the right and left, Lieutenant Colonel Cruger foresaw his inevitable destruction, unless averted by the approach of Lord Rawdon. To give time for the desired event, he determined, by nocturnal sallies, to attempt to carry our trenches; and to destroy with the spade whatever he might gain by the bayonet. These rencontres were fierce and frequent, directed sometimes upon one quarter and sometimes upon another: but so judicious had been the arrangements of the American general to counteract these expected attempts, that in no one instance did the British commandant succeed. The mode adopted was nevertheless pursued without intermission; and although failing to effect the chief object contemplated, became extremely harassing to the American army, whose repose during the night was incessantly disturbed, and whose labor in the day was as incessantly pressed.

General Greene, having learned that Lord Rawdon had received a reinforcement from Ireland, was impatient to conclude the siege. He was informed by Sumter on the 11th of June that Rawdon was on the march to relieve Ninety-Six. Greene directed Sumter to keep in Rawdon's front, and ordered Marion and Pickens to assist Sumter in delaying Rawdon's approach to the besieged place; but he retained Lee to aid in the siege.

Our approaches, says Lee,[note 1] continued to be pushed with unabated diligence, in the expectation and hope that they might be brought to maturity in time to enforce the submission of the garrison, before the British general could make good his long march.

We now began to deplore the early inattention of the chief engineer to the enemy's left; persuaded that had he been deprived of the use of the rivulet in the beginning of the siege, he must have been forced to surrender before the present hour. It was deemed practicable to set fire to the stockade fort, and thus to remove the water defence to the left of the rivulet. In the succeeding day, a dark violent storm came on from the west, without rain.

Lee proposed to General Greene to permit him to make the attempt. This being granted, a sergeant with nine privates of the legion infantry, furnished with combustible matter, was directed to approach the stockade in the most concealed direction, under cover of the storm, while the batteries in every quarter opened upon the enemy, and demonstrations of striking at the star redoubt were made, with the expectation of diverting his attention from the intrepid party, which, with alacrity, undertook the hazardous enterprise. The sergeant conducted his gallant band in the best manner; concealing it whenever the ground permitted, and when exposed to view moving along upon the belly.

At length he reached the ditch with three others; the whole close behind. Here unluckily he was discovered, while in the act of applying his fire. Himself and five were killed; the remaining four escaped unhurt, although many muskets were discharged at them running through the field, before they got beyond the nearest rise of ground which could cover them from danger. After this disappointment, nothing remained but to force our works to maturity, and to retard the advance of the British army.

In the evening, a countryman was seen riding along our lines south of the town, conversing familiarly with the officers and soldiers on duty. He was not regarded, as from the beginning of the siege our friends in the country were in the habit of visiting camp, and were permitted to go wherever their curiosity led them, one of whom this man was presumed to be. At length he reached the great road leading directly to the town, in which quarter were only some batteries thrown up for the protection of the guards. Putting spur to his horse, he rushed with full speed into town, receiving the ineffectual fire of our sentinels and guards nearest to him, and holding up a letter in his hand as soon as he cleared himself of our fire. The propitious signal gave joy to the garrison, who running to meet their friend, opened the gate, welcoming his arrival with loud expressions of joy. He was the bearer of a despatch from Rawdon to Cruger, communicating his arrival at Orangeburgh in adequate force, and informing him that he was hastening to his relief. This intelligence infused new vigor into the intrepid leader and his brave companions.

It also inspired the indefatigable besieger with additional motives to push to conclusion his preparatives, as he now yielded up every hope heretofore derived from Cruger's ignorance of the movement of the British general, and the forwardness of our works. Major Greene, who commanded in the star with great ability, finding that our third parallel was nearly finished, and that a Mayham tower was erecting which would overlook his parapet, very judiciously covered it with sand-bags to lessen the capacity derived from superior height, leaving between each bag an aperture for the use of his riflemen.

Nor were Lee's approaches on the left less forward than those on the right; they not only were directed against the stockade, but also were carried so near the rivulet, as to render supplies of water difficult and precarious. The fire during the 17th was so effectual, as to induce the enemy to withdraw his guards established between the rivulet and the stockade; and parties of the troops on the left were posted in various points, to annoy the communication with the rivulet. These arrangements succeeded throughout the day completely, and the enemy suffered greatly from this privation, though accomplished too late to produce material advantage. Rawdon continued to advance by forced marches, and inclining to his right, made a vigorous push to throw himself between Sumter and Greene.

In this effort he completely succeeded, and thus baffled all the measures adopted by Greene to delay his approach. It became now necessary to hazard assault of the fort, to meet Rawdon, or to retire. The American general was disposed to imitate Caesar at Alisia; first to beat the relieving army, and then to take the besieged town. But his regular force did but little exceed the half of that under Rawdon, which added to his militia, consisting of the corps of Sumter, Marion, and Pickens, still left him numerically inferior to the British general. Nevertheless confiding in his known superiority of cavalry, he would have given battle to his lordship, could he have left an adequate corps to attend to the garrison. Compelled to relinquish this plan, he determined to storm the fort, although his works were yet unfinished. On the right, our third parallel was completed, two trenches and a mine were nearly let into the enemy's ditch, and the Mayham tower was finished.

On the left, our trenches were within fifty yards of his ditch; and the battery directed by Lieutenant Finn, gave to the assailant, in his quarter, advantages, which, well supported, ensured success. Greene, anxiously as he desired to conclude his severe toils in triumph, was averse to the unequal contest to which he must necessarily expose his faithful troops, and would probably have decided on the safe course, had not his soldiers, with one voice, intreated to be led against the fort.

The American army having witnessed the unconquerable spirit which actuated their general, as well as the unexpected results of former battles, could not brook the idea of abandoning the siege, without one bold attempt to force a surrender. They recollected, with pain and remorse, that by the misbehavior of one regiment at the battle of Guilford, and of another at Hobkirk's Hill, their beloved general had been deprived of his merited laurels; and they supplicated their officers to intreat their commander to give them now an opportunity of obliterating preceding disgrace. This generous ardor could not be resisted by Greene. Orders were issued to prepare for a storm; and the hour of twelve on the next day (18th of June) was appointed for the assailing columns to advance by signal from the centre battery.

Lieutenant Colonel Campbell, of the first Virginia regiment, with a detachment from the Maryland and Virginia brigades, was charged with the attack on the left; and Lieutenant Colonel Lee, with the legion infantry and Kirkwood's Delawares, with that on the right. Lieutenants Duval of Maryland, and Seldon of Virginia, commanded the forlorn hope of Campbell; and Captain Rudulph, of the legion, that of Lee. Fascines were prepared to fill up the enemy's ditch, long poles with iron hooks were furnished to pull down the sand-bags, with every other thing requisite to facilitate the progress of the assailant. At eleven the third parallel was manned, and our sharp shooters took their station in the tower. The first signal was announced from the centre battery, upon which the assailing columns entered the trenches; manifesting delight in the expectation of carrying by their courage the great prize in view.

At the second cannon which was discharged at the hour of twelve, Campbell and Lee rushed to the assault. Cruger, always prepared, received them with his accustomed firmness. The parapets were manned with spike and bayonet, and the riflemen, fixed at the sand-bag apertures, maintained a steady and destructive fire. Duval and Seldon entered the enemy's ditch at different points, and Campbell stood prepared to support them, in the rear of the party furnished with hooks to pull down the sand-bags. This party had also entered the enemy's ditch, and began to apply the hook.

Uncovering the parapet now would have given us victory; and such was the vigorous support afforded by the musketry from the third parallel, from the riflemen in the tower, and from the artillery mounted in battery, that sanguine expectations of this happy issue were universally indulged. The moment the bags in front were pulled down, Campbell would have mounted the parapet, where the struggle could not have been long maintained.

Cruger had prepared an intermediate battery with his three pieces, which he occasionally applied to the right and left. At first it was directed against Lee's left, but very soon every piece was applied upon Campbell's right, which was very injurious to his column.

Major Greene commanding in the star redoubt, sensible of the danger to which he was exposed, if the attempted lodgment upon his front curtain succeeded, determined to try the bayonet in his ditch as well as on his parapet. To Captains Campbell and French was committed this bold effort. Entering into the ditch through a sally-port in the rear of the star, they took opposite directions, and soon came in contact, the one with Duval, the other with Seldon.

Here ensued a desperate conflict. The Americans not only fighting with the enemy in front, but with the enemy overhead, sustained gallantly the unequal contest, until Duval and Seldon became disabled by wounds, when they yielded, and were driven back with great loss to the point of entry. The few surviving escaped with the hookmen to our trenches, where yet remained Campbell, the sand-bags not being removed.

On the left the issue was very different. Rudulph gained the enemy's ditch, and followed by the column, soon opened his way into the fort, from which the enemy, giving their last fire, precipitately retreated. Measures were in train on the part of Lee, to follow up his blow by passing the rivulet, entering the town, and forcing the fortified prison, whence the left might have yielded substantial aid to the attack upon the star, by compelling Cruger to struggle for the town, or forcing him with all his troops to take refuge in the star; a situation not long to be held, crowded as he must have been, and destitute of water. The adverse fortune experienced in the assault on the right, made the mind of Greene return to his cardinal policy, the preservation of adequate force to keep the field.

Charmed with the courage displayed in his view, and regretting its disadvantageous application, he sent orders to Campbell to draw off, and to Lee to desist from further advance, but to hold the stockade abandoned by the enemy.

Our loss amounted during the siege, to one hundred and eighty-five killed and wounded; that of the garrison to eighty-five. Captain Armstrong, of the Maryland line, was the only officer killed on our side, as was Lieutenant Roney the only one on their side. After our repulse, Greene sent a flag to Lieutenant Colonel Cruger, proposing a cessation of hostilities for the purpose of burying the dead; but as to the burial of the dead the proposition was rejected, Cruger not choosing to admit our participation in a ceremonial which custom had appropriated to the victor.

As soon as it was dark, the detachment was withdrawn from the stockade, and preparations were begun for retreat.

On the 19th, Greene communicated to Sumter the event of the preceding day, advised him of the route of retreat, and ordered the corps in his front, with the cavalry under Washington, to join him with celerity. Taking leave of Mrs. Cruger and Mrs. Greene, and leaving for the protection of the ladies the usual guard,[note 2] until Col. Cruger should be advised of his retreat, and take his measures for their security, the American general withdrew, having two days before sent forward his sick and wounded. During the preceding night, gloom and silence pervaded the American camp: every one disapappointed—every one mortified. Three days more, and Ninety-Six must have fallen; but this short space was unattainable. Rawdon had approached our vicinity with a force not to be resisted, and it only remained to hold the army safe, by resuming that system which adverse fortune had rendered familiar to us. Greene alone preserved his equanimity; and highly pleased by the unshaken courage displayed in the assault, announced his grateful sense of the conduct of the troops, as well during the siege as in the late heroic attack; presaging from the past, the happiest result whenever an opportunity should be presented of contending with the enemy upon equal terms,—to the attainment of which his best exertions would be invariably directed, relying, as he did, upon the same dauntless spirit recently exhibited. Conscious as the army was of having done its duty, it derived consolation from this exhilarating address, and burying in oblivion the grating repulse, looked forward with the anticipation of soon displaying their courage in a fair and decisive battle.