June 18, 1781: Assault on Ninety-Six

Aerial view of zigzag approach trenches dug by Greene's army

The health of Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Hawes, the commander of the “new” 2d Virginia Regiment formed of eighteen month levies, had declined following the battles of Guilford Courthouse and Hobkirk’s Hill, forcing him to relinquish command of the 2d Virginia Regiment in May 1781 with command passing to Major Smith Snead.

Major General Nathanael Greene next set his eyes on the British outpost at Ninety-Six, and began to lay siege to on May 22, 1781. After digging three parallels, building towers for sharpshooters to snipe the garrison, and even attempting mines under the works, Greene called for an assault on June 18, 1781.

Lieutenant Colonel Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee

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; 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 Rudolph, 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 sandbags, with every other requisite to facilitate the progress of the assailant. At eleven the third parallel was manned, and hour 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 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 book. 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 endulged. The moment the bags in front were pulled down, Campbell would have mounted the parapet, where the struggle would not have been long maintained. Cruger had prepared an intermediate battery with his three pieces, which he occasionally applied to the left and right. At first it was directed against Lee’s left, but very soon every piece was applied to Campbell’s right, which was very injurious to his column.

Aerial view of the Star Fort as it looks today

Major Green, 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 to the rear of the star, they took opposite directions, and soon came into 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. Rudolph 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 by our left column, 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 theirs. 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.

2d Virginia Regiment at Ninety-Six

While not mentioned by name in Lee’s account of the assault, the men of the 2d Virginia Regiment were also engaged during the twenty-eight day siege, as Lieutenant William Eskridge wrote an avadavat in 1788 that “…Patrick Bennigen a soldier of the 2d Virginia Regiment Was in the Action at ninety-six in So Carolina, where he received two wounds, one in the body — and the other broke his wrist — both by musquet Balls”

The site today is maintained by the National Park Service as Ninety-Six National Historic Site.

Videos about Ninety-Six

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March 15, 1781: Battle of Guilford Courthouse

The Virginia Brigade would first see combat at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in March 1781. While “Colonel Green…with his regiment of Virginia, was drawn off without having tasted of battle, and ordered to a given point in the rear for security…” Hawes’s battalion was heavily engaged on the American right of the third line. Lieutenant Colonel Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee noted that they were “…composed of new soldiers, among whom were mingled a few who had served from the beginning of the war; but all the officers were experienced and approved.”

When Cornwallis sent Webster’s Brigade to break Greene’s third line, they “…rushed into close fire; but so firmly was he received by this body of veterans, supported by Hawe’s regiment of Virginia…that with equal rapidity he was compelled to recoil from the shock.” As the battle concluded, “General [Issac] Huger, who had, throughout the action, given his chief attention to the regiment of Hawes’s, the only one of the two, constituting his brigade, ever engaged, and which, with Kirkwood’s company, was still contending with lieutenant colonel Webster, now drew it off by order of the general;”

Lee commended the untested brigade and credited its officers in that “…the two regiments of Virginia were comprised of raw troops; but their officers were veteran, and the soldier is soon made fit for battle by experienced commanders.”

Excerpt from “…the soldier is soon made fit for battle by experienced commanders.”: The Collapse, Reformation, and Battle History of the Virginia Brigade of the Southern Army, 1780-81 by Todd Post

Recommended Reading: Battle History of the 2d Virginia Regiment

Battle of Great Bridge

Philadelphia Campaign

Paulus Hook

Charleston

Guilford Courthouse (Hawes’ 2d Virginia Regiment of 1781)