Division in the South Carolina Backcountry
Although the center of opposition to British policy toward the colonies was in Massachusetts, there was unrest throughout the other regions. In the South Carolina backcountry, there was a strong division between Loyalists, supporters of the Crown, and Patriots, who were opposed to the Coercive Acts and other British policies they believed violated their rights.
The Patriots in the backcountry also believed the British had failed on a promise to provide them with better government. In South Carolina, the government tended to be controlled by residents from the low country, the area closer to the coast, where the cities like Charleston were. The residents of the backcountry, the northwest corner of the colony, believed the government favored the low country merchants at their expense.
Loyalist Response to the Continental Association
In June 1775, the South Carolina Provincial Congress formed a provisional government under the Continental Association, which had been organized by the First Continental Congress. This created tension in the backcountry.
The Patriots formed three militia regiments. The backcountry Loyalists felt threatened by this action and raised a force of their own. Colonel Thomas Fletchall was the commander of the Upper Saluda royal militia. He joined forces with Loyalist leaders Joseph Robinson, Moses Kirkland, and Robert Cunningham.
The Village of Ninety-Six
Ninety-Six was a small village located in the South Carolina backcountry. It was a courthouse village and was the center of legal activity on the western frontier of the colony. It had a courthouse and a jail and was also the location of the storehouse for ammunition and cannons.
It was also built near the Cherokee Path, which was the route the Cherokee tribe used to travel to Charleston.
July 12, 1775 — Patriots Raid Fort Charlotte
The Council of Safety ordered Major James Mayson, commander of Fort Ninety-Six, to capture Fort Charlotte. Fort Charlotte was on the Savannah River, west of the village. Mayson marched to Fort Charlotte and took ammunition, weapons, and cannons. There was no opposition. Mayson and his men returned to Fort Ninety-Six. However, as Mayson and his men were on their way, they were met by a Loyalist force. In order to avoid a fight, the supplies were returned to Fort Charlotte.
July 17, 1775 — Loyalists Capture Fort Ninety-Six
Captain Moses Kirkland was part of the garrison at Fort Ninety-Six, and he decided to join the Loyalists. Fletchall sent a force of around 200 militia to the fort. When they arrived, Kirkland convinced his men to give up the fort, which they did. Once the Loyalists took over, they imprisoned Mayson and his men in the fort’s jail.
Patriots Send William Henry Drayton to Ninety-Six
On July 23, the Patriot government sent representatives to Ninety-Six to hold a series of meetings. The representatives were William Henry Drayton, Reverend William Tenant, and Reverend Oliver Hart. The purpose of the meetings was to improve the sentiment in the backcountry for the Patriot cause and to “settle all political disputes between the people.” Unfortunately, the meetings did not sway many to join the Patriots.
Patriots Plan to Remove Loyalist Leaders
Drayton had the authority to raise a militia and arrest the Loyalist leaders and he drafted a plan of attack and sent it to Charleston. He assumed he would be able to march on Fletchall’s location and simply remove the Loyalists with minimal conflict.
Fletchall and the Loyalists found out about Drayton’s plan and marched on Ninety-Six. When the Loyalist force was four miles from Ninety-Six, Drayton and Fletchall agreed to hold a conference.
On September 16, the two sides agreed to a truce, which maintained the peace and avoided the breakout of a civil war in the backcountry. The Loyalists agreed they would not join any British force that might invade the colony and take up arms against the Patriots. The Patriots agreed to respect the rights and property of the Loyalists that rejected The Association.
Council of Safety Threatens the Peace
Unfortunately, actions taken by the Council of Safety broke the peace. First, it ordered the arrest of Loyalist Robert Cunningham. He was imprisoned and the Council planned to hold him in prison for as long as it felt necessary. Second, it sent a wagonload of ammunition to the Cherokee Villages. This fed the fear of the backcountry Loyalists that the Cherokee would attack them.
Both Sides Plan for Conflict
Captain Patrick Cunningham, the younger brother of Robert, and Major Joseph Robinson took control of the Loyalist forces. They led a force to intercept the wagon carrying the ammunition, which was headed for the Cherokee town of Keowee, in the far northwest corner of the colony. Cunningham and his men captured the wagon. From there, they marched turned toward Ninety-Six. The strength of the Loyalist force was around 1,800 men.
The Council of Safety responded to the capture of the wagon on November 8 by planning an expedition to recover the gunpowder and arrest Loyalist leaders. The expedition was organized under the command of Colonel Richard Richardson, who was the commander of the militia in Camden, South Carolina.
Williamson Fortifies the Village of Ninety-Six
When the commander of the Patriot forces in the Ninety-Six District, Colonel Andrew Williamson, found out the Loyalists had captured the wagon headed for the Cherokee, he started to plan for hostilities and recruited men to join his militia. He planned an attack on the Loyalist forces located near Fair Forest, which was the location of Fletchall’s plantation. However, Williamson changed his plans when he found out Cunningham and Robinson were marching toward Ninety-Six.
On November 18, Williamson started moving his forces to Ninety-Six. He arrived there on November 19 and took defensive positions on the plantation of John Savage, in a place known as Savage’s Old Fields. The Patriots were roughly 200 yards to the west of the courthouse and jail, and they built a crude fort out of fence rails and wood from a barn and outhouses. They also used straw to fill in holes in the walls.
The Loyalist forces arrived in Ninety-Six before the Patriots could finish the fort. When they arrived, the leaders of both sides met but were unable to come to an agreement to avoid hostilities.
Battle of Ninety-Six Begins
Fighting broke out with both sides taking defensive positions behind fences, trees, and buildings, just like the militia that followed the British back to Boston after the Battle of Concord. The fighting stopped once it was too dark to see.
The shooting resumed on the morning of the 19th, and the Loyalists set fire to the fences and grass in the fields to try to force the Patriots out of the fort. However, the tactic failed because the ground was too wet. The Patriots were able to hold their position.
Next, the Loyalists used a wagon to build a rolling shield, called a mantelet, which they used to cover themselves as they advanced on the Patriot position. This also failed, because it did not provide protection against the swivel cannons the Patriots had in the fort.
By November 21, Williamson and the Patriots were almost out of ammunition. Williamson and his officers held a council of war and decided to launch an attack on the Loyalists in the dark of night.
However, the Loyalists came to the conclusion that it would be in their best interest to bring an end to the fighting. First, a Patriot deserter, Emanuel Miller, warned them about Williamson’s plan for the night raid. Second, they may have learned about Richardson’s expedition, which had moved out of the Lowcountry and was moving toward Ninety-Six. When Richardson arrived, it would significantly increase the strength of the Patriot force.
As the sun began to set, the Patriots saw a white flag waving from one of the windows in the jail. The Loyalists wanted to end the fighting.
Williamson and Patrick Cunningham met just outside the Patriot fort under a flag of truce. The only agreement they came to was to cease hostilities and meet again on the morning of the 22nd at a house in the village.
When they met on the 22nd, they were able to quickly agree to the terms of a treaty, which called for an end to the fighting and for both forces to break up. The terms of the agreement called for a truce of 20 days, which would give both sides time to confer with their leaders in Charleston.
- The Patriots agreed to destroy their crude fort.
- Both sides agreed to release any prisoners they had taken.
- All members of both militias were allowed to go back to their homes, unmolested.
The Patriots were willing to end the battle because they were low on supplies. In his report to the Council of Safety, Williamson said he was down to about thirty pounds of powder.
Significance of the Battle
Although the battle was inconclusive, it marked the beginning of a civil war in South Carolina that lasted until the end of the war.