Monday, March 11, 2024

Ninety Six: The Town Where the Revolutionary War in the South Began

Researching at Ninety Six
by Denise Weimer

Ninety Six was once the most thriving town in the South Carolina backcountry. Now, the national park there encompasses only fields where the town once stood, with nearby earthworks attesting to the second battle fought there during the Revolutionary War and sunken, tree-lined lanes leading only to memories of distant historical destinations. You’d never know some of the most important action of the war in the Southern theatre took place there. To say that it’s haunting is an understatement. It’s a reminder of how fast things change. But I love to resurrect the forgotten past in my novels, so Ninety Six figured prominently in Book Three of Scouts of the Georgia Frontier, A Cherished Betrothal.

As the population of South Carolina moved into the backcountry during the mid-1700s, settlers followed the Cherokee Old Path, which ran from Virginia to the Cherokee town of Tugaloo near present-day Toccoa, Georgia. Eventually, Robert Gouedy built a trading post at a frequently used campground that became the town of Ninety Six.

Why the unusual name? In 1730, Surveyor General George Hunter made a map with the area marked as Ninety Six, the distance believed to lie between the site and the Cherokee town of Keowee (near current Clemson, South Carolina). A dozen major roads and minor trails supposedly converged there. Some of these included the Island Ford Road which ran to a ferry on the Saluda River, Martin Town Road to Augusta which diverged from the Charlestown Road, and the Charlestown Road, which followed the Cherokee Path. The Cherokee Path was tolerable for wagons in summer but impassable in some places in winter. A horseback rider could travel from Charlestown to Ninety Six in six days, but four or five times that long in a wagon.

During the Cherokee War of 1760-61, local militia built a stockade around Goeudy’s barn. From here, the garrison withstood two attacks by 250 Cherokee warriors. In the following few years, French Huguenots established New Bordeaux nearby and Germans, Londonborough.

By the early 1770s, Ninety Six had grown to twelve houses, multiple businesses, an imposing, two-story brick jail, and a courthouse. The jail consisted of a lower level with four rooms and a fireplace and a second-floor, thirty-foot-square room with barred windows where prisoners were held in irons and chains. The top floor was forty-five feet from the ground and accessed through stairs and a trap door. The courthouse was large enough to house two hundred troops. Court cases were heard in April and November of each year.

In the summer of 1775, the South Carolina Regiment of Horse (Rangers) was organized at Ninety Six with nine companies. Many backcountry settlers did not trust the leaders of the Patriot movement, who were mostly wealthy landowners from the coast. Therefore, the provincial government that was formed at the start of the Revolutionary War sent orators to the backcountry to convince the citizens of the need to sign the Association, the agreement to support the Patriot government and militia. Many leaders of the current militia opted to support the Loyalist cause, making Ninety Six the center of the struggle in the state.

The tension in the backcountry was further compounded when the Council of Safety ordered Major James Mayson to march his troop from Ninety Six to capture Fort Charlotte on the Savannah River, about thirty miles southwest of the town. The small contingent of Loyalists there surrendered without a fight, and Patriot Rangers held the fort throughout the war. From there, the Patriots courted the alliance of the Cherokee warriors, who eventually sided with the British. However, Ninety-Six changed hands many times, with the first battle for its control occurring as early as November 1775. The conflict ended in an uneasy truce with the Patriots holding the town.

By the end of the Revolution, the British strategy focused on the Southern colonies. While American General Nathanael Greene secured the Carolinas, Loyalist remnants concentrated at Charleston and Ninety Six. By this time, a formidable star-shaped fort had been constructed, connected to the town by a deep trench. Greene’s soldiers laid siege, cutting zig-zagging earthworks toward the British position, attempting to dig tunnels, and building a wooden siege tower. On June 18, 1781, learning that British reinforcements were on their way from Charlestown, Greene launched a bloody and unsuccessful assault on the star fort of Ninety Six.

After their costly victory, the British reasoned that the isolated outpost would be too difficult to hold, so they dismantled the fort and burned the adjacent town.

A Cherished Betrothal takes place between the summers of 1775 and 1776 at Fort Charlotte and Ninety Six. Patriot Ranger Alexander Morris vowed revenge on the warrior who killed his brother and father. Elspeth Lawrence, a survivor of the same massacre whose sister was taken captive, teaches Cherokee children at her father’s school. She’s never stopped longing for the boy who saved her that fateful day, but when their paths are reunited on the eve of revolution in the South Carolina backcountry, more than her wealthy Loyalist suitor stands in the way. Alex can’t remember the massacre, or Elspeth, but his hatred for the Cherokees he’s been ordered to court as allies threatens to choke out the seeds of love and healing. 

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Denise Weimer writes historical and contemporary romance from her home in North Georgia and also serves as a freelance editor and the Acquisitions & Editorial Liaison for Wild Heart Books. A wife and mother of two daughters, she always pauses for coffee, chocolate, and old houses.

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