This Day in History: Americans drive the British out of South Carolina
On this day in 1781, the Battle of Eutaw Springs takes place. It would be the last major Revolutionary War battle fought south of Virginia.
George Washington’s victory at Yorktown was just around the corner!
At this point in the Revolution, Americans were waging a war of attrition against the British in the Carolinas. They weren’t winning everything, but they were making the British pay dearly for their victories.
Slowly but surely, the British were losing their grasp on the states.
Late August found American Major General Nathanael Greene and his forces recuperating in the High Hills of the Santee in central South Carolina. Would you believe it was so hot that hostilities had been effectively suspended!? In the meantime, British Lt. Colonel Alexander Stewart was encamped about 16 miles away.
Greene decided to go after Stewart in a coordinated move with local militia. Soon, militia and Continental forces were gathered a few miles from Stewart, then at Eutaw Springs. Greene knew where Stewart was, but Stewart was less well-informed. It was his own fault, of course! Two American deserters had given him information, but he didn’t believe them. Thus, on the morning of September 8, Stewart sent a (largely unarmed) foraging party out to find sweet potatoes for his men.
Imagine their surprise when they ran into Greene’s men, who were advancing and hoping for a surprise attack.
Before long, the two armies were forming for battle.
Greene sent his men into battle in two lines: The militia went first, followed by a line of Continentals. The South Carolina militia were led by men they trusted: Francis Marion (the “Swamp Fox”) and Andrew Pickens. They were backed up by Henry “Light Horse” Lee’s Legion. The North Carolina militia were not so fortunate: They were led by a French man that they hardly knew.
Perhaps it is unsurprising that the North Carolina militia proved to be a weak link? It could have been a disastrous moment. Fortunately, Greene was quick-thinking, and he sent some Continentals forward to fill the gap when the militia faltered.
Another potential crisis came when British soldiers made a bayonet attack. Greene countered with one of his own. The fighting was intense! Historian Henry Lumpkin describes fighting that “was so close that American Continentals and British regulars were found lying dead, mutually transfixed by each other’s bayonets after the battle.”
Finally, the British began falling back. Well, some did. Unfortunately, many of the less well-trained Americans decided to claim victory a bit prematurely. Men broke ranks and began looting the British camp. They were even drinking rum!
Obviously, this was an opportunity for the British, who were not quite gone. A renewed British attack began. The only way to save his army, Greene realized, was to withdraw.
Americans should have won the battle outright. Instead, they found themselves retreating. Stewart’s men were in no shape to pursue the Americans, though. In fact, Stewart soon abandoned camp and returned to Charleston.
Despite their last-minute blunders, Americans had succeeded in driving the British out of much of South Carolina.
John Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas (1999)
Henry Lumpkin, From Savannah to Yorktown (1981)
Terry M. Mays, Historical Dictionary of the American Revolution (2d ed. 2009)