The Battle of Eutaw Springs was on September 8, 1781. The Patriot general was Greene and the British general was Stewart. The Patriots attacked and were successful, but the British counter attacked and won the battle. Although, the Patriots did capture some British officers! This war was the end of the Southern campaign for the British.
The Battle of Eutaw Springs on 8 September 1781
Greene reentered North Carolina with the army’s main force on February 23. For the next 3 weeks he and Cornwallis maneuvered for advantage while seeking to bring each other to battle. Greene had reconstituted Colonel Williams’s light corps-which had served so brilliantly covering the retrograde to Virginia-to act now as the American advance guard. Once more Lee led the van of this force and engaged in almost continual activity, including victorious skirmishes against Tarleton on March 2 and again on March 6. By March 14, Greene had established himself at the position from which he desired to fight, Guilford Court House. Cornwallis, a dozen miles to the southwest, decided to accommodate him. Early that morning he began his approach toward the Americans at Guilford with Tarleton, as usual, spearheading the British advance.
Lee commanded Greene’s screening force. His pickets detected the enemy’s lead elements around 7:00 a. m., 7 miles in front of the main American line. Lee selected an ideal piece of ground-a narrow lane bounded by high fences on both sides-and ambushed Tarleton’s dragoons, sending them into pell-mell retreat. Lee in turn pursued until he encountered Tarleton’s accompanying infantry. In the ensuing melee, Lee was temporarily unhorsed and his opposite number slightly wounded. Having succeeded in providing warning to Greene and delaying the enemy-inflicting about 30 casualties in return for minimal losses-Lee pulled back and took up his position on the extreme left of the American first defensive line, one of three Greene had established on the wooded slope leading up to the court house.
Shortly after noon, preceded by a brief cannonade, the British attacked. The North Carolina militia, who comprised the bulk of the American first rank, discharged a ragged volley, then fled in the face of the oncoming redcoats. Lee, who invariably found militia wanting-though in this case Greene had authorized them to withdraw after engaging-recorded that “these unhappy men, … throwing away arms, knapsacks, and even canteens, … rushed like a torrent headlong through the woods.” Lee’s Legion and some Virginia riflemen held their position on the American left and poured a deadly enfilade fire into the enemy’s scarlet ranks. Another group of Continentals did the same from the American right. The British dealt with these flank threats by diverting their first echelon regiments against them. The Americans on the right gave ground grudgingly and retired to link up with the patriot second line. Lee’s force and the Virginians, however, found themselves hard-pressed by the combined assault of a British Guards battalion and a Hessian regiment. A vicious, separate battle involving these forces developed to the south and east of the court house. By the time Lee was able to break contact and move uphill to the main position, Greene had already ordered a general retreat after a day of carnage.
Historians have echoed Lee’s eloquent verdict on the battle, “The name of victory was the sole enjoyment of the conqueror, substance belonging to the vanquished.” Although Cornwallis might claim a tactical success, operationally he was compelled to withdraw to Wilmington, on the North Carolina coast. Subsequently, he abandoned the Carolinas and made his fateful move into Virginia and, ultimately, Yorktown. Meanwhile, acting at least in part on Lee’s advice, Greene chose not to pursue Cornwallis, but rather to drive south and liberate South Carolina and Georgia. While Greene advanced with the bulk of the army on the British position at Camden, he once again detached Lee to operate with Marion against the scattered enemy outposts in the surrounding area. Reflecting back on the army’s mood as it prepared to embark on this phase of the campaign, Lee wrote that despite fatigue and privation “we were content; we were more than content-we were happy” with “The improved condition of the South, effected by our efforts” and “anticipations of the future.”
Lee and the Swamp Fox linked up in early April, and made Fort Watson, on the Santee River 60 miles northwest of Charleston, their first objective. The post consisted of a small stockade built upon an ancient Indian burial mound and surrounded by various man-made obstacles. The enemy inside the walls refused entreaties to surrender and countered an attempt to cut off their water supply by sinking a well. “Baffled in their expectation, and destitute both of artillery and intrenching tools, Marion and Lee despaired of success.” At this juncture, a South Carolina militiaman named Maham proposed the expedient of building a tower from which riflemen could pick off the defenders with impunity. The two American leaders readily assented and under Maham’s direction, the structure was ready by dawn of April 23. By midday, helpless under a withering fire, the enemy capitulated.
Dispatching their prisoners back toward Greene, who was approaching Camden, Lee and Marion next focused their attention on a 500-man Loyalist force that had recently occupied itself vainly combing the marshes in the lower part of the state seeking the Swamp Fox. To aid Greene, the two Americans sought to keep this element from joining the main British army. They succeeded, although these activities caused them to miss the battle of Hobkirk’s Hill, just outside of Camden, on April 25. There the British claimed another bloody tactical triumph over Greene, although, similar to Guilford Court House, the only recourse for the victors following the battle was retreat. For their part, Lee and Marion resumed the war of posts by initiating a siege of Fort Motte, a strategic point at the junction of the Congaree and Wateree Rivers. A sense of urgency soon impelled the patriots, for rumors had the retreating British army headed straight for the fort. Lee and Marion had to take the place quickly or withdraw. The widow Motte’s stately mansion was the key to the enemy position and Lee’s fertile brain hit upon the idea of burning them out by setting the house ablaze with fire arrows. Lee gravely explained the necessity for this action to Mrs. Motte, who had been evicted from her home by the enemy. The patriotic lady gratified and surprised him not only by cheerfully assenting, but by pressing him to employ a bow and quiver of arrows she produced from her household belongings. One of Marion’s men served as the designated archer and by the afternoon of May 12 Lee’s inspiration produced a British surrender.
Greene appeared on the scene later that day and gave new orders. He would proceed west to command the siege of the British upcountry stronghold at Ninety Six. Marion would slice southeast to capture Georgetown. And he directed Lee to take Fort Granby, in the center of the state near the site of modern-day Columbia. General Thomas Sumter’s partisans were in the immediate vicinity, although the Gamecock himself was 30 miles farther south besieging another enemy garrison at Orangeburg. Lee arrived at Fort Granby on May 14 and wasted little time. Although the defending Loyalists had temporarily defied Sumter, they showed little inclination to fight Lee, who showed he meant business early the next day by shelling the fort with a 6-pound field gun and deploying the fierce infantry of his legion. The enemy commander offered to surrender on the condition that he and his men might retain the considerable plunder they had taken from the surrounding country and receive safe passage to Charleston, where as prisoners of war they could await exchange. Still concerned that the main British army retiring from Camden might intervene, Lee granted those terms. He subsequently received some criticism for this leniency and Sumter was furious that a prize he felt was rightfully his had been taken by another.
There was little time for recriminations, however. On the evening of the same day upon which Fort Granby had surrendered, Greene ordered Lee west to join Pickens in assailing the British stronghold at Augusta, Georgia. To maintain a rapid pace, Lee’s Legion employed techniques they often used-infantry mounted double behind dragoons, as well as infantrymen and cavalrymen alternating on horseback and foot. As he approached Augusta, Lee learned about a large quantity of enemy supplies stored at Fort Galphin, one of his majesty’s Indian trading posts, 12 miles south of Augusta. Taking his fittest troops and leaving the others to rest, Lee rode for this tempting target on the sultry morning of May 21. Displaying his genius for the clever ruse de guerre, he had some Georgia and South Carolina militia demonstrate outside the fort, which had the desired effect of stirring its occupants to quit the stockade to give futile chase. Lee’s Legion then rushed into the unguarded fort from the opposite direction and claimed the spoils-food, weapons and ammunition, clothing and medicine-all badly wanting on the American side. Lee then retired, having lost but one man-to heatstroke-and resumed his march to Augusta.
The patriots confronted two major British positions there. The larger one was Fort Cornwallis, within the town itself. A satellite post, Fort Grierson, covered it about half a mile to the west. Reaching patriot lines on May 23, Lee enjoyed a brief reunion with Pickens, whom he had not seen since their joint operations in North Carolina 2 months earlier. They developed a plan to storm Fort Grierson and deployed their men to attack it from three sides. During the fight, Lee repelled an attempted British sortie from Fort Cornwallis that sought to come to their comrades’ aid. Overwhelmed, 80 or so of the hard-pressed defenders tried a breakout to Fort Cornwallis, but were swiftly cut down. Half were killed, the rest wounded and captured. Tensions ran high between American patriots and Loyalists; it was only with great difficulty that Lee and Pickens restrained the Georgia militia from slaughtering all their captives. As it was, several were murdered, including the enemy commandant, Colonel Grierson. Of the repeated atrocities in this internecine struggle in the south, an appalled Lee observed that “It often sunk into barbarity.”
Lee and Pickens now turned their considerable energies upon Fort Cornwallis, ably defended by a resourceful opponent, Colonel Thomas Brown, and a combined force of approximately 600 Loyalists and Creek Indians. The Americans dug approach trenches and fought off repeated sallies by the enemy, intent on stopping their work. At Lee’s suggestion, the patriots also put up a “Maham Tower,” which promised to bring matters to a speedy resolution as had been the case at Fort Watson. Brown furiously countered-first with artillery fire, then with desperate bayonet assaults. When none of this availed, he resorted to subterfuge, sending a pretend “deserter” over to the Americans with orders to burn the tower. He also tried to lure the attackers into a mined house. These gambits failed too; in the case of the fake deserter, Lee was initially taken in, but then his own trickster’s instincts took hold and he ordered the man kept under close arrest. On June 5, after contentious negotiations, Brown surrendered the fort. Lee personally took charge of his prisoners to prevent a repeat of the earlier atrocities and hurried off to Ninety Six to join Greene.
Ninety Six was the sole remaining British-held post in South Carolina’s interior. It was a formidable objective-a village surrounded by a palisade with a strong bastion at one end known as the Star Redoubt. This redoubt connected via a covered trench to a small stockade-Fort Holmes-at the opposite end. In addition, the usual ditches and an abatis augmented the works. Some 550 Loyalists-many of them long-serving veterans nearly as skilled as regulars-manned the defenses. Greene opened the siege on May 22 by committing several tactical errors. The most significant was focusing his approach on the daunting Star Redoubt instead of the far weaker Fort Holmes, which also guarded the enemy’s water supply. In fact, in his memoirs Lee bluntly stated that the failure immediately to cut off the garrison’s access to water “lost us Ninety-Six.” Lee arrived on the morning of June 8, perceived the problem, and convinced Greene to let him commence sapping against the vital point. On the 11th Greene learned from Sumter that a British relief expedition under Lord Rawdon was en route from Charleston. He detached all his cavalry, including Lee’s dragoons, to the Gamecock with the intent of thwarting this effort.
In the event, the British rescue party sidestepped Sumter and with their arrival imminent, Greene faced three options: turn and face Rawdon, lift the siege and retreat, or attempt to storm Ninety Six before Rawdon arrived. Greene felt he had insufficient force for the first and profound distaste for the second. So at noon on June 18, he launched a two-pronged attack. On the American right, Lee’s Legion infantry, reinforced with Delaware Continentals, quickly seized Fort Holmes. On the left, a vicious fight took place at the Star Redoubt between its doughty defenders, and a combined force of Maryland and Virginia Continentals. The patriots contested the position gamely, but ultimately were beaten back. Lee’s foothold at Fort Holmes meant nothing now. That evening he withdrew his men as Greene ordered a general retreat. During the month-long siege, the patriots lost nearly 200 men killed or wounded; enemy casualties numbered about half that many. The British evacuated the post shortly after the relief column arrived. Greene and Rawdon then spent the ensuing weeks circling each other like wary beasts, but no major engagement resulted and Greene retired to the High Hills of the Santee to rest his army in mid-July.
There was little repose for Lee and his legion, however. While establishing his new base, Greene acceded to Sumter’s desire to strike a British outpost at Moncks Corner, about 30 miles above Charleston, and placed Lee’s Legion at his disposal. Under the pressure of the patriot advance, the redcoat regiment in the vicinity chose to withdraw. On the afternoon of July 17 Lee mauled the enemy rear guard while his van skirmished with the British main force, which ensconced itself in a formidable position at a plantation near Quinby Bridge, only a dozen miles outside Charleston. Marion, also part of Sumter’s force, came up shortly afterward and he agreed with Lee that it would not pay to assault an enemy so well established. Sumter believed otherwise and ordered up an attack that the British easily defeated. The beaten patriots rode off into the night, their numerous dead lying across the pommels of their saddles, to be deposited in a common grave at dawn. The legion had been spared this carnage, but Lee broke away from Sumter in disgust at his squandering of lives in a forlorn effort and returned to the hills above the Santee to join the rest of the army.
By early September, Greene felt strong enough to resume the offensive and began a march down the Santee toward the principal British army in South Carolina, which now concentrated around Eutaw Springs. Moving by easy stages, and drawing various militia and partisan units to his hard core of Continentals, Greene’s force swelled to approximately 2,200 men, who on the morning of September 8 remained undetected by a like number of the enemy, encamped just 7 miles away. Lee’s Legion comprised a portion of the patriot advance guard that surprised a British foraging party around 8:00 a. m. and precipitated the day’s battle. The Americans deployed from two columns in line of march to two ranks, with militia in front and Continentals backstopping them. Lee positioned his mixed cavalry and infantry on the American right flank. The Carolina militia, particularly those under Marion and Pickens fought admirably, but eventually faltered. Lee held firm on the right against the advance of a British regiment and Greene fed in his Continentals to restore the American line. Momentum swung to the Americans; Lee’s infantry along with the advancing patriot regulars drove in the British left. Fighting was hand-to-hand; Lee recorded that “such was the obstinacy with which the contest was maintained, that a number of soldiers fell transfixed by each other’s bayonet.” The British right, however, refused to yield, and their commander took advantage of their staunchness to begin reorganizing the rest of his command.
Lee, who had been forward with his infantry, thought he saw an opportunity to win the day by unleashing his cavalry to complete the destruction of the still reeling British left. But when he called for his dragoons, he discovered to his astonishment and dismay that they had already been committed against-and defeated by-the British right. Whether Greene or some other officer made this decision is unknown, but Lee believed that “To this unfortunate … order, may be ascribed the turn in this day’s battle.” Instead, the British counterattacked and broke the American assault. Greene, seeing that his forces could do no more, gave the order to pull back. The British, happy to see them off, retired to Charleston. Greene sent Lee and Marion to give chase the next day, but those two astute leaders soon thought it wise to pull back to rejoin Greene and the main army for a return to the Santee hills.
Eutaw Springs was the last major battle Greene fought in the deep south and for all intents and purposes marked the close of Lee’s combat career as well. In October, Greene sent him to carry dispatches to Washington on the Virginia peninsula. There he witnessed Cornwallis’s epochal surrender at Yorktown, of which he gave a vivid account in his memoirs. He returned to South Carolina in November and participated in a pair of abortive operations against the British outside of Charleston in December. For some time he had been out of sorts, probably from a combination of physical, mental, and emotional fatigue engendered by nearly 5 years of almost unbroken and arduous campaigning. Additionally, his ambition and ego always attracted jealousy and he gave himself over to feelings that his contributions were not fully appreciated-despite this and similar encomiums from Greene, “I am more indebted to this officer than to any other for the advantages gained over the enemy in the operations of [the] last Campaign.” Too, he recognized that opportunities to win further battlefield glory were unlikely. For all these reasons, as well as a desire to marry a cousin, Matilda Lee, whom he had long courted, he left the army in February 1782.
Lee settled down to what he charmingly described in the final sentence of his memoirs as “the innocent and pleasing occupations of peace.” He served in Congress and as Virginia’s governor, where he established a reputation for stirring oratory. It was Lee who eulogized Washington with the immortal line “First in war-first in peace-and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Like a number of regular revolutionary officers-Hamilton and John Marshall come to mind- who attributed the army’s persistent suffering to an ineffectual Congress, Lee supported the new Constitution and a relatively powerful national government. When outraged citizens in western Pennsylvania violently protested a federal excise tax in 1794, President Washington appointed Lee to command the forces that helped bloodlessly quell the so-called Whiskey Rebellion. Lee’s pronounced Federalist leanings, however, including his advocacy of a strong professional military, put him increasingly out of step with political trends in the 1790s- both in the nation at large and especially in Virginia, bastion of Jeffersonian Republicanism.