Emerging Revolutionary War is pleased to welcome back historian Bert Dunkerly, who is the co-author (with Irene B. Boland) of the upcoming book; “Eutaw Springs; The Final Battle of the American Revolution’s Southern Campaign” slated to be released this month.
The weather was warm and the men had been marching for days, but their morale was high. They had been through a lot recently: caught off guard and defeated at Hobkirk’s Hill, a month of grueling siege work – and for naught, at Ninety Six. Not to mention the engagements that many of them had fought in previously: Kings Mountain, Cowpens, Guilford Courthouse, and dozens of smaller battles.
Yet the army that General Nathanael Greene led forward on the morning of September 8, 1781, was confident and ready to come to grips with its adversary. Everyone from the private in the ranks on up to the commanding general knew that ahead lay an opportunity.
Battles in the Revolution were, in fact, rare opportunities for commanders. Engagements were the short, pulse-pounding events that broke up the monotony of marching and maneuvering. An army spent most of its time in garrison, in camp, or on the road. In battle the infrequent opportunity came to crush an opponent and influence the outcome of a campaign, or the war. These chances were few and far between.
Both commanders at Eutaw Springs appreciated this fact. General Nathanael Greene’s forces had experienced a series of close calls at Guilford Courthouse, Ninety Six, and Hobkirk’s Hill. The American army fought well in all of these engagements, save Hobkirk’s Hill, yet they met defeat in every one. Greene hoped Eutaw Springs would put the finishing touches on his South Carolina campaign, and end it with a clear cut victory.[i]
Eutaw Springs was a rare chance for Greene to pick the time and place of engagement, array his forces to his choosing, and initiate the battle, and control its \tempo. It was the only set engagement of the campaign, other than Guilford Courthouse, in which Greene chose the ground and initiated the battle. Commanders do not often have this luxury, and Greene earnestly hoped to make the most of it.
In a letter to General Washington, Greene summed up his army’s situation, “. . . the probability of not being able to keep it long in the field, and the difficulty of subsisting men in this exhausted county, together with the great advantages which would result from the action if we were victorious and the injury little if we were otherwise, determin’d me to bring on an action as soon as possible.”[ii]
There was no less at stake for Colonel Alexander Stewart and his forces. Once Lord Cornwallis took the British field army through North Carolina and into Virginia, a limited number of British and German troops were left to control South Carolina. British commanders hoped to rely on local Loyalist militia to augment their small number of regular troops whenever certain points were threatened, but this system was unreliable. With a mixed force scrapped together from Loyalist militia and British regulars, Stewart hoped to stop Greene’s advance across the state and stabilize the strategic situation.
Greene caught the British off guard, dispersing an early morning rooting party that had been sent out to gather supplies before the heat of the day set in. A little farther on, the Americans deployed for their attack. Stewart was caught totally off guard. The Americans attacked in three waves: first militia, then North Carolina state troops, and finally the Continental veterans from Virginia and Maryland.
The British and Loyalists held them off for hours until the last attack swept them back upon their camp. Here, near the springs and amid the tents of the camp, the American attack stalled in front of a fortified brick house.
Major Henry Sheridan of the Loyalist New York Volunteers led the defense here at this crucial moment. The official regimental history of the 64th Regiment recounts that, “. . . Major Sheridan, with the New York Volunteers and some others, had thrown themselves into the brick house, where they were attacked by some of the State Troops, and the Delawares. Lee, who had been successful on the right, pushed forward with the Legion Infantry and got possession of the two British guns. These were brought up against the house, also the two American pieces from their second line, but no impression could be made on the walls, and the fire from the windows being most destructive, nearly all of the artillerymen fell beside their guns.”[iii]
“Lighthorse Harry” Lee recalled that, “As soon as we entered the field, Sheridan began to fire from the brick house, followed closely upon the enemy still entering it, hoping to force his say before the door could be barred. One of our soldiers actually got half way in, and for some minutes a struggle of strength took place- Manning pressing him in, and Sheridan forcing him out. The latter prevailed, and the door was closed.”
Major Sheridan, in charge of defending the house, made a stand in and around the structure that saved the British army, not unlike that at the Chew House during the Battle of Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1777. Unable to dislodge the British defenders, the pursuing Americans focused their efforts on the house, allowing the rest of the British to regroup and re-enter the battle. A routed, retreating force needs a secure rallying point, and the Brick House served exactly that purpose. Nothing is harder in combat than to stop the momentum of a panicked unit: Sheridan managed to do just that.
A cavalry charge led by Lieutenant Colonel William Washington (cousin of the commanding general) met with disaster, and Washington was wounded and taken prisoner. Washington’s command lost about 29 of the 80-100 who made the attack.
Sensing his army was spent, Greene pulled back. Controversy has raged ever since, with looting the captured British camp being blamed for the American failure. Greene’s army lost 555 of 2,080 engaged, while Stuart lost 692 of 1,396 present.
After the battle is when things get interesting. William Johnson published a book in 1822 about General Greene, which he accused Lee of not being in position to support the army.
The younger Lee blamed Johnson for creating the myth of looting the British camp as the reason for the American withdrawal. Lee Jr. writes that Greene’s reference to a “little incident” that prevented him from gaining complete victory was not in fact the pillaging of the camp, but the confusion among the cavalry at the battle’s climax.[iv]
Johnson wrote, with typical Victorian flair, that the camp “. . . presented many objects to tempt a thirsty, naked and fatigued soldiery . . .” It appears that later writers, like Lee Jr. and Johnson, placed greater blame on the looting for the American retreat than did the participants.[v]
Colonel Lee could not be found at the time because he was with his Legion Infantry, thus the cavalry charged without him and was repulsed. In the meantime, Lee arrived and ascertained that the time was now to charge the British. Upon organizing the assault, he discovered Eggleston’s troop was not up and ready, having already assaulted and failed.
The younger Lee argues that Johnson has blamed Lee for not being in place at the time the order arrived from Greene. The commanding General, as Lee Jr. points out, never indicated any disappointment in Lee’s conduct during the battle. Pendleton did not make enough of an effort to find the Colonel in Henry Lee Jr.’s assessment. He claims Johnson’s work to be “sinister and sabulous purpose of malice.”[vi]
This is significant, for only two participants mention the looting. Johnson’s work, published in 1822, affected every understanding of the battle written since then. Lee claims that the taking and plundering of the British camp, rather than being seen as a breakdown in discipline, should be viewed as the proof of American victory. He writes, “. . . the possession and pillage of the enemy’s camp is the best proof, generally, of their defeat; nor has its plunder, after a hard fought action, been deemed either disgraceful or disastrous.”[vii] In short, it seems the looting occurred, but was not a significant factor in changing the battle’s momentum.
[i] Conrad, Papers of Nathanael Greene, 256-7, 10.
[ii] Saberton, The Cornwallis Papers, Vol. VI, 7.
[iii] Purdon, Historical Sketch.
[iv] Lee, Memoirs, 498.
[v] Schenck, North Carolina 1780-1781, 459; Johnson, Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathanael Greene, 229, 230.
[vi] Lee, The Campaign of 1781, 475, 79, 89, 90, 92.
[vii] Ibid., 499.