September 8th will mark the 237th anniversary of this battle in South Carolina’s low country. Hard fought and bloody (General Nathanael Greene used the word obstinate to describe it), the battle has not been well remembered or commemorated.
This small roadside park preserves a portion of the battlefield.
Several myths persist about the engagement, and I will analyze the most well-known of them here. One of the most persistent traditions is that the battlefield is currently underwater, a result of the 1940s project that flooded the Santee River basin for hydroelectric power and flood control. Another repeated story is of the Americans losing momentum by looting the British camp thereby forfeiting a certain victory. Lastly, historians and history enthusiasts still debate the most basic of battlefield questions, who won?
Eutaw Springs was part of General Nathanael Greene’s campaign to retake South Carolina from the British in 1781. Lord Cornwallis had taken the main British army from North Carolina into Virginia. Greene felt that other forces could deal with Cornwallis, so he took the southern Continental army to retake the Palmetto state. South Carolina was garrisoned by small numbers of British, German, and Loyalist troops. In command of the men in the field was Lt. Col. Alexander Stewart.
Greene’s army was disappointed in failures at Hobkirk’s Hill and Ninety Six. His next attack was at the British camp at Eutaw Springs, about thirty miles from Charleston. The British were caught totally off guard, with an unarmed foraging party captured outside their camp.
First green North Carolina troops, then Virginia Continentals, then the Maryland and Delaware veterans entered the battle. The British and Loyalists were worn down and eventually overwhelmed. Retreating, they abandoned their camp, and some made a stand near a brick house overlooking the two Eutaw Springs.
Stiffening resistance, confusion, loss of officers, and casualties slowed the American advance. Greene called it a day and pulled his army back, abandoning all the ground they had taken. Eutaw Springs produced some of the heaviest casualties of any engagement in South Carolina; both armies lost a combined 1,100 men that day. Greene reported that his army lost 139 killed, 375 wounded, and 8 missing (522 total). British losses were 85 killed, 351 wounded, and 275 missing (678 total), taken from Stewart’s report. Now onto the myths.
First, the flood. Ever since the flooding of the Santee River in 1940, most writers have assumed that the waters of Lake Marion covered the battlefield. Research shows that this is not so.
Comparing a pre-flood topographical map with a modern map reveals that the county boundary between Orangeburg and Clarendon did not change with the flooding. Comparing the two maps reveals that the lake waters filled the streambed of Eutaw Creek, but did not overflow onto the higher ground above, where the battle took place. The fringe, along the creek, and the springs themselves, were inundated. Most of the battlefield- 95 %- remains. Unfortunately, while the waters of Lake Marion did not destroy the battle site, development has. The majority of the battlefield is covered by a modern neighborhood largely built in the 1960s.
Recent archaeology, and information from relic hunters, has located the Brick house foundations, and identified the location of battle actions from artifacts. The flooding of the river in 1941 to produce Lake Marion was thought to obliterate much of the battle site, but research shows that most of the ground on which the Continental, militia, British, and Loyalists struggled so fiercely is still above water. Ironically, and tragically, the battlefield has not been lost to flooding but to modern development and neglect. It is hoped that renewed interest in the intense struggles and sacrifices made at Eutaw Springs will increase opportunities for preservation and interpretation of this important battle site.
Recent archaeology has located the foundations of the Brick House, a key battlefield landmark that allows other features to fall into place on the map. NPS Photo
In 1936 Congress authorized the creation of Eutaw Springs Battlefield Site. As was done with other battlefields at the time like Kings Mountain and Cowpens, a War Department Commission studied the site and recommended preservation based on the site’s significance and integrity. Located in an isolated and rural area, the battlefield and its important features like roads, fields, and woods, remained intact. Little action was taken however, since plans were underway for the Santee-Cooper power project. National defense demands during World War II and the fact that the battle was an American defeat also probably spoiled its prospects. No action was taken before the creation of Lake Marion, and eventually only a three acre tract was preserved by the state.[i]
In 2000, archaeological work was undertaken at the small park. The location of the Brick House found, an important objective since this landmark serves to locate the rest of the battlefield. With this definite point, the other features fall into place. Comparing modern maps to historic maps revealed that the roads did not move (or at least not much). Also, the streambed that was Eutaw Creek is obviously now a branch of the modern lake. The high ground that overlooked the creek is now the shoreline. The flooding of the 1940s did not cover the entire battlefield, it just flooded the creek valley and inundated the spring. The battle was fought in the open, gently rolling terrain flanking both sides of the road, west of the Brick House. Finding the house was truly the key to locating the battlefield.
At the site of the house investigators opened a trench and found a brick foundation with brick and mortar rubble. Further testing would probably determine the size and orientation of the house.[ii]
Because the roadside park is so small, and the large lake has inundated the two springs, it became widely assumed that the battlefield itself was flooded.
photo; park, springs
Next myth, looting the camp. Perhaps the most enduring issue is the looting by the Continental troops at the battle’s climax. Has it been exaggerated, or did contemporaries downplay it? In fact, most participants barely mention it. General Greene does not refer to it at all. Light horse Harry Lee alludes to it, but Otho H. Williams’ account makes the most of this affair. After examining over one hundred accounts by battle participants, only two Americans mention the looting: Samuel Hammond and Williams. No British accounts refer to plundering the camp, a significant point since it was their camp in question, and the looting supposedly saved their army at the point of collapse.
The first generation of historians to write about Eutaw Springs in the mid 1800s, like William Johnson and David Schenck, placed the blame for Greene’s army coming up short on the looting. Light Horse Harry Lee’s son, Henry Lee Jr., insisted that looting of the camp was proof of American victory, for by driving the British back they had captured their camp. Johnson, obviously citing Williams, wrote that “. . . the men, thinking the victory secure, and bent on the immediate fruition of its advantages, dispersed among the tents, fated upon the liquor and refreshments they afforded, and became utterly unmanageable . . .” He also recorded, 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.[iii]
With the publication of these two antebellum works, the myth of the looting was established. Nearly every subsequent history of the battle has accepted and repeated the information. The looting did occur, but only in combination with other factors, did it lead to the American retreat.
Ironically, the most enduring point of contention is who won the engagement. If the battle had ended when the Maryland and Virginia Continentals made their assault there would be no question that this was an American victory. These troops swept the field, brushing aside the exhausted English troops and scoring hundreds of prisoners. The British artillery and the British camp fell into their hands.
Yet here the battle stalled as the Continentals encountered the Brick House and the British regrouped at the palisaded garden. Looting, exhausting, breakdown in leadership, and hard work by British and Loyalist officers like Maj. John Marjoribanks to rally their men turned the tide.
The British counterattacked, and pushed the Americans back for good. At this point Greene broke off the engagement, and says as much in his letter to the Continental Congress.
Three days after the battle, Greene wrote saying that “Washington failing in his charge on the left, and the Legion baffled in an attempt upon the right, and finding our infantry galled by the fire of the Enemy, and our Ammunition mostly consumed, tho’ both Officers and Men continued to exhibit uncommon acts of heroism, I though proper to retire out of the fire of the House and draw up the Troops at a little distance in the Woods, not thinking it adviseable to push our advantages farther; being persuaded the enemy could not hold the Post many Hours, and that our chance to attack them on the retreat was better than a second attempt to dislodge them, which, if we succeeded, it must be attended with considerable loss. We collected our Wounded, except such as were under the command of the fire of the House, and retired to the ground from which we marched in the morning…..”[iv]
Stewart recalled that he was too weak to pursue, and that during the fighting his army was nearly routed beyond recovery. He wrote to Cornwallis that “. . . I assure you the Action was bloody and obstinate, and had I not my self rallyed the left wing of the Army, carried them on and exposed myself much the consequence to my little Army I believe every one allows might have been fatal.” He also laments “. . . not having Cavalry to profite of the totall rout of their Infantry. . .” when the Americans retreated. Maclean of the 84th concurs in the lack of enough cavalry.[v]
The Americans did net several hundred prisoners, and did push the British back, yet they did not break Stewart’s army or drive them from the field. Stewart’s troops were too weak to pursue and barely held on that day. The armies had fought so hard that they were drained.
For months afterwards both armies spent their energies on recuperating from this exhausting battle. Both sides fought hard. Both sides saw success and failure. Both sides left the battlefield, exhausted. Eutaw Springs was a draw.
Recalling the loss of so many comrades at Eutaw, Otho Williams wrote that, “. . . it is worthy of remark that it happened on the same spot of ground where according to the tradition of this Country, a very bloody desperate Battle was fought about a century ago, between the Savage Nations and the Europeans who came to dispossess them of their possessions . . . On the spot where conflict of Bayonets decided the Victory, is a monument or mound of Earth, said to have been erected over the bodies of the brave Indians who fell in defense of their Country. Will any such honorable testimony be erected to the Memory of our departed Heroes?” That is challenge that later generations must now respond to.[vi]
[i] Hogenauer, “Gone, But Not Forgotten: The Delisted Units of the US National Park System,” 4.
[ii] Ibid., 24. In 1989 Hurricane Hugo, a powerful storm, uprooted many trees in the roadside park, some of which brought up brick rubble from the house. The park lost many trees in that storm.
[iii] Schenck, North Carolina 1780-1781, 459; Johnson, Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathanael Greene, 229, 230.
[iv] Conrad, Papers of Nathanael Greene, Vol. IX, 329-30.
[v] Stewart, 11 September, 1781; Maclean, 11 September, 1781
[vi] Williams, 23 September, 1781.