There are important stories often hidden in the threads of our American history. It won’t be a surprise to many that these stories desperately need to come to light. But sometimes research is scarce, with limited or hard-to-find resources to fully tell these stories to their fullest. One such example are the stories of the enslaved and free African-American people who helped build the nation, starting back even before the colonies fought for independence. America’s fight for freedom from Britain is oxymoronic considering an entire population of blacks were still kept in chains after the war. But their contributions to that fight should not go unnoticed.
The history of the construction of the British defense fortifications, including the Star Fort, at Ninety Six, South Carolina, has many layers of these diverse stories that make up the fabric of the site’s history. Lt. Colonel Nisbet Balfour set up an outpost at Ninety Six after the fall of Charleston in early 1780. In terms of fortifications – specifically the stockades and protections around the town and the jail – during this initial occupation, Balfour wrote to Cornwallis on June 24, 1780, “As to this post, it is so situated, that three small redoubts, well Abbattis [sic], I think, can easily defend it…”
Balfour also encouraged using slave labor, stating that “we have carpenters enough, and ammunition.” Balfour’s plan to construct fortifications was similar to a more extensive defense system suggested by Patrick Ferguson in his “Plan for Securing the Province of So. Carolina, &c.” dated May 16, 1780. Ferguson also recommended using slaves to construct the fortifications.
In fact, in that same June 24 letter to Cornwallis, Balfour writes that most of the labor that was used to construct the Ninety Six fortifications was from roughly 200 enslaved blacks that the British took from area plantations. Who were these 200 men? Were they promised freedom in exchange for their labor? We may never know. While research is underway to uncover the stories of these 200 individuals, very little primary resources remain. But we can still acknowledge that the British defense of Ninety Six relied heavily on the forced labor of these black men.
Work continued into the fall and winter of 1780 on the defense structures at Ninety Six, this time under Lt. Colonel John Harris Curger, including several field fortifications called abatis: defensive obstacles formed by felled trees with sharpened branches facing the enemy. The trunks are put deep into the ground, usually 4-5 feet, and is typically hard manual labor in the hard red clay of South Carolina. In a letter on December 29, 1780, Lt. Colonel Isaac Allen wrote to Cornwallis’s aide, Lt. Henry Haldane, of the hard work of the men constructing the abatis. And yes, those men were enslaved men. “I… have orderd [sic] the Abattiss [sic] cut, but Kings work like Church work goes on slow. The Poor naked Blacks can do but little this cold weather.”
Next up in the defense plan was the Star Fort itself, a large earthen redoubt whose remains are still the best-preserved earthen fort from the American Revolution. Once again, those approximately 200 enslaved men were used in its construction. Upon the completion of the fort, additional work included a network of ditches and trenches both for communication and transport of supplies.
By spring of 1781, the defenses were ready. Lt Colonel Cruger’s military force was nearly 600 but this was supplemented by a large number of Loyalist civilians in the town as well as several hundred enslaved African Americans from the surrounding country. Most likely, though it’s not known for sure, these were the roughly 200 men who helped build those very physical defenses.
But the hidden story of the enslaved at Ninety Six does not stop there, nor is their story solely on the shoulders of the British. During the Siege of Ninety Six in May and June of 1781, there are several instances that beg for more research. The first is from the morning of May 23, when Patriot forces had been digging trenches towards the Star Fort throughout the night. An attack by Loyalist militia from the fort pushed the Patriots back and they managed to capture not only the tools the Patriots were using, but “several Negro laborers abandoned by the Americans.” (Greene, 128)
It should come as no surprise that the Patriots were also using slave labor. James Mayson, a wealthy Patriot supporter living just a few miles from Ninety Six, described later how foraging parties were dispatched to the countryside to get food and supplies for Greene’s army, which included slaves “not earlier recruited by the British.”
As the Siege dragged on into June, there is one more hidden story that deserves additional research to discover the identities of the enslaved men who risked their lives for the British military garrisoned at the Star Fort. As the heat of the early Carolina summer sapped water supplies, Lt Colonel Cruger needed to get water from a nearby stream, Spring Branch, to keep their supply up. But Patriot marksmen were at the ready to prevent this from happening. Turning to the enslaved in their midst, a handful of them were ordered to strip out of their clothing and go at night to the stream to file buckets. They apparently succeeded. A British lieutenant by the name of Hatton would later recall that their naked bodies were indistinguishable “in the night from the fallen trees, with which the place abounded.”
These are just snippets of hidden stories at just one site of the American Revolution. And that’s only during one specific time in Ninety Six’s history; additional stories exist for both before and after the war, during the French and Indian War, and during the Regulator movement, as well as stories of enslaved Natives from the time of early settlement in the region.
How many stories are yet untold? Who were these men and women who currently remain nameless? For these stories aren’t just tidbits of historical facts – they represent real people who experienced real emotions and a real existence at the time when our nation was first figuring out what it wanted to be. The stories of black Loyalists and Patriots deserve to be told and in doing so, will add a new layer of complexity and understanding to the story of America during the Revolutionary War and beyond.
Greene, Jerome A. Historic Resource Study and Historic Structure Report, Ninety Six: A Historical Narrative. National Park Service: Denver Service Branch of Historic Preservation, 1978.
Manuscripts & Papers
Ann Arbor. University of Michigan. William L. Clements Library. Patrick Ferguson, “Plan for Securing the Province of So, Carolina, &c,” May 16, 1780.
Ann Arbor. University of Michigan. William L. Clements Library. Nathanael Greene Papers. James Mayson to Greene, May 29, 1781.
Washington. Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. British Public Record Office. Cornwallis Papers. Balfour to Comwallis, June 24, 1780. BPRO 30/11/2 (1)
Washington. Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. British Public Record Office. Amherst Papers. Thomas Anderson. “Journal of Thomas Anderson’s” 1st Delaware regiment [May 6, 1780-April 7, 1782].”
Books and Pamphlets
Haiman, Miecislaus. Kosciuszko in the American Revolution. New York: Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America, 1943. Reprint; Boston: Gregg Press, 1972.
Mackenzie, Roderick. Strictures on Lt. Col. Tarleton’s “History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America.” London: Printed for the Author, 1787.
Stedman, Charles. The History of the Origin, Progress, and Termination of the American War, Volume 2. London: Printed for the Author, 1794.
Ward, Christopher. The War of the Revolution, Volume 2. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1952.
Weigley, Russell F. The Partisan War: The South Carolina Campaign of 1780-1782. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1970.