"The Battle of Eutaw Springs," Bert Dunkerly
Overshadowed in American Revolution history by the Siege of Yorktown which took place only a few weeks later, the Battle of Eutaw Springs basically ended the war’s fighting in South Carolina with heavy casualties on both sides.
“Nathanael Greene was trying to re-conquer South Carolina after Cornwallis moved the main British army into Virginia,” said historian and author Robert M. Dunkerly at the November 15, 2017 meeting of the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond. Dunkerly is the co-author along with Irene Boland of the recently published book entitled Eutaw Springs: The Final Battle Of The American Revolution’s Southern Campaign.
“The summer of 1781 was very frustrating for Greene,” said Dunkerly. “Earlier in the year the British attacked his army at Guilford Courthouse and Hobkirk’s Hill. At Ninety Six he was finally able to go on the offensive but he attacked a British fort, so the attack wasn’t on ground of his choosing. Eutaw Springs was the only time when Greene attacked the British on ground of his choosing.”
Eutaw Springs was also a battle where Greene’s army outnumbered the British. The Americans had approximately 2,000 soldiers, compared to approximately 1,300 for the British.
Greene’s army included a combination of Continental brigades, state militia units and cavalry. His Maryland brigade consisted of two Maryland regiments and one from Delaware who were all veterans of many battles in both the Northern and Southern Campaigns. Greene had two other Continental brigades from Virginia and North Carolina, as well as militia units from North Carolina.
He also had South Carolina militia units who were veterans of the Southern Campaign and included such famous figures as Andrew Pickens and Francis Marion, also known as “The Swamp Fox”. Greene also had two cavalry units which were led by William Washington (a cousin of George Washington’s) and Light Horse Harry Lee (father of Robert E. Lee).
The British were led by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Stewart in what was his only independent command during the war.
“Stewart commanded a small number of British units who were very good soldiers,” said Dunkerly. “He also commanded a large number of Loyalists who were very experienced and often as good as the British troops. His army also included light infantry units which were very good at skirmishing. Stewart had no cavalry, which was one of his biggest regrets when he wrote about the battle afterwards.”
In September 1781 Greene received news concerning a British encampment at Eutaw Springs, and ordered advance units to engage the enemy. Early on the morning of September 8, 1781 Greene’s advance unit ran into a British foraging party in a sweet potato field, and captured most of the foragers. The advance troops continued on the road toward the British encampment until they found it.
Greene brought up the rest of his army and formed it into three lines for an attack. Leading the way were his North and South Carolina militia units, followed by most of his Continental soldiers and then his reserve units.
“Greene achieved total surprise,” said Dunkerly. “The British were outnumbered but they fought tenaciously and retreated gradually. Eventually Greene’s militia units and later his North Carolina brigade ran out of steam. Then Greene sent in his best troops, his Maryland and Delaware units. They overran the British camp and sent the British back to a brick house that was located near two springs, a large one and a small one.”
At this point Greene’s army was on the verge of a major victory but a number of American officers became casualties and their troops became leaderless. Some of these troops chose to loot the British camp rather than keep fighting.
Stewart frantically tried to rally his army, and successfully formed a defensive line in the vicinity of the brick house where the British stopped the American attack. Greene reluctantly pulled back his troops, and then the British counterattacked. Greene broke off the engagement and retreated.
The battle ended with Greene sustaining approximately 550 casualties (killed, wounded and captured) while Stewart suffered approximately 700 casualties, which included approximately 250 soldiers who were captured by the Americans. Greene’s army retreated to the High Hills of Santee while Stewart’s troops retreated to Charleston where they would remain for the rest of the war. The British never again felt strong enough to leave the city.
Who won the Battle of Eutaw Springs? Both commanders claimed victory.
“Historians have debated for many years over who won,”said Dunkerly. “Actually a very good case can be made for calling the battle a draw. I think the battle was a tactical victory for the British and a strategic victory for the Americans. At the end of the day Greene left the battlefield to the British, but the British later returned to Charleston where they stayed for the rest of the war.”
Although a few acres of the Eutaw Springs battlefield are preserved today by the State of South Carolina and a national preservation organization, most of the battlefield is now a residential neighborhood that was built during the 1960s. Approximately 5% of the battlefield is underwater as part of the Lake Marion reservoir project which was built back in the 1940s.
“For many years historians thought that most of the battlefield was underwater but this is false,” said Dunkerly. “Archeologists found the ruins of the brick house and many nearby artifacts which pinpoint the location of the British camp.”
Bert Dunkerly is a historian for Richmond National Battlefield Park and has also served at other National Park Service battlefields that relate to the American Revolution or the Civil War. This winter he will serve as the acting Chief of Interpretation at Morristown National Historical Park in New Jersey, and will then return to Richmond. He has taught courses on both the American Revolution and the Civil War at the University of Richmond, the Virginia Historical Society and Central Virginia Community College.
Dunkerly currently serves as chairman of the preservation committee of the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond, and is a former president of the Richmond Civil War Round Table. He has written or co-written a number of books, which include the following ones that focus on the American Revolution:
1. Eutaw Springs: The Final Battle of the American Revolution’s Southern Campaign
2. Women of the Revolution: Bravery and Sacrifice on the Southern Battlefields
3. Kings Mountain Walking Tour Guide
4. The Battle of Kings Mountain: Eyewitness Accounts
5. More than Roman Valor: The Revolutionary War Fact Book
6. Old Ninety Six: A History & Guide
7. Redcoats on the Cape Fear: The Revolutionary War in Southeastern North Carolina
Prior to the speaker’s presentation the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond discussed the following topics:
1. President Bill Welsch reported that 85 people currently belong to ARRT-Richmond, the most in its history.
2. Vice President of Membership Woody Childs asked the audience to pay 2018 membership dues via check rather than cash at the January meeting.
3. Treasurer Art Ritter provided a financial report and a comparison between last year’s treasury balance versus this year’s.
4. Other announcements were made regarding book awards, preservation donations, history lectures and a recent ARRT-Richmond group tour of Scotchtown---one of Patrick Henry’s homes.