After the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778, the American Revolutionary War lulled in the north where British General Sir Henry Clinton was stationed with a large part of his army in New York. King George III and the British Parliament turned their eyes on the American South and sent their armies where a civil war raged between American Loyalists and Patriots.
In response, the Continental Congress, the Patriot civilian governing body sent Generals Robert Howe, Benjamin Lincoln, and Horatio Gates respectively who from 1778 – 1780 lost Savannah, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; and Camden, South Carolina to the British.
Congress’ previous choices to command the Southern Army failed. Now, they left the choice to General George Washington. He chose his ablest major general: Nathanael Greene. Nathanael’s brilliant strategy, wore down the British army in the South commanded by General Lord Charles Cornwallis. After months of chasing Greene’s army, which lost every engagement except the battle at Cowpens, South Carolina, Cornwallis abandoned Georgia and the Carolinas and retreated with his exhausted and starving army into Virginia. Then, Nathanael systematically destroyed the British outposts, supply lines, and communication lines between the British holding Savannah and Charleston, and the rest of South Carolina.
In late August 1781, Nathanael learned that British Colonel Alexander Stewart was moving through central South Carolina and he intended to put a stop to it. On August 23, he marched his army out of the High Hills of Santee looking for a fight.
On September 7, after weeks of mucking through swamps and heavy rains, the Southern Army arrived at Burdell’s Plantation seven miles from Eutaw Springs, South Carolina where Stewart was camped with 1,500 men. During their march, Nathanael’s army picked up militia under Francis Marion, Andrew Pickens and Francois de Malmedy. Cavalry Colonel William Washington also reunited with them swelling the army to nearly 2,400 men. Nathanael ordered his troops to cook one day’s provisions and allowed them a gill of rum. They would attack in the morning.
On September 8, just before dawn, Nathanael’s army marched toward the enemy. At 7:00 a.m., they saw white tents near a brick mansion. Behind the mansion, springs drained into Eutaw Creek which flowed into the Santee River. A British foraging party was rooting for sweet potatoes when the American vanguard spotted them. Stewart sent cavalry Major John Coffin with a forward detachment. They skirmished with Colonel “Light-Horse” Harry Lee’s legion. Colonel Otho Holland Williams ordered “Move in the order of battle and halt.”
The order of battle was familiar: militia up front, with orders to fire and fall back. This placed the militiamen from North Carolina and South Carolina in front with Colonel Harry Lee’s legion and reinforcements from Francis Marion and Andrew Pickens. Behind the militia, Continentals, men from Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina formed the line. Nathanael held Washington’s cavalry and Colonel Robert Kirkwood’s Delaware company in reserve. Stewart posted a single main line of defense to the west. His 63rd and 64th Regiments of Foot looked directly across at Francis Marion.
Stewart’s 3rd Regiment of Foot held the right of his line. His center was anchored with Loyalist brigades from New York and New Jersey. Musket fire exploded from both sides of the line. Continental 2lb grasshoppers boomed. The Virginia and Maryland regiments drove toward the brick mansion in a race to get inside before the British. The British won shouldering the door closed against the Americans pushing from the other side. American troops surged through the British camp and tripped over tent ropes and stakes. British marksmen opened fire. The Americans tried to dislodge the British with unsuccessful cannon fire.
Major John Marjoribanks tried to hold the British right flank. Nathanael ordered Colonel William Washington to push against Marjoribanks. The British in the mansion raked Washington and his men. Washington’s horse was shot out from underneath him. He was bayonetted and taken prisoner. Colonel John Eager Howard of Maryland was shot in the collar bone. Colonel Richard Campbell of Virginia was mortally shot in the chest. Harry Lee’s deputy executed an unsuccessful charge. Nathanael’s army was suffering debilitating losses and his men were scattered across the field.
After four hours of fighting he called a retreat and rallied his bloodied exhausted forces in the woods. Losses that day totaled 1,400. Both sides claimed victory. After destroying their firearms, Stewart retreated toward Charleston. Nathanael’s army returned to the High Hills of Santee. Nathanael praised his soldiers and the militia to Congress. He was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal of Honor bearing his likeness. Otho Holland Williams was awarded a sword. The Battle of Eutaw Springs was the last significant land battle of the Revolutionary War.
A month after the battle, due to General Nathanael Greene and his army’s perseverance and sacrifice, the British general he had chased out of the Carolinas, Lord Charles Cornwallis, surrendered to Franco/American forces under General George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia on October 19, 1781.
Eutaw Springs a poem by Philip Freneau (1752–1832) First published in the Freeman’s Journal, November 21, 1781
AT Eutaw Springs the valiant died:
Their limbs with dust are covered o’er—
Weep on, ye springs, your tearful tide;
How many heroes are no more!
I’m currently writing a novel about General Nathanael Greene titled “The Line of Splendor, A Novel of Nathanael Greene and the American Revolution”
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Beakes, John H. Jr. Otho Holland Williams in The American Revolution. Charleston, South Carolina: The Nautical and Aviation Publishing Co. of American, 2015
Beakes, John H. Jr. and Piecuch, Jim. Cool Deliberate Courage: John Eager Howard in the American Revolution. Heritage Books, 2009
Buchannan, John. The Road to Charleston. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019
Carbone, Gerald M. Nathanael Greene A Biography of the American Revolution, 2008.
Golway, Terry. Washington’s General Nathanael Greene and the Triumph of the American Revolution. New York: Henry Holt and Company
Greene, George Washington. The Life of Nathanael Greene, Major General in the Army of the Revolution.3 Volumes. New York: Hurd and Houghton. Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1871
Thayer, Theodore. Nathanael Greene Strategist of the American Revolution. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1960