American Revolution: Battle of Eutaw Springs

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Major General Nathanael Greene. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of Eutaw Springs - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Eutaw Springs was fought September 8, 1781, during the American Revolution (1775-1783).

Armies & Commanders

Americans

Battle of Eutaw Springs - Background:

Having won a bloody victory over American forces at the Battle of Guilford Court House in March 1781, Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis elected to turn east for Wilmington, NC as his army was short on supplies.

Assessing the strategic situation, Cornwallis later decided to march north into Virginia as he believed the Carolinas could only be pacified after subjugating the more northern colony. Pursuing Cornwallis part of the way to Wilmington, Major General Nathanael Greene turned south on April 8 and moved back into South Carolina. Cornwallis was willing to let the American army go as he believed that Lord Francis Rawdon's forces in South Carolina and Georgia were sufficient to contain Greene.

Though Rawdon possessed around 8,000 men, they were scattered in small garrisons throughout the two colonies. Advancing into South Carolina, Greene sought to eliminate these posts and reassert American control over the backcountry. Working in conjunction with independent commanders such as Brigadier Generals Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter, American troops began capturing several minor garrisons. Though beaten by Rawdon at Hobkirk's Hill on April 25, Green continued his operations.

Moving to attack the British base at Ninety-Six, he laid siege on May 22. In early June, Greene learned that Rawdon was approaching from Charleston with reinforcements. After an assault on Ninety-Six failed, he was compelled to abandon the siege.

Battle of Eutaw Springs - The Armies Meet:

Though Greene had been forced to retreat, Rawdon elected to abandon Ninety-Six as part of a general withdrawal from the backcountry.

As the summer progressed, both sides wilted in the region's hot weather. Suffering from ill-health, Rawdon departed in July and turned command over to Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Stewart. Captured at sea, Rawdon was an unwilling witness during the Battle of the Chesapeake in September. In the wake of the failure at Ninety-Six, Greene moved his men to the cooler High Hills of Santee where he remained for six weeks. Advancing from Charleston with around 2,000 men, Stewart established a camp at Eutaw Springs approximately fifty miles northwest of the city (Map).

Resuming operations on August 22, Greene moved to Camden before turning south and advancing on Eutaw Springs. Short on food, Stewart had begun sending out foraging parties from his camp. Around 8:00 AM on September 8, one of these parties, led by Captain John Coffin, encountered an American scouting force overseen by Major John Armstrong. Retreating, Armstrong led Coffin's men into an ambush where Lieutenant Colonel "Light-Horse" Harry Lee's men captured around forty of the British troops. Advancing, the Americans also captured a large number of Stewart's foragers. As Greene's army approached Stewart's position, the British commander, now alerted to the threat, began forming his men to the west of the camp.

Battle of Eutaw Springs - A Back and Forth Fight:

Deploying his forces, Greene used a formation similar to his earlier battles. Placing his North and South Carolina militia in the front line, he supported them with Brigadier General Jethro Sumner's North Carolina Continentals. Sumner's command was further reinforced by Continental units from Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. The infantry was supplemented by units of cavalry and dragoons led by Lee and Lieutenant Colonels William Washington and Wade Hampton. As Greene's 2,200 men approached, Stewart directed his men to advance and attack. Standing their ground, the militia fought well and exchanged several volleys with the British regulars before yielding under a bayonet charge (Map).

As the militia began to retreat, Greene ordered Sumner's men forward.

Halting the British advance, they too began to waver as Stewart's men charged forward. Committing his veteran Maryland and Virginia Continentals, Greene stopped the British and soon began counterattacking. Driving the British back, the Americans were on the verge of victory when they reached the British camp. Entering the area, they elected to stop and pillage the British tents rather than continue the pursuit. As the fighting was raging, Major John Marjoribanks succeeded in turning back an American cavalry attack on the British right and captured Washington. With Greene's men preoccupied with looting, Marjoribanks shifted his men to a brick mansion just beyond the British camp.

From the protection of this structure, they opened fire on the distracted Americans. Though Greene's men organized an assault on the house, they failed to carry it. Rallying his troops around the structure, Stewart counterattacked. With his forces disorganized, Greene was compelled to organize a rear guard and fall back. Retreating in good order, the Americans withdrew a short distance to the west. Remaining in the area, Greene intended to renew the fighting the next day, but wet weather prevented this. As a result, he elected to depart the vicinity. Though he held the field, Stewart believed his position was too exposed and began withdrawing to Charleston with American forces harassing his rear.

Battle of Eutaw Springs - Aftermath:

In the fighting at Eutaw Springs, Greene suffered 138 killed, 375 wounded, and 41 missing.

British losses numbered 85 killed, 351 wounded, and 257 captured/missing. When members of the captured foraging party are added, the number of British captured totals around 500. Though he had won a tactical victory, Stewart's decision to withdraw to the safety of Charleston proved a strategic victory for Greene. The last major battle in the South, the aftermath of Eutaw Springs saw the British focus on maintaining enclaves on the coast while effectively surrendering the interior to American forces. While skirmishing continued, the focus of major operations shifted to Virginia where Franco-American forces won the key Battle of Yorktown the following month.

Selected Sources