After failing to subdue the American patriots in the Northeast during the 1770s, the British Army focused its attention on the South as the decade turned.
From 1779-1781, a bitter war raged across the Carolinas. Both sides took severe casualties but stayed in the field. American loyalists and patriots, neighbors, took up arms against each other. In the spring of 1781, British General Charles Lord Cornwallis moved into Virginia to destroy patriot supply centers, leaving the Carolinas garrisoned with roughly 2,500 men.
American General Nathanel Greene took advantage of Cornwallis’s absence and entered the Carolinas with 2,200 regulars and militia. Despite suffering violent setbacks at Hobkirk’s Hill and Ninety Six, Greene won other minor victories and led his army on towards Charleston. British Col. Alexander Stewart came out to do battle in a patch of hills along the Santee River near Charleston. His men were low on supplies, but Stewart could not pass up a chance to smash the patriots’ best hope in the South.
The armies collided on September 8, 1781. Stewart had detached roughly a quarter of his army to forage for yams near the Wantoot Plantation. This lightly armed detail was surprised when American cavalrymen, Greene’s vanguard, thundered out of the Wantoot Woods. The Americans drew the British guards into an ambush back in the woods and then returned for the foragers, capturing more than 400 men.
Greene deployed his infantry in two lines, militia in front of regulars, and advanced towards the sound of guns. Hearing of the ambush, Colonel Stewart launched a disorganized counterattack. A see-saw battle ensued. The American lines were briefly fractured by a British bayonet charge before being restored, fractured again, and finally rallied to drive the British back into their camps.
The Americans paused to loot the camps, giving the British time enough to fortify the Wantoot brick mansion. They refused to be dislodged, shooting several American attacks to pieces and giving their comrades time to reform in the open field. In the melee, Lt. Col. William Washington, cousin of George Washington, was unhorsed, wounded, and captured by the British. The Americans were falling back by the time darkness ended the battle.
Both sides stayed on the field the next day, but a storm dampened their gunpowder and prevented further fighting. Colonel Stewart withdrew and Greene’s men kept up a constant pressure on his rear as he returned to Charleston. 579 Americans and 882 British and loyalists were killed, wounded, or captured. Greene’s army remained a force to be reckoned with. Even the American militia had turned in a creditable performance at Eutaw Springs. The battle showed that Americans continued to contest the Carolinas, further souring British opinion on the war and thus proving to be a significant strategic victory for Greene and his men.