Unfolding the Map
We make a trip to the Star Fort with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) and I realize I don't really know much about the Revolutionary War at all. To see where the Star Fort is located, click on the map thumbnail. Leave a comment if you wish - I'd like to hear your thoughts.
"Just north of the stockade settlement of Ninety Six that sat astride - literally - the Cherokee Path, patriots built a fort shaped like an eight-pointed star to control the communication of goods and messages. By 1780, the British and Tories had seized it. In the spring of 1781, General Nathanael Greene, with a thousand infantrymen, moved in to recapture the outpost....First he diverted the stream furnishing water; the British countered by digging a well inside the fort, but it proved dry, and the began sending out at night blacks of deepest hue to carry water from a nearby stream. Next Greene tried tunneling toward the redoubt in an attempt to plant explosives under it....The defenders countered with an ingenious warning device, which consisted of a leather thong stretched from a lance stuck in the ground outside the redoubt to a drum that amplified vibrations in the earth. Listening to the drum skin, Loyalists knew when to send snipers up to pin diggers in the tunnels like woodchucks. While the soldiers sniped, Loyalist women inside the stockade fortified walls with sandbags made from their undergarments.
"For twenty-eight days, the longest siege by the Continental Army, Greene's troops tried to drive out the enemy. Two hundred and some men died - more from heat than guns - in the futile exchange."
Blue Highways: Part 2, Chapter 15
Old Ninety Six National Historic Site, South Carolina
The more I read and research interesting things that I find in Blue Highways, the more I realize that I don't know much about American history. I think, given the amount of reading I have done in my lifetime, and being somewhat of a history buff (though I tended to focus more on ancient history than on American history), I think that I have more knowledge than the average U.S. citizen. I wouldn't be able to win a trivia argument with someone who is really into American history, and I certainly couldn't compete with aficionados of certain eras of American history, such as Civil War buffs and the like.
One era to which I didn't pay much attention in school was the colonial period and the American Revolution. Sure, I got fascinated by certain stories, as you might have guessed if you read my post on the Roanoke colony. But these events were simply points in time on a larger tapestry, and I never stepped back to take in the whole tapestry except for a quick glance here and there. In the American Revolution, some major battles occupy an area of my consciousness, such as the Battles of Lexington and Concord. But my knowledge of this era is also filled with stories that have become more legend than fact. Paul Revere's ride, for instance, and the "one if by land and two if by sea" legend. Movies like The Patriot further muddle the line between truth and fiction of this era.
I recently read James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans, which was set in the French and Indian War before the American Revolution, and this gave me a glimpse, though a highly romanticized one, of the events in colonial America as two European powers waged a struggle for dominance over a relatively new continent and its peoples. But, as I said, my knowledge of this era is limited.
For one, I didn't realize the scope of the American Revolution in terms of the territory the war was waged over. Yes, there were thirteen colonies ranging from Massachussetts to Georgia, but in school I heard only of the major battles. Yet, in a previous post, where LHM finds his ancestor's marker in a remote area of North Carolina, we discover that the effects of the Revolutionary War ranged at least that far. I had no idea that a long and "ultimately futile" battle took place in Georgia which involved over 200 casualties.
One thing I wouldn't have understood before is the shape of the Star Fort at Ninety Six. Why would it be shaped like an eight pointed star? Was it just to look cool? If so, why? Nobody would be able to appreciate it unless it was built at the base of a hill, and that wouldn't make much sense since all an enemy would have to do is take the hill to get the advantage. There were no means of aviation. So, why a star? My answer came in a visit to Fort Craig National Historic Site in New Mexico. It was also built in a star-like shape, and the reasoning was so simple that it embarrassed me that I hadn't understood. A star shaped wall is easier to defend because on the walls, you can defend more of the wall with less defenders than in a square or round shaped wall. A defender has a view, to his right and left, of more wall, and the cul-de-sacs formed where the stars recess inward make it suicide for enemies on foot to try to attack them. And, don't forget, this fort was not only defended by its walls, but by legions of women inside the fort stuffing their underwear with sand for sand bags. Remember, they didn't wear the thong underwear that women wear today. In fact, their underwear was probably just as bulky as their regular clothing.
It makes me wonder, though, if after a long siege the women would rise up in protest and rebellion because sooner or later, they would be all out of underwear. Aristophanes wrote a play where women tried to end the Peloponnesian War in Ancient Greece by withholding sex from their husbands, but that is hardly about privacy and modesty. I wonder if a battle has ever been ended due to issues of privacy and modesty? Somehow, I doubt it.
LHM recounts the testimony of a man who used to play in the tunnels surrounding the Star Fort. He says to LHM, "...they was some girls who got their panties took off in them tunnels." He was more right than he realized. I bet he didn't know that he was also talking about an important historical fact about the fort in its heydey, but I doubt the girls he spoke of were stuffing their panties with sand.
If you want to know more about Old Ninety Six National Historic Site
Next up: Swamp Guinea Fish Lodge, Georgia