At South Carolina's Ninety Six National Historic Site, where Americans fought and died in two Revolutionary War battles, the National Park Service has been locked in a different sort of struggle. Although critical preservation and interpretation issues must be resolved, the resources available allow for little more than a holding action.
Ninety Six National Historic Site attracted 50,689 visitors last year, and attendance this year has been up during every month except February. That's not bad for a park that sits off the beaten path and commemorates two scantly-publicized Revolutionary War battles, neither of which produced a glorious victory for the American cause.
The bucolic quiet that surrounds the little town of Ninety Six (pop. ~2,000) gives no hint of the place's importance back in the Colonial era. By the time the War of Independence broke out in April 1775, the village of Ninety Six (erroneously thought to be 96 miles from the Cherokee town of Keowee) was functioning as the transport, communications, and trading hub for a huge area of the South Carolina Upcountry. Though quite small, --only a dozen residences, a courthouse, and a jail -- it was a strategic prize. Both sides were willing to shed blood to take or keep it.
In an event that has been pretty much relegated to footnote status, Ninety Six became the site of the first Revolutionary War land battle fought south of New England. During 19-21 November 1775, a contingent of around 600 Patriots in a makeshift fort defended the town against an attacking Loyalist force three times as large. The battle was fought to a draw and a truce was declared. Little blood was spilled, but it was in this fight that the first southern Patriot life was lost.
The ensuing years witnessed a bitter and bloody civil war as Loyalists and Patriots struggled for control of the Upcountry. In 1780, the British mounted a major campaign to pacify South Carolina, and as part of this effort they occupied and heavily fortified Ninety Six. The village would serve to protect important transportation and communications links between the Upcountry and Low Country regions.
British control of Ninety Six did not sit well with the American command, which intended to take the town if the wherewithal could be mustered. Finally, by early 1781 the momentum of the war had shifted to the American side and plans to capture Ninety Six could be shifted off the back burner. American victories at Kings Mountain (October 1780) and Cowpens (January 1781) had stunned and demoralized the British. The capture of Ninety Six would deal a crippling blow to British hopes of controlling the Upcountry. In the spring of 1781, the commander of the Southern Department of the Continental Army, General Nathanael Greene, assembled 900 troops at Ninety Six and sent them to the attack.
Ninety Six would not be an easy nut to crack. Thanks to the 1780 improvements, the fortifications at Ninety Six now sported a palisade, lengthy communication trenches, and related defenses, including a star-shaped earthen redoubt that was fore-ditched, abatis-studded, and designed to repel a sustained heavy attack. Dubbed the Star Fort, and judged an engineering masterpiece, the eight-pointed redoubt was garrisoned by a disciplined, well armed force of about 550 Loyalists under the capable leadership of British Lieutenant Colonel John Cruger.
Undeterred, Greene ordered what turned out to be the longest field siege of the entire war. (There were some longer sieges of cities.) Greene's men pursued an attack on the Star Fort for 28 days, beginning May 22 and ending on June 18. During that time, Greene's artillery fired on the fort while his troops extended siege trenches close to the ramparts, built a sharpshooters tower to fire down into the fort, tunneled in an attempt to place explosive charges, and even mounted a futile infantry assault (known forever after as the Forlorn Hope). When British reinforcements drew near, Greene had to withdrew without capturing the prize.
Although the siege didn't capture the town, it did convince the British that their position at Ninety Six was untenable. They abandoned Ninety Six in July and burned what was left of the village as they departed. They even made an attempt to render the Star Fort unusable. The Upcountry came solidly under Patriot control. The British soon abandoned South Carolina altogether, marched northward , and suffered their final defeat at Yorktown in October 1781.
Nearly two centuries later, in 1976, Ninety Six National Historic Site came into existence during the wave of park creations, expansions, and improvements that accompanied the celebration of the national Bicentennial. This particular park's mission was to commemorate the two Revolutionary War battles fought at Ninety Six as well life in South Carolina's colonial backcountry. Today the park encompasses 1,022 acres and includes the original town site (Old Ninety Six)as well as the remains of the Star Fort and siege lines, a segment of the old sunken road, parts of a Colonial plantation, graves, and related historical-archeological resources. The park also has significant natural resources, including the 29-acre Star Fort Pond, the South's largest collection of Oglethorpe oaks, and various rare native plants.
If you visit this park , and I hope you will, you'll come away with a much better appreciation of the events that took place there nearly 230 years ago and how they impacted the landscape, the people involved, and the outcome of the war. But you might also find the experience unsettling, and the more parks you have visited, and the more you know about the imperatives of historical-cultural resources management, the more likely you are to feel that this park is different in ways that it should not be.
The park's visitor center, which was built in 1984 as a "temporary" structure," was designed to accommodate no more than 20 people at a time. The staff work space consists of two cramped offices. The lobby area is miniscule, with little room for visitor services beyond an information desk and bookstore shelves. An adjacent room holds a little museum with a few paintings, some artifacts found at the site, and exhibits that are badly in need of upgrading. On the opposite side of the lobby is a compact retrofitted room in which a surprisingly good introductory film is shown on a TV screen. The whole arrangement bespeaks an attempt to make do, pending the arrival of better days. The need for a bigger and better visitor center is obvious and urgent.
Probing behind the scenes reveals an even more disturbing picture. Despite a large backlog of deferred needs, this park has only enough money and staff to accomplish the managerial equivalent of treading water. The FY 2010 budget for Ninety Six was just $478,000. Few NPS units in the entire Southeastern region, if any, have to get by on less.
The National Parks Conservation Association recently released an excellent report on the condition of Ninety Six National Historic Site, complete with recommendations. This document, a product of NPCA's State of the Parks Program (launched in 2000), tersely explains just how far this sort of money goes:
This funding supports four full-time staff -- a chief ranger, an interpretive ranger, and two maintenance workers; three seasonal employees; and half the salaries of the park’s superintendent and administrative officer, which are shared with Cowpens National Battlefield. After salaries, the small remaining funds are allocated toward overhead and projects (e.g., utilities and repairs).
In other words, there is not enough money to:
• Fill the park's vacated historian position.
• Hire a part-time museum technician.
• Address a huge archival backlog and related storage problems for 39,000 items.
• Complete a number of long overdue archaeological digs.
• Conduct American Indian and African-American ethnographic studies.
• Perform the many historic preservation works on the to-do list.
• Add a natural resources specialist to the staff.
• Curb rampant soil erosion and compaction in off-trail areas.
• Eradicate invasive nonnative plants that are destabilizing the park's ecology and altering the appearance of the battlefield.
Speaking of appearances, the park's recently completed (2009) cultural landscape report presents a comprehensive assessment of landscape resource conditions and many recommendations for cultural landscape management. Eliminating the deficiencies is a mighty tall order. The NPCA rates the condition of the park's cultural landscape resources no better than "fair," allocating a score of just 66 on their 100-point scale. The overall condition of the park's cultural resources -- including museum collections, archives, historic structures, archeological sites, ethnography, etc. -- similarly rates no better than "fair," scoring just 68 points.
During a recent visit, chief ranger/unit manager Tim Cruze took me on a tour of the park, pointing out various places where improvements have been made or are needed. Like so many rangers of my acquaintance, Tim is a highly-motivated professional who loves his job and strives to do the best he can with what he has to work with. Tim pointed with pride to recent improvements, such as attractive new interpretive waysides that didn't cost much and return a big bang for the buck. More often, however, he pointed to problems -- places where archeological digs are needed, where reconstructions are in order, where visitor facilities are needed, where various things have long needed to be repaired, replaced, or put into place. It is a sad litany.
As I gathered my things and prepared to leave, I reflected on Tim's willingness to deal with a situation like this day after day, knowing that real progress is likely to come painfully slowly, and perhaps not even on his watch. He and the others working at Ninety Six National Historic Site are due a special vote of thanks for laboring long and well in a lesser known and greatly underappreciated niche of the National Park System. Let's all send some positive vibes their way on Thank a Ranger Day this July 29th.
Postscript: The park does not neglect opportunities to get help from individuals, NGOs, universities, and nontraditional sources. For example, professors at several state universities assist with research projects, the Palmetto Conservation Foundation is currently partnering with the park to help acquire funding for a new visitor center, and more than 200 volunteers annually donate over 3,000 hours of assistance to the park for living history programs and other needs.