From 1779 to1781, a bitter war raged across the Carolinas. Both sides suffered severe casualties but stayed in the field. American Loyalists and Patriots took up arms against each other. Brother fought against brother. In the spring of 1781, British General Lord Charles Cornwallis moved into Virginia, intent on destroying Patriot supply centers. He left the Carolinas garrisoned with roughly 2,500 men.
American General Nathanael 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 Colonel Alexander Stewart came out to do battle on a patch of hills along the Santee River near the city. 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 force to forage 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 forest 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 the guns. Hearing of the ambush, Colonel Stewart launched a disorganized counterattack of his own. A see-saw battle ensued. The American line was briefly fractured by a British bayonet charge before being restored. The American line fractured again, but rallied to drive the British back into their camps.
As the pursuing Americans paused to loot their enemy’s camps, the British fortified the brick Wantoot mansion. Refusing to be dislodged, they shot several American attacks to pieces, giving their comrades time to reform in the open field. By the time darkness ended the fighting, the Americans were falling back.
Both sides stayed in the field the next day, but a storm dampened their gunpowder and prevented further combat. When Colonel Stewart withdrew, the Americans kept up a constant pressure on his rear as he returned to Charleston. During the battle, 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 demonstrated that the Americans continued to contest British control of the Carolinas, further souring British opinion on the war. For this reason, the battle proved to be a significant strategic victory for the American cause.