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(*Reprinted from last Memorial Day)
A few years ago on Memorial Day morn I imbecilely texted a message of ‘thank you for your service’ to a veteran friend of mine who takes being a veteran very seriously. She quickly responded with a terse message of “your welcome” but this isn’t a day honoring those who served, it’s a memorial for all those who died fighting for our country. It was a bit embarrassing for me as person who always fancied himself as a fair student of military history but thinking about it again this morning it was more sobering than anything. When considering, in a time of unparalleled excesses and convenience, the massive internal strife that exists in our society today about virtually everything, the fallen warriors that made that ultimate sacrifice for our freedom should be lifted even higher, completely worthy of our admiration. Yet who among us today really considered the courage it took for young men, most with the best years of their lives still in front of them, to fight a terrifyingly brutal battle on some blood-soaked meadow or forest or mountain or beach or swamp, in some faraway land?
I asked myself that question as I drove north on I-95 this morning. That major thoroughfare snakes it’s way through our coastal southern states which at several points in our nations history were the locations of fierce battles where thousands of those souls were lost. A decision was made on the fly that I would make it a point to spend part of my day at one of those battlefields, a ludicrously slight sacrifice of a bit of my time to honor those who had fallen on their day. A quick perusal of Google maps found one only a few hours drive, a little known memorial to a long forgotten but crucial Revolutionary war battle against the British in ‘nowheresville’ South Carolina.
The Battle of Eutaw Springs was fought in the twilight of the Revolution, September 8, 1781 on a rolling field surrounded by thick forest on one side, the Santee River on the other, about 60 miles northwest of Charleston. One of the original American badasses, Major General Nathanael Greene, was the American commander with a force of a little more than 2000 Continental army, local militia and part-time citizen soldiers. Many of his men had been fighting the British using guerrilla tactics (think Mel Gibson in the movie the Patriot) which was rare in those days of gentleman’s brutality otherwise known as regimented fighting. Greene had been commissioned by General George Washington as commander of the Southern campaign after showing a high level of skill in tactical warfare plus effectiveness in dealing with the troops, supply chain and always important, politicians. He had successfully badgered the larger British force in the Carolinas, tactically always seemed one step ahead which served to frustrate the weary invaders. His decision to march his remaining soldiers towards the vitally important port city of Charleston forced his opposition led by English Colonel Alexander Stewart to try to stem the tide at Eutaw Springs. The clash began in the early morning hours on September 8.
Driving through backroads in central South Carolina today, my mind wandered off at times trying to imagine what that land looked like back in 1791. My best guess is that much of the green forests of tall pine trees and low lands with swampy ponds and streams probably wasn’t so much different than today. It is always striking for someone who has lived in mostly urban areas for decades, the difference in how poverty looks in a rural setting. So many abandoned buildings in so many out of the way places on a mostly lonely route 15 twisting north towards the tiny, no red light town of Eutawville. It was a holiday of course and in some instances it was a challenge to tell if the business was defunct or they just weren’t open today, such is a difference between urban and rural.
I wondered if the locals had heard stories of the great battle that effectively chased the British out of the South, into their boats that ferried them back to the United Kingdom, a juggernaut that wasn’t used to tasting defeat. Probably not as I had lived in Saratoga for the better part of my early life and hadn’t heard any stories of the Battle of Saratoga that wasn’t already in everyone else’s history books. No the Revolutionary War was a long, long time ago, the Civil War holds a lot more of the attention of folks in this area though I didn’t see a single sign that confederates were the home team here but I did see a lot of American flags, more than I expected I suppose.
When I finally came upon the memorial for the battle ground of Eutaw Springs, I almost missed it. As someone who has been to many grand National historic places like the massive Saratoga Battlefield national park, it was jarring to see how…minor this seemed? It sits across from place where routes 6 and 43 split, just east of Eutawville, about a dozen miles off of interstate 95. It’s not a spot that would catch your eye if you were passing by and to be frank there is almost no reason to ever pass by. Out there by the south end of Lake Marion both route 6 and route 43 don’t really come from or go to anywhere that most anyone would be looking to go anyway.
There is a short iron fence sitting on top of an even shorter brick wall with a single small wooden sign adorned by two brand new small American flags stuck in the ground in front of it. A small metal gate had been left open and inside the park were a couple of historical signs that explained some of what took place here at Eutaw Springs, 231 years ago this September. Deeper into the battle grounds were some weathered stone monuments and a small fenced off area that looked like it might be a guarding a single gravesite. Without those features it just looked like a quiet little park like the thousands of other quiet little parks that dot the countryside all across small town America. The difference is that men died here, those who literally gave their lives, fighting for a cause that they desperately believed in. The enemy had brave men too, fighting and dying for a man though, not for freedom, but for a King.
One hundred and nineteen American men perished on that battlefield with countless wounded also eventually succumbing to injuries sustained fighting for our freedom. They didn’t win the war for the 13 colonies that eventually became the worlds greatest superpower but they surely helped finish the Red Coats off that day, the British will in the South was broken by the events of the Battle of Eutaw Springs. We haven’t forgotten those men mostly because we had never heard about them in the first place because our knowledge of history is selected despite many in these complicated modern times trying to tie themselves and their cause to it.
The only reason I wrote this was because it’s Memorial Day and those men deserve to be remembered 231 years later for the freedoms they seized for each and every one of us. The only reason I stopped in Eutaw Springs was to make amends for a simple mistake I made a few years back, a lack of respect for those who deserve it the most. In doing so I learned more about myself and the world I exist in by seeing what others and the worlds they live in look like on the way to take a step back in time.