As the fifth year of the American Revolution opened, hopes for colonial independence were growing dim. By 1779 British forces still occupied major American cities. Divisions plagued the Continental Congress and the rebel army. In the South, bitter civil war raged between Patriot and Loyalist Americans.
Georgia, the only American colony to be reconquered by the British, was just 42 years old when the war started. Georgia’s population was small, with barely 3,000 men of military age. On December 29, 1778, the colonial capital fell to British troops. The rebel defenders were routed, losing 550 captured or killed. Patriot forces were swept from the state.
Britain’s occupation of Savannah was only the first stroke in a strategy geared to bring Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia back under royal control. It was felt that the large numbers of Loyalists in the South would flock to the king’s cause. With the South secured, the stubborn Continentals in the North could be more easily tamed.
In January 1779, British Colonel Archibald Campbell moved up the Savannah River with 1,044 men and occupied Augusta. There, he invited residents of the surrounding countryside to come in and take an oath of loyalty to the king and receive pardons. About 1,400 men complied. Georgia seemed securely under royal control.
Campbell awaited the arrival of Colonel James Boyd, a Tory agent recently sent into South Carolina to recruit 6,000 Loyalist volunteers. Only 600 men were actually raised. Boyd’s failure to enlist anywhere near the expected numbers of Loyalists revealed the major flaw in Britain’s southern strategy, that of overestimating American enthusiasm for the royal cause. Many Tory recruits joined only out of fear or intimidation.
As Boyd’s Tories made their way toward Augusta, 200 South Carolina militia under Colonel Andrew Pickens and 140 Georgia militia under Colonel John Dooley pursued them. Though badly outnumbered, the little Patriot force hoped to overtake Boyd’s 600 Tories. They counted on pluck and surprise to give them a victory and prevent Boyd from joining Campbell’s British garrison at Augusta.
The rebels attacked Boyd’s command as it was encamped at Kettle Creek, near present-day Washington, Ga., on February 14, 1779. They caught the Tories by surprise as they were killing cattle and grazing their horses. The battle took only an hour; and the Tory camp was overrun. The Loyalists fled in panic, leaving 20 dead, including Boyd himself, and 22 were captured. The rebels lost seven killed and 15 wounded. Campbell, concerned about a possible rebel attack on Augusta, withdrew his troops that same day and moved south toward Savannah.
Encouraged by their badly needed victory at Kettle Creek, the rebels now planned a counteroffensive in Georgia. Patriot General John Ashe, with 2,300 troops, followed Campbell’s retreating army and reached Briar Creek, 60 miles south of Augusta. The rebels hoped to reinforce Ashe there and enlarge their army to 8,000 men. Such a force could then drive the British back to Savannah and possibly retake the city. The war could be reversed and Georgia liberated.
But Campbell, a wary and aggressive commander, anticipated the rebel plan and launched a bold counterattack of his own. From his base at Hudson’s Ferry, 15 miles south of Ashe, he sent a picked force of 900 men up the southern bank of Briar Creek. The redcoats crossed upstream and hit Ashe’s camp from the rear, trapping the rebel army in the angle of Briar Creek and the Savannah River.
Ashe’s army was completely surprised. With mounted patrols out and other units on detached duty, he had only 800 men to meet the approaching British onslaught. Most of his troops were untrained, inexperienced militia, poorly armed and equipped. When the British attacked at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon on March 3, 1779, the rebel battle line was just being formed.
Despite a heroic resistance by Colonel Samuel Elbert’s 200 Georgia Continentals and militia (who stood their ground until nearly all were killed, wounded or captured) Ashe’s North Carolina militia broke and ran almost immediately, fleeing in confusion into the Savannah swamp. A few swam the river and escaped. Others drowned, or were captured or killed by the pursuing redcoats. Abandoning his troops, Ashe fled across the river. He would later face charges of incompetency and neglect.
Briar Creek was the worst rebel disaster of the war in the South so far. One hundred and fifty rebel soldiers died. Twenty-eight rebel officers and 200 enlisted men were captured. Ashe lost seven field pieces, 1,000 small arms, ammunition, equipment, supplies and baggage. British losses were five killed and 11 wounded.
In Savannah, royal governor Sir James Wright formally reestablished British control in July, while a fledgling Patriot government in exile tried to carry on in Augusta. With the exception of the back country, where skirmishes between Patriots and Tories continued, Georgia was firmly in British hands.
Now, Patriot hopes had to look to another source: the rebel alliance with France, signed in February 1778.
In the summer of 1779, French Admiral Count Charles-Hector Theodat d’Estaing captured St. Vincent and Grenada in the British West Indies, tipping the balance there in favor of French naval superiority. D’Estaing’s powerful fleet was available for a joint operation with the Americans. The count soon received a flurry of letters from French diplomats and Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, Continental commander in the South, urging him to bring his fleet northward for a campaign against Savannah.
D’Estaing was enthusiastic about the proposal. The 50-year-old aristocrat was eager to make up for a failed allied operation against Newport, R.I., that had to be aborted the previous year because of poor cooperation and poor weather.
The count arrived off the Georgia coast on September 1 with 37 ships, including 22 ships of the line, and 4,000 troops detached from duty in the West Indies. The formidable French fleet surprised and captured several British vessels near the mouth of the Savannah River.
The fleet anchored off Savannah Bar as the British ships withdrew upriver. The small garrison at Fort Tybee, on Great Tybee Island, guarding the entrance to the river, fired on the French ships with their two guns without effect. That night a French detachment occupied the fort, which they found abandoned.
On September 12, a vanguard of 1,200 French troops landed unopposed at Beaulieu beach on Ossabaw Sound, a few miles south of Savannah. The bulk of the French army disembarked, and a camp was established three miles from the city.
On September 16, d’Estaing arrogantly sent a formal demand to the British General Augustine Prevost that he surrender Savannah ‘to the arms of his Majesty the King of France. He reminded Prevost that he had captured Grenada with a far smaller force, and he held Prevost personally answerable for what might happen should siege operations drag on.
To the Americans’ chagrin, d’Estaing added, I have not been able to refuse the Army of the United States uniting itself with that of the King. The junction will probably be effected this day. If I have not an answer therefore immediately, you must confer in future with General Lincoln and me.
Prevost asked for a 24-hour truce to allow him to confer with civil authorities in Savannah; and d’Estaing foolishly agreed to his request. He could have captured Savannah by direct assault, since the British garrison was unprepared for an attack. Instead, he allowed Prevost to stall for time and strengthen the town’s defenses. The allies would regret losing their best opportunity to take Savannah.
Prevost was a veteran of many years’ service in the British army. The Swiss-born officer had been wounded at Fontenoy in 1745. At the capture of Quebec from the French in 1759, he received a wound which had left a circular scar on his temple and led to his being nicknamed Old Bullet Head. He complained of poor health and was not regarded as an aggressive commander. Colonel Campbell wrote that Prevost seems a worthy man, but too old and inactive for this service.
Old Bullet Head used the delay wrested from d’Estaing to put soldiers, townspeople and several hundred black slaves to work around the clock to finish the city’s fortifications. He also sent an urgent message to Lt. Col. John Maitland to bring his 800 troops down from Beaufort, S.C., to reinforce the Savannah garrison.
Maitland, commander of the Highland 71st Regiment, was from a distinguished Scottish family. The resourceful 47-year-old veteran, who had lost his right hand in combat at Lagos Bay in 1759, was respected both by his own men and by the Americans.
Maitland had contracted a fever (in fact, he had just a little over a month to live); yet he force-marched his men to the Savannah River. With the help of black fishermen as guides, he crossed upriver from Savannah, and he and his reinforcements arrived in the besieged town on September 17. With Maitland’s troops in place and his defenses strengthened, Prevost finally sent his reply to d’Estaing: No surrender!
Benjamin Lincoln and his Continental officers were upset that the count had moved on Savannah without them, as if the operation were purely a French exercise. They feared d’Estaing might take the town and hold it for the French king–fear that did not bode well for cooperation between the allied armies.
Lincoln joined d’Estaing on September 23. His 3,000 troops included Georgia and South Carolina Continentals and militia. With d’Estaing’s 4,000 French regulars, the allies now had 7,000 men with which to take Savannah. Opposing them in the town were 2,500 British and Loyalist troops under Prevost.
General Benjamin Lincoln–a New Englander who neither drank nor cursed–was a patient and cautious commander. D’Estaing seemed unimpressed by him, describing him as a brave man but extremely indifferent with no opinion of his own. The count was astounded at the phlegmatic Lincoln’s habit of falling asleep in his chair, even when dictating correspondence.
The French had a low opinion of the Americans. Baron Curt von Stedingk, a Swedish officer in the French army, wrote that the rebels were so badly armed, so badly clothed, and I must say so badly commanded, that we could never turn them to much account. The American militia, d’Estaing wrote, would run or take cover just because some cannon balls came close. A grenadier captain wrote that the militia are supposedly quite good, at least they say they are. Higher marks were given to the Continental regulars, who, according to another officer, conducted themselves in a superior manner at all times.
Rebel cuisine also failed to impress the count. D’Estaing complained of the meager fare at Lincoln’s table, a massive cake of rice and corn cooked under the ashes of an iron platter and a mixture of sugar, water, and fermented molasses which makes up the Nectar the Americans call grog.
Delays plagued the allies. Lack of horses and artillery carriages prevented them from landing heavy artillery, which was not in place until October 4. Siege entrenchments were begun on September 24, but progress was slow, and the British exploited every opportunity to disrupt the work. British sorties against the siege lines on September 24 and September 27 confounded the allies. The second sortie provoked an accidental exchange of fire in the darkness between French and American troops; and several soldiers were killed.
On the night of October 1, the rebels prevented a detachment of 111 British troops from reaching Savannah. The British, under Captain French, had camped on the Ogeechee River. Colonel John White, a Georgia Continental, with only two officers, a sergeant and three privates, tricked French into thinking that the camp was surrounded by a larger force by lighting fires in the woods around the camp, as if a whole army was bivouacked there; White demanded the detachment surrender, and the whole British command was taken prisoner.
At midnight on October 3, French artillery opened fire on Savannah. But according to one officer, The cannoneers being still under the influence of rum, their excitement did not allow them to direct their pieces with proper care. On October 4, 53 heavy cannon and 14 mortars began a five-day bombardment of the town.
The bombardment failed to crack the defenses but caused considerable damage inside the town. An American officer wrote, The poor women and children have suffered beyond description. A number of them in Savannah have already been put to death by our bombs and cannon. One of Prevost’s aides commented, Many poor creatures were killed trying to get to their cellars, or hide themselves under the bluff of the Savannah River.
Loyalist Chief Justice Anthony Stokes described one night of the shelling and its effects: At five I was awakened with a very heavy cannonade from a French frigate to the north of the town, and with a bombardment which soon hurried me out of bed; and before I could get my clothes on, an eighteen-pounder entered the house, stuck in the middle partition, and drove the plastering all about….Whilst we were in the cellar, two shells burst not far from the door, and many others fell in the neighborhood all around us. In this situation a number of us continued in a damp cellar, until the cannonade and bombardment almost ceased, for the French to cool their artillery; and then we ascended to breakfast.
On October 6, Prevost asked that the women and children be allowed to leave Savannah and take refuge in the ships anchored in the river. D’Estaing and Lincoln refused, fearing another delaying tactic.
Time was running out for d’Estaing. A month had been spent in front of Savannah, and the British position seemed no weaker than when operations had begun. The admiral had other worries as well. Hurricanes were a serious concern. And, if a British naval force should suddenly appear, d’Estaing might be cut off from his supply base in the West Indies.
Conditions on board the ships anchored off the coast were described by a French naval officer, who wrote: The navy is suffering everything, anchored on an open coast and liable to be driven ashore by the southeast winds. Seven of our ships have been injured in their rudders, several have lost their anchors, and most of them have been greatly endamaged in their rigging. The scurvy rages with such severity that we throw daily into the sea about thirty-five men….The bread which we possessed, having been two years in store, was so much decayed and worm-eaten, and was so disagreeable to the taste, that even the domestic animals on board would not eat it.
On the morning of October 8, Major Pierce Charles L’Enfant, future architect of Washington, D.C., with a handful of troops, tried to set fire to the abatis of felled trees in front of the British lines; but the wood was too damp and did not catch fire. D’Estaing’s engineers told him they would need at least 10 more days before they could penetrate the British works.
The count decided that the only option left was a direct assault on the town. Otherwise, the siege must be lifted. He proposed a predawn assault on October 9. Lincoln agreed; and the allies prepared for one of the bloodiest attacks in the war.
D’Estaing hoped to exploit a weak point in Savannah’s defenses. Although the town was protected on the north by the Savannah River and shielded on the west by a wooded swamp, a narrow depression along the edge of the swamp afforded a way for the allies to move their troops near the British defenses under cover of night before launching the attack. The allies decided to use this approach route to strike the enemy’s right flank.
Prevost knew of the terrain west of town, however, and anticipated an attack there. A rebel deserter warned him of the allied plans, so Old Bullet Head strengthened his defenses on his right flank and put the skillful Maitland in command there.
Three forts or redoubts protected the British right flank. The most exposed one, Spring Hill Redoubt, was defended by South Carolina Loyalist troops led by Captain Thomas Tawse and the vengeful Lt. Col. Thomas Brown, who once had been tarred and feathered by Georgia rebels. The other redoubts on the right also were held by Loyalist troops. Thus, the bloodiest part of the battle would pit Americans against Americans.
Farther on the British right, Prevost had placed a naval battery of 9-pounders near the river. Another naval battery lay to the east of the Spring Hill Redoubt, supported by British marines and grenadiers of the 16th Foot, to be used to reinforce the redoubt if the allies attacked there.
The allied plan called for a vanguard of 250 French grenadiers to rush the Spring Hill Redoubt, while two strong French assault columns, led by d’Estaing himself and by Colonel Stedingk, attacked the other two forts on the British right. Two American assault columns, under Colonel John Laurens and Brig. Gen. Lachlan McIntosh, would support the French.
The French planned diversionary attacks west of the town near the river and from their trenches near the British center. Brigadier General Isaac Huger, with 500 South Carolina and Georgia militia, would conduct a feint east of the town.
D’Estaing’s 3,500 assault troops were drafted for temporary duty from regiments garrisoning the island colonies in the West Indies: Martinique, Guadeloupe and St. Dominique. They included several hundred free black troops, among them young Henri Christophe, future dictator of Haiti. Formed into provisional units at Savannah, the troops and their officers had never served together before in combat. Now they were to carry out a difficult assault against a forewarned enemy. So far, nearly everything else had gone wrong.
Delays doomed the allied plan. Volunteers who were to guide the troops through the treacherous swamp in the darkness proved unreliable. A French officer wrote that his guide did not know the road and at the first musket shot disappeared. Assault forces were not in position until after daybreak and lost the advantage of the pre-dawn surprise attack. D’Estaing confessed to having a very poor opinion of this attack.
Anxious to begin the attack, French assault troops waited at the edge of the swamp. From the direction of the Spring Hill Redoubt 500 yards away the eerie wail of Scottish bagpipes drifted toward them through the heavy pre-dawn fog. This most sad and most remarkable music, d’Estaing wrote, made a very great impression on the French soldiers; it was as if the enemy wanted us to know their best troops were waiting for us.
At about 5:30, d’Estaing’s troops heard firing from the British lines and realized the diversionary attack by their troops in front of the enemy center had finally begun. A few minutes later, British sentries spotted the assault troops and fired several rounds. Not all the allied troops were in place yet.
The allied diversionary attacks failed. D’Estaing and Lincoln would have to carry the Spring Hill Redoubt with no support. D’Estaing considered canceling the attack, but his pride prevented him from showing hesitation in front of the Americans. My indecision, he said, would have made me a laughingstock. He ordered the attack to commence.
Surging forward with a cry of Vive le Roi! the French vanguard advanced on Spring Hill Redoubt at the double quick. The British and Loyalist troops in the fort opened up on them with a vicious cross-fire of muskets and cannons. The white-coated grenadiers cleared the abatis in front of the fort; then in the smoke and fog and under heavy fire, they thrust their way up the parapet. But the supporting French column was slow in following them. By the time they arrived to reinforce the vanguard, enemy fire had driven the grenadiers back.
Leading his troops forward, d’Estaing was wounded in the arm just before he reached the redoubt. The fighting became intense. The attackers were sprayed with musket fire and grapeshot–pieces of scrap iron, nails, bolts, steel blades, and chain. Fire also came from a British galley in the river. A British soldier at one of the guns said, Believe me, I never was happier in my Life than upon this Occasion.
D’Estaing’s troops were thrown back on the second French assault column led by Stedingk. The columns became entangled, lost formation, and were cast into utter confusion, as one French officer wrote. Stedingk’s column was shoved back into the swampy ground on the French left, where more than half were killed or left stuck fast in the mud. Those who lost only their shoes, another officer said, were the most fortunate.
D’Estaing urged his troops forward, crying, Advance, my brave grenadiers, kill the wretches while British and Loyalist troops from the redoubt bellowed, Kill the rascal French dogs, and God save the King!
For a moment the sheer fury and determination of the French attack nearly overwhelmed the defenders, and the French managed to raise their flag over the parapet. Stedingk later wrote: My doubts were all gone. I believed the day was our own.
But the defenders were determined, too. Despite three brave assaults on the fort, the French could not stand up to their firepower, and d’Estaing reluctantly ordered a retreat. As the French fell back, British troops rose up from the parapet and delivered a point-blank volley. D’Estaing was wounded for a second time, in the thigh, and was nearly left for dead.
Continental light infantry under John Laurens, former aide to General George Washington, now arrived, and then the second column under Lachlan McIntosh, whose wife and children were in Savannah. McIntosh already had weathered a political storm after killing his rival, Button Gwinnett, in a duel.
The Patriots arrived near the Spring Hill Redoubt at the height of the battle’s confusion, as the wounded d’Estaing tried to re-form his troops. McIntosh’s troops, thrust far to the left in the swamp, were exposed to British naval fire from the river, as well as heavy grapeshot from the fort. Major John Jones, the General’s aide, was within paces of an enemy cannon embrasure when he was cut in two by a cannon shot. McIntosh was driven back under heavy enemy fire in the allied retreat.
Continentals of the 2nd South Carolina, led by the future partisan hero Francis Marion, succeeded in reaching the redoubt; in brutal hand-to-hand combat on the parapet Captain Tawse, the Loyalist commander, died after striking down three of the attackers with his sword.
Sergeant William Jasper placed the 2nd South Carolina’s colors on the ramparts but was shot down. Jasper already was a hero because of his actions in 1776 at Fort Sullivan near Charleston, where he raised his regiment’s flag in defiance of the British naval assault. Now, as he lay dying, he passed the colors to Lieutenant John Bush, who also fell.
As fighting raged for control of the parapet, Maitland committed his reserves. British marines and grenadiers launched a devastating bayonet charge that drove the attackers back from the ramparts and into the ditch below. Allied assault troops, helpless and exposed to deadly musket and artillery cross-fire, were butchered in the ditch. The moment of retreat, Stedingk wrote, with the cries of our dying comrades piercing my heart was the bitterest of my life. A British officer described the scene: Their assault was a furious as ever I saw; The Ditch was choke full of their Dead.
Full daylight now revealed dead and dying French and American soldiers, many of them impaled on the abatis, for 50 yards in front of the ditch. Mangled grapeshot victims littered the field for 100 yards beyond. At the sight of them, John Laurens threw down his sword in disgust.
While the desperate allied gamble played itself out in the bloody ditch in front of Spring Hill, Brig. Gen. Kazimierz Pulaski, with the rebel cavalry, led a bold but reckless attempt to breach the British lines between the redoubts. Riding at the head of his 200 horsemen, Pulaski reached the abatis but was struck down by enemy canister fire. Exposed to deadly fire and demoralized by the loss of Pulaski, the allied cavalry withdrew in confusion. The attempt to capture Savannah was over.
The contest lasted less than an hour. When it was apparent even to d’Estaing and Lincoln that it was useless to continue, they withdrew their devastated troops and counted losses.
The two sides observed a four-hour truce to collect and bury the dead and to retrieve the wounded. The French listed 151 killed and 370 wounded, while the Patriots lost 231 killed and wounded, nearly all Continentals. British losses were only 18 killed and 39 wounded. For the allies, Savannah was the bloodiest battle of the war, a Bunker Hill in reverse.
Once more, d’Estaing fell back on siege operations. But his officers warned him that further delay in the face of possible hurricanes off the Georgia coast might jeopardize the fleet.
Squabbling between the allies soon set in. A French naval lieutenant described the Savannah operation as an ill-conceived enterprise without anything in it for France, while a young French artillery officer blamed the Patriots for the defeat at Spring Hill Redoubt. The rout began with the rebels, he wrote, they took flight first…like a crowd leaving church. D’Estaing blamed Lincoln, saying the rebels promised much and delivered little. Lincoln criticized the count for not taking Savannah when he first had the chance.
Over Lincoln’s objections, d’Estaing reluctantly prepared to pull out. He marched his troops back to the French ships, loaded his guns and equipment aboard, and set sail for France, dispatching some of the ships to the West Indies.
One of his officers described d’Estaing as A true grenadier in this affair but a poor general….It is not the fault of the troops that Savannah was not taken, but rather of those who commanded us. The count, who wrote both prose and poetry, was intelligent, courageous and bold. He also was arrogant, ambitious and, in the words of another officer, covetous of glory. Before being executed in 1794 during the French Revolution, he said, When you cut off my head, send it to the English, they will pay you well for it!
The siege was over. On October 19, the last of Lincoln’s weary and disillusioned rebel troops withdrew to Charleston.
Maitland, the old Scottish warrior who worked so hard to defend Savannah, died on October 26. Three days later, Governor Wright proclaimed a day of thanksgiving for the British victory.
A golden opportunity to retake Savannah and alter the course of the war had been lost. Two more devastating defeats for the Patriots lay ahead. On May 12, 1780, British forces captured Lincoln’s entire army of 5,400 at Charleston; and on August 16, 1780, General Horatio Gates’ entire American army of 3,000 was destroyed at Camden, S.C. Georgia remained in British hands until the end of the war; and Savannah was not reoccupied by the Patriots until the British withdrew in 1782.
Two years after the Allied debacle at Savannah, a fresh opportunity for a Franco-American operation presented itself. General George Washington’s Continentals, in cooperation with French regulars under Count Rochambeau and the French fleet under Admiral DeGrasse, besieged General Charles Cornwallis’ British army at Yorktown, Va. This time there were more favorable battle conditions, better coordination, and wiser command decisions. On October 19, 1781, exactly two years after the rebel withdrawal from Savannah, Yorktown’s 8,000-man British garrison surrendered. Benjamin Lincoln was given the honor of accepting the defeated British general’s sword.
The defeat at Yorktown prompted Britain to open peace talks with the American rebels, and in early 1783 the Treaty of Paris recognized the United States as an independent nation.
This article was written by Thomas G. Rodgers and originally published in the March 1997 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!