Sunday, June 6, 2021

ARP204 British Capture Savannah

Last week I talked about the British capture of St. Lucia in the West Indies, and how the British had intentionally put the war out of New York on the back burner.  Sir Henry Clinton remained in command at New York, but many thousands of his soldiers were sent elsewhere in the empire.  This ended large-scale British operations in the north.  The British were concerned about fighting the French all over their empire.  The North American colonies in rebellion were no longer the highest priority for the ministry in London.

British Southern Strategy

That said, Britain had not given up on the colonies entirely. In addition to Caribbean islands, The British still hoped to restore authority in some of the southern colonies.  The British had never lost control of East and West Florida, although only a few hundred white colonists lived in those colonies.

I’ve covered the disputes between British-controlled East Florida and patriot-controlled Georgia in earlier episodes.  In all of those skirmishes, the total combatants amounted to a few hundred men.  These were both relatively unpopulated colonies.  Excluding Native Americans, all of Georgia had a population of around 30,000, and almost half of that population was enslaved people of African descent.

So, it was reasonable for the British leadership to assume that with a few thousand regulars, they should be able to reclaim Georgia for crown rule.  Low population aside, the ministry believed that there was a much larger loyalist population in the southern colonies, just waiting for the army to show the flag, and they would rally.

This may sound a bit like Charlie Brown with the football.  We’ve already been through New England, where locals said, deploy the army and the loyalists will turn out.  That did not happen.  Next, they went into New York and the mid-Atlantic states, where local leaders said if they deployed the army, the loyalists would turn out.  That did not happen either.  Now they were being told that the same failed game plan would work in the southern colonies.

There, was, however, some reason for British leaders to be hopeful.  Anglicans made up a much larger portion of the southern colonies.  Anglicans tended to be loyalists.  These colonies were also made up of large plantation owners with a fair amount of wealth and a lot to lose in a revolution.  Large landowners tended to appreciate the stability of a monarchy and did not usually want to overthrow the whole system.  Sure, sometimes even nobles in England might see a chance to topple and king and take it.  But most wealthy landowners were survivors who wanted to protect their family wealth rather than charging off on some idealistic crusade. 

With that in mind, leaders in London hoped that the southern colonies would be more amenable to returning to crown authority when pushed.  This would provide the British with control of some of the wealthiest colonies in North America and would also provide support for the more valuable island colonies in the West Indies.  Having secured the southern colonies, once the war with France ended, then they could think about retaking the mid-Atlantic and New England colonies later.

The deep south and West Indies colonies also provided another lure, warm winters.  Typically armies fighting up north had to go into winter quarters during the coldest months.  Many of these regiments could be redeployed to the south for winter campaigns.  That was why the British removed so many soldiers from New York in October or November, shipping them to the south.

Robert Howe Recalled

The British also looked at the American defenses in the south, and figured they had a much better chance of victory there based on the military status in that region.  Southern states had significant militia, but had concerns about sending large numbers of fighting men off on campaigns.  These states had very large slave populations.  The main reason slaves did not rise up against their masters, was the fear of military repression by the militia.  If the militia marched off to war, slaves might take that opportunity, especially if they had British military backing.

Robert Howe

In part, because of that concern, and probably also because of some general arrogance, the state governors did not seem to have a good relationship with the Continental Army.  I’ve discussed some of this in prior episodes.  Major General Robert Howe (no relation to the British Howes) commanded the continentals in the south.  Howe was, in fact, the only major general from a state south of Virginia.  The only other major general was William Moultrie, who did not receive his commission until late 1782, about a year after Yorktown, and about a year before the Continental Army disbanded.  Moultrie was the very last major general commissioned in the Continental Army.

I gave a little more background on General Howe in episode 191, but to recap: he was from a wealthy North Carolina family and had been an active patriot before the war.  He and fellow North Carolinian James Moore received Continental Commissions in early 1776 as the war prepared to expand beyond New England.  When General Moore died in 1777, Howe became the senior officer south of Virginia and had received a promotion to major general in late 1777.

Howe had briefly engaged in some military actions in Virginia in 1775, as the colonists were pushing out Lord Dunmore.  But since his commission in the Continental Army, his responsibilities were exclusively southward.  He had participated in the defense of Charleston, South Carolina in the summer of 1776 under Charles Lee. When Lee moved north again, General Moore took command of the southern department.  Moore got sick and died in April 1777, leaving the southern department to Howe.  

Since that time, Howe’s main focus was keeping the loyalist raiders from East Florida from threatening the southern Georgia frontier.  Most of his time, though, was fighting with the southern governors, all of whom wanted more soldiers in their states and who did not want to give the Continentals any say over how the state militia was used.  I also noted back in episode 191 that Howe even fought a duel with General Christopher Gadsden.  Both men survived, but Gadsden resigned his Continental Commission and took up political office in South Carolina, where he remained a determined enemy of Howe.

The failure of the Florida expedition in the summer of 1778 resulted in even more squabbling between General Howe and the southern governors.  The Continental Congress finally got involved and in September ordered that General Benjamin Lincoln take the southern command.  General Howe would be sent north to a different command.  

Recall that Lincoln had been seriously wounded a year earlier near Saratoga and had been recovering from his terrible leg injury.  During his recuperation, Lincoln seriously considered resigning.  One reason was that General Benedict Arnold had received retroactive seniority, putting him ahead of Lincoln and other newer major generals.  Lincoln took this as disrespectful of his commission.  He let that blow over though and returned to duty.

He had only rejoined the army in August, 1778 in New Jersey.  In late September, Congress ordered Lincoln to take the southern command.  He received those orders in early October.  Lincoln departed the army within a few days, but took two months to reach his new command in Charleston, South Carolina.  Along the way, Lincoln spent some time in Philadelphia, conferring with members of Congress, then in Williamsburg, Virginia, for more discussions.  There, a fall re-injured his wounded leg, causing a few more weeks of delay. By late November, he had made to Kingston, North Carolina, where he paused again for more discussions with the governor.  He finally arrived in Charleston on December 4.

General Howe had received orders of his recall.  But, until Lincoln arrived, Howe remained in command.  On November 18, while Lincoln was still in North Carolina.  Howe marched out of Charleston with 550 Continental soldiers after receiving word that the British planned another attack in Georgia.  Howe was in Savannah by the time Lincoln arrived in Charleston.  The men exchanged letters.  Lincoln agreed that Howe should remain with his forces at Savannah to meet this attack.

Archibald Campbell

The British threat came from an expedition sent from New York City.  Sir Henry Clinton had deployed a force of mostly regulars to capture Georgia. He had placed the expedition under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell.

As you might guess from the last name, Campbell was from Scotland.  He was the second son of a Scottish noble.  As is the common fate of non-first born sons, Campbell seemed bound for a life in the military. Unlike many nobles, Campbell did not take a commission as a child in order to build up early seniority.  Instead, he attended the University of Glasgow, then went to the new Royal Academy at Woolwich to study engineering.  He received a commission as an artillery officer and served in the Seven Years War.  

Archibald Campbell
Campbell served at the Siege of Quebec under General James Wolf and returned home to recuperate.  He then deployed on several raids along the French coast and well as a tour in the West Indies.  Building a good military reputation and rising in rank.

Following the war, Campbell was still in his twenties, and trying to figure out what to do with his life.  In 1768, he moved to India, taking a position as chief engineer of the British East India Company at Bengal.  There, Campbell focused on building fortifications for the local garrison.

He also found time for some private business.  He invested in establishing a private dockyard in Calcutta that did quite well, eventually selling it to the government.  He also established a very profitable silk trade.

After making a considerable fortune in only a few years, Campbell returned home to Scotland.  He purchased several large estates, and even buying his own island.  In 1774, he ran for, and won, a seat in the House of Commons.

He did not remain in Parliament very long.  In 1775, as the rebellion in America heated up, Campbell raised a regiment of regulars in Scotland to go fight for the King in America.  He turned over his seat in Parliament to his older brother and boarded a ship with his new regiment, the 71st regiment of Highlanders, headed for America.

The regiment sailed aboard six smaller ships bound for Boston.  Along the way, the small fleet encountered a violent storm causing two of the ships to get lost and eventually end up in New York.  The other ships finally made it to Boston in June, after a difficult journey.

As the ships approached Boston Harbor, they fought with several American privateer ships outside the harbor.  They forced their way past those ships and into Boston Harbor, prepared to join General Howe’s army.  Unfortunately for Campbell and his men, they had not received word that General Howe had sailed for Halifax several months earlier and that Boston was under the command of the Continental Army.  Lieutenant Colonel Campbell became Prisoner of War Campbell the moment he set foot in America.

Immediately following his capture, Campbell received rather good treatment.  The enemy allowed him to keep his side arm and gave him parole.  He and several of his officers ended up in Reading, Massachusetts with 22 servants to care for them.  The only real disagreement was that the locals did not want to pay for all of these servants for the prisoner.  Campbell had to dismiss a few of them, and pick up the tab for the rest.

Over time, treatment got worse.  In December, 1776, after Campbell had been a prisoner for about six months, The British captured Continental General Charles Lee in northern New Jersey. The Continental Congress offered to exchange Campbell and five Hessian officers captured at Trenton for the return of General Lee.  The British refused the exchange, and were seriously considering executing Lee as a deserter and traitor to the Crown.

General Washington then informed General Howe that the Americans would treat Campbell and the other Hessian officers offered in exchange in the same manner the British treated General Lee.  Campbell found his parole revoked and that he was locked up in the Concord jail, under the control of the sheriff.  Campbell wrote to Generals Washington and Howe, complaining of his treatment, and after a few weeks was permitted to take a room in a nearby tavern.  A few months later, after the Americans received word that the British had given General Lee better quarters, they permitted Campbell to rent a small country home near Concord.

Finally, in May 1778, the Americans exchanged Campbell for Ethan Allen, which I discussed back in episode 179.  Campbell returned to New York, just before the main army under General Clinton arrived after the Philadelphia evacuation.  As Clinton followed his orders from London to send large portions of his army to other parts of the Empire, he gave Campbell his first command in America.  Campbell would take his regiment of Highlanders, along with several other regiments to restore Crown rule in Georgia.

In total, Campbell commanded about 3100 men, including loyalists.  Campbell boasted that he would be the first British officer to remove a star and a stripe from the new American flag.  His fleet departed Sandy Hook on November 27, headed for Georgia.

American Defense

In addition to Campbell’s force from New York, General Clinton had sent word to St. Augustine for the garrison there to march north and join Campbell in taking their first target: Savannah.  The Loyalist Thomas “Burntfoot” Brown had raided into Georgia at least four times prior to this attack. Each time, his men were driven back into Florida.  But in each of these raids, Brown only had a few hundred men, mostly local loyalists.  With the arrival of 3000 regulars, that would change the balance of power entirely.  Florida’s garrison, which contained not only Brown’s loyalists but also a regiment of regulars under General Augustine Prévost.

Campbell’s fleet arrived at the mouth of the Savannah River on December 23.  He had planned to wait for Prévost to arrive.  However, when he saw the American defenses, he decided that waiting could only risk changing what looked like an easy victory.

Capture of Savannah, 1778
As had been the case for General Howe’s entire command, his Continentals got no help from the Georgia militia.  Georgia Governor John Houstoun had refused to cooperate with General Howe six months earlier, leading to disaster in the last fight with Florida loyalists.  With General Howe back in the State, Governor Houstoun seemed no more interested in any military cooperation.  He refused to give Howe any authority to command the militia.  Howe had only the 550 Continentals he had brought with him from South Carolina, and another 200 soldiers who were already in the State.

The Americans spotted the British fleet gathering in the waters just outside Savannah, Governor Houstoun relented and gave permission for a mere 100 local militia to cooperate with the Continentals. That left General Howe with about 850 defenders to fight off an attacking force of 3100 regulars, Hessians, and loyalists.

Howe held a council of war to discuss options.  Given the lopsided numbers, one option was simply to abandon Savannah and protect the Continental forces to fight another day.  The other was to stand and fight.  The council opted to fight, hoping that they could hold out long enough until General Lincoln could arrive with more reinforcements.

British Landing

On the morning of December 29, Campbell began landing his British forces at Girardeau's Plantation, about two miles south of Savannah.  When General Howe received intelligence that the British had begun bringing the soldiers to shore, he deployed two companies of Continentals to contest the landing.

The Americans took a position on the heights above the beach and began firing on the British.  Campbell, who had only begun a landing that would take several hours, deployed two companies of highlanders to take the heights.

The British charged up the hill at the American line.  The Continentals fired a volley at about 100 yards, killing four of the attackers and wounding five others.  The volley did not slow the British attack, which continued at the Americans with fixed bayonets, not stopping to return fire.  Rather than engage in hand-to-hand, the Americans fled the field, giving control of the heights to the British. 

With the harassing fire gone, Campbell continued his landing, getting all men ashore by about noon.  With his forces ready, he began to march on Savannah at around noon.

Final Stand

General Howe planned a final stand about a half-mile just south of the town.  This was land of the Continentals choosing, with the expectation that it would reduce the ability of the British to make use of their numerical advantage.

Howe deployed his entire force into a V shape with two lines closing in as the attackers moved forward.  On each side of the line was a swampy area that prevented the enemy from trying to flank the defensive lines.  The Continentals also deployed four cannons to back up the infantry lines and used light infantry to protect both flanks.

Isaac Huger
Howe’s left line in the V was comprised of Georgia Continentals and militia under Samuel Elbert.  The right line included the South Carolina Continentals he had brought from Charleston along with a few militia under Isaac Huger and William Thomson

It was a pretty good defensive position, except for one problem  After the British arrived at around 2:00 PM, a local slave informed Colonel Campbell that there was a path that would lead through the swamp and allow the British to get behind the American right flank undetected.

Campbell deployed a force of 350 light infantry regulars and 250 loyalists to march through the path in the swamp, guided by the slave as the rest of his regulars and Hessians formed into lines in front of the Americans.  

With the defenders focused on the main attack force, the other flanking force was able to make its way through the swamp undetected.  The British opened fire on the Americans from both the front and the rear at the same time.  The entire right side of the American defensive line found itself surrounded almost immediately and surrendered.  Any men who did not surrender right away were bayoneted to death. 

The left line also fled in a panic, back towards Savannah.  A rearguard action allowed some men to escape, but many others drowned trying to get across a creek.


The result was a pretty dramatic and one sided British victory.  Aside from the nine casualties at the beach, the British suffered only three killed and twelve wounded at the final stand.  The Americans suffered 83 killed, 11 wounded, and 453 captured. Only about 300 managed to escape.  The British took control of Savannah that same day, without any further resistance.

A short time later, the Florida contingent arrived and General Prévost took command of Savannah.  The British used Savannah as only a starting point to take back the entire colony of Georgia over the next few months.  But those future offensives will have to be the topic of a future episode.  

Next week, as we enter 1779, I want to return to Philadelphia to catch up on what the Continental Congress is doing.

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Next Episode 205 Continental Congress Enters 1779 

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Further Reading


Davis, Robert S. "Archibald Campbell (1739-1791)." New Georgia Encyclopedia. 29 August 2014:

“From George Washington to Major General Benjamin Lincoln, 3 October 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Major General Benjamin Lincoln, 19 December 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Major General Benjamin Lincoln, 5–6 January 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Schenawolf, Harry “American Revolution: In the South, Not a War for Liberty, But a Brutal Civil War Between Patriots and Loyalists” Revolutionary War Journal, 2017.

Thomas Brown:

Augustine Prevost:

Battle of Savannah:

Lawrence, Alexander A. “General Robert Howe and the British Capture of Savannah in 1778.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 4, 1952, pp. 303–327. JSTOR:

Searcy, Martha Condray. “1779: The First Year of the British Occupation of Georgia.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 67, no. 2, 1983, pp. 168–188. JSTOR,

Nunis, Doyce B. “COLONEL ARCHIBALD CAMPBELL'S MARCH FROM SAVANNAH TO AUGUSTA, 1779.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 45, no. 3, 1961, pp. 275–286. JSTOR,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Jones, Charles C. The History of Georgia Vol. 2, Boston: Houghton & Mifflin Co. 1883: 

McCall, Hugh The History of Georgia, containing brief sketches of the most remarkable events up to the present day, (1784), Atlanta: A.H. Caldwell, 1909 reprint.: 

Peck, John Mason Lives of Daniel Boone and Benjamin Lincoln, Boston : C.C. Little and J. Brown, 1847. 

Walcott, Charles H. Sir Archibald Campbell of Inverneill; sometime prisoner of war in the jail at Concord, Massachusetts, Boston, T. Todd, 1899. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Bennett Charles E. and Donald R. Lennon A Quest for Glory: Major General Robert Howe and the American Revolution, NC Univ. Press, 1991. 

Cashin, Edward The King's Ranger: Thomas Brown and the American Revolution on the Southern Frontier, New York: Fordham University Press, 1999. 

Mattern, David B. Benjamin Lincoln and the American Revolution. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1998: 

Piecuch, Jim Three Peoples, One King: Loyalists, Indians, and Slaves in the Revolutionary South, 1775-1782, Columbia: Univ. of South Carolina Press, 2008. 

Russell, David Lee. The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies. McFarland & Company, 2000. 

Searcy, Martha C. The Georgia-Florida Contest in the American Revolution, 1776-1778 Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1985.

Wilson, David K. The Southern Strategy: Britain’s Conquest of South Carolina and Georgia 1775-1780, Univ. of S.C. Press, 2005. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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