A few weeks ago, I covered the British capture of Savannah, Georgia. This was the first real effort by the British to do anything in the southern colonies since Sir Henry Clinton failed to capture Fort Sullivan back in early 1776. Even that earlier assault in Charleston Harbor was a sideshow to the main British effort from 1776 through 1778 to control the middle colonies, particularly New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
With that whole effort in the middle colonies having come to a failure. The British in 1779 focused more on trying to restore control of the southern colonies with the limited armies they had available in America. The capture of Savannah at the end of 1778 was the kickoff to that new southern campaign.
Lincoln Takes Command
General Washington had already issued orders recalling Continental General Robert Howe by the time the British attacked Savannah, but was still in command during the battle because his replacement, General Benjamin Lincoln had not yet arrived. Howe’s loss of Savannah in a route drew criticism from all sides. Georgia officials complained that Howe had not done enough to defend the state. Other Continental generals criticized him for trying to defend Savannah against a superior force rather than simply withdrawing and not getting half of his army captured.
The new southern commander, General Benjamin Lincoln of Massachusetts, had just returned from the recovery of injuries sustained in the Saratoga Campaign a year earlier. Despite sharing in the credit for the American victory at Saratoga, Lincoln’s record as a military commander was limited. He had been a militia officer before the war. Of course, virtually every man in New England served in the militia, and most officers were selected for political prominence rather than military ability. Lincoln had been a minor politician and from a good family, which led to his commission as an officer in the militia.
He saw no action during the French an Indian War, but still rose to the rank of major. He held local office in Massachusetts, and became a prominent patriot leader, serving in the Provincial Congress, and the Committee of Safety before the war. During the siege of Boston, his primary role was obtaining supplies for the army.
In January 1776, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress commissioned Lincoln a major general in the state militia. Most of the other top military officers had taken commissions in the Continental Army. Lincoln remained in Massachusetts when the Continentals moved on to New York later that year. Lincoln attempted to bring several militia regiments to New York, but never managed to get down there in time for any fighting.
Despite his lack of a combat record, Lincoln began lobbying his friends in the Continental Congress for a commission in the Continental Army. In February 1777, Congress granted him a commission as major general. You may recall back in Episode 134, Lincoln commanded a small group at Bound Brook, New Jersey, protecting the main Continental Army from attack. The British managed to sneak up on his outpost. Lincoln and his men had to run for their lives. The general took ridicule for having fled his tent without his pants.
Later that year, Washington sent Lincoln and several other top generals to assist Horatio Gates with the British who had taken Fort Ticonderoga and were moving south through New York. Lincoln did a reasonably good job working with the difficult militia General John Stark and otherwise assisting Gates with the campaign.
Although Lincoln did not play any notable role as a combat field commander, he did manage to get badly wounded the day after the second battle of Saratoga and was out of commission for a year. Washington’s decision to turn over the southern command to Lincoln was really Lincoln’s first test as an independent commander.
Lincoln was in Charleston, SC when the British took Savannah. He had been awaiting the arrival of 2000 North Carolina militia to bring south with him. But having received word of the attack, Lincoln left Charleston with a couple of regiments and began moving toward Savannah.
He caught up with the remains of General Howe’s army, which was retreating up the Savannah River. The men established a base about twenty miles north of Savannah at Purrysburg, South Carolina. There, even after combining with the Continentals who had been with Howe, Lincoln had a little under 1000 men in his command, nowhere near enough to contest with the 3500 soldiers that had just captured Savannah. Lincoln had to sit tight and wait for reinforcements.
The British had taken Savannah on December 29, 1778 under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell. It was an awfully large command for a colonel. The plan had been for Campbell to bring the troops and await the arrival of General Augustine Prévost from Florida to take command. When Campbell arrived at Savannah, he determined the defenses were so poor, that it made sense to attack immediately and not await Prévost’s arrival. Since his attack was so successful, no one criticized his decision later.
Word of the planned assault on Savannah only arrived in Florida ten days before Campbell captured the town. Prevost had left St. Augustine for the march north into Georgia, but had a 200 mile march through difficult terrain before he could reach Savannah.
General Prévost came from a wealthy family of French Huguenots. He was born and raised in Geneva, Switzerland and spoke French as his first language. His father died when he was still a teenager. He and his two brothers began a career in military service. The brothers initially served the King of Sardinia, who allied with the Netherlands at the time. While in the Netherlands, they were recruited as officers in the British Army. But by the beginning of the French and Indian War, Prévost was a major in the British Army.
He served in America under General Wolfe and was wounded during the Quebec Campaign and a few years later moved up in rank to lieutenant colonel. Near the end of the war, Prévost briefly served as the interim governor of West Florida after Spain ceded the colony to Britain. After the war, Prévost married the daughter of a wealthy Dutch merchant and moved to America. He began to raise a family in New Jersey.
At the outbreak of the Revolution, Colonel Prévost was military commander of East Florida. In several past episodes, I mentioned his political disputes with Governor Patrick Tonyn. As the Revolution began, East Florida was a political and military backwater, where Prévost had less than a regiment to command at times, and struggled with the growing rebellion to the north.
Many loyalists from Georgia and the Carolinas made their way to St. Augustine when violence from teh patriots at the homes became too hard to take. Governor Tonyn and General Prévost fought over who should command these militia units.
By late 1778, London was getting more serious about taking back the southern colonies. It had promoted Prévost to brigadier and ordered Prévost to take command of the army that General Clinton was sending from New York to capture Savannah.
Battle of Midway
Prior to the capture of Savannah, most of Georgia’s defenses were along the southern border designed to prevent raids from British-controlled Florida. Many of these defenses were still in place.
Prévost had been active in southern Georgia that fall. Commanding small groups of regulars and loyalists, the British contested ground all through the southern part of the state. After the British victory at Alligator Bridge (see Episode 191), the Americans had generally ceded the parts of Georgia closest to the Florida border and had focused on the command at Savannah.Mark Prévost, and with the assistance of loyalists under Colonel Thomas “Burntfoot” Brown, laid devastation to the lightly populated region. Prévost planned to take the village of Midway with his regiments marching overland, while another assault force sailed upriver with another 500 British regulars and militia.
Continental Colonel James White commanded about 100 Continentals and militia at Midway, the target of the British assault. He was joined by newly commissioned militia General James Screven, who had only 20 militia with him. General Screven tried to set up an ambush to hit the advancing loyalists under Colonel Brown before they reached Midway.
Unfortunately, the ambush site that Screven selected was already occupied by Brown’s loyalists. The loyalists ambushed the Americans and killed several of them. Screven was hit eleven times, but survived to be taken prisoner. He died several days later.
With the loss of General Screven, command fell to Colonel White who prepared for a final assault. He had command at Midway. The British loyalists under Colonel Brown and supported by Colonel Prévost and his regulars had a massive numerical advantage.
White had no choice but to withdraw. However, he left behind a forged note which ordered him to withdraw so that when the British advanced, the American cavalry could hit them from behind. Colonel Prévost found the note. Although there was no American cavalry, Provost believed the note anyway and hesitated in his advance. That, combined with the fact that the Regulars that he had expected to arrive aboard ship were nowhere to be found, Prévost ended the campaign and marched back to St. Augustine.
After Prévost withdrew, the British ships, which had been delayed by unfavorable winds, made it upriver to Fort Morris at Sunbury. Even without Prévost’s army, the fleet had over five hundred soldiers, with only maybe 120 Americans defending the fort. The British commander, Colonel Lewis Fuser disembarked his soldiers and surrounded the fort. Fuser sent a letter to White saying that multiple armies had the fort surrounded and that he should surrender.
White knew that the other army that Fuser expected to find there, under Colonel Prévost had already withdrawn, and said as much in his reply. He then famously said that if the British wanted the fort they could “come and take it.”
Colonel Fuser confirmed that Prévost was already gone. The purpose of his mission had been to support Prévost. He didn’t see any point in trying to take an entrenched position with cannons if the rest of his army had already left. So Fuser put his men back aboard ship and sailed away.
Return to Fort Morris
All of that happened in November, 1778. In late December, General Prévost marched a much larger force out of St. Augustine with the ultimate goal of reaching Savannah. By the time his army reached Fort Morris on January 6, 1779, Prévost knew that Colonel Campbell had already taken Savannah a week earlier. However, more than 200 Americans and 24 cannons still held Fort Morris.
|Ft. Morris earthworks|
Once the British arrived, Lane mounted a respectable, if hopeless defense for three days. On the third day of the siege, a British cannonball hit the fort’s powder magazine, causing a massive explosion. With that, the garrison surrendered, suffering only four dead and seven wounded over the three day siege. The remaining garrison became prisoners. General Prévost left a small force to occupy Fort Morris, and continued on to Savannah.
General Prevost arrived in Savannah on January 17 and assumed command from Colonel Campbell. As I discussed a few weeks ago, Colonel Archibald Campbell had already taken the city, so after taking care of Fort Morris, Prevost had an easy entry into Savannah where he assumed command.
Both Prevost and Campbell received compliments from the Americans for their relatively kind treatment of the civilian population. Several American leaders noted that because Campbell had been treated so poorly when he had been a prisoner, they feared that he might exact revenge on American prisoners. He did not. The area around Fort Morris became a prison camp for hundreds of captured prisoners. The British treated them rather well.
The British also held back on wholesale looting or any retaliatory actions against the civilian population. They hoped to restore civilian rule and allow courts to resolve any local disputes, rather than the army. In many ways, this followed the policies that General William Howe had implemented when he first took New York. The goal was to reestablish the “king’s peace” and convince locals that British rule was a good thing.
Georgia, however, would still have a military governor. Augustine Prevost did not want the job. In fact, just after he arrived in Savannah, he wrote to General Clinton to say that he wanted to retire from the army. Colonel Campbell became the new Governor of Georgia and General Prevost’s brother, Colonel Mark Prevost became the Lieutenant Governor.
The British plan was to turn Georgia back into a productive colony that would serve as a source of food for the British forces in North America. Trying to bring meat and vegetables across the Atlantic Ocean in a sailing ship without any refrigeration or canning was expensive and resulted in much of the food spoiling en route. Georgia’s large plantations and cattle ranches offered a valuable source of food for the army both on the Continent and the islands in the West Indies.
The other goal was to use Georgia for a base of operations to take back the Carolinas. St. Augustine, Florida was simply not large enough or close enough to launch major operations, and sea landings could be much more difficult. The establishment of an army in Georgia gave the British a perfect base from which to march north and retake Charleston by land.
As it had hoped in other colonies, the core force of British regulars would establish law and order. Loyalists would then take over as militia to maintain the royal government and the regulars could move north into South Carolina to do the same thing there.
Since Georgia had a population of only 15,000-20,000 white settlers at the time, and only about a third of those were adult males, and a good portion of those were thought to be loyalists, the plan to take back the colony with an army of 3000-4000 regulars plus militia seemed more than adequate. But Georgia did not really have any large population centers. The people were spread out on plantations all over the colony/state. Savannah was the largest town, and Sunbury, where Fort Morris was located was the second largest. The army needed to expand on that by moving soldiers further inland to establish control.
The Continentals, of course, did not want to see that happen. General Benjamin Lincoln, as I said, had established a base at Purrysburg, South Carolina, about twenty miles north of Savannah and right on the river that marked the South Carolina-Georgia border. He only had a force of about 1000 soldiers, but was awaiting 2000 reinforcements from North Carolina. Even if that was not enough to take back Savannah, it could keep the British bottled up around the town and prevent the occupation of the rest of the state.
Prevost, however, was not going to let that happen. He led a force of about 2000 soldiers upriver to take a position directly across from the Continentals as Purrysburg. At the same time, Colonel Campbell took an army of 1000 on an inland march through Georgia to pacify the colony. On January 31, Campbell entered the next largest city in Georgia, Augusta, with almost no resistance.
Aside from the large force just across the river from the Continentals, the British began spreading out small garrisons across Georgia. The British army would establish order, recruit loyalist regiments from the local population, and begin making plans for an offensive into South Carolina. Many Georgia loyalists who had fled to East Florida returned to Georgia to reclaim their farms and return to normal life. The British army provided a ready market for whatever crops or animals they could provide. The Army also seized the farms of leading patriots who refused to submit to British rule. London saw the reclamation of Georgia as a great success, and an auspicious start to a new southern campaign.
Around the same time that Colonel Campbell was marching into Augusta, Continental General Lincoln received his reinforcements from North Carolina. By the end of January, Lincoln had an army of over 3000, including more than 1000 Continentals. Even if the Americans could not defeat the British in Georgia, they could keep life from becoming too comfortable, and discourage British desire to march northward into South Carolina.
Continued American challenges to British rule in Georgia would result in a number of skirmishes and battles over the first few months of 1779 and with the cooperation of a French fleet, would result in a massive siege against British-occupied Savannah later that year. But those will have to be topics for future episodes.
Next week, we return to Philadelphia, where the radicals bring charges against their military governor, Benedict Arnold.
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Liberty County - Midway, Sunbury & Fort Morris: http://www.oatland.org/American_Revolution/Sunbury-Ft%20Morris.php
Sunbury, Fort Morris & Midway Pamphlet: https://gasocietysar.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/27943_Fluker-Sunbury-lo-res.pdf
General James Scriven: http://genealogytrails.com/geo/screven/bio-obit-Screven.htm
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, www.jstor.org/stable/40581049
Williams, Edward G. “The Prevosts of the Royal Americans” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, 1973: https://journals.psu.edu/wph/article/download/3199/58417
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, www.jstor.org/stable/40578148
“To George Washington from Major General Benjamin Lincoln, 5–6 January 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-18-02-0645
(from archive.org 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.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Campbell, Archibald Journal of an expedition against the rebels of Georgia in North America under the orders of Archibald Campbell, Esquire, Lieut. Colol. of His Majesty's 71st Regimt., 1778, Ashantilly Press, 1981.
Cashin, Edward The King's Ranger: Thomas Brown and the American Revolution on the Southern Frontier, New York: Fordham University Press, 1999.
Coleman, Kenneth The American Revolution in Georgia, 1763–1789, Univ. of Ga Press, 1958.
Hall, Leslie, Land and Allegiance in Revolutionary Georgia, Univ. of Ga Press, 2001.
Martin, Scott Savannah 1779: The British Turn South, Osprey Publishing, 2017.
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.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.