Sunday, June 30, 2024

ARP317 Peace Commissioners

Ever since the French and American victory at Yorktown in October of 1781, all sides seemed to be moving toward a conclusion of the war.  The negotiations over the terms of that ending, dragged on for years.

Back in Episode 309, we covered the fall of the North Government and the establishment of a new government under Lord Rockingham that was ready to recognize American independence. Of course, things are never that simple.  Shortly after Rockingham became Prime Minister in early 1782, an influenza epidemic spread through London.  Rockingham became ill and died on July 1.

Shelburne-Fox Schism 

Rockingham had put together a coalition of opposition groups to replace the North Government.  His death led to a schism in that coalition.  Rockingham had appointed two secretaries of state.  One was William Petty, the Earl of Shelburne.  The other was Charles James Fox.  Although both men advocated an end to the war and an acceptance of American independence, they did not get along.  Fox’s father had been a political opponent of Shelburne a few decades earlier and had politically supported William Pitt the Elder over Shelburne after the Seven Years War.  So Fox had a family-based political gripe with Shelburne.  

Treaty of Paris, American Delegation
Beyond that issue, the two men had a very different vision for Britain. Shelburne was a member of the House of Lords.  He held many forward thinking ideas He was an early advocate of free trade and had long standing relations with men like Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin and David Hume.  At the same time, he was also a member of the aristocracy and wary of more power to commoners.

With the North faction greatly weakened, over the fall of the government because of the Revolution, Shelburne’s chief rival was Charles James Fox, who was the other Secretary of State in the Rockingham government.  Fox was the son of a baron, but not being the eldest son, he would not inherit a title. Instead he began a career in the House of Commons.

I talked about Fox a great deal in some of the early episodes of this podcast.   He had initially gravitated to the Tories.  He had been a leader in the campaign to punish the radical John Wilkes and made a personal fortune while he was Paymaster General of the Forces.  Lord North appointed Fox to the Board of Admiralty in 1770.  He only sat on the board for less than a month.  Fox resigned out of opposition to the Royal Marriages Act, something near and dear to the king.  The Act would have raised questions about the marriage of Fox’s parents, which is probably why he took such a strong position.  In 1772, North appointed Fox to the board of treasury.  Once again Fox resigned after a short stint, this time just over a year.

After that, Fox associated more with the opposition, working with Edmund Burke.  When the Revolution began Fox became a leading advocate for the colonies and one of the most vocal opponents of the North Government.

When Rockingham died, Shelburne moved up to become Prime Minister.  Fox greatly opposed this move and resigned from the government.  He went back to the opposition in Parliament.  Several other Fox supporters, including Burke also left the government and returned to opposition.

British Commissioners

Despite the departure of the Fox faction, Shelburne held on as Prime Minister.  He pressed forward with the primary reason he came to office: ending the war.  Shelburne appointed Richard Oswald to begin negotiations with the Americans.

Oswald was a commoner.  He had made a life for himself as a Scottish merchant.  He made a fortune as a military contractor during the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War.  Over the years, he invested much of his wealth in land, owning estates in Virginia, Georgia, and East Florida.  He had business contacts around the world, including India and China.

During the Revolution, Oswald had been a strong advocate of a stronger military crackdown on the colonies.  He had advised Lord North to send overwhelming force and impose ruthless punishments on the rebels.

Oswald’s reputation as a deal maker appealed to Shelburne.  The two men also had a desire to maintain a relationship with the new United States, and perhaps reach some solution that did not result in full independence.  Oswald also had a long standing relationship with one of the American negotiators. He and Henry Laurens had been business partners in the slave trade for several decades before the war.  In fact, Oswald had put up the bail that had allowed Laurens to be released from the Tower of London.  Oswald had also corresponded with Franklin in the past, although the two men did not know each other very well.

Shelburne sent Oswald to France to begin negotiations in the spring of 1782, as soon as the Rockingham Administration took power.  Fox, however, was concerned that Shelburne and Oswald would drag out negotiations in an attempt to avoid having to concede complete independence.  In response, Fox sent his own emissary, Thomas Grenville.  He was the son of George Grenville, the minister who had pushed through the Stamp Tax back in 1765. 

The younger Grenville had been an officer in the regular army.  He never went to America and resigned his commission in 1780.  He had taken a seat in the House of Commons since 1779, when he was only 24 years old.  As such, he had not had much chance to make his mark politically when Fox sent him to Paris.

Grenville was a full half century younger than Oswald, who was in his 70s.  The two agents seemed to have very different personalities, and different political agendas.

Opening Peace Negotiations

As you might guess, having two Secretaries of State sending two different peace commissioners with different instructions was not really a good start for things.  Shelburne’s authority covered diplomacy in the Americas.  Therefore, he had authority to negotiate with the Americans.  Fox had diplomatic authority over Europe.  Therefore, he had authority to negotiate with France, Spain, and the Netherlands.

Oswald showed up at Benjamin Franklin’s door in Vassy, France in April.  He had a letter from Shelburne making clear that he had the authority of the British government to begin negotiations. He also carried a letter from Henry Laurens, making clear that Oswald was a good guy that you could talk to.

Franklin and Oswald talked over dinner, informally getting to know each other and try to discern their opponent’s positions.  Oswald was very vague over the details that a final treaty might take.  He made clear that the ministry wanted peace, but also had to be assured that the terms were not too humiliating to Britain.

Sending a negotiator to speak directly with the American diplomats was at least a good start as a sign of recognition that the US was an independent country.  But Franklin also saw the danger of Britain trying to divide France and the United States. The US had agreed with France not to negotiate a separate peace, so Franklin made clear that French Minister Vergennes would have to be included in any talks.

A few days later, Oswald accompanied Franklin to Versailles, where both men met with Vergennes.  The experienced French diplomat put on a pleasant face, but also made clear that Britain would have to establish terms that would end the war for all four of the combatants: France, Spain, the Netherlands, and the United States.  Oswald pressed Vergennes to give him a framework of what peace terms would be considered acceptable.  But the Frenchman demurred.  He said Britain should put forward a proposal for peace that would be considered by the allies as a group.

A few days later, Franklin and Oswald met again. Franklin had written a letter to Shelburne saying that he would be happy to work on negotiations with Oswald, but that Oswald needed authority to negotiate a wider agreement with all the countries involved.  

As usual, Franklin was firm but pleasant.  He also thanks Shelburne for the government’s decision to release American sailors being held in British jails, and arranging for their return to America.  Those prisoners had been starving to death. Traditionally, the US was responsible for feeding prisoners in British custody.  Since the US had no money for food, the men had suffered terrible deprivation.  Parliament hoped their release would be taken as a gesture of goodwill, which it was.

During this meeting Oswald broached the idea of going beyond peace and establishing some sort of reconciliation between the US and Britain.  Oswald did not say this at the meeting, but he and Shelburne hoped to keep the US within the British sphere of interest, and avoid the US developing closer ties with France.

Franklin countered with the concern that Britain had inflicted so much damage on America that any reconciliation would have to include compensation for the harm done.  Franklin suggested that perhaps Britain could turn over all of Canada to become part of the US.  Without an enemy border between the two countries, perhaps a better relationship would follow.

Perhaps to Franklin’s surprise, Oswald did not reject outright the idea of turning over Canada to become part of the US.  Instead, he simply took notes on their conversation and said that he would discuss the proposal with Shelburne.

To sweeten the deal, Franklin also suggested that if Britain turned over Canada, the US might be willing to compensate loyalists who had been stripped of property during the war.  This would allow both sides to heal and begin developing a better working relationship with one another.

Oswald’s opening gambit of offering Canada to the US was a bold one, and one that might have been more of a feint than a real offer.  Oswald was still trying to divide the US from France in the negotiations.  By offering a generous peace to the US, Britain might get the US to go along with a separate peace that angered France. Creating such a rift would force the US into a close alliance with Britain in order to have naval protection.  It was a way to make the newly independent United States effectively dependent on Britain.

By contrast, France wanted Canada to remain British. That threat to the north would compel the US to form a closer and long standing military alliance with France.

American Commissioners

With the commencement of negotiations, Franklin thought it proper to gather the other Americans commissioners in Europe to negotiate the terms of a final peace.  

Franklin wrote to John Adams, who was in Amsterdam.  Adams had been negotiating with Dutch officials and also seeking cash loans to keep the army and the Continental Congress from falling apart.

Adams had been an interesting choice as a diplomat. He was well known for not getting along well with others.  He was a no-nonsense hard charging New England Lawyer who quickly grew frustrated by the subtleties of European diplomacy.  Adams had originally come to Europe in 1778, when America was trying to get France to agree to an alliance.  Adams replaced Silas Deane, who had been fighting with fellow delegate Arthur Lee.  Congress recalled Deane to America after Lee had sent delegates accusations of Deane’s corruption.  

When Adams arrived in 1778, he immediately did not get along with either Franklin or Lee.  Since Franklin had already finalized an agreement with France before Adams arrived, he did little and returned home the following year.  Frustrated, Adams vowed to return to private practice and never get involved with government service again.

Less than a year later though, in 1780, Adams agreed to return to France to serve on the delegation that would negotiate the treaty that would end the war.  Shortly after his arrival, Franklin sent a letter to Vergennes castigating France for not doing enough to win the war.  Vergennes ceased all communications with Adams, forcing Franklin to write a letter to Congress saying that Adams was harming negotiations with France.

As a result, Adams left France for the Netherlands.  He would spend almost two years there, mostly trying to get loans for the Congress.  He would have little to show for his efforts b the time he traveled to France in the spring of 1782.

Franklin also wrote to John Jay, who was in Spain.  Congress had sent the New Yorker to Europe in 1779.  Despite the fact that he was only 35 years old when he left America, Jay had already established himself.  He started college at age 14 and began work as a law clerk after graduation.  He became an early member of New York’s Committee of Correspondence and attended the First Continental Congress at age 29.  He spent the war in politics, drafting New York’s Constitution in 1777 and serving as the State’s Chief Justice. Two years later, he returned to Philadelphia as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress and was almost immediately elected president.

When Spain entered the war in 1779, Congress called on Jay to serve as minister to Spain.  His goal was to get diplomatic recognition of the US, financial aid, and establish trade agreements.  Like other American diplomats, Jay mostly met with frustration.  Spain refused to receive an American ambassador or recognize American Independence.  King Carlos had entered the war as an ally of France.  He was not keen on recognizing an American independence movement since there were so many Spanish colonies in America that might be inclined to follow that example.  

As a result, Jay accomplished little in Madrid, other than a relatively small loan. After receiving Franklin’s letter about the opening of peace negotiations in France, Jay packed his bags and left for Paris.

Another member of the American diplomatic team in Europe was Henry Laurens.  Another former president of the Continental Congress, the South Carolina merchant had sailed for Amsterdam in 1780, hoping to secure loans for the Continentals.  The British captured his ship at sea and carried him as a prisoner to London.  Laurens spent nearly two years in the Tower of London, while the government debated whether to put him on trial for treason.

Instead, after the British surrender at Yorktown, officials released Laurens on bond and allowed him his freedom.  Laurens remained in England after his release.  He went to Bath for a short time to help restore his body, then returned to London, where British officials wanted his opinions on how best to end the war.  He dined regularly with Lord Rockingham and other members of Parliament. 

When Shelburne became Secretary of State in the new Rockingham Ministry, Laurens advocated successfully for the release of the six hundred American sailors being held prisoner in England.  In April, 1782, Shelburne told Laurens that John Adams in Amsterdam had told officials that the Americans were ready to negotiate a separate peace without France.  Laurens said this could not be true. He received permission to travel to the Netherlands to get to the truth of the matter.  

Laurens traveled with his old friend and business partner, Richard Oswald, who was on his way to meet with Franklin in Paris.  The two men traveled to the Netherlands together.  Oswald then continued on to France, while Laurens met with Adams.  There, Adams assured Laurens that the American delegation had no plans to establish a separate peace with Britain.  Even the offer of receiving Canada would not cause them to break the French alliance.

Even so, the trip caused French leaders to distrust Laurens.  They believed he was acting on behalf of British interests to encourage the American delegation to break with France and establish a separate peace with Britain.  It did not help that Laurens and Oswald both returned to London together a few weeks later.

Part of the reason for his return was that Laurens was still trying to bring an end to his legal troubles in Britain. Although he had been released, and it seemed that Britain did not want to pursue any charges, they had not been dismissed either.  Laurens did not want to accept a pardon, since that would mean that he would have to concede having committed some crime in the first place. 

Eventually the two sides worked out a deal where Laurens would be exchanged as a prisoner of war with General Charles Cornwallis.  Although Cornwallis had returned to Britain, he was technically on parole until exchanged.

Finally, in May, 1782, Laurens left Britain for France to join the American Peace Commission in Paris.

The final member of the American Peace Commission appointed by Congress was Thomas Jefferson.  The Virginian, however, never made it to France before the final treaty was signed.  Jefferson had left government service in 1781 after losing reelection as governor of Virginia, under a cloud for his pathetic defense of the State against the British invasion.

In early 1782, Jefferson’s wife, Martha, was pregnant with their second child.  She would give birth that spring, but had continuing health complications.  Martha would die later that year.  As a result, Jefferson remained at home in Monticello.  He worked on developing his plantation and writing a book that would later be published as Notes on the State of Virginia.  As a result, Jefferson declined the appointment and refused to leave Virginia.

Next Week: we will take a closer look at the efforts by Britain to undercut US goals in the treaty, as well as the efforts of some members of the Continental Congress to undercut the American peace delegation.

- - -

Next Episode 318 Peace Negotiations 

Previous Episode 316 Skirmishing Around Charleston

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Further Reading


The Treaty of Paris (1783) in a changing states system: papers from a conference, January 26-27, 1984 (borrow only). 

Bemis, Samuel F. The Diplomacy Of The American Revolution, Indiana Univ. Press, 1935. 

Jay, John The Peace Negotiations of 1782 and 1783. An address delivered before the New York Historical Society on its seventy-ninth anniversary, Tuesday, November 27, 1883, New York Historical Society, 1884. 

Pellew, George John JayJohn Jay, Boston, New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. 1890. 

Perkins, James B. France in the American RevolutionFrance in the American Revolution, Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Co. 1911. 

Wallace, David Duncan The life of Henry Laurens, with a sketch of the life of Lieutenant-Colonel John LaurensNew York G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1915.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Brown, Marvin Luther American Independence Through Prussian Eyes: A Neutral View of the Peace Negotiations of 1782-1783 - Selections from the Diplomatic CorrespondenceAmerican Independence Through Prussian Eyes: A Neutral View of the Peace Negotiations of 1782-1783 - Selections from the Diplomatic Correspondence, Duke Univ. Press, 1959 (borrow on 

Dull, Jonathan A Diplomatic History of the American Revolution, Yale Univ. Press, 1985.

Fleming, Thomas The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown, Harper Collins, 2007.  

Hoffman, Ronald and Peter Albert (eds) Peace and the Peacemakers: The Treaty of 1783, Univ. Press of Va., 1986. (borrow on

Hutson, James H. John Adams and the Diplomacy of the American Revolution, Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1980.  (borrow on

Morris, Richard B. The Peacemakers: The Great Powers and American Independence, Harper & Row, 1965 (borrow on 

Smith, Page John Adams, Vol. 1, Doubleday & Co. 1962.

Stockley, Andrew Britain and France at the Birth of America: The European Powers and the Peace Negotiations of 1782-83, Liverpool Univ. Press, 2001. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Sunday, June 23, 2024

ARP316 Skirmishing Around Charleston

Last week, we saw the British leave Savannah, Georgia in July 1782, thus ending any British presence in that state.  The war seemed to be wrapping up, as peace negotiations continued in Europe. The British southern army under General Alexander Leslie, however, remained in Charleston, South Carolina.  The Continental Army under General Nathanael Greene remained there to confront them.

We last looked in on South Carolina in Episode 304 Episode 304.  The British Army was bottled up in Charleston.  The patriot legislature met in Jacksonborough in early 1782, beginning to make decisions for how to restore civilian rule to the state.

Strawberry Ferry

While it appeared that major combat operations in South Carolina were at an end, both armies continued to probe the enemy lines for weaknesses and in search of forage.  Soldiers on both sides continued to fight and die in small skirmishes.

John Laurens

In February 1782, militia General Francis Marion had left his command to take his seat in the Jacksonborough Assembly.  His second in command, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Horry took command of Marion's brigade.

After receiving reports of weaknesses in the enemy lines, Loyalist Colonel Benjamin ThompsonBenjamin Thompson assembled a force in Charleston to raid the patriot militia.  Thompson came from Massachusetts, a patriot mob had chased him from his home in 1774.  He took a commission under General Gage and later formed the King’s American Dragoons.  In 1782, Thompson and his dragoons remained part of the British defenses at Charleston.

On February 19, Thompson led his dragoons, along with a company of British regulars infantry.  According to some accounts, Thomson was in search of deserters who had taken up the patriot offer of amnesty and were now serving with the enemy.  Thompsons’ brigade moved in force - several hundred men, in three columns.  They rode north of the city, along the Cooper River.  Near Strawberry Ferry, they captured an American lieutenant and six soldiers, as well as a sizable herd of cattle.

Before the militia could react to the raid in force, the loyalists withdrew back to their lines.  Five days later, however, the militia struck back, attacking Thomson’s loyalists near Wambaw Bridge, just outside of Charleston.  The patriots charged the bridge, which collapsed under their weight.  Many of the men fell into the river, along with their horses.  Several drowned.  The patriot militia reported 10 killed and 8 wounded, while the British reported only one wounded.

Around this same time, another force under militia Colonel Edward Barnwell attempted to confront a British foraging party south of Charleston that was collecting rice.  As the patriot militia rode near the Savannah River, loyalist militia under Major Andrew DeveauxAndrew Deveaux attacked them, killing six and capturing five.  Major Deveaux then took three small ships which he used to seize and hold the town of Beaufort, near the Georgia border, for about three weeks.  Finally, patriot militia drove them away.

Some of the fighting was more just violence by men who hated each other by this time, rather than anything resembling warfare. In March, a patriot militia captain named Johnson who had been captured by the British and was home on parole, was out hunting with a friend. The men came across Loyalist Colonel John Elrod and two other loyalist soldiers who had evacuated Wilmington and were also returning home.  Elrod took issue with the fact that Johnson was out hunting with his rifle.  The terms of his parole forbade him from carrying a gun.

The dispute turned ugly when the loyalists attacked and killed Johnson.  They also attempted to kill Johnson’s friend. He managed, however, to knock away the rifle aimed at him, causing it to miss its target.  The man then fled the scene, managing to get to a neighbor and alert them of the murder. 

The three loyalists, having left a witness alive, also fled, fearing the local patriot militia would come for them.  Local patriot militia Major Thomas Dugan raised a posse, which found Elrod and one of the other loyalists at Elrod’s home, asleep at night.  The other loyalist refused to admit he was part of the murder.  Another militia officer then bashed his head against the fireplace until the loyalist confessed.

The militia then held a quick court martial.  At dawn they rode both prisoners about a half a mile from the house, tied them to trees and shot them.

Fighting For Food

While skirmishing like this continued throughout South Carolina, the real enemy for the army, once again, was resources.  General Greene wrote repeatedly that he did not have enough food to feed his men. When he did have food, it was often so rancid that it was not fit for human consumption.  Eating poor food or too little food contributed to the disease and deaths that soldiers faced throughout the spring and summer of 1782.  Neither the Continental Congress, nor the State of South Carolina, nor anyone else for that matter, seemed willing to assist the army.

In April, General Greene wrote to one of his officers that he men had been without even rice for three days and that their hunger was putting them in a “mutinous mood.”  It certainly seems understandable that not being fed as you continued to fight for your country might make you disagreeable.  

Food was not the only problem. Clothing also reached crisis proportions.  When Captain Walter FinneyWalter Finney arrived at the main Continental Camp in April, he noted that the troops were “badly fed and wretchedly cloathed”.  He noted that about one-third of the men were completely naked, having only a hat.  They had tied blankets around their naked bodies  to defend against the weather and “preserve…decency”.

General Greene used his personal credit to contract with a local vendor, John Banks & Company to provide £30,000 worth of clothing for his soldiers.  The company ended up going bankrupt before providing what it promised and Greene was left on the hook to repay the debt to the company’s creditors.

These shortages resulted in grumblings that could easily have turned into another mutiny.  The Pennsylvania line, which had famously mutinied a year earlier, was at this point the largest force under Greene’s command.  In March Greene ordered a Maryland officer to select a force of officers and men for a raid on the enemy.  When the officer selected units from the Pennsylvania line to serve under him for the raid, the Pennsylvanians balked at the orders and protested that it was an infringement of their rights to have a Maryland officer given the authority to choose to send them into battle.  Greene’s response was that they were all in the Continental Army and that the army was not a civilian organization where you get to decide which superior officers can give you orders.  The soldiers grumbled but complied.

Gosnell Trial

Around this same time, the British sent pamphlets into the American camps noting that deserters would be fed, clothed and given money that their own army was denying them.  Several men from the Pennsylvania line took up the British on their offer and deserted.  Going without food, clothing, or pay from an ungrateful country had become too much for some of the men.  Greene offered reward money for anyone who provided information on those spreading incitements to mutiny.

A camp follower turned in Sergeant George Gosnell of the Pennsylvania Line.  Gosnell had come to America as a British regular.  He had deserted and joined the Continentals while the Pennsylvania line was still up north.  He had been identified as one of the leaders of the mutiny of the Pennsylvania line a year earlier in New Jersey.

Apparently Sergeant Gosnell continued to grip and was accused of encouraging another mutiny among the Pennsylvania line.  The mutiny in 1781 had been settled rather peacefully.  Greene, however, was not willing to let another mutiny take place again.  Gosnell had to be made an example.

Greene ordered Gosnell put under arrest and to be held for trial by another part of the army.  The following day, an assembled court martial tried Gosnell, found him guilty and sentenced him to death.  Greene approved the execution for the following day, and ordered that 100 men from each brigade be turned out to witness the execution.

Several others who were suspected of mutinous talk were also investigated. Richard Peters of the Maryland line, as well as four more soldiers from the Pennsylvania line, all British deserters, were suspected of fomenting mutiny, but were simply dismissed from service and forced to leave the state.

Greene later wrote to President John Hanson that hanging Gosnell made clear to the rest of the army not to test him, but that banishing the others rather than executing them, would be better for overall morale.

Evacuation Rumors

 There were still a few desertions following the execution. But in May rumors began to arrive that the British were planning to evacuate the south.  These seemed to put a stop to soldiers thinking about going over to the enemy.

The rumors, however, also raised a concern for Greene that Congress would be even less inclined to provide the promised food, clothing, and supplies that his army desperately needed.  Greene was still concerned that the British might abandon Savannah in order to reinforce Charleston and go on the offensive once again.

On May 20, British General Leslie sent Captain Francis Skelly as a messenger to Greene’s camp with a copy of Parliament’s resolution of February 12, ending offensive operations in America.  Greene met with Captain Skelly, who also informed the general that the British Commander in Chief in North America, General Clinton had been recalled and that General Guy Carleton was the new commander.

At this time, even Leslie was not aware of orders from London to evacuate all British troops from Savannah, Charleston, and New York. But it seemed clear to all that Britain’s efforts were coming to an end.  To that end, Skelly passed along Leslie’s proposal to Greene that the two armies agree to a cease fire.

Greene balked at this idea for several reasons.  To start, he did not entirely trust the British.  They could just be trying to buy time until they received reinforcements.  Further, even if the British were being honest, any agreed cease fire might be seen as agreeing to a separate peace without the agreement of France.  This could just be a British effort to drive a wedge between France and America and to gain an advantage at the peace negotiations. 

The result was that Greene agreed to nothing. He passed along the proposal to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, along with his comments about how he would comply with whatever Congress wanted, but that he could not see  how they could agree to this without France’s approval.  Remember, when France first agreed to this alliance, the fear of French diplomats was that the colonies would come to terms with Britain, allowing Britain to turn its full and undivided wrath against France.  The Americans assured France this would not happen.  That is why Greene was so concerned about getting France’s approval for any cease fire.

Even after Savannah evacuated in July, Greene remained vigilant.  He was concerned that the thousands of enemy soldiers leaving Savannah would sail up to Charleston to provide for a new British offensive.  Greene remained on alert and even called for General Wayne’s small force in Georgia to join him in South Carolina as quickly as possible.

The result was continued attacks, primarily on foraging parties of both sides.  The Continentals would not stop fighting until the British left the state.

Sickness Rages

In early July, weeks before the British evacuated Savannah, Greene ordered his army to take a new position closer to Charleston.  The Continentals moved about seven miles to the south to the Ashley Hill plantation, which was only a few miles from the British lines at Charleston.  Greene reported that he selected the location closer to the enemy to put more pressure on them, but also because it was good high ground that was dry and would be healthy for the army.

On that second regard he was wrong.  Within three days in the new location soldiers began falling ill with terrible fevers.  Within two weeks more than half the army was incapacitated by illness.  Over the summer and fall hundreds of soldiers died.  General Greene and General Wayne both became bedridden.  

Malaria ravaged the army as mosquitoes spread the disease without mercy or pause throughout the camp.  Greene considered moving, but continuing rumors of an imminent British evacuation convinced him to keep his army in place.

General William Moultrie, who had been taken prisoner in 1780 when Charleston fell, had been exchanged and visited the army in September.  He noted that before he even reached the camp, the smell of all the dead bodies overwhelmed him.  Greene ordered that the army stop beating out a march at funerals since they had become so common and only contributed to the depression of those in their sick beds.

Combahee Ferry

Despite the devastating impact of malaria, the Continentals remained active in their efforts to defend against any actions by the British or loyalists in Charleston.  The key officer tasked with keeping tab on the British was Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens.  Greene had given Laurens command of the Continental Cavalry that Light Horse Harry Lee had led before he had returned to Virginia.  Laurens kept his horsemen camped between the main Continental lines and the British lines, where his cavalry could take on any British foraging parties or anyone else who tried to come out from behind the lines.  

The British had maintained a small galley with about 40 men on the Ashley River.  The British crew regularly conducted raids on plantations along the river, seeking plunder and intelligence.  Laurens organized a task force to attack the galley at night.  The Continentals managed to scuttle the ship and to take prisoner most of the crew.

Despite this success, Laurens was frustrated with his command.  With the enemy remaining quiet in Charleston, most of Laurens’ time was spent arguing with locals when his men commandeered food or other necessities.  

In June, Greene gave command of the light infantry to General Mordecai Gist, an officer from Maryland.  He gave command of the cavalry to Lieutenant Colonel George Baylor, from Virginia.  Laurens took a much more limited role in command only of Lee’s old legion.

Even among the legion, Laurens was not popular.  They saw the South Carolina officer put in command of them as a young kid with no cavalry experience.  His father, Henry Laurens had been President of the Continental Congress and was currently part of the diplomatic team in France negotiating peace.  As such, many of the men in the legion saw Laurens as getting the job based on politics and connections rather than military merit.

Laurens’ friend, Alexander Hamilton wrote to him suggesting he give up his field command and join Hamilton in Philadelphia as a delegate to the Continental Congress.  Laurens declined.  Despite his frustrations, he wanted to be a successful field commander.

Part of Laurens’ duty was to obtain intelligence on the enemy.  Having lived in Charleston for many years before the war, Laurens was well positioned to renew contacts with old friends still in the loyalist communities in Charleston.  Many of these loyalists were eager to receive pardons so that they could remain in South Carolina after the war, and were more than willing to provide Laurens with whatever intelligence they could.

In late August, Laurens learned that the British were planning a large foraging expedition with about five hundred men and more than a dozen ships.  General Greene ordered General Gist to attack the enemy foraging party.  Laurens had been laid up with malaria, but left his sick bed to participate in the fight.

Gist planned to move his Continentals into place at night.  The following morning, August 27, he would launch a surprise dawn attack on the foraging party.  Gist believed he could force the enemy to retreat back to their boards on the Combahee River.  He would then use a field howitzer to fire on the ships.

Gist ordered Laurens to take command of a 50 man force that was defending the howitzer.  Gist believed the British would launch a land assault on the howitzer as the only way to protect their ships.

That morning, Gist’s continentals stormed the field, only to find them empty.  The British had received a tip about the attack and had boarded their ships around midnight and sailed away.  Gist realized that if the enemy knew about the attack, they probably also knew about the howitzer that had been set up down river.  He sent a messenger to warn Laurens and followed quickly behind with about 150 soldiers.

It was already too late.  The British had deployed a force to ambush Laurens’ detachment as they moved into position earlier that night.  Laurens found himself outnumbered three to one.  With few options, Laurens led a bayonet charge at the enemy, hoping the attack would surprise them and force a panic.  Instead, the experienced enemy fired a volley into the attacking Continentals, killing or injuring many of the attackers, and forcing the rest to flee into the night.

When Gist’s relief force arrived, he only found the retreating British boarding their ships with the captured howitzer.  Gist’s men then looked over the battlefield for casualties.  Among the dead was Colonel Laurens, shot through the heart and killed instantly.

Skirmishing continued around Charleston as both sides waited for an end to the war that never seemed to come.

Next week, we head over to Paris to look in on the negotiations and try to figure out why the end never seemed to come. 

- - -

Next Episode 317 Peace Commissioners

Previous Episode 315 Evacuation of Savannah

 Contact me via email at

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Further Reading


Barnwell, Robert Woodward Loyalism in South Carolina, 1765-1785, Ph.D. Thesis, Duke University, 1941. 

McCrady, Edward The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1780-1783, New York: The Macmillan Co. 1902.  

Ramsay, David The History of the Revolution of South-Carolina, from a British province to an independent state, 1749-1815, Vol. 2, Trenton: Isaac Collins, 1785. 

Wallace, David Duncan The life of Henry Laurens, with a sketch of the life of Lieutenant-Colonel John Laurens, New York G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1915.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Fleming, Thomas The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown, Harper Collins, 2007.  

Golway, Terry Washington's General: Nathanael Greene and the Triumph of the American Revolution, H. Holt, 2006 (borrow on 

Massey, Gregory D. John Laurens and the American Revolution, Univ. of SC Press,  2000 (borrow on 

O’Kelley, Patrick Nothing But Blood and Slaughter: The Revolutionary War in the Carolinas, Vol 3, 1781, Booklocker, 2005. 

Southern, Ed Voices of the American Revolution in the Carolinas , Blair, 2009. 

Unger, Harlow Giles The Last Man To Die in the American Revolution: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Laurens, Independently Published, 2023.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

AR-SP25 This Fierce People, with Alan Pell Crawford

Author Alan Pell Crawford discusses his new book - This Fierce People: The Untold Story of America's Revolutionary War in the South.  We talk about why the war in the south seems to be less known, and why it was more of a civil war than we see in the north.

This Fierce People: The Untold Story of America's Revolutionary War in the South,

by Alan Pell Crawford. 

Sunday, June 9, 2024

ARP315 Evacuation of Savannah

We return this week to the south, where the final contest for Georgia plays out in the summer of 1782.

General Nathanael Greene commanded the main southern army in South Carolina, still trying to dislodge the British from Charleston.  General Anthony Wayne brought the Pennsylvania line to South Carolina following the victory in Yorktown Virginia.  Greene kept the Continental reinforcements, but sent General Wayne to take command of the local forces in Georgia.

Georgia in 1782

When Wayne arrived in Georgia in January 1782, he only brought with him about 100 dragoons from the Pennsylvania line, along with a small detachment of field artillery.  He also had about 300 mounted South Carolina soldiers who had been fighting under General Sumter, as well as another 170 volunteers.

Anthony Wayne
The British force in and around Savannah was more than twice the size of Wayne’s force.  The British under General Alured Clarke.  His rank is questionable.  I’ve read some sources that say he was a brigadier by this time.  Others say he was still a lieutenant colonel.  It’s possible he held the temporary rank of brigadier in America.  It’s just not clear.  In any event, he was the ranking officer in charge of British troops in Savannah. 

The other real leader there was Royal Governor James Wright.  He had been governor since 1760 and had led the colony up until he was arrested in 1776 and had to flee to a British warship.  Wright returned to London where he lobbied for an invasion, which finally took place in December 1778.  By July 1779, Wright was back in Savannah.  He tried to retake control of the entire colony, but had been reduced to the area right around Savannah.

In addition to the 1200 or so regulars, the British also had around 500 loyalists, under the capable leadership of Thomas Burnfoot Brown, someone I’ve discussed many times in previous episodes.  Brown was probably the most dogged officer in fighting to keep Georgia British.  The British also had ongoing relations with the Creek Indians, whom they hoped might still come to their assistance.

Wayne found his Continental forces hopelessly outnumbered.  He hoped to raise an army of local militia, but found that almost impossible.  The patriot government in Augusta was proving completely useless.  The population was pretty sparse to begin with, and locals did not seem eager to volunteer for more military service.  Wayne also wrote to Greene in South Carolina, pleading for more soldiers, including his Pennsylvania line, which he had brought down from Virginia.  Greene rejected his requests, believing he needed all his soldiers to challenge the British garrison at Charleston.

Wayne tried to get creative. He convinced the patriot Governor John Martin, to issue an amnesty for any loyalist militia who would join the patriots.  That accomplished almost nothing.  Wayne reported one officer and 15 soldiers showed up for amnesty, but that was about it.

A Line of Siege

Lacking sufficient troops to attack Savannah, or even besiege it, Wayne had to satisfy himself with keeping the British bottled up in Savannah and cutting off communications with any loyalists still in other parts of the state, or the Creek Indian allies of the British.

Wayne spread out his men over more than 25 miles.  They would have been too thin to withstand any large sustained attack, but were able to prevent supplies or messages from passing easily between the British and the rest of the state.  Beyond that, he used his cavalry to raid the outskirts of Savannah to burn forage that might be of use to the enemy.

Wayne faced his first real conflict in February, when Creek and Choctaw warriors probed the Continental lines looking for a weak spot to break through and enter Savannah.  For several days, Indians would attack various points along the line, only to be driven back by stubborn enemy fire. Wayne was awake for days, riding up and down the lines to place reinforcements where needed and to encourage the men to hold their lines, neither advance nor retreat, but simply keep the enemy from getting through their lines.

Eventually the Indians attempted to deploy riflemen on both the right and left flanks of the American lines, while attacking in force at the center.. They hoped to stir enough confusion to punch a hole through the lines and get to Savannah.

Wayne’s scouts, however, detected the movements and attacked the Indians before they could get into position.  Wayne reported that he killed or captured a large number of Indians, as well as the supplies that they were attempting to bring to Savannah.  Perhaps a dozen Indians made it through the lines to Savannah, but most simply withdrew.  

Wayne treated the captive Indians well.  He tried to convince them that the war was essentially over.  The British in Savannah would not be there much longer.  Things would go worse for them if they did not make peace with the Americans before the war ended.  He eventually permitted many of his captives to return home and spread this message.

The British discovered that their Indian allies had been repulsed.  In response. Loyalist Colonel Thomas Burnfoot Brown led a force of loyalists and a few Indians out of Savannah to challenge the Continental lines.  The loyalists attacked with three companies of infantry and one company of cavalry, headed by a vanguard of Creek and Seminole warriors.

After receiving word of the enemy advance, General Wayne assembled a light core of his own, and marched four miles at night to set up an ambush.  Wayne’s Continentals hit the vanguard column of loyalists during their night march - shooting flares and attacking both sides of the column as they attempted to pass through a swamp. 

The surprised loyalists scattered after about five minutes of fighting.  Wayne ordered his men to run down the fleeing enemy and kill them. As the Americans were hacking the enemy with swords and bayonets, the main loyalist force charged forward to support its vanguard. The Americans appeared to be caught off guard.

Wayne, however, is prepared for this.  As the British advanced, a contingent of South Carolina militia cavalry led by Colonel Wade Hampton charged out of the woods.  The two sides collided, resulting in brutal hand to hand combat.  Men on horseback slashed at each other with their sabers.  The Continental infantry soon arrived brandishing bayonets.  Finally, Wayne personally led a final charge to break and scatter the enemy. By dawn the enemy survivors have fled the scene, leaving behind a field of the dead and dying.  

Struggling for Supplies

Following his victory in February, the Creek withdrew and the British and loyalists remained behind their defenses in Savannah.  

For the next few months, the lines remained pretty quiet.  The greatest challenge to Wayne’s army was deprivation.  He could not get any soldiers to join him. Wayne had been forced to leave his Pennsylvania Line in South Carolina. Since then, Greene had taken back some of the soldiers that had initially accompanied Wayne to Georgia.  He had managed to attract only about 90 Georgia militia to join his forces.  Greene also refused to provide ammunition or food.  Wayne was trying to keep his men from plundering the civilian population for food since they were trying to get their support.  The soldiers were struggling to feed and clothe themselves.

On top of all that, Wayne was suffering from an old leg wound that had never healed properly.  It caused him constant pain.  He also developed a hacking cough and a pain in his lungs that simply would not go away.  The cough caused a pain in his chest, the result of another earlier wound, to get worse.

Wayne attempted to get supplies from the main army in South Carolina, only to be told that his Georgia Army was on its own and had to find its own food.  Local farmers refused to sell anything in exchange for paper Continental dollars.  When Continental foragers took some supplies from a state depot, the civilian government complained that the Continentals were stealing their food.  Wayne’s response was a sort of sorry, not sorry letter that basically said he was sorry, that he had been under the mistaken impression that the people of Georgia wanted the army in their state to fight the enemy.

That spring was a particularly wet one, flooding swamps and making most roads nearly impassable.  Finally in May, the rains subsided and the land began to dry up a bit.  Life began to get a little more bearable.

Final Attack

Wayne went to sleep on the evening of May 24, the camp was woken shortly after midnight to Indian war whoops.  A group of Creek warriors scattered the Continental pickets and rushed into the camp.  Many of the Continentals panicked and ran into the woods.  Wayne quickly mounted his horse and called on his men to rally into formation.  He managed to form a line and led a charge into the enemy.

According to one account the Creek Chief Guristersijo rode out in front of his lines to confront General Wayne directly.  The two commanders, Guristersijo on a white horse, and Wayne astride his black stallion clashed.  Wayne slashed at the Chief, causing Guristersijo to fall off his horse. The Creek fired his rifle, causing Wayne’s horse to collapse.  With their chief dead, the Creek withdrew.  Wayne’s horse was dead, but he emerged from the fight largely unharmed.

At dawn the following morning, pickets reported a detachment of British infantry and cavalry approaching.  The British had hoped to coordinate an attack with their Creek allies.  Instead they found the Creek defeated and scattered.  The Continentals charged the enemy, forcing them to withdraw.  Wayne’s men chased the enemy column for several miles, back to the British lines at Savannah.  Although Wayne still did not have enough forces to overrun the entrenched lines, he allowed his cavalry to ride within sight of the British barricades.  They fired a volley as a reminder to stay behind their lines, then retire from the field.

A couple of days later, British General Clarke and Royal Governor Wright proposed to Wayne a cessation of hostilities as they awaited word of the peace negotiations taking place in France. General Leslie, who was in Charleston as the British commander of the southern armies, made a similar proposal to General Greene around this same time.  The American commanders did not agree to anything since peace negotiations were not really something military officers had the authority to discuss.  But it was clear that the British were ready to sit tight and wait rather than go on the offensive again.

Word also reached Leslie around this time that General Clinton in New York wanted to recall to New York about one-third of the 6000 soldiers in the south.  In response, Leslie suggested that Savannah be evacuated.  Before the leaders could decide on anything definitive, word reached Clinton that he was being sent home and that General Guy Carleton was taking command of all British forces in North America.

While awaiting further orders, the British in Savannah and the Continentals just outside the city essentially sat and watched each other for the entire month of June.  The British still outnumbered the Continentals, but clearly could not take any additional ground.  They knew the end was coming.  None of the British saw the need to become the last casualty in a lost cause.


Finally in July, orders arrived from General Carleton to abandon Savannah. With the orders came boats to move the armies and civilians to new locations.  Days before the evacuation, a loyalist contingent rode out under a flag of truce to ask for terms.  Wayne offered only that if they volunteered for service in the Continental army for at least two years, he would do his best to seek a civilian pardon for any past offenses, except murder.  It’s not clear if any accepted the terms.  Colonel Brown and the bulk of the loyalists, along with some Indians, prepared to leave the state with the rest of the British Army. 

The handover itself went pretty smoothly.  On July 10, the day before the British evacuation, Wayne issued orders to have the men dressed as respectable as they could, and issued orders that no one should enter the town ahead of the main army.  

The following day, July 11, the British garrison marched out of the city.  They moved to the south, boarding several boats to take them downriver to the Atlantic Ocean.  Most of the army moved to a temporary area around the lighthouse on Tybee Island.  They remained there for a little over a week.  Although General Carleton had provided ships for the evacuation, loading them took days. In addition to the armies, 2500 loyalist civilians and 4000 slaves were removed from Savannah.

On July 20, most of the regulars crammed aboard two sloops: the Zebra and the Vulture and left for the West Indies. The following day, Brown and the militia took another ship for St. Augustine.  Two days after that, the Hessians and the remainder of the garrison embarked on a ship that would stop in Charleston, then take them to New York.  

Departing with this last group was Royal Governor Wright.  He had served as Governor for 22 years.  As he left behind his governorship, he also had to abandon his 25,000 acres of plantations and many of his more than 500 slaves that he had accumulated over his decades of service.

On July 12, the day after the British left Savannah but were still in the area, preparing to board their ships, Lieutenant Colonel James Jackson led his Georgia militia into Savannah to take possession of the city.  The governor had made an agreement to allow loyalist merchants to remain in Savannah, providing a source of supplies for the population.  The loyalist merchants agreed to remain for at least six months, in exchange for pardons.  By all accounts, the return of Savannah to patriot control was without violence.  The following day, the Georgia Assembly met at Christ Church in Savannah for what was largely a symbolic session to reclaim full control of the state of Georgia.

General Wayne wrote to General Greene to inform him of the evacuation. Greene wanted Wayne to bring his soldiers to South Carolina right away, to step up the pressure on Charleston.  Greene was concerned that the Savannah garrison might be headed for Charleston, in hopes of once again going on the offensive.  Wayne was concerned about leaving before all the British had departed on their ships.  He was particularly concerned about reports that the loyalist Colonel Brown remained just a few miles away with 500 loyalist soldiers.  The last thing Wayne wanted was to march for South Carolina, only to have Brown’s loyalists sack Savannah and kidnap the civilian government.

By July 25, all British and loyalists were aboard ships, though many of them still remained just off the coast.  Colonel Jackson’s militia had moved out to Skidaway Island, just south of town, to observe the departing fleet.  The British fired on the militia from their boats, forcing the Americans to retreat inland. The cannons destroyed the buildings on Delegal’s plantation, where the militia had first set up their observation post.  Although most of the British ships carrying regulars had left, those carrying Colonel Brown and the loyalists remained. They landed once again on Skidaway Island.  Wayne had to bring his Continentals down to confront them.  

The loyalists were not ready to take on the Continental Army by themselves. They reboarded their boats and sailed about 6 miles south to Ossabow Island, still in Georgia.   They remained there for some time before withdrawing finally to St. Augustine.  The skirmishing on July 25 would mark the last battle of the war in Georgia.

Even so, the loyalists in Florida were not done.  A few weeks later, they returned on a row galley to Ossabow Island.  They burned a ship being built there, as well as a plantation belonging to John Morel.  They also seized 33 slaves and 2000 pounds on indigo.  This was the first of several coastal raids by loyalists that would continue for several years.

Continentals Depart

Even before the British evacuation, the Georgia Assembly had begun using a law they passed in early 1782, confiscating the property of loyalists.  Land auctions began to provide desperately needed revenue.  Part of this was used to provide a large plantation for General Wayne, as thanks for his liberation of the state.

Wayne and his Continentals, however, did not hang around long.  In August, he returned to South Carolina to return to his command of the Pennsylvania Line around Charleston.  Wayne, however, could not take an active command.  During his march to South Carolina, he picked up a bad case of malaria.  By the time he reached Greene’s camp near Charleston, he was near the point of collapse.  The disease left him bedridden for several months.

Next week, we follow the Continental Army back up to South Carolina, where General Greene must still contend with his efforts to recapture Charleston.

- - -

Next Episode 316 South Carolina Skirmishing (Available June 16, 2024)

Previous Episode 314 The Great Seal

 Contact me via email at

 Follow the podcast on Twitter @AmRevPodcast

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American Revolution Podcast is distributed 100% free of charge. If you can chip in to help defray my costs, I'd appreciate whatever you can give.  Make a one time donation through my PayPal account. You may also donate via Venmo (@Michael-Troy-20) or Zelle (send to

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You can support the American Revolution Podcast as a Patreon subscriber.  This is an option making monthly pledges.  Patreon support will give you access to Podcast extras and help make the podcast a sustainable project.

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Further Reading


Evacuation of Savannah

James Wright:

Lambert, Robert S. “The Flight of the Georgia Loyalists.” The Georgia Review, vol. 17, no. 4, 1963, pp. 435–48. JSTOR,

Lambert, Robert S. “The Confiscation of Loyalist Property in Georgia, 1782-1786.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 20, no. 1, 1963, pp. 80–94. JSTOR,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Coleman, Kenneth The American Revolution in Georgia, 1763-1789, Athens: Univ of Ga Press, 1958 (borrow only). 

Pennypacker, Samuel W. Anthony Wayne, Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co. 1908.  

Preston, John Hyde A Gentleman Rebel: Mad Anthony Wayne, Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing Co., Inc. 1930. 

Stillรฉ, Charles J. Major-General Anthony Wayne and the Pennsylvania line in the Continental Army, Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1893. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

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 Georgia, 1958 (borrow on 

Hall, Leslie, Land and Allegiance in Revolutionary Georgia, Univ. of Ga Press, 2001.  

Killion, Ronald G. Georgia and the Revolution Cherokee Publishing Co. 1975. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.