The British had captured Savannah at the end of 1778. Although they briefly retook control of most of the lightly populated state, the Continentals and militia quickly forced them back into a small area around Savannah. We last left the two southern armies in Episode 223, when the Americans attacked the British rearguard at Stono Ferry, only to be repulsed.
General Washington saw the British occupation of Savannah as a threat to the southern states, most particularly the largest town in the region: Charleston, South Carolina, where the British had almost succeeded in a rather small and ill-conceived attack on the city. Washington personally kept his primary attention on New York City, which he still saw as the key to winning the war. Washington had lost the city in 1776, and probably also saw it as a personal point of honor to win it back militarily. Even so, there was no serious chance of retaking New York, even after the British draw-down there, until he could get some naval support. Since that was not going to happen anytime soon, Washington did what he could to support General Benjamin Lincoln in his efforts to recapture Savannah.
|Attack on Savannah|
Washington also allowed Brigadier General Lachlan McIntosh to return from duty in western Pennsylvania to resume a command in Georgia. McIntosh had left the south in 1777, after killing Georgia President Button Gwinnett in a duel. McIntosh was eager to get back to his home state of Georgia and joined up with Lincoln as soon as he could.
With the reinforcements, General Lincoln had about 7000 men under his command, more than double the 3000 or so British soldiers in or near Savannah. However, the majority of these soldiers were militia. Lincoln was reluctant to try to get militia to storm well-entrenched British regulars. General Lincoln to get some support from the French.
For months, Washington had been badgering French Minister Conrad Gerard, hoping to get the French fleet under Admiral d’Estaing to support an attack on New York, or barring that, to support the southern army in an attack on Savannah. Since the French fleet had arrived in the summer of 1778, it had proven to be not very helpful, passing up an attack on New York, pulling out of an attack on Newport, Rhode Island, then spending the winter in Boston getting repairs to the fleet before leaving the continent for the West Indies.
Admiral d’Estaing, of course, had received more reinforcements and had taken the islands of St. Vincent and Granada in the early summer of 1779 (see, Episode 224). By late summer, d’Estaing was looking to pull much of his fleet out of the West Indies, before hurricane season hit and posed a threat to his fleet.
In late August, a substantial French fleet, which included more than 20 ships of the line and over 4000 French soldiers, left the West Indies for the Georgia coast. d'Estaing sent a ship to Charleston to let the Americans know that he was ready to participate in a joint attack on Savannah. Almost immediately, General Lincoln set out from Charleston with 1000 of his best soldiers to launch the cooperative effort to recapture Savannah. He also called on General McIntosh, by this time in command of American troops at Augusta, to raise as many men as he could for the attack on Savannah.
The Fleet Arrives
The arrival of the French fleet caught the British by surprise. The French captured the British 50-gun ship Experiment, and the 24-gun ship the Ariel, as well as several supply ships off the Georgia coast. Aboard one of the captured ships was Brigadier General George Garth, on his way to succeed General Augustine Prevost as military commander. The captured ship also held £30,000 for the Savannah garrison’s payroll.
Over the next few days, the French took several small islands near the mouth of the Savannah River, and drove British pickets back into the city. On September 12, d’Estaing made contact with Continental General Casimir Pulaski, who had moved to Savannah as part of the army under General McIntosh from Augusta. Pulaski informed d’Estaing that they were still awaiting the arrival of the main army under General Lincoln, who were still marching to Savannah from Charleston.
Lincoln’s force had made it to Purrysburg, South Carolina, right on the Savannah River and about 15 miles north of Savannah. He began moving his soldiers and equipment across the river, but did not want to proceed toward the city until he received word that the French had arrived. Lincoln had not received any word about the French fleet since he had left Charleston, where he had only received a rather vague assurance that the French were going to move against Savannah. Lincoln was concerned about moving back into Georgia if the French fleet had not arrived as promised and disembarked its army on the other side of Savannah. Otherwise, the British might attack his inferior force and defeat it before the French were ready to go.
So, at this point, the Americans were awaiting word of the arrival of French forces, while the French were awaiting word of the arrival of American forces. During this time, Admiral d’Estaing sent a messenger to British General Augustine Prevost at Savannah, calling on him to surrender to French forces. General Prevost asked for a day to consider his position, which d’Estaing granted, since he was awaiting the Americans under Lincoln anyway.
In fact, Prevost had no intention of surrendering. He had a force of about 2500 men in Savannah, who were pretty well entrenched and supported by cannons. He had sunk a damaged British frigate, the Rose, along with several smaller ships, in the Savannah River at a point where it narrowed. This created an obstruction that would prevent the French from sailing their fleet up to the city. Prevost also removed cannons from several ships that had made it back to Savannah and used the artillery from those ships to bolster his defenses against a land attack. In addition to his combat troops, Prevost had more than a thousand escaped slaves who had been doing whatever they could to support their British liberators. Although Prevost would not use these men in combat, he did put them to work constructing even stronger fortifications in and around the city.
The following day, Colonel Maitland’s reinforcements arrived. Maitland’s march to Savannah was pretty impressive by itself. His British outpost could not sail down the coast due to the presence of the French Navy. It could not march overland because of the Continentals. Instead, Maitland moved his force quietly over a series of coastal islands, marching his men through swamps, with many of them, including Maitland himself, sick with malaria. After several days, the force managed to reach Savannah.
With the arrival of Maitland’s reinforcements, Prevost informed d’Estaing that - thanks for the offer, but the British force did not intend to surrender without a fight. The French were going to have to take the city from them.
Prevost had received the time he needed to put in place the defenses as best he could. He had consolidated his force in and around Savannah. His engineers created two concentric lines, with each flank against the Savannah river. The British had placed artillery, constructed abatis and earthen defenses, and blocked the river. Although the French and Americans outnumbered the British force of just over 3000 soldiers, Prevost’s men had good defensive positions, and held out hope that a British relief fleet from the West Indies would break the siege.
The Siege Begins
Several hours after d’Estaing sent his surrender demand to Prevost, Lincoln’s army arrived at Savannah. Lincoln and d’Estaing met that afternoon to discuss a plan of attack. But first, there was a minor tiff. Lincoln was upset because d’Estaing’s surrender demand had called on the British to surrender to the French forces outside the city, not to the combined French and American forces. Many Americans took this as a slight against American honor. d’Estaing might have responded by saying that maybe if the Continentals had actually shown up by the time he might have issues his request, he might have had cause to call for surrender to both armies. But he was more diplomatic than that, and simply said it was an oversight and that any further communications would reference both the French and American forces.
Given the state of British defenses, the allies opted for a traditional siege. After the battle, several British officers noted that, had the French stormed the city immediately following the fleet’s arrival, they probably would have been successful in taking the city. The British defenses were not ready, and the defenders simply did not have the numbers. But with the arrival of Maitland’s reinforcements, and several days to construct better defenses, storming the city seemed like a dangerous strategy. Even if it had been successful, it would have been a costly victory.
With the British having effectively blocked the river, d’Estaing could not bring his fleet to bear on Savannah. Instead, he opted to bring his army and artillery overland for a siege of the town from the southwest. The British would have their backs against the river and could be reduced over time. It took more than a week to get the artillery in place. Lack of horses and carts, rainy weather, and difficult terrain made the effort difficult and time-consuming. The American forces under Lincoln moved their forces down toward Savannah, taking positions alongside the French. The American also kept patrols on the other side of the river, to prevent any more loyalist reinforcements from joining the British.
By September 23, the French and American had gotten their first cannons in place and began to dig their first line of entrenchments. When the British saw the enemy beginning to dig in, they launched an attack against the French entrenchments. The French repulsed the attack and began to pursue the retreating attackers. This drew the French soldiers out of their trenches, and subjected them to British artillery fire. They took several dozen casualties before retreating back into their own entrenchments.
|Map of Savannah Battlefield|
It took another week and a half for the first line of entrenchments and cannon placement to be complete, so that the artillery attack did not begin until the night of October 3. American and French cannons began their attack, mostly hitting homes inside Savannah, not doing much damage to the enemy defenses.
As seemed to be the norm in these operations, the French and Americans did not get along. General Lincoln found d’Estaing arrogant and unwilling to communicate everything that was happening. The Admiral found the American forces of mostly local militia to be disorganized and ill-disciplined, and simply did not trust them to be effective in combat.
As the main siege was still being constructed, the Americans came across a small fleet of mostly loyalists trying to join the British defenses. General Pulaski’s cavalry captured a portion of them, but there was still a fleet of five ships with about 140 loyalists and regulars aboard. Most of the ships were armed with cannons, and could not be taken by local land forces.
Colonel John White of the Georgia militia had only one other officer and three soldiers with him, but he decided to bluff. Overnight, he had his men build a series of campfires and make as much noise as possible giving the impression that he had a force of hundreds of men. The next morning, he sent a messenger out to the loyalist fleet demanding their surrender. The British force agreed. White had them come ashore, unarmed. He told them he was keeping his men at bay because many of them wanted to massacre the loyalists. He brought out his three soldiers and said that they would serve as guides to bring the prisoners to the main army, where they would be held and guaranteed protection as prisoners of war. The bluff worked, and the five men took 141 prisoners.
The artillery attack continued for about a week. With the British defenses set up to resist artillery, most of the damage fell on the town, killing a few soldiers but also several civilians. The attacks also started several fires, which threatened to destroy the city. General Prevost sent a request to remove women and children from the British army out of the city, but because he had refused to allow Continental General Lachlan McIntosh’s wife to leave along with them, the request was denied.
Storming the City
Under a traditional 18th century siege, the attackers would dig a series of zig zag lines, moving ever closer to the defenses while maintaining artillery fire. Eventually, the cannons would be so close that the enemy would have to surrender or be destroyed. It is usually the safest way for a larger force to oust an entrenched enemy.
|Assault on Springhill Redoubt|
No longer willing to wait, d’Estaing decided to launch a pre-dawn attack on the morning of October 9. Two French columns would lead an assault against the center of the British line with a third column held in reserve. A small force of American militia under General Isaac Huger would attack on the right as a feint. A larger American force led by General Lachlan McIntosh and Colonel John Laurens would attack on the left.
The attack, however, did not go as planned. An American deserter crossed over to the enemy and revealed the entire plan of attack. The American and French forces began to deploy around midnight, but due to weather and other problems, were not in position until after dawn. A heavy fog had made movement particularly difficult.
When the assault did begin the defenders were prepared. The loyalist militia that had garrisoned the primary target, the Springhill redoubt, had been replaced by some of the best British regulars. The defenders ignored the feint attacks and focused on the primary assault. The rising sun dispelled the fog, revealing the attackers in open field, where they could be cut down by British infantry and artillery.
Admiral d’Estaing personally led the attack and suffered two battle wounds. The French line began to falter under heavy fire and started to withdraw. A regiment of French soldiers of African descent, raised on the French island that is today Haiti, fought with notable ferocity and bravery at this battle, taking considerable casualties.
|Casimir Pulaski, hit in battle|
The actual fighting only lasted for about an hour, but it was intense and devastating. The French and Americans lost about 1000 killed or wounded. The British reported suffering only about 150 casualties.
After the battle, the attackers called for a truce to gather their dead and wounded. Prevost permitted the truce. General Pulaski was taken to a nearby hospital ship. He never regained consciousness and died from his wounds after two days.
General Lincoln wanted to continue the siege. Officials from South Carolina requested that the French come to Charleston. However, d’Estaing would not remain. After burying his dead and tending to his wounded, the Admiral put his men and artillery back aboard ship and returned to the French islands in the West Indies. The French fleet had originally planned to sail north where Washington hoped to cooperate in an assault on New York. After the loss at Savannah, d’Estaing determined that his army was in no condition to continue the campaign.
Unlike the departure at Newport, Rhode Island a year earlier, the French departure did not cause American bitterness. The French had fought a bloody battle in the field. While the Americans would have preferred to continue the siege, they understood why the French would not.
With the French departure, General Lincoln withdrew his army to the north, across the Savannah River, and into South Carolina. He returned to Charleston, where he attempted to raise another army, once again encouraging local leaders to raise several regiments of slaves, only to have such proposals, once again, rejected by State leaders.
Southern loyalists were encouraged by the fact that Britain managed to hold Savannah against a combined allied attack. Loyalist recruitment picked up. Both sides expected a new British offensive against Charleston in the coming months.
Next week, radicals in Philadelphia attack moderate patriot political leaders culminating in what became known as the battle of Fort Wilson.
- - -
Next Episode 235 Fort Wilson (Available Jan. 23, 2022)
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“To John Jay from Benjamin Lincoln, 5 September 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jay/01-01-02-0400
Siege of Savannah, parts 1 and 2:
Smith, Gordon. "Siege of Savannah." New Georgia Encyclopedia https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/siege-of-savannah
Davis, Robert S. “Black Haitian Soldiers at the Siege of Savannah” Journal of the American Revolution, Feb. 22, 2021. https://allthingsliberty.com/2021/02/black-haitian-soldiers-at-the-siege-of-savannah
“From George Washington to Major General Benjamin Lincoln, 26 October 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-23-02-0048
“To George Washington from Major General Benjamin Lincoln, 7 November 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-23-02-0179
(from archive.org unless noted)
Hough, Franklin B. The Siege of Savannah, Albany, NY: J. Munsell, 1866.
Jones, Charles C. The Siege of Savannah, in 1779, Albany, NY: J. Munsell, 1874.
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.
Steward, T. G. How the black St. Domingo legion saved the patriot army in the siege of Savannah, 1779, Washington, DC: The Academy, 1899.
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.
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.
Russell, David Lee. The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies. McFarland & Company, 2000.
Ward, Christopher The War of the Revolution, Macmillan Company, 1952.
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.