Last week we looked at some of the British efforts to expand on the capture of Savannah by sending an expedition to Port Royal Island, in South Carolina, and to set up a loyalist recruitment center in Augusta, Georgia. The Port Royal expedition failed to secure the island, and the British only remained in Augusta for several weeks before withdrawing.
British At Augusta
The British under Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell left Augusta on February 14, 1779, the same day as the battle of Kettle Creek. Campbell had already issued the orders to withdraw the day before, so the loss at Kettle Creek had nothing to do with his decision. Rather, it had to do with the arrival of more patriot militia reinforcements at Purrysburg.
|Brier Creek, Georgia|
For several weeks, that was not a concern, because the Americans did not have enough men. General Lincoln had about 350 Continental soldiers at Purrysburg, along with about 1000 militia from Georgia and South Carolina. The bulk of the militia was from South Carolina and by all accounts was poorly organized. Lincoln was concerned about having to use them in battle. Also, many of the South Carolina militia refused to cross into Georgia. As they had with Lincoln’s predecessor, General Robert Howe, the South Carolina militia officers refused to take orders from the Continental commander. Continental General William Moultrie, from South Carolina himself, wrote in one report that the South Carolina militia were “worse than nothing, as they absolutely refuse Gen. Lincoln’s orders.”
The situation changed on January 29, when General Lincoln received the first of his requested reinforcements, more than 1100 North Carolina militia under the command of General John Ashe. Lincoln ordered Ashe to join South Carolina General Andrew Williamson who had a smaller force of militia just across the Savannah River from Augusta. It was after Ashe’s reinforcements appeared across the river from Augusta, that British Colonel Campbell decided to evacuate the city.
I mentioned Andrew Williamson back in Episode 191 when then-Colonel Williamson had commanded the South Carolina militia that participated in the effort with Continental General Robert Howe to invade British-controlled East Florida. Williamson had refused to take orders from Howe, or even cooperate effectively with him, leading to the American loss at Alligator Bridge and the failure of the expedition.
Williamson was a Scottish immigrant who had settled on the western frontier of the South Carolina colony as a young man. By 1760, he was a lieutenant in the South Carolina militia, and served in the campaign against the Cherokee that I discussed way back in Episode 15. William established his plantation in the backcountry, a few miles from Fort Ninety-Six. By the time the Revolution began, he was a militia major and a committed patriot. He was elected to the provincial congress for the colony. In 1775 he was a key officer in the suppression of loyalist organizing in the western part of South Carolina, in the fighting that I discussed back in Episode 77. The following year, Williamson received promotion to colonel for the campaign to crush another Cherokee uprising that threatened the newly declared independent state of South Carolina (see Episode 102).
In 1778 South Carolina had promoted Williamson to brigadier general and sent him to fight with Continental General Howe in the expedition against Florida. After the British captured Savannah, Williamson assembled his army and coordinated defensive efforts with General Lincoln.
Joining General Williamson in the effort to challenge British control of Augusta, was North Carolina Militia General John Ashe.
Ashe was the son of a wealthy lawyer who had immigrated to the Cape Fear region of North Carolina many decades before. Ashe was born into a powerful and influential family within the colony. His father served as Speaker of the colonial assembly and owned a large plantation, but died when John was still a child.
In the pre-war era, Ashe established a reputation as a committed patriot. He served in the provincial congress for North Carolina, and sat on the committees of safety and correspondence. He resigned his commission as a colonel of the royal colonial militia and took a position in the patriot militia at the same rank.
In 1775, Colonel Ashe led the patriot capture of Fort Johnson, which I discussed back in Episode 69. He had raised the regiment at his own expense, promising his plantation as a personal guarantee of pay for his soldiers. The following year, Ashe received appointment as brigadier general. Ashe had to establish defenses at Cape Fear in 1776 when the British briefly threatened to land there, and also helped to crush the loyalists that ended with the battle at Moore’s Creek Bridge.
The next couple of years were relatively uneventful for North Carolina. In late 1778, South Carolina promoted Ashe to be the first major general of militia in the State. After the British captured Savannah a month later, and General Lincoln sent out a call for support, Governor Richard Caswell ordered Ashe to lead his militia army to assist General Lincoln.
When General Ashe arrived in Purrysburg with his army at the end of January, General Lincoln judged that his North Carolina militia was far better organized and disciplined than the South Carolina militia that had been his main reinforcement up until that time. Lincoln ordered Ashe to join General Williamson up by Augusta.
Apparently Ashe was a bit miffed by these orders. His men had just marched 400 miles and were lacking equipment. Lincoln was ordering Ashe on another 120 mile march with little rest and few supplies. Given that the South Carolina forces were better rested and supplied, it seemed rather unfair to give this assignment to his North Carolina army. Even so, Ashe complied with the orders and spent the better part of the next two weeks marching to meet up with Williamson.
Ashe’s North Carolina militia, along with some other soldiers who had joined them at Purrysburg, arrived just across the river from British-occupied Augusta on February 13. When combined with General Williamson’s forces the total enemy force facing the British probably totaled about 2400 or 2500 men. British Colonel Campbell observed the combined militia army, which he guess was more than three times the size of his 1000 man garrison, and opted to evacuate the following morning.
The British tried to put their best face on the evacuation. They characterized it as a raid which had resulted in the acquisition of supplies and the recruitment of several hundred loyalist militia. But based on their hopes at the time they occupied Augusta, it had to be seen as a failure. The British had hoped that thousands of loyalists would take up arms on behalf of the King and establish an army that would not only pacify all of the Georgia backcountry, but would provide the soldiers needed to invade South Carolina. Instead, British authority would be limited to a small region around Savannah.
Colonel Campbell marched his regulars and militia back toward Savannah, marching for nearly two weeks before establishing a camp in Ebenezer, just over 20 miles north of Savannah and about 10 north of the main American force at Purrysburg, just across the river in South Carolina. Along the way, he acquired the 270 men who had escaped from the battle of Kettle Creek that I discussed last week. While the men were too few and too late to change anything strategically, Campbell formed them into the Royal Regiment of North Carolina and added them to his army.
After the evacuation of Augusta, General Williamson’s South Carolina militia immediately occupied the town and set about exacting punishments on any loyalists or loyalist property that belonged to men who backed Campbell while the British were in Augusta. He made sure all loyalist outposts that had been established were eliminated, and that the locals who were still there were either arrested for collaboration, or swore an oath of loyalty to the patriot cause.
General Ashe followed orders to pursue Campbell’s retreating army. Ashe’s militia pursued, but not very aggressively. Remember, the North Carolina militia had just marched four hundred miles to join with Lincoln, then marched over one hundred miles up to Augusta, and now were marching another hundred miles down the South Carolina bank of the Savannah River in pursuit of the British. These were also militia, many of whom were not combat experienced. Even General Ashe had not seen combat in over two years.
There is no record of combat harassing fire as both armies marched southward. The North Carolina militia stopped at Brier Creek because the British had burned the main bridge over the creek. The militia spent several days in camp while they rebuilt the bridge.
Campbell had only suffered one death of a regular soldier during his occupation of Augusta. But the death was one that greatly upset many British soldiers.
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For the British this breach of protocol, murdering a soldier assigned to protect the home and family of an American officer, was a crime. Campbell protested the killing to General Williamson. In response, Williamson said that he would send the men to General Lincoln to determine whether punishment was appropriate. Lincoln declined to take any action. Some have speculated that Lincoln’s decision not to punish the murderers was out of fear that it might lead to much of the rest of the South Carolina militia deserting and going home.
MacAlister had apparently been a popular soldier in his regiment, and his murder did not go over well. The cry “remember poor MacAlister” would be used in several later battles and skirmishes to encourage the regulars to kill the enemy without mercy.
Once Colonel Campbell reached Ebenezer, he turned over command to Lieutenant Colonel Mark Prévost and headed back to Savannah on his own. A few days later, he boarded a ship for London. Campbell had been in American for three years, most of them as a prisoner of war. His personal finances back in Britain had become a mess. He also wanted to get married.
Before Campbell left, he had worked with Colonel Prévost to develop a plan of attack against the Americans at Brier Creek. Prévost was the younger brother of General Augustine Prévost who was in overall command at Savannah. He assumed command of the detachment at Ebenezer. With the main American force under General Lincoln at Purrysburg, General Williamson’s militia in and around Augusta, and Ashe’s militia army at Brier Creek, the British were finding themselves increasingly hemmed in. They relied on the backcountry to provide their army with food and supplies. Cut off from that region, the British would have to rely on ships from Florida, which were probably not going to be numerous enough to keep the army fed.
The withdrawal from Augusta and the loss of the loyalist militia at Kettle Creek did nothing to encourage the locals to have faith that the British were in control of Georgia. Most Georgians outside of Savannah had more to fear from patriot reprisals if they cooperated with the British in any way.
On March 1, the British sent a force of about 500 men to take a position about 3 miles south of the Americans as Brier Creek. That night, Prévost took a larger force, plus five pieces of field artillery, to march around to the west out of sight and get north of the Americans at Brier Creek.
It took Prévost until the morning of March 3 to get his soldiers into position. The Americans were watching the 500 enemy soldiers to their south, and were not aware that a larger force was descending on them from the north. General Ashe apparently had received some reports, but assumed the enemies to the north were smaller raiding parties.
On the afternoon of March 3, Ashe received reports that the enemy was just minutes away from entering his camp. A portion of his men had been deployed to the south to monitor the enemy force that was meant to distract him. Ashe formed up the 900 or so men in his main camp to form a defensive line. But again, these were relatively untrained and inexperienced militia. They also had a wide variety of muskets, meaning that the deployment of ammunition was a source of confusion.
The British force under Prévost advanced on the American line. The American center, which had the few Continental soldiers, supplemented by Georgia militia, advanced as well to close the gap between the two firing armies. The North Carolina militia on both the right and left flanks did not advance, leading to large gaps in the American lines.
Prévost saw these gaps, ordered his regulars to fix bayonets and charge. Many of the North Carolina militia fled into the swamps without firing a shot. The American center held for a couple of volleys, but were soon overwhelmed and either surrendered or fled. Most of the Continentals were killed or taken prisoner.
General Ashe fled after his militia, abandoning the field. Hearing gunfire, about 200 American reinforcements returned to the camp from duty repairing a bridge. Seeing the Americans being routed, they also fled the field without firing a shot.
The total number of American casualties is unknown. The British reported killing at least 150 and capturing 227 prisoners. Since most of the militia fled into the swamps, more may have drowned while trying to escape. Of the 1700 men that General Ashe had under his command on the morning of March 3, only about 450 managed to make it back to the main American forces. Most likely, the vast majority of missing were militia who just continued running until they got back home in North Carolina. The British only reported five killed and eleven wounded.
The British victory at Brier Creek ended any American hopes of recapturing Savannah and pushing the British back into Florida. The American momentum, from the victory at Kettle Creek and recapturing Augusta, quickly reversed in favor of the British.
Just before the battle, General Prévost was worried about an American attack on Savannah and desperately struggling to build defenses around the town as quickly as possible. After the American loss at Brier Creek, the British, once again, moved north. Although they did not occupy Augusta again, they did move a force to within 40 miles of Augusta, once again giving the British better access to the Georgia backcountry. The Americans in Augusta pulled back into South Carolina, once again ceding the state to British control. General Lincoln again consolidated all of his forces around Purrysburg of fear that another isolated division could be subject to a British attack.
Colonel Campbell had been appointed governor of the royal colony of Georgia. Colonel Mark Prévost served as lieutenant governor. When Campbell left for London within days of the battle of Brier Creek, Colonel Prévost became the chief executive of the royal government in Georgia. Working with his brother General Prévost as military commander, the two men attempted to restore order and colonial status to Georgia. The men hoped to get more reinforcements to begin a new offensive into South Carolina. While they did not have the numbers to do that yet, British leaders declared that Georgia was the first State to return to British colonial control.
Even under British control, however, the British were unable to get many more Georgians to join their loyalist militia. Rural Georgians saw what happened to the loyalists massacred at Kettle Creek and the British willingness to abandon them to the patriots when it was militarily convenient, as they had done by evacuating Augusta. Locals could not be assured that there would not be another reversal that would put them in danger of retribution by the patriots. As such, Georgia loyalists never enlisted in anywhere near the numbers that the British leaders had hoped.
General Ashe managed to return to Purrysburg with a few of his soldiers. He would be court martialed for cowardice, but acquitted on that charge. He was, however, found guilty of failing to establish adequate defenses for this camp at Brier Creek. He continued to serve as commander of the South Carolina militia. Most of the militia saw their enlistments end within a month of the loss at Brier Creek. They were in no mood to sign on for any extended stays, regardless of any promises of increased pay or other benefits. They had lost faith in their military commanders and simply wanted to go home. General Ashe also returned to North Carolina, where he resumed his other primary duty as State Treasurer. General Lincoln was left in command a much smaller army that was in no condition to go on the offensive.
Next week, Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens propose freeing slaves and arming them to serve in the Continental Army.
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Battle of Briar Creek: https://revolutionarywar.us/year-1779/battle-briar-creek
Battle of Briar Creek: https://www.myrevolutionarywar.com/battles/790304-briar-creek
Henry, William An Unfortunate Affair: The Battle of Brier Creek and the Aftermath in Georgia, Georgia Southern University, 2021: https://digitalcommons.georgiasouthern.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1914&context=etd
Ashmore, Otis, and Charles H. Olmstead. “The Battles of Kettle Creek and Brier Creek” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 10, no. 2, 1926, pp. 85–125. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40575848
Heidler, David S. “The American Defeat at Briar Creek, 3 March 1779.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 66, no. 3, 1982, pp. 317–331. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40580932
Cox, William E. “Brigadier-General John Ashe’s Defeat in the Battle of Brier Creek.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 57, no. 2, 1973, pp. 295–302. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40579524
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
Univ. of Georgia Charrette: Report on the Battle of Brier Creek (PDF): https://ced.uga.edu/pso/charrettes/images/FinalCharretteReport-WEB_BrierCreek2015_JMlewis08312016.pdf
(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.
Russell, David Lee. The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies. McFarland & Company, 2000.
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.