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.

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

Previous Episode 314 The Great Seal

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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. 

Stillé, 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.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent pod. I am a Hx of State of GA teacher and love AmRev. The island is pronounced Oss-a- baw.
    Thank you for your great work,