AUGUSTA, GEORGIA. 22 May-5 June 1781. As the main rebel army moved against Ninety-Six, Lieutenant Colonel Harry Lee was detached with his Legion and the newly raised North Carolina militia of Major Pinketham Eaton to support the thirteen hundred militia of General Andrew Pickens and Colonel Elijah Clarke besieging Augusta since 16 April. Colonel Thomas Brown, with 330 Loyalist militia and 300 Creek Indians, were holding Fort Cornwallis on the northwest side of the town, 150 yards from the Savannah River, and the smaller post about half a mile west that was called Fort Grierson. In about the middle of May, Clarke had resumed command of the Georgia militia around Augusta, and a detachment of mountaineers under Isaac Shelby and Georgia troops under Patrick Carr had been sent by him to block a Loyalist relief column; at Walker's Bridge, on Briar Creek, Shelby and Carr stopped and drove back a Loyalist relief force. This and other little successes encouraged Clarke to believe that Augusta could be taken by assault, and it was at this stage that General Nathanael Greene ordered Pickens and Lee to undertake this operation. Lee's capture of Fort Galphin on 21 May was an important preliminary action that deprived Brown of a considerable body of reserves (two Loyalist companies) and supplies.
Lee's cavalry, under Major Egleston, were the first to join the militia around Augusta. Egleston informed Brown that strong reinforcements were on the way from Greene's army and summoned the Loyalist commander to surrender; Brown refused. Lee's main body arrived on the morning of 23 May, and the rebels immediately surrounded Lieutenant Colonel James Grierson's fort, attacked from three sides, and captured it with little difficulty. When the eighty defenders tried to fight their way half a mile east to Fort Cornwallis, they were overwhelmed and brutally chopped up: thirty were killed and almost all the others wounded and captured. Captain Samuel Alexander of the Georgia militia murdered Grierson after he surrendered. Among the few rebel casualties at Fort Grierson was Major Eaton. An attempt by Brown to make a sortie in support of Grierson was checked by Lee.
Fort Cornwallis was a harder nut to crack. The only available artillery was a little three-pounder from Lee's Legion and an old iron five-pounder that Clarke had picked up. One of the two guns captured from Fort Grierson was later brought into action. Meanwhile, Lee and Pickens had to undertake regular approaches. On Lee's suggestion a Maham Tower was started. Brown tried to drive the builders off with fire from his two heaviest guns, and he launched two determined but unsuccessful sorties. He then secretly moved powder into a frame house that stood between the fort and the tower. But the house was prematurely blown up by the defenders without damage either to the tower or to the rebel troops.
On 31 May, Brown refused a second summons to surrender. That night a captured six-pounder from Fort Grierson was mounted in the tower, and the next morning the rebels started an effective cannon and small arms fire from it, the six-pounder knocking the two Loyalist cannon out of commission.
On 4 June the attackers were formed for the final assault when Brown agreed to consider a conditional surrender. After a day of negotiations the Loyalists laid down their arms and were marched off under Continental guard to be paroled in Savannah. A strong guard of regulars had to protect Brown from Grierson's fate. Lee marched with the prisoners to Ninety Six. Pickens followed later, but was then sent with Lee's cavalry to oppose the relief column led by General Francis Rawdon to Ninety Six.
The rebels lost about forty men during the siege. Fifty-two Loyalists were killed and 334 captured.
revised by Michael Bellesiles