SAVANNAH, GEORGIA. 9 October 1779. Franco-American fiasco. After the British capture of Savannah, Georgia, on 29 December, 1778, and subsequent actions that occurred in the southern theater, both sides suspended operations during the intensely hot and unhealthful summer months. Charleston, South Carolina, was still in American hands, but the British held Savannah and several outposts. Sir James Wright returned from England on 20 July to resume his post as royal governor in Savannah, where General Augustine Prevost, military commander in the south, also had his headquarters. The town was garrisoned by about 2,400 troops, a large percentage of whom were Loyalists.
WAITING FOR D'ESTAING
Admiral-General Count Charles-Hector Théodat d'Estaing had sailed to the West Indies after the disappointing allied effort against Newport in August 1778. He had discretionary orders to aid the rebels if circumstances permitted, and had promised to return in May 1779. British and American commanders in North America were therefore anxiously anticipating his reappearance, although they had no idea where he might appear. From Charleston, General Benjamin Lincoln and the French council appealed for d'Estaing's assistance, and although Commander in Chief George Washington had plans for combined operations in the north, the independent Frenchman decided to strike the British in the south.
Sending five ships ahead to notify Charleston of his coming, d'Estaing followed with thirty-three warships (totaling more than 2,000 guns) and transports bearing over 4,000 troops. His appearance off the Georgia coast on 4 September was so unexpected that he easily captured the fifty-gun Experiment, the frigate Ariel, and two store ships. He also captured Brigadier General George Garth, on his way to succeed Prevost as military commander, and £30,000 for the Savannah garrison's payroll. When news of d'Estaing's return reached New York City on 8 October, there was much consternation as to where the French would strike. General Charles Cornwallis was just about to leave with 4,000 men for the defense of Jamaica. His departure was stopped, and Sir Henry Clinton evacuated the British garrison from Rhode Island to New York. While Clinton waited and worried about Georgia, Washington was hoping for reports of French sails off Sandy Hook.
When the French fleet disappeared the evening of 4 September, Prevost hoped he was safe from attack. He sent his chief engineer, Captain James Moncrieff, with 100 infantry to reinforce the outpost on Tybee Island, in the mouth of the Savannah River. But the French reappeared on the 6th, and three days later started landing troops on the south side of the island. Moncrieff spiked his guns and withdrew. British ships moved into the river, and six of them were sunk to bar the channel. Lieutenant Colonel John Cruger was ordered to bring his battalion back to Savannah from Fort Sunbury, and Lieutenant Colonel John Maitland was ordered to bring his 800 men back from Beaufort on Port Royal Island.
While his fleet blockaded the coast, d'Estaing started landing troops on 12 September at Beaulieu, a point some fourteen miles south of Savannah. When he had gotten ashore with 1,500 men, bad weather set in and he was left in this vulnerable situation for several days, until the rest of his landing force and the supplies could join him. The next morning, advance American units under General Lachlan McIntosh and General Casimir Pulaski met with d'Estaing and advised him that the main body of Continental forces were still on their way from Charleston.
THE RUN-UP TO BATTLE
General Lincoln and his army had still not arrived by the morning of 16 September. General McIntosh advised d'Estaing attack Savannah immediately, as the British were still preparing their defenses. However, the French artillery had not yet landed, so d'Estaing instead called on Prevost to surrender. Playing for time, Prevost requested and was granted twenty-four hours to consider. During this truce Maitland reached Savannah with his troops from Beaufort, after a remarkable movement through swamps and streams to elude the French blockade and the American forces on the mainland. Since Cruger had already arrived from Sunbury, Prevost now had 3,200 regulars, plus a considerable number of Loyalists and slaves who would be useful in the defense. Prevost sent word he would fight.
Lincoln joined d'Estaing the evening of 16 September, swelling the American ranks to 1,500 (600 Continentals, Pulaski's 200 cavalry, and 750 militia). Unfortunately for the allies, there was a notable coolness between d'Estaing and Lincoln which undermined coordination. Lincoln was furious that d'Estaing had granted Prevost a 24-hour truce, giving the British time to finish their defensive perimeter. The French commander in turn treated Lincoln with cold contempt, failing to keep him informed of French intentions. Continental officers found the French arrogant, while their French counterparts were particularly unimpressed with the militia, who were untrained, poorly armed, and had a habit of fleeing in the face of the enemy.
Although many Continental officers hoped for an immediate assault on Savannah, d'Estaing decided—apparently with Lincoln's agreement—to undertake a siege. Since guns and supplies had to be hauled fourteen miles from the landing site, and heavy rains delayed operations, regular approaches were not started until the night of 23-24 September, and the bombardment did not begin until the night of 3-4 October. Meanwhile, d'Estaing was under pressure from his naval captains to abandon the expedition. The fleet was in need of repairs, the hurricane season was approaching, they were vulnerable to attack by the British fleet, and their men were dying of scurvy at the rate of thirty-five men each day. D'Estaing had agreed to stay ashore only ten or fifteen days, which his engineers said would be enough time to capture the city. But when ten days had elapsed and his engineers estimated they would need ten more, he refused to delay further. After a council of war on 8 October, d'Estaing ordered an attack to be made the next day at dawn.
With the excellent engineering services of James Moncrieff, Prevost had constructed a line of field fortifications in a rough half-circle to cover the land approaches to Savannah. The five-day bombardment had damaged many of the 430 houses in the town and had inflicted casualties among noncombatants, but the earthworks were virtually unscathed. Prevost realized that the right half of his line was the most vulnerable, and organized his defenses accordingly. The wooded marshes to the west, known as Yamacraw Swamp, would give an enemy concealment to within fifty yards of his fortifications in this area, and to cover this threat Moncrieff constructed the Sailors' Battery (see sketch), which was manned by sailors with nine-pound cannon. Additionally, the armed brig Germain was stationed in the river to deliver enfilade fire along this northwest flank.
The broad finger of flat ground leading toward Spring Hill from the southwest was recognized as excellent terrain for the type of open-field operations preferred by European commanders. A strong redoubt was therefore built on Spring Hill and manned initially by dismounted dragoons and supported by a regiment of South Carolina Loyalists. Along the quarter-mile that separated Spring Hill from the Sailors' Battery were two more redoubts and a second battery. Smaller fortifications and outposts covered the
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gaps, and a strong line of earthworks protected the right flank of the Spring Hill (or Ebenezer Road) redoubt.
Continuing counterclockwise around Prevost's perimeter, a fourth redoubt, commanded by Cruger, covered the road leading to Savannah from the south; a fifth redoubt, commanded by Major James Wright, the governor's son, was situated on the northeast end of the line. Lesser defensive works were located along the entire line, most of which was fronted by a ditch and abatis. The regular regiments and the better Loyalist units were deployed to the rear.
The allies planned their main attack just where Prevost says he expected it—against Spring Hill. A secondary attack by General Arthur Dillon's Irish Regiment (serving in the French army) was to move secretly from the northwest and follow a defiladed route that would enable it to turn the enemy's right near the Sailors' Battery. General Isaac Huger prepared to lead 500 militia from the south toward Cruger's redoubt. His mission was to make a feint that would draw the enemy's attention away from the main effort, and to break through the defenses if this appeared to be possible.
All the flanking operations failed. Dillon's column lost its way in the swamp, emerged in plain view of the enemy's lines, fought fiercely, and was driven back by fire. Huger's command was also forced to withdraw without getting close enough to threaten the British left flank.
The attack on Spring Hill was supposed to be made by three French and two American columns. To get into position, the French had to march about half a mile west to the American camp and then move north to the line of departure. Here they would deploy along the edge of a woods in a "line of columns" and be prepared on signal to attack in a northeastly direction, across about 500 yards of open ground toward Spring Hill. Two American columns were to form on their left and attack Spring Hill from the west. These preliminary movements were supposed to take place so that a coordinated attack could be made at dawn, which was about 5 a.m.
The French were late getting started, and when the first French column reached its position on the right flank of the line of departure at around dawn, d'Estaing led it forward without waiting for the others to file off to the left. This column was assailed by grapeshot as they moved across the open space and by musket fire when they reached the abatis, with d'Estaing himself being twice wounded. The French columns quickly broke apart, with most of the troops making for the safety of the woods to their left.
In the American zone, Pulaski's 200 horsemen were supposed to lead the approach, pull off to the left, wait for the abatis to be breached, and charge through the gap. Colonel John Laurens would lead the Second South Carolina Continentals and the First Battalion of Charleston militia against the Spring Hill redoubt while General McIntosh brought up the rear with the First and Fifth South Carolina Continentals and some Georgia regulars. Colonel Francis Marion's Second South Carolina Continentals spearheaded the attack through heavy frontal and enfilade fire from an enemy that was now thoroughly alerted. They crossed the open area, swarmed over the ditch, hacked their way through the abatis, and planted their Crescent Flag and the French flag on the parapet of the Spring Hill redoubt. This marked the high tide of their attack, however, and the South Carolina troops were unable to press on any further. Both the French and Continental color guards were killed. A Lieutenant Gray replaced the flags and was killed in turn. Sergeant William Jasper, of Fort Sullivan fame, was mortally wounded while putting the flags up for a third time.
As Laurens's men began their retreat, the British counterattacked with the grenadiers of the Sixtieth Regiment and a small company of marines. Major Beamsley Glazier led this sortie and in fierce, hand-to-hand fighting drove back the French and Americans who had clung to their forward positions.
While this fight was going on, Pulaski was trying to force his way between Spring Hill and the works to its west. Cavalry is unsuited for an attack against organized defenses, and the infantry had not carried out the plan of breaching the abatis for him. The gallant Polish volunteer nevertheless led his troopers forward. They were caught in the abatis and badly shot up by well-organized enemy fire that covered this obstacle. When Pulaski was carried, mortally wounded, from the field, Colonel Daniel Horry took command and tried to continue the attack, but the cavalry fell back before this strong British position.
McIntosh arrived to meet a scene of bloody confusion. The retreating cavalry had swept away part of Laurens's command as they moved into Yamacraw Swamp, and Laurens had lost effective control of his scattered and disorganized units. The wounded d'Estaing was trying to rally the French troops, and when McIntosh asked him for instructions he was told to circle left so as not to interfere with the French reorganization. The fresh American column was consequently diverted into Yamacraw Swamp, where its left flank came under fire from the Germain, and was still floundering there when the sounds of battle died down. Major Thomas Pinckney went forward on reconnaissance and returned to report that not an allied soldier was left standing in front of Spring Hill. McIntosh therefore ordered his column to withdraw, and the battle ended.
NUMBERS, LOSSES, AND AFTERMATH
A combined force of 3,100 Americans and 4,500 French faced 4,813 British, German, and Loyalist troops in the Savannah operations. Of these, about 3,500 French and 1,500 American troops took part in the battle of 9 October. The rebels lost fifty-eight killed and 181 wounded, the French suffered fifty-nine killed and 526 wounded, for a total of 824 casualties. In contrast the British lost sixteen killed and thirty-nine wounded. This accounts for the majority of losses during the whole campaign, which lasted from 15 September through 9 October. The allies suffered an estimated 940 total casualties, and the British forces had 296 killed and wounded. The Continentals could bring just ten cannon to bear, while the French had forty-nine and the British some eighty-five pieces of artillery.
Although Lincoln urged d'Estaing to continue the siege, the French commander determined that this operation was hopeless. On 20 October the French returned to their ships and Lincoln was then obliged to retreat to Charleston. The Americans were bitter about the impotency of the French alliance and almost uniformly blamed d'Estaing for the failure of the Savannah campaign; but they had all underestimated the British strength and the effectiveness of Moncrief's defenses. Discouragement naturally was strongest in the south, and the militia which had been gathering at Charleston started melting home.
General Sir Henry Clinton was greatly encouraged by the failure of the allied attack on Savannah. With d'Estaing's failure, he was now free to undertake his long-considered return to Charleston.
Lawrence, Alexander. Storm over Savannah. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1951.
Wilson, David K. The Southern Strategy: Britain's Conquest of South Carolina and Georgia, 1775–1780. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005.
revised by Michael Bellesiles