Siege of Savannah Part I

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In 1778, the British captured the city of Savannah, Georgia. One year later, on September 16th, 1779, the Continental Army along with its French allies attempted to take back the city whose defense was commanded by General Augustine Prevost. Distrust between the allies led to lack of cooperation (General Benjamin Lincoln suspected that Comte d’Estaing planned to take Savannah for the Kingdom of France) and ultimately may have been a factor in the defeat of the Continental Army and their retreat on October 18th, 1779. During the battle, General Casmir Pulaski, chief of Cavalry in the Continental Army, was wounded and later died on board a ship called the Wasp.

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The siege of Savannah by the Franco-American forces.

FRENCH ALLIANCE AND SOUTHERN WARFARE

The arrival of French land and naval forces in America and the contest over the West Indies drew the mainland war southward and toward the sea. Even after disappointments in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, British strategists hoped that the South might offer a bastion of loyalism that armies could mobilize for the restoration of civilian government. In the fall of 1778, Clinton detached thirty-five hundred troops to invade Georgia and end the rebellion there. They succeeded at first, capturing Savannah in December, then turned their sights to South Carolina. In May 1780, Clinton led a siege that captured Charleston, where more than five thousand American defenders surrendered. In August a British force crushed an American relief army under Horatio Gates at Camden, South Carolina, and British opinion sensed victory. In 1780 the North experienced currency inflation; bitter winter cold; war weariness; mutinies in the Continental camps at Morristown, New Jersey, in May; and in September the treason of Benedict Arnold in his failed attempt to allow the British to take West Point.

But the British forces detached from New York were already spread thin and had little hope of significant reinforcements from home. Clinton pardoned southern rebels in exchange for oaths of allegiance, which enraged Loyalists and reignited guerrilla warfare as the regular redcoats moved away. Local rebel forces crushed a small army of their Loyalist neighbors at King’s Mountain in western North Carolina in October 1780. Washington detached a force of Continentals into the South under Nathanael Greene, one of his most trusted subordinates. Greene confronted the aggressive British commander, Charles Cornwallis, and outmaneuvered and outwitted him. The frontier Virginia rifleman, General Daniel Morgan, defeated Loyalists under Banastre Tarleton at Cowpens, South Carolina, in January 1781, and Greene and Cornwallis fought to a savage draw at Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina during March. Francis Marion, a South Carolina militia officer, contributed to these successes in the South by disrupting British supply lines, supplying intelligence, and suppressing Loyalist activities.

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 The’odat 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.