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The capture of Savannah, Georgiamarker was an American Revolutionary War battle fought on December 29, 1778 between local Patriot militia and Continental Army units holding the city and a British invasion force under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell. It was the opening move in the British "southern strategy" to regain control of the rebellious southern provinces by appealing to the strong Loyalist sentiment believed to be there.

Henry Clinton, the new commander-in-chief of the British forces based in New York City, dispatched Campbell and a 3,500-strong force from New York to capture Savannah and regain British control of Georgia. He was to be assisted by 2,000 troops under the command of General Augustine Prevost that marched up from Saint Augustinemarker in East Florida. After landing near Savannah on December 23, Campbell assessed the American defenses, which were comparatively weak, and decided to attack without waiting for Prevost. Taking advantage of local assistance he successfully flanked the American position outside the town, captured a large portion of General Robert Howe's army, and drove the remnants to retreat into South Carolinamarker.

Background

In March 1778, following the defeat of a British army at Saratoga and the consequent entry of Francemarker into the American Revolutionary War as an American ally, Lord George Germain, the British secretary responsible for the war, wrote to General Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander-in-chief of North American forces based in New York Citymarker, that capturing the southern states was "considered by the King as an object of great importance in the scale of the war". He gave Clinton wide latitude to achieve this objective.

Clinton thereafter ordered the evacuation of British troops from Philadelphiamarker back to New York, and organized an expedition to gain control of Georgiamarker. From New York, he ordered Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell to sail with 3,500 troops to the coast of Georgia, where he was to take Savannah, where he would be met by 2,000 troops under Brigadier General Augustine Prevost that would march up from Saint Augustinemarker in East Florida. This combined force was then to gain control of the interior of the lightly-populated state.

Georgia defenses

Georgia in 1778 had a population of about 40,000, about one half of which were slaves, that was concentrated along the Atlantic coast and along the Savannah River. Other than Savannah, the major settlements were at Sunburymarker, about south on the coast, and Augustamarker, about up the Savannah River.

The state was defended by two separate forces. Units of the Continental Army were under the command of General Robert Howe (who was responsible for the defense of the entire South), and state militia companies were under the overall command of Georgia Governor John Houstoun. Howe and Georgia authorities had previously squabbled over control of military expeditions against Prevost in East Florida, and those expeditions had failed. These failures led the Continental Congress to order the replacement of Howe with Major General Benjamin Lincoln in September 1778, who had successfully negotiated militia participation in events surrounding the British defeat at Saratoga. Lincoln had not yet arrived when word reached Howe that Clinton was sending troops to Georgia.

Despite the urgency of the situation, Governor Houstoun refused to allow Howe to direct the movements of the Georgia militia. On November 18, Howe marched south from Charleston, South Carolinamarker with 550 Continental Army troops. Arriving at the Savannah River later that month, he first moved to chase away British raiders under the command of Prevost's younger brother Mark before heading for Savannah to prepare its defenses. He learned that Campbell had sailed from New York on December 6; on December 23 sails were spotted off Tybee Islandmarker. The next day, Governor Houstoun assigned 100 Georgia militia to Howe.

A war council decided that, in spite of the fact that they were likely to be significantly outnumbered, a vigorous defense should be attempted, with some hope attached to the arrival of General Lincoln at Charleston in early December. Due the large number of potential landing points, Howe was forced to hold most of his army in reserve until the British had actually landed.

British movements

The place Campbell selected for landing was Girardeau's Plantation, located about below the city. When word reached Howe that the landing had started on December 29, he sent a company of Continentals to occupy the bluffs above the landing site. Campbell realized that the bluffs would need to be controlled before the majority of his forces could be landed, sent two companies of the 71st Regiment to take control of them. The Continentals opened fire at about ; the British, rather than returning fire, advanced rapidly with bayonets fixed, denying the the Continentals a second shot. The Continentals retreated, having killed four and wounded five at no cost to themselves. By noon, Campbell had landed his army and began to proceed carefully toward the city.

Battle

Howe held a council that morning, and ground was chosen at which to make a stand. About one-half mile (0.7 km) south of the city, he established a line of defense. He formed a line in the shape of an open V, with the ends anchored by swampy woods. On the left Howe placed Georgia Continentals and militia under Samuel Elbert, while on the right he put South Carolina Continentals under Isaac Huger and William Thompson. The line was supported by four pieces of field artillery, and light infantry companies guarded the flanks. Most of Howe's troops, including the Continentals, had seen little or no action in the war.

Campbell's forces consisted of two battalions of the 71st Highland Regiment, two regiments of German soldiers (von Wissenbach and von Wöllwarth), and four companies of Loyalist, mostly recruited in New York. When his advance companies spotted Howe's line (drawing a volley of fire), the main body stopped short of the field and Campbell went to see what he was up against. He viewed Howe's defenses as essentially sound, but a local slave told him that there was a path through the swamp on Howe's right. He ordered James Baird to take 350 light infantry and about 250 New York Loyalists and follow the slave through the swamp, while he arrayed his troops just out of view in a way that would give the impression he would attempt a flanking maneuver on Howe's left. One of his officers climbed a tree to observe Baird's progress. True to the slave's word, the trail came out near the Continental barracks, which were left unguarded; the Continentals were unaware they had been flanked. When they reached position, the man in the tree signaled by waving his hat, and Campbell ordered the regulars to charge.

The first sounds of battle Howe heard were musket fire from the barracks, but these were rapidly followed by cannonfire and the appearance of charging British and German troops. He ordered an immediate retreat, but it rapidly turned into a rout. His untried troops hardly bothered to return fire, some throwing down their weapons before attempting to run away through the swampy terrain. Campbell reported that "It was scarcely possible to come up with them, their Retreat was rapid beyond Conception." The light infantry in the Continental rear cut off the road to Augusta, the only significant escape route, forcing a mad scramble of retreating troops into the city itself. Soldiers who did not immediately surrender were sometimes bayoneted. Colonel Huger managed to form a rear-guard to cover the escape of a number of the Continentals. Some of Howe's men managed to escape to the north before the British closed off the city, but others were forced to attempt swimming across Yamacraw Creek; an unknown number drowned in the attempt.

Aftermath

Campbell gained control of the city at the cost to his forces of seven killed and seventeen wounded. He took 453 prisoners, and there were at least 83 dead and 11 wounded from Howe's forces. When Howe's retreat ended at Purrysburg, South Carolinamarker he had 342 men left, less than half his original army. Howe would receive much of the blame for the disaster, with William Moultrie arguing that he should have either disputed the landing site in force or retreated without battle to keep his army intact. However, he was exonerated in a court martial that inquired into the event.

Campbell wrote that he would be "the first British officer to [rend] a star and stripe from the flag of Congress". The British held Savannah for the duration of the war, which they used as a base to conduct coastal raids from Charleston, South Carolinamarker to the Floridamarker coast. In the fall of 1779, a combined French and American attempt to recapture Savannahmarker failed with significant casualties. The British held Savannah through the remainder of the war and used the city as a staging ground for further attacks in the South, until the British evacuated on July 11, 1782.

References

  1. Morrill, p. 40
  2. Wilson, p. 76
  3. Wilson, p. 77
  4. Revolutionary War in Georgia - accessed 2 August 2009


  • The Concise Illustrated History of the American Revolution. Eastern Acorn Press, 1972.
  • Morrill, Dan. Southern campaigns of the American Revolution. Nautical & Aviation Publishing, 1993.
  • Wilson, David. The southern strategy: Britain's conquest of South Carolina and Georgia, 1775–1780. Univ of South Carolina press, 2005. ISBN 9781570035739



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