capture of Savannah, Georgia 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
It was the opening move in the British
" to regain control of the rebellious southern
provinces by appealing to the strong Loyalist
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
Augustine 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 Carolina.
1778, following the defeat of a
British army at Saratoga and the consequent entry of France into the
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 City, that capturing the southern states was "considered
by the King as an
object of great importance in the scale of the war".
Clinton wide latitude to achieve this objective.
thereafter ordered the evacuation of British troops from Philadelphia back to New York, and organized an expedition to
gain control of Georgia. From New York, he ordered Lieutenant Colonel
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
Augustine in East Florida.
This combined force was then to gain control of the interior of the
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
. Other than Savannah, the major settlements
were at Sunbury, about south
on the coast, and Augusta, about up
the Savannah River.
The state was defended by two separate forces. Units of the
were under the
command of General Robert Howe
responsible for the defense of the entire South), and state militia
companies were under the overall command of Georgia Governor
. 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.
November 18, Howe marched south from Charleston,
South Carolina with 550 Continental Army troops.
at the Savannah River later that month, he first moved to chase
away British raiders under the command of Prevost's younger brother
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 Island.
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.
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.
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
, 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
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
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.
Howe's retreat ended at Purrysburg, South Carolina he had 342 men left, less than half his original
Howe would receive much of the blame for the disaster,
with William Moultrie
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
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 Carolina to the Florida coast. In the fall of 1779, a combined French and
American attempt to
recapture Savannah failed with significant casualties.
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.
- Morrill, p. 40
- Wilson, p. 76
- Wilson, p. 77
- Revolutionary War in Georgia - accessed 2
- 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