American Revolution: Battle of Savannah

Benjamin Lincoln
Major General Benjamin Lincoln. Photograph Source: Public Domain

The Battle of Savannah was fought September 16 to October 18, 1779, during the American Revolution (1775-1783). In 1778, the British commander in chief in North America, Major General Sir Henry Clinton, began to shift the focus of the conflict to the southern colonies. This change in strategy was driven by a belief that Loyalist support in the region was significantly stronger than in the North and would facilitate its recapture.

The campaign would be the second major British effort in the region as Clinton had attempted to capture Charleston, SC in June 1776, but had failed when Admiral Sir Peter Parker's naval forces were repulsed by fire from Colonel William Moultrie's men at Fort Sullivan. The first move of the new British campaign was the capture of Savannah, GA. To accomplish this, Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell was dispatched south with a force of around 3,100 men. 

Armies & Commanders

French & American

British

  • Brigadier General Augustine Prevost
  • 3,200 men

Invading Georgia

Reaching Georgia, Campbell was to be joined by a column moving north from St. Augustine led by Brigadier General Augustine Prevost. Landing at Girardeau's Plantation on December 29, Campbell brushed aside American forces. Pushing towards Savannah, he flanked and routed another American force and captured the city.

Joined by Prevost in mid-January 1779, the two men began raiding the interior as well as mounted an expedition against Augusta. Establishing outposts in the region, Prevost also sought to recruit local Loyalists to the flag.

Allied Movements

Through the first half of 1779, Prevost and his American counterpart at Charleston, SC, Major General Benjamin Lincoln, conducted minor campaigns in the territory between the cities.

Though eager to regain Savannah, Lincoln understood that the city could not be liberated without naval support. Utilizing their alliance with France, the American leadership was able to persuade Vice Admiral Comte d'Estaing to bring a fleet north later that year. Completing a campaign in the Caribbean which saw him capture St. Vincent and Grenada, d'Estaing sailed for Savannah with 25 ships of the line and around 4,000 infantry. Receiving word of d'Estaing's intentions on September 3, Lincoln commenced making plans to march south as part of a joint operation against Savannah.

The Allies Arrive

In support of the French fleet, Lincoln departed Charleston on September 11 with around 2,000 men. Caught off guard by the appearance of French ships off Tybee Island, Prevost directed Captain James Moncrief to enhance Savannah's fortifications. Utilizing African American slave labor, Moncrief constructed an array of earthworks and redoubts on the outskirts of the city. These were reinforced with guns taken from HMS Fowey (24 guns) and HMS Rose (20). On September 12, d'Estaing began landing around 3,500 men at Beaulieu's Plantation on the Vernon River. Marching north to Savannah, he contacted Prevost, he demanded that he surrender the city.

Playing for time, Prevost requested and was granted a 24-hour truce to consider his situation. During this time, he recalled Colonel John Maitland's troops at Beaufort, SC to reinforce the garrison.

The Siege Begins

Incorrectly believing that Lincoln's approaching column would deal with Maitland, d'Estaing made no effort to guard the route from Hilton Head Island to Savannah. As a result, no American or French troops blocked Maitland's route and he reached the city safely before the truce ended. With his arrival, Prevost formally declined to surrender. On September 23, d'Estaing and Lincoln began siege operations against Savannah. Landing artillery from the fleet, French forces commenced a bombardment on October 3. This proved largely ineffective as its brunt fell on the city rather than the British fortifications.

Though standard siege operations most likely would have ended in victory, d'Estaing became impatient as he was concerned about hurricane season and an increase in scurvy and dysentery in the fleet.

A Bloody Failure

Despite protests from his subordinates, d'Estaing approached Lincoln regarding assaulting the British lines. Dependent on the French admiral's ships and men for continuing the operation, Lincoln was forced to agree. For the assault, d'Estaing planned to have Brigadier General Isaac Huger make a feint against the southeastern part of the British defenses while the bulk of the army struck further west. The focus of the assault was to be the Spring Hill redoubt which he believed to be manned by Loyalist militia. Unfortunately, a deserter informed Prevost of this and the British commander moved veteran forces to the area.

Advancing just after dawn on October 9, Huger's men were bogged down and failed to create a meaningful diversion. At Spring Hill, one of the allied columns became mired in a swamp to the west and was forced to turn back. As a result, the assault lacked its intended force. Surging forward, the first wave met heavy British fire and took significant losses. In the course of the fighting, d'Estaing was hit twice and American cavalry commander Count Casimir Pulaski was mortally wounded.

The second wave of French and American troops had more success and some, including those led by Lieutenant Colonel Francis Marion, reached the top of the wall. In fierce fighting, the British succeeded in driving the attackers back while inflicting heavy casualties.

Unable to break through, French and American troops fell back after an hour of fighting. Regrouping, Lincoln later desired to attempt another assault but was overruled by d'Estaing.

Aftermath

Allied losses at the Battle of Savannah numbered 244 killed, 584 wounded, and 120 captured, while Provost's command suffered 40 killed, 63 wounded, and 52 missing. Though Lincoln pressed to continue the siege, d'Estaing was unwilling to further risk his fleet. On October 18, the siege was abandoned and d'Estaing departed the area. With the French departure, Lincoln retreated back to Charleston with his army. The defeat was a blow to the newly established alliance and greatly encouraged the British in furthering their southern strategy. Sailing south the following spring, Clinton laid siege to Charleston in March. Unable to break out and with no relief expected, Lincoln was compelled to surrender his army and the city that May.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Battle of Savannah." ThoughtCo, Mar. 19, 2018, thoughtco.com/battle-of-savannah-2360206. Hickman, Kennedy. (2018, March 19). American Revolution: Battle of Savannah. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/battle-of-savannah-2360206 Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Battle of Savannah." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/battle-of-savannah-2360206 (accessed May 27, 2018).