Episode 049

Georgia On My Mind – Capture of Savannah & Battle of Kettle Creek

After the Battle of Saratoga, it was deemed that the Southern colonies would be high priority targets. Starting with Georgia and South Carolina...

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In March 1778, following the defeat of a British army at Saratoga and the consequent entry of France into the American Revolutionary War as an American ally, Lord George Germain, the British secretary responsible for the war, wrote to Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton that capturing the southern colonies was “considered by the King as an object of great importance in the scale of the war”. Germain’s instructions to Clinton, framed as recommendations, were that he should abandon Philadelphia and then embark on operations to recover Georgia and the Carolinas, while making diversionary attacks against Virginia and Maryland.

British preparations

In June and July 1778 Clinton successfully removed his troops from Philadelphia back to New York. In November, after dealing with the threat of a French fleet off New York and Newport, Rhode Island, Clinton turned his attention to the south. He organized a force of about 3,000 men in New York and sent orders to Saint Augustine, the capital of East Florida, where Brigadier General Augustine Prevost was to organize all available men and Indian agent John Stuart was to rally the local Creek and Cherokee warriors to assist in operations against Georgia. Clinton’s basic plan, first proposed by Thomas Brown in 1776, began with the capture of the capital of Georgia, Savannah.

Clinton gave command of the detachment from New York to Lieutenant C olonel Archibald Campbell. The force consisted of two battalions (the 1st and 2nd) of the 71st Regiment of Foot, the Hessian regiments von Wöllwarth and von Wissenbach, and four Loyalist provincial units: one battalion from the New York Volunteers, two from DeLancey’s Brigade, and one from Skinner’s Brigade. Campbell sailed from New York on November 26 and arrived off Tybee Island, near the mouth of the Savannah River, on December 23.

American defenses

The state of Georgia 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, while the state’s 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 decide in September 1778 to replace Howe with Major General Benjamin Lincoln, 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.

During November 1778 British raids into Georgia became more and more threatening to the state’s population centers. Despite the urgency of the situation, Governor Houstoun refused to allow Howe to direct the movements of the Georgia militia. On November 8, Howe began marching south from Charleston, South Carolina with 550 Continental Army troops, arriving in Savannah late that month. 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 to attempt a vigorous defense of Savannah, in spite of the fact that they were likely to be significantly outnumbered, hoping to last until Lincoln’s troops arrived. 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.

Battle

The place Campbell selected for landing was Girardeau’s Plantation, located about 2 miles (3.2 km) 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 land, and dispatched two companies of the 71st Regiment to take control of them. The Continentals opened fire at about 100 yards (9 m); the British, rather than returning fire, advanced rapidly with bayonets fixed, denying 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 cautiously 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 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 and militia under Isaac Huger and William Thomson. 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.

When Campbell’s advance companies spotted Howe’s line around 2:00 pm, 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. Campbell ordered Sir James Baird to take 350 light infantry and 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 had been 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 cannon fire and the appearance of charging British and German troops on his front. 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. The Georgia soldiers on the right attempted to find a safe crossing of Musgrove Creek, but one did not exist, and many of the troops were taken prisoner.2 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.

Campbell gained control of the city at the cost to his forces of seven killed and seventeen wounded, not including the four men killed and five wounded during preliminary skirmishing. Campbell took 453 prisoners, and there were at least 83 dead and wounded from Howe’s forces. When Howe’s retreat ended at Purrysburg, South Carolina 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. He was exonerated in a court martial that inquired into the event, although the tribunal pointed out that Howe should have made a stand at the bluffs or more directly opposed the landing.2

General Prevost arrived from East Flo rida in mid-January, and shortly after sent Campbell with ,000 men to take Augusta. Campbell occupied the frontier town against minimal opposition, but by then General Lincoln had begun to rally support in South Carolina to oppose the British.2 Campbell abandoned Augusta on February 4, the same day a Loyalist force en route to meet him was defeated in the Battle of Kettle Creek. Although Patriot forces following the British were ambushed in the March 3 Battle of Brier Creek, the Georgia backcountry remained in Patriot hands.

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 until July , 782, when its troops were withdrawn. Savannah was used as a base to conduct coastal raids which targeted areas from Charleston, South Carolina to the Florida coast. In the fall of 1779, a combined French and American siege to recapture Savannah took place, but dear listener’s we’ll talk about that another day….
Before we leave Georgia, there is one more incident I want to discuss: The Battle of Kettle Creek.

British occupation of Augusta

When British Brigadier General Augustine Prevost arrived from Saint Augustine in mid-January, he assumed command of the garrison there and sent a force under Campbell to take control of Augusta and raise Loyalist forces.

Leaving Savannah on January 24, Campbell and more than 1,000 men arrived near Augusta a week later, with only minimal harassment from Georgia Patriot militia on the way. Augusta had been defended by South Carolina General Andrew Williamson leading about 1,000 militia from Georgia and South Carolina, but he withdrew most of his men when Campbell approached. His rear guard briefly skirmished with Campbell’s men before withdrawing across the Savannah River into South Carolina.

Campbell started recruiting Loyalists. By February 10, 1779 about 1,100 men signed up, but relatively few actually formed militia companies, forming only 20 companies of the British Army. Campbell then began requiring oaths of loyalty, on pain of forfeiture of property; many took this oath insincerely, quickly letting Williamson know their true feelings. Early in his march, Campbell dispatched Major John Hamilton to recruit Loyalists in Wilkes County and Lt. Colonel John Boyd on an expedition to raise Loyalists in the backcountry of North and South Carolina. Boyd met with success and recruited several hundred men. As he traveled south back toward Augusta, more Loyalists joined his company, until it numbered over 600 men in central South Carolina. As this column moved on, the men plundered and pillaged along the way, predictably drawing angered Patriots to take up arms.

American response

The Continental Army commander in the South, Major General Benjamin Lincoln, based in Charleston, South Carolina, had been unable to respond adequately to the capture of Savannah. With only limited resources (he was short of both men and funds), he was able to raise about 1,400 South Carolina militia, but did not have authorization to order them outside the state. On January 30, he was further reinforced at Charleston by the arrival of 1,100 North Carolina militia under General John Ashe. These he immediately dispatched to join Williamson on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River near Augusta.

The Georgia banks of the Savannah in the Augusta area were controlled by a Loyalist force led by Colonel Daniel McGirth, while the South Carolina banks were controlled by a Georgia Patriot militia led by Colonel John Dooly. When about 250 South Carolina militia under Colonel Andrew Pickens arrived, Pickens and Dooly joined forces to conduct offensive operations into Georgia, with Pickens taking overall command. They were at some point joined by a few companies of North Carolina light horse militia.

On February 10, Pickens and Dooly crossed the Savannah River to attack a British Army camp southeast of Augusta. Finding the camp unoccupied, they learned that the company was out on an extended patrol. Suspecting they would head for a stockaded frontier post called Carr’s Fort, Pickens sent men directly there while the main body chased after the British. The British made it into the fort, but were forced to abandon their horses and baggage outside its walls. Pickens then besieged the fort until he learned that Boyd was passing through the Ninety Six district of South Carolina with seven to eight hundred Loyalists, headed for Georgia. He reluctantly raised the siege and moved to intercept Boyd.

Pickens established a strong presence near the mouth of the Broad River, where he expected Boyd might try to cross. However, Boyd, his force grown by then to 800 men, chose to go to the north. He first tried Cherokee Ford, the southernmost fording of the Savannah River, where he was met with some resistance known as the Engagement at McGowen’s Blockhouse. The encounter consisted of a detachment of eight Patriots commanded by Capt. Robert Anderson with two small swivel guns in an entrenched position, who thwarted Boyd’s approach to Cherokee Ford. Boyd moved north upstream about 5 miles (8.0 km) and crossed the Savannah River there, skirmishing with a small Patriot force that had shadowed his movements on the Georgia side. Boyd reported losing 100 men, killed, wounded, or deserted, in the encounter.

By the time Pickens learned that Boyd had crossed the river, he had himself crossed into South Carolina in an attempt to intercept Boyd. He immediately recrossed into Georgia upon learning of Boyd’s whereabouts. On February 14, Pickens caught up with Boyd when he paused to rest his troops near Kettle Creek, only a few miles from Colonel McGirth’s Loyalist camp.

Battle

Boyd was apparently unaware that he was being followed so closely, and his camp, even though guards were posted, was not particularly alert. Pickens advanced, leading the center, with his right flank under Colonel Dooly and his left under Georgia Lieutenant Colonel Elijah Clarke. Gunfire between Patriot scouts and the camp guards alerted Boyd to the situation. Boyd formed a defensive line near the camp’s rear and advanced with a force of 100 men to oppose Pickens at a crude breastwork made of fencing and fallen trees. Pickens, whose advance gave him the advantage of high ground, was able to flank this position, even though his own wings were slowed by the swampy conditions near the creek. In heavy fighting, Boyd went down with a mortal wound, and the small company retreated back to the main Loyalist line.

The Patriot flanks then began to emerge from the swamps. The Loyalists, led by Boyd’s second in command, Major William Spurgen, engaged the Patriots in battle for 90 minutes. Some of the Loyalists crossed the creek, abandoning horses and equipment. Clarke alertly noticed some high ground across the creek that they seemed to be heading for and led some of his men there, having his horse shot from under him in the process. The Loyalist line was eventually broken, and its men were killed, captured, or dispersed.

Treatment of prisoners

Pickens took 75 prisoners, including most of the wounded, and between 40 and 70 Loyalists were killed. He suffered 7 to 9 killed and 14-23 wounded or missing in the battle. Many of Boyd’s men (including some that escaped the battlefield and others that Pickens paroled) returned home. A significant number were either captured or surrendered themselves to Patriot authorities in the days following the battle, and the fate of some of his men is unknown. Lieutenant Colonel Campbell reported that 270 of Boyd’s recruits eventually joined him. He organized them into the Royal North Carolina Regiment.

When Pickens approached the mortally wounded Boyd after the battle, the Loyalist leader, who had lived in South Carolina before the war and was known to Pickens, asked the Patriot leader to deliver a brooch to his wife and inform her of his fate. This Pickens eventually did.

Of the Loyalist prisoners, only about 20 survived their wounds. Pickens first took them to Augusta, and then Ninety Six, where they were held along with a large number of other Loyalists. Seeking to make an example of them, South Carolina authorities put a number of these Loyalists on trial for treason. About 50 of them were convicted, and five men, including some of the men captured at Kettle Creek, were hanged. British military leaders were outraged over this treatment of what they considered prisoners of war, even before the trial was held. General Prevost threatened retaliation against Patriot prisoners he was holding, but did not act out of fear that other American-held British prisoners might be mistreated. His invasion of coastal South Carolina in April 1779, a counter-thrust against movements by General Lincoln to recover Georgia, prompted South Carolina officials to vacate most of the convictions.

British reaction

In a council held in Augusta on February 12, Campbell decided to abandon Augusta and began the withdrawal to Savannah on February 14 at 2AM, the morning of the battle. Contrary to opinions expressed by some historians, Campbell did not leave because of the battle’s outcome. He did not learn of the battle until after he had already left Augusta; his departure was prompted by the arrival of 1,200 of patriot General John Ashe’s forces in General Andrew Williamson’s camp across the Savannah River, a shortage of provisions, and uncertainty over whether Boyd would be successful in his mission.

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