For the past few episodes, we’ve talked a lot about the events in the South, in our last episode we discussed a significant victory for the Patriot forces in the area, Kettle Creek, which was perhaps not as much strategically significant as it was a morale booster and we’re going to pick up right where we left off this week, but before we do I want to check in on our good friend, George Washington and his men and what they are doing in March of 1779
March of 1779 found Washington and the Northern Division of the Continental Army encamped in an arc around New York City, caught in a stalemate with British Commander-in-Chief Sir Henry Clinton in New York. It was a trying time for Washington; the City of New York was a particular burden as it was the scene of his first and most disastrous failure and a constant reminder of that failure. Washington wanted to push the British out of the city, but that would require close-in urban fighting, building-by-building, street-by-street. During this time, the entire operation would be subject to an almost guaranteed bombardment by British warships in the harbor.
The Continental Army was not trained or manned to engage in such a man eating, urban assault that would require days, weeks and possibly months to clear the town of British troops. Washington could not depend upon assistance from the French navy, therefore even after clearing the redcoats out of the city there would still be the Royal Navy in New York harbor to contend with. Washington inclined toward action rather than reaction but under the prevailing restraints, he decided to sit tight and keep a watchful eye on Clinton.
Clinton’s primary instruction from London was to hold New York and Newport as a base for ground troops and the Royal Navy. He was to support the southern expedition and render aid when possible to the broader war with France, the northern colonies would have the last priority. Not only was he thus tied down but was not sufficiently manned to challenge Washington in open battle on land, nor was he able to move up the Hudson River by ship due to forts and more importantly a massive log and chain boom across the river at West Point. Neither was able to move against the other, but, as in Philadelphia, Clinton had the luxury of occupying New York, the second largest city in North America while the Continental Army had to make do with the few comforts they could find as they stood guard in an arc around the city.
Meanwhile the southern army under General Benjamin Lincoln was reveling in the scores of new militia and recruits who came to Purysburg after the victories of Kettle Creek and Beaufort. This influx, which doubled Lincoln’s troops and the glory of the last two victories, caused General Lincoln to believe that he could reclaim Georgia. In late February he began positioning his forces in a triad about Augusta, a decision he would soon regret.
Planning a three-pronged attack, Lincoln sent General Williamson and 1,200 troops to the east bank of the Savannah River opposite Augusta. General Rutherford was sent with 800 men to the Black Swamp while General John Ashe with 1,400 North Carolina militia and Colonel Elbert with 100 Georgia Continentals appears to have marched south to the Savannah River then proceeded north to join Williamson. British Lt. Colonel Archibald Campbell holding Augusta, noted the approach of the two forces and evacuated Augusta taking the road south toward Savannah.
The force commanded by General Ashe was later reinforced to a strength of 1,700 men which included 200 light horse. Noting the abandonment of Augusta and the British retreat southward, Ashe crossed the river and pursued the British who crossed Briar creek destroying the bridge behind them. Ashe arrived at the creek on February 27th and began rebuilding the bridge.
The actual Battle of Briar or Brier Creek (As it is spelled on today’s map) occurred on March 3rd, on a site roughly designated as at a bridge over Briar creek south of Augusta which appears to be where today’s U.S. Hwy 25. and State Highway 121 cross Brier Creek, just northwest of the present day town of Waynesboro, Georgia.
In a circular movement covering 50 miles, a force of about 900 men crossed the creek west of Ashe’s position, proceeding to move to his rear. By the afternoon of March 2nd several British reconnoitering parties were seen; more were seen the following morning. Ashe took no action against them, other than positioning militia facing the apparent enemy in his rear.
On the afternoon of March 3, 1779, the British struck. A man on horseback rode desperately into the American lines with word that a large enemy force was approaching. Ashe ordered his men to form for battle, but the effort was hurried and not carried out with precision.
The two forces opened fire at long range and disaster quickly followed. Col. Samuel Elbert moved forward from the American lines with a mixed force of Continentals and Georgia militia. Under heavy fire, however, Elbert’s men drifted somewhat out of position and blocked the fire of part of the American army.
At the same time, British cavalry caused the American right flank to contract, creating another gap in the lines. Seizing the moment, Prevost ordered a bayonet charge.
British forces, under the leadership but not necessarily direct command of Lt Col Jacques Marcus Prevost, the brother of Major General Augustine Prevost that we’ve been talking about, surged forward, the American lines were broken and disaster followed. No one really knows how many casualties the Patriots sustained at Brier Creek. Lt. Col. Prevost later estimated that 150 were killed, but Ashe’s army disintegrated into the swamps and there is just no way to know.
Ward records that the entire American van was captured along with 11 officers, including Colonel Elbert commander of the Continentals, who would later become governor of Georgia and was not released from British captivity until 1781 and 162 non-commissioned officers and men. Several hundred other men died, either killed by enemy action, lost in the swamps or drowned trying to cross the Savannah River to return to South Carolina. British losses were negligible with 5 killed and 11 wounded. Of the 1,700 Americans present at the beginning of the battle, around 450 rejoined the army, the others who survived without capture were presumed to have simply gone home.
Gen. William Moultrie, the famed “Gamecock” of South Carolina, later proclaimed that Brier Creek was so disastrous that it extended the war for another 12 months.
Gen. Ashe later faced a military trial for his role in the disaster. He was found not guilty of cowardice under fire, but guilty of failing to properly secure his camp.
It should be noted at this time that several things contributed to defeat of the Patriot Army. First and foremost was the fact that with the exception of the 100 Georgia Continentals that none of the American force had been trained to stand and fight against a professional army that was trained to advance stolidly against all odds until they closed with the enemy. American militias were locals with little of no training, especially in open warfare facing a seasoned enemy. Militia officers in charge were generally no better trained than the rank and file. The rule of the day was that a militia was recruited by men who became their officers or officers were elected to their rank by the men in that militia unit.
While militia had been successful at Kettle Creek, their victory was partially good leadership and the fact that the enemy was Loyalist militia no better trained than the American militia. The militia at Briar Creek broke and ran from an enemy that they had no ability to cope with. Additionally, Ashe appears to have failed to use his light horse for reconnaissance to detect the troops in the circular movement. Nor did he seek to avoid a battle with the enemy behind him or choose a place more suitable to his own force and ability. He knew the opposing force across Briar Creek had stopped their retreat, yet when a second force appeared behind him he did nothing. This allowed the enemy to choose the time and place to their advantage, placing him between two fires that squeezed him as in a vise.
This was the third time that British commanders had successfully used this encircling tactic, first at the Brandywine, then Savannah and now at Briar Creek. The Americans were Patriots, not military experts. It might be said that they were on the job trainees, learning as the war progressed. The experience was not entirely a waste. In most wars combat sorts out the competent from the incompetent, and new leaders emerge who can cope with the enemy. In view of militia’s inability to stand up to a professional force in a set piece battle it was later determined that militia could be used effectively in the front rank to fire one volley then retreat through the Continentals who could stand up to and meet the enemy on his own terms.
March 3rd ended any thought of recovering the state of Georgia. The public euphoria that existed after Kettle Creek and Beaufort turned into a panic that British General Prevost would be so encouraged by his victory at Briar Creek that he would invade South Carolina with like results.