Following the failures of military campaigns in the north, British military planners decided to embark on a southern strategy to conquer the rebellious colonies, with the support of Loyalists in the South. Their first step was to gain control of the southern ports of Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina. An expedition in December 1778 took Savannah with modest resistance from ineffective militia and Continental Army defenses. British troop strength in the area consisted of about 6,500 regulars at Brunswick, Georgia, another 900 at Beaufort, South Carolina, under Colonel John Maitland, and about 100 Loyalists at Sunbury, Georgia. Major General Augustine Prevost, in command of these troops from his base at Savannah, was caught unprepared when the French fleet began to arrive off Tybee Island near Savannah and recalled the troops stationed at Beaufort and Sunbury to aid in the city’s defense.
French Admiral the Comte d’Estaing spent the first part of 1779 in the Caribbean, where his fleet and a British fleet monitored each other’s movements. He took advantage of conditions to capture Grenada in July before acceding to American requests for support in operations against Savannah.
Captain Moncrief of the Royal Engineers was tasked with constructing fortifications to repulse the invaders. Using 500–800 slaves working up to twelve hours per day, Moncrief constructed an entrenched defensive line, which included redoubts, nearly 1,200 feet long, on the plains outside the city.
The British Royal Navy contributed two over-age frigates, HMS Fowey and HMS Rose. They landed their guns and most of their men to reinforce the land forces. In addition, the British also deployed the armed brig Keppel and the armed ship Germaine, the latter from the East Florida navy. There were two galleys, Comet and Thunder, also from East Florida. Lastly, the British armed two merchant vessels, Savannah and Venus. On September 12, D’Estaing began landing troops below the city and began moving in by September 16. Confident of victory, and believing that Maitland’s reinforcements would be prevented from reaching Savannah by Lincoln, he offered Prevost the opportunity to surrender. Prevost delayed, asking for 24 hours of truce.
Owing to miscommunication about who was responsible for preventing Maitland’s movements, the waterways separating South Carolina’s Hilton Head Island from the mainland were left unguarded, and Maitland was able to reach Savannah hours before the truce ended. Prevost’s response to d’Estaing’s offer was a polite refusal, despite the arrival of Lincoln’s forces.
On September 19, as Charles-Marie de Trolong du Rumain moved his squadron up the river, he exchanged fire with Comet, Thunder, Savannah, and Venus. The next day, the British scuttled Rose, which was leaking badly, just below the town to impede the French vessels from progressing further. They also burnt Savannah and Venus. By scuttling Rose in a narrow part of the channel, the British effectively blocked it. Consequently, the French fleet was unable to assist the American assault.
Germaine took up a position to protect the north side of Savannah’s defenses. Comet and Thunder had the mission of opposing any attempt by the South Carolinian galleys to bombard the town. Over the next few days, British shore batteries assisted Comet and Thunder in engagements with the two South Carolinian galleys; during one of these, they severely damaged the Revenge.
The French commander, rejecting the idea of assaulting the British defenses, unloaded cannons from his ships and began a bombardment of the city. The city, rather than the entrenched defenses, bore the brunt of this bombardment, which lasted from October 3 to 8. “The appearance of the town afforded a melancholy prospect, for there was hardly a house that had not been shot through”, wrote one British observer.
When the bombardment failed to have the desired effect, d’Estaing changed his mind, and decided it was time to try an assault. He was motivated in part by the desire to finish the operation quickly, as scurvy and dysentery were becoming problems on his ships, and some of his supplies were running low. While a traditional siege operation would likely have succeeded eventually, it would have taken longer than d’Estaing was prepared to stay.
America’s new French allies carrying 5,000 soldiers, including 500 Haitians. In one of the war’s bloodiest and costliest battles, the 800-plus Allied casualties included Polish volunteer Count Pulaski, and Patriot Sgt. William Jasper, who died trying to raise the fallen flag.
Haitians of African descent, calling themselves the Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Dominigue. Soldiers of African descent fighting for the Patriots was an oddity during the southern campaign–most American slaves attempted to flee and join British forces, as they had no desire to defend their Patriot masters’ right to enslave them. Many of the Volontaires themselves later went on to rebel against French control of Haiti. In fact, the Volontaires’ twelve year old drummer, Henri Christoph, commanded Haiti’s revolutionary army and later became king of Haiti. Savannah remained in British control until the Redcoats left of their own accord on July 11, 1782.
Anon., “Account of the Siege of Savannah, from a British Source,” Collections of the Georgia Historical Society 5, pt. 1 (Savannah, Ga.: Braid and Hutton, 1901).
Kennedy, Benjamin, ed. Muskets, Cannon Balls & Bombs: Nine Narratives of the Siege of Savannah in 1779. Savannah, GA: The Beehive Press, 1974.
Lumpkin, Henry. From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in the South. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1981.
Mahan, Alfred Thayer. The Major Operations of the Navies in the War of American Independence. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 1913.