Siege of Savannah
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The Siege of Savannah or the Second Battle of Savannah was an encounter of the American Revolutionary War in 1779. The year before, the city of Savannah, Georgia, had been captured by a British expeditionary corps under Lieutenant-Colonel Archibald Campbell. The siege itself consisted of a joint Franco-American attempt to retake Savannah, from September 16 to October 18, 1779. On October 9 a major assault against the British siege works failed. During the attack, Polish nobleman Count Casimir Pułaski, leading the combined cavalry forces on the American side, was mortally wounded. With the failure of the joint American-French attack, the siege failed, and the British remained in control of Savannah until July 1782, near the end of the war.
In 1779, more than 500 recruits from Saint-Domingue (France's colony which later became Haiti), under the overall command of French nobleman Charles Hector, Comte d'Estaing, fought alongside American colonial troops against the British Army during the siege of Savannah. This was one of the most significant foreign contributions to the American Revolutionary War. This French-colonial force had been established six months earlier and included hundreds of soldiers of color in addition to white soldiers and some black slaves.
Following the failures of military campaigns in the northern United States earlier in the American Revolutionary War, 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.
The Continental Army regrouped, and by June 1779 the combined army and militia forces guarding Charleston numbered between 5,000 and 7,000 men. General Benjamin Lincoln, commanding those forces, knew that he could not recapture Savannah without naval assistance; for this he turned to the French, who had entered the war as an American ally in 1778. 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. On September 3, an uncharacteristically early arrival as there was still substantial risk of seasonal hurricanes, a few French ships arrived at Charleston with news that d'Estaing was sailing for Georgia with twenty-five ships of the line and 4,000 French troops. Lincoln and the French emissaries agreed on a plan of attack on Savannah, and Lincoln left Charleston with over 2,000 men on September 11.
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. General Augustine Prevost, in command of these troops from his base at Savannah, was caught completely off guard 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.
Captain Moncrief of the Royal Engineers was tasked with constructing fortifications to repulse the invaders. Using 500-800 African American slaves working up to twelve hours per day, Moncrief constructed an entrenched defensive line, which included redoubts, nearly 1,200 feet (370 m) long, on the plains outside the city.
D'Estaing began landing troops below the city on September 12. By September 16 he was moving in on the city. Confident of victory, and believing that Maitland would be prevented from reaching Savannah by Lincoln, he offered Prevost the opportunity to surrender. Prevost temporized and asked 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 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, even though Lincoln had also arrived outside the city.
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 hardely 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.
Against the advice of many of his officers, d'Estaing launched the assault against the British position on the morning of October 9. The success depended in part on the secrecy of some its aspects, which were betrayed to Prevost well before the operations were supposed to begin around 4:00 am. Fog caused troops attacking the Spring Hill redoubt to get lost in the swamps, and it was nearly daylight when the attack finally got underway. The redoubt on the right side of the British works had been chosen by the French admiral in part because he believed it to be defended only by militia. In fact, it was defended by a combination of militia and Scotsmen from John Maitland's 71st Regiment of Foot, Fraser's Highlanders, who had distinguished themselves at Stono Ferry. The militia included riflemen, who easily picked off the white-clad French troops when the assault was underway. Admiral d'Estaing was twice wounded, and Polish cavalry officer Casimir Pułaski, fighting with the Americans, was mortally wounded. By the time the second wave arrived near the redoubt, the first wave was in complete disarray, and the trenches below the redoubt were filled with bodies. Attacks intended as feints against other redoubts of the British position were easily taken.
The second assault column was commanded by the Swedish Count Curt von Stedingk, who managed to reach the last trench. He later wrote in his journal I had the pleasure of planting the American flag on the last trench, but the enemy renewed its attack and our people were annihilated by cross-fire. He was forced back by overwhelming numbers of British troops and was pushed back with only some 20 men left; all, including himself, were wounded. He later wrote, The moment of retreat with the cries of our dying comrades piercing my heart was the bitterest of my life.
Aftermath and legacy
The battle was one of the bloodiest of the war. While Prevost claimed Franco-American losses at 1,000 to 1,200, the actual tally of 244 killed, nearly 600 wounded and 120 taken prisoner, was severe enough. British casualties were comparatively light: 40 killed, 63 wounded, and 52 missing. Sir Henry Clinton wrote, "I think that this is the greatest event that has happened the whole war," and celebratory cannons were fired when the news reached London.
It was perhaps because of the Siege's reputation as a famous British victory that Charles Dickens chose the siege of Savannah as the place for Joe Willet to be wounded (losing his arm) in the novel Barnaby Rudge.
Three currently-existing Army National Guard units (118th FA, 131st MP and 263rd ADA) are derived from American units that participated in the Siege of Savannah. There are only thirty current U.S. Army units with lineages that go back to the colonial era.
In 2005, archaeologists with the Coastal Heritage Society and the LAMAR Institute discovered portions of the British fortifications at Spring Hill, the site of the brunt of the combined French and American attack on October 9. The find represents the first tangible remains of the battlefield. In 2008, the CHS/LAMAR Institute archaeology team discovered another segment of the British fortifications in Madison Square. A detailed report of that project is available on line in pdf format from the Coastal Heritage Society website. Coastal Heritage Society archaeologists are currently finalizing a follow-up grant project in Savannah, which examined several outlying portions of the battlefield. These included the position of the Saint-Domingue reserve troops at the Jewish Burying Ground west of Savannah.
An archaeology presentation and public meeting took place in February 2011 to gather suggestions for managing Savannah's Revolutionary War battlefield resources. Archaeologist Rita Elliott from the Coastal Heritage Society revealed Revolutionary War discoveries in Savannah stemming from the two "Savannah Under Fire" projects conducted from 2007 to 2011. The projects uncovered startling discoveries, including trenches, fortifications, and battle debris. The research also showed that residents and tourists are interested in these sites. Archaeologists described the findings and explored ways to generate economic income which could be used for improving the quality of life of area residents.
Influence on Haitian revolutionaries
The battle is much remembered in Haitian history; the Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue, consisting of over 500 gens de couleur—free men of color from Saint-Domingue—fought with the Americans.
Henri Christophe, who later declared himself to be the king of (northern) Haiti, while a republic was established in southern Haiti, may have been a 12-year-old drummer among these troops. (As a child, he was a slave.)
Many other less famous individuals from Saint-Domingue served in this regiment and formed the officer class of the rebel armies in the Haitian Revolution, especially in the northern province around today's Cap-Haïtien, where the unit was recruited.
- Franco-American casualties total 800 (of which 650 are French) plus 120 prisoners. Marley pg. 323
- Marley pg. 323
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- George P. Clark (1980). "The Role of the Haitian Volunteers at Savannah in 1779: An Attempt at an Objective View". Phylon 41 (4): 356–366. doi:10.2307/274860. JSTOR 274860.
- Morrill, p. 60
- American Swedish Historical Museum: Yearbook 1957, p. 34, at Google Books
- "Siege of Savannah During the American Revolutionary War". historynet.com. Retrieved 2015-05-15.
- Morrill, p. 64
- Department of the Army, Lineage and Honors, 118th Field Artillery.
- Department of the Army, Lineage and Honors, 131st Military Police Company.
- Department of the Army, Lineage and Honors, 263rd Air Defense Artillery.
- "The Greatest Event That has Happened The Whole War" (PDF). Thelamarinstitute.org. Retrieved 2016-07-24.
- "Savannah Under Fire, 1779" (PDF). Thelamarinstitute.org. Retrieved 2016-07-24.
- "Sav Under Fire Boundaries 2011 Report.pdf" (PDF). Thelamarinstitute,org. Retrieved 2016-07-24.
- Morrill, Dan (1993). Southern campaigns of the American Revolution. Nautical & Aviation Publishing. ISBN 1-877853-21-6.
- Marley, David. Wars of the Americas: A Chronology of Armed Conflict in the New World, 1492 to the PresentABC-CLIO (1998). ISBN 0-87436-837-5
- Reynolds, Jr., William R. (2012). Andrew Pickens: South Carolina Patriot in the Revolutionary War. Jefferson NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. ISBN 978-0-7864-6694-8.
- French free colored participation in the Siege of Savannah
- Summary of Archaeological Finds at Springhill Redoubt
- Pictures of the "Chasseurs Volontaires" monument, by James Mastin, located in Franklin Square, Savannah, Georgia
- J. E. Kaufmann (2004). Fortress America. Tomasz Idzikowski (illus.). Da Capo Press. pp. 123–124. ISBN 978-0-306-81294-1.