Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department, Volume One
Henry Lee

CHAPTER XI.

SINCE the expedition under sir Henry Clinton, in 1776, against Charleston, which had been completely baffled by the judicious arrangements of major general Lee, seconded by the gallant defence of Fort Moultrie, by the excellent officer whose immortal name it bears, then a colonel in the South Carolina line, the southern states had remained safe from hostile interruption, with the exception of some light predatory incursions from East Florida.

The squadron conveying lieutenant colonel Campbell appeared off the Tybee river in the latter part of December; and no time was lost by that active officer in effecting his debarkation, which took place on the 29th at Gerridge’s plantation, twelve miles up the river, and three miles below Savannah the capital of the state, situated on the south side of the river Savannah.

Major general Robert Howe commanded the American force in Georgia, consisting of some regulars, and such portion of the militia as he might be able to collect. At this period it is supposed he had under him one thousand and five hundred men, having considerably reduced his effective strength by an unsuccessful expedition to East Florida, from which he had just returned, and was now encamped in a position which seems to have been judiciously selected, one half mile from the town of Savannah, across the main road leading to it.

The ground was well adapted to his force, and was secured by advantages of art and nature. At a small distance in his front, extending parallel to it, was a lagoon, through which the road passed. The bridge over the rivulet, running through the lagoon, was destroyed to retard the enemy’s advance. His right was covered by a morass, thick set with woods, and interspersed with some houses occupied by riflemen; his left rested on the swamps of the river; and his rear was sustained by the town and old works of Savannah. To give additional strength to his position, he dug a trench from one morass to the other, a small distance in his front.

Thus posted, the American general coolly waited the approaching attack with his inferior force.

A small skirmish ensued as the British van emerged out of the low grounds; in which captain Campbell, of the 17th regiment, fell, much regretted.

The lieutenant colonel, having landed with the first division, occupied himself with the preparations for action. While reconnoitring our position, he accidentally learned, that a by-path within his view led through the swamp to our rear. Intelligence so acceptable was instantly applied to his plan of battle.

Having arrayed his troops in our front, sir James Baird was detached with the light infantry and the New York volunteers to gain our rear by moving occultly along the accidentally discovered path.

Waiting the effect of his operation, the British continued quiet in line of battle. Very soon sir James reached his destined point; when issuing out of the swamp he charged a body of militia stationed in our rear. This was the signal for general assault. The British line advanced with promptitude, driving our troops, broken and embarrassed by this unexpected attack in the rear, from their ground. The defeat was instantaneous and decisive. Howe was pursued through Savannah, and with a small part of his army escaped into South Carolina, losing before night five hundred and fifty men, killed and taken, with his artillery and baggage.

Never was a victory of such magnitude so completely gained, with so little loss, amounting only to seven killed and nineteen wounded. The town, fort, cannon, shipping and stores of every kind, fell into the hands of the victor; whose conduct to the inhabitants was peculiarly kind and amiable.

General Howe was, after a considerable lapse of time, brought before a court of inquiry, and acquitted.

However we must applaud the judgment displayed by the American general in selecting and improving his position; however we must honor his gallant determination to receive the enemy’s attack, with an inferior force; yet, as this resolution, in prudence, must have been formed in the advantages of his ground, we cannot excuse the negligence betrayed by his ignorance of the avenues leading to his camp.

How happens it, that he, who had been in command in that country for many months, should not have discovered the by-way passing to his rear, when lieutenant colonel Campbell contrived to discover it in a few hours? The faithful historian cannot withhold his condemnation of such supineness. Thus it is, that the lives of brave men are exposed, and the public interest sacrificed. Yet notwithstanding such severe admonitions, rarely does government honor with its confidence, the man whose merit is his sole title to preference: the weight of powerful connexions, or the arts of intriguing courtiers, too often bear down, unsupported, though transcendent, worth.

Brigadier general Prevost, having entered Georgia in conformity with his orders, invested Sunbury, which he soon compelled to surrender. Having placed a garrison in the fort, the brigadier continued his march to Savannah, and took upon himself the command of the united forces. He detached lieutenant colonel Campbell to Augusta, then a frontier town, and, like Savannah, situated on the southern banks of the same river. Meeting with no resistance, Campbell readily effected his object by possessing himself of the town. Thus, in the short period of one month, was the state of Georgia restored to the British crown.

General Prevost persevered in the lenient course adopted by lieutenant colonel Campbell, sparing the property, and protecting the persons of the vanquished. Nor was he disappointed in the reward due to policy, so virtuous and wise.

The affections of the people were enlisted on the side of the conqueror; and the youth flocked to the British standard.

From Augusta lieutenant colonel Hamilton, of the North Carolina regiment, advanced, with a suitable detachment, further west to crush all remaining resistance, and to encourage the loyalists to step forward and give their active aid in confirming the establishment of royal authority. Every attempt to interrupt the progress of this officer was ineffectual; and seven hundred loyalists imbodied with the determination to force their way to the British camp.

Colonel Pickens, of the South Carolina militia, true to his country, and correctly interpreting the movement under Hamilton, assembled his regiment and drew near to him for the purpose of counteracting his operations.

Finding this officer invulnerable, he suddenly turned from him to strike at the loyalists advancing towards Augusta. He fell in with them at Kettle creek, and instantly attacked them. The action was contested with zeal and firmness; when colonel Boyd, the commander of the loyalists, fell; and his death was soon followed by the route of his associates. Nevertheless, three hundred of the body contrived to effect their union with the British army.

This single, though partial check, was the only interruption of the British success from the commencement of the invasion.

The delegates in congress, from the states of South Carolina and Georgia, had some time before urged the sustitution of a more experienced commander of the southern department[note 30] in the place of general Howe.

This solemn application did not fail to engage the serious attention of that respectable body. Not only was the desired substitution made, but the states of Virginia and North Carolina were pressed, in the most forcible terms, to hasten succour to their afflicted sisters.

North Carolina obeyed with promptitude the demand of congress; and two thousand of her militia, under generals Ashe and Rutherford, reached Charleston before the expedition under lieutenant colonel Campbell was announced on the southern coast. But this auxiliary force was unarmed; North Carolina being very destitute of that primary article of defence. South Carolina, more provident, because more attractive from the wealth concentered in its capital, had in due time furnished herself with arms, but was indisposed to place them out of her control, especially as it was then uncertain whether she might not be the point of invasion.

The zeal displayed by North Carolina, while it entitled her to commendation, was thus unproductive of the expected effect. Nor until after the defeat of Howe was this force in readiness to repair to the theatre of action.

Major general Lincoln, of Massachusetts, had been selected by congress in the place of Howe.[note 31] This officer was a soldier of the revolution: his stock of experimental knowledge, of course, could not have been very considerable, although he had seen more service than most of our officers of the same standing. He had uniformly possessed the confidence of Washington, who had often intrusted him with important commands; and he was second to Gates at Saratoga, greatly contributing by his judicious and spirited conduct, to the happy issue of that momentous campaign. Upright, mild, and amiable, he was universally respected and beloved; a truly good man, and a brave and prudent, but not consummate, soldier. Lincoln hastened towards his post, and, having reached Charleston, bestowed his unremitted attention to the timely completion of the requisite arrangements for the defence of the south.

Here he heard of the descent of lieutenant colonel Campbell, and the disastrous overthrow of Howe. Hurried by this event he quickly reached the confines of Georgia, and having united the remains of the defeated army, with the troops of the two Carolinas, he established himself in Perrysburg, a small village on the northern side of the Savannah, about fifteen miles above the capital of Georgia.

The British force under Prevost at this period is stated to have been nearly four thousand; while that under Lincoln did not exceed three thousand and six hundred; of which, only eleven hundred were continentals.[note 32] The superiority of Prevost, especially in the quality of his troops, was in a great degree lost by their distribution, in different stations, from Savannah to Augusta, a distance of one hundred and forty miles. Nor would it have been a safe operation, had his force been concentered, to have passed the difficult river of Savannah, with its broad and deep swamps, in the face of Lincoln. The British general, satisfied for the present, with the possession of Georgia, devoted his mind and force to the preservation and confirmation of the fruits of his success. With this view, and to this end, he persevered in sustaining his long line of defence, although his enemy separated only by the river, kept his force compact.

About this time Prevost, availing himself of his naval aid, and of the interior navigation, made an establishment on the island of Port Royal, under major Gardner, with two hundred men. The object of this inexplicable movement could not then be ascertained; nor has it since been developed. Colonel, now general Moultrie, soon dislodged Gardner, with considerable loss, and would have annihilated the detachment, had not the want of ammunition prevented the victor from improving his advantage. The Charleston militia behaved admirably in this affair. The captains, Barnwell, Heyward, Rutledge, and lieutenant Wilkins, eminently distinguished themselves: the latter officer was killed.

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