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

CHAPTER XII.

GENERAL LINCOLN, at length strengthened by considerable reinforcements of the militia, came to the resolution of acting offensively.

A considerable detachment (nearly one thousand and five hundred, all militia except one hundred regulars) was placed under the orders of general Ashe, who was directed to take post opposite to Augusta. Before Ashe reached the place of his destination, the British troops fell back from Augusta, and, crossing Brier Creek, encamped at Hudson’s Ferry, twenty-four miles above Ebenezer, then the head-quarters of the royal army.

The abandonment of Augusta very much gratified Lincoln, who was extremely anxious to cover the upper parts of the state, for the double purpose of reducing the enemy to narrower limits, and uniting to his arms the hardy sons of the west. He therefore ordered Ashe to pass the river, and to place himself behind Brier Creek, where it falls into the Savannah; secured in his front by the creek, on his left by the river, he could only be assailed on his right. To enable him to explore accurately this quarter, a squadron of dragoons was annexed to his corps, and to give to his condition the utmost activity, the baggage of the detachment, was ordered to be removed to the north side of the Savannah.

General Prevost was not at a loss for the motives of this operation, nor insensible to its consequences.

He determined without delay to dislodge Ashe from the position he had taken. To conceal his real object, he made some demonstrations of crossing the Savannah with his main body, when the detachment prepared to strike at general Ashe, advanced upon Brier Creek. Major Macpherson openly moved along the main road, and attracted, as was intended, the undeviating attention of the American brigadier, while lieutenant colonel Prevost, by an occult march of fifty miles, forded the creek fifteen miles above our position, and fell suddenly in its rear. General Elbert,[note 33] with the band of continentals, made a brave but ineffectual stand. They were made prisoners, and the whole body put to the rout, with the loss of only five privates killed, and one officer and ten privates wounded. Great was the loss on the side of America; and, of those who did escape, only four hundred and fifty rejoined our army.

Lieutenant colonel Prevost did honor to himself, by the handsome manner in which he accomplished the enterprise committed to his conduct. While commendation is justly bestowed upon the British officer, censure cannot be withheld from the American commandant. The flattering prospect of recovering a lost state was dashed to pieces in an instant, by the culpable inattention of an officer, high in rank, highly entrusted, and imperatively summoned to take care that his country should not be injured by his negligence; yet it was injured, and that too, while the late terrible blow, sustained from the cause by general Howe, was fresh in recollection, and while the wounds there received were still bleeding.

Relieved, by this decisive victory, of all apprehension heretofore entertained, of the stability of the change effected in Georgia, the British general reestablished, by proclamation, the royal government, as it existed on the commencement of the revolution, and renewed his endeavors to rekindle the spirit of loyalty, which had been very much damped by the evacuation of Augusta, the victory of Perkins, and the menacing movement of general Lincoln.

Disaster upon disaster called for increased vigor in our counsels. This manly disposition happily ensued. John Rutledge, who had taken an early and distinguished part in the revolution, was called to the chair of government in South Carolina, and invested with dictatorial power. An accomplished gentleman, a profound statesman, a captivating orator, decisive in his measures, and inflexibly firm, he infused his own lofty spirit into the general mass. The militia rallied around the American standard; and general Lincoln soon found himself in strength to resume the judicious plan of holding Augusta and the upper country of Georgia.

About this time the legislature of Georgia was to convene in Augusta. To protect it was a weighty consideration with the American general, whose force had increased to five thousand men. Leaving, therefore, one thousand under general Moultrie, for the defence of the posts of Perrysburg and the Black Swamp, Lincoln decamped on the 23d of April for Augusta. The British general observed this movement, with those emotions it was calculated to excite; nor did he pause a moment in taking the resolution to counteract it. To advance upon Augusta was the plan which caution suggested, and which policy dictated; for, although inferior in numbers, he far excelled in the character of his troops, in the quality of his arms, and in the abundance of every thing requisite to preserve the health, strength, and spirit, of his soldiers. Battle, without delay, was the true system for a general thus situated, more especially, as conquest, not defence, was his object. Believing that he could compel Lincoln to relinquish his plan, without the hazard of engaging him, remote from a place of safety, and with inferior numbers, he determined to cross the Savannah, and to threaten Charleston. In a few days after Lincoln’s decampment, the British general passed this river, and pressed with vigor upon our posts of Perrysburg and the Black Swamp, which were successively evacuated. Driving general Moultrie before him, Prevost continued to advance with rapidity. Moultrie sat down at Tulifinny bridge, leaving lieutenant colonel Laurens with a small party of continentals, and a body of the militia at Coosawhatchie bridge to defend that pass. Laurens executed his orders with zeal and gallantry, but at length was obliged to fall back upon Moultrie, his troops having suffered considerably, and himself having been wounded. Captain Shubrick conducted our retreat much to his honor. Communication of Prevost’s passage across the river, and of his subsequent operations, was, from day to day, transmitted to the American commander, who, penetrating his enemy’s design, sternly held his original course, detaching three hundred light infantry under colonel Harris to general Moultrie. The unexpected facility with which the British general moved, the slight resistance opposed to him, the favorable intelligence received, and the fame of the signal success which had heretofore crowned his exertions, from the first moment of the invasion, combined, produced a conclusion in his favor too flattering to be resisted.

He converted a feint into a fixed operation, and henceforward marched on with the avowed purpose of seizing the metropolis of South Carolina. Nor was this avowal unsupported by appearances. For Lincoln, by steady adherence to his original purpose, founded on his just conviction, that the enemy’s entrance into South Carolina meant nothing more than to draw him from Augusta, had now gone too far to return and afford timely interposition.

Governor Rutledge, with the reserve militia, had established himself at Orangeburg, a central position, perfectly adapted to the convenient reception and distribution of this species of force, which is ever in a state of undulation.

He was far on Prevost’s left, and, like Lincoln, was hors de combat. Moultrie only could gain the town: and Moultrie’s self was a host; but his force was not of that patient and stubborn sort, who would dig and fight, and fight and dig, systematically. Charleston, too, was unprepared for an attack by land, heretofore providing defence on the outer side only; and as to this mode of protection, through the blunder of sir Henry Clinton, and the gallantry of general Moultrie in 1776, the reputation of adequacy had been attached; and the inhabitants reposed with confidence in their security until the unequivocal demonstration of general Prevost’s intention with his rapid approach expelled their groundless belief. Here mark the fallibility of man; observe the difference between the mediocre and the consummate soldier. The British general had been led, as before explained, to change stratagem into a fixed invasion. The boldness of the design, and the rapidity of its execution, produced the state of things which occasioned this change of plan. Ought not the same boldness and the same rapidity to have been continued to the completion of the enterprise? Common sense forbids a negative to the interrogation; and yet this general, this conqueror, stops about half way for two days.

On the third he advances; but forty-eight hours lost, in his situation, gave a finishing blow to his grand project.

The father of the state had removed from Orange burg with the reserve, to throw himself into Charleston if possible. What was before impossible, had become possible by the forty-eight hours’ delay of Prevost. Rutledge joined Moultrie; and Charleston became safe.[note 34]

Pulaski, a name dear to the writer, from a belief in his worth, and a knowledge of the difficulties he always had to encounter, entered also; and on the same day which brought the British army before the town. All that was wanted for its defence was now done. Persuaded that the means in possession were adequate, if faithfully applied, and feeling the noble ardor which men, defending their houses in which the precious treasures of wives and children are deposited, always feel, the spirit resulting from such emotions spread through every rank, and formed a phalanx of courage impenetrable to the fiercest assaults. Such was now the condition of the besieged town; and such had been the error of the victorious general.

The time gained by the Americans had been most advantageously used. Defences on the land side had been pushed with unceasing exertion, and though not complete were formidable. Masters and servants, boys and girls, mixed in the honorable work of self-defence. The beloved governor and heroic defender of Fort Moultrie, by their dictation and their example, reinspired effort, even when drooping nature begged repose. On the day subsequent to investiture the town was summoned, and favorable terms of surrender were proffered. These were rejected, and our works permitted to advance during the discussion. The rejection surely ought to have been followed by immediate storm or retreat.

Neither took place: the whole day was intentionally on the part of the besieged, and erroneously on the part of the besieger, spent in the adjustment of terms. Thus twelve precious hours more were gained. The correspondence closed with the proposal on our part, of neutrality to the town and state during the war, the peace to fix its ultimate condition. This offer was rejected by the British general; and he followed its rejection, by retiring from before the town during the night. What train of reasoning could have produced the rejection of the proposition to surrender the town on condition of neutrality by a general situated as was Prevost, I confess myself incapable of discerning.

The moment he found that the works could not be carried, he ought to have exerted himself to procure possession by negotiation; and certainly the condition of neutrality was in itself eligible. It disarmed South Carolina for the war; the effect of which upon her infant sister, already nearly strangled, would have been conclusive; and congress would have soon found, that her army, unaided by South Carolina, could not be maintained in Georgia.

No British force would have been retained from the field, to preserve the neutral state; and the sweets of peace, with the allurements of the British commerce, would probably have woven a connexion with Great Britain, fatal in its consequences, to the independence of the southern states.

At all events, by the rejection of the proposal, when about to withdraw with his army, the expedition became abortive. Whereas acceptance of the proffered condition would have obviated the disgrace attached to such a result, and deprived general Lincoln of a great portion of his force, and of all the arms, stores, &c. deposited in Charleston. General Prevost had scarcely crossed the Ashley river before the American general, returning from Augusta, by forced marches reached Dorchester, the threshold of the isthmus leading to Charleston, made by the Ashley and Cooper rivers, which, uniting below the town, pass to the sea.

Reposing a few days in his camp, on the south of Ashley river, Prevost commenced his retreat along the sea-coast, which, with his maritime means, was readily and safely effected.

He first entered James’ Island, then John’s Island, where he established himself, waiting for a supply of stores, daily expected from New York.

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