Life of Major General Henry Lee
Cecil B. Hartley
Lee is sent to headquarters—Witnesses the surrender of Cornwallis—Returns to General Greene with despatches from Washington—Wayne's operations in Georgia—Contests with the Indians—Final reconquest of Georgia—Wayne rejoins Greene—Greene's operations in South Carolina—Final reconquest of South Carolina—Death of Colonel Laurens—Lee's attempt on St. John's Island—He obtains leave of absence, and returns to Virginia.
IMMEDIATELY after the battle of Eutaw, Lee was sent with despatches from General Greene to Washington's headquarters at Yorktown, the siege of which place was terminated by the surrender of Lord Cornwallis, soon after Lee's arrival in camp. Lee tells us in his “Memoirs” that he was present at the surrender. The object of Lee's mission was to gain the assistance of the French fleet in the operations of General Greene in the South. As soon as it was ascertained that the Count Le Grasse would not take under convoy the troops destined to reinforce the southern army, and would not assist in the recovery of Charleston, he was directed to return with the despatches of the Commander-in-chief.
After his return, the war in the South was actively carried on. General Wayne was detached from the main army to recover the State of Georgia, in which the British still held some posts.
When General Wayne entered Georgia, the British troops in that State retired to the town of Savannah; and the Americans advanced to Ebenezer. Though inferior to their enemy in numbers, they interrupted his communications with the country, and even burned some magazines which had been collected and deposited under the protection of his guns.
Not receiving the aids from the militia which he had expected, Wayne pressed Greene for reinforcements, which that officer was unable to furnish, until Lieutenant Colonel Posey arrived from Virginia with about two hundred men. He proceeded immediately to Georgia, and reached the camp at Ebenezer on the 1st of April.
These troops, though new levies, were veteran soldiers, who, having served the times for which they enlisted, had become the substitutes of men who were designated, by lot, for tours of duty they were unwilling to perform. Being commanded by old officers of approved courage and experience, the utmost confidence was to be placed in them; and Wayne, though still inferior to his enemy in numbers, sought for opportunities to employ them.
The Indians, who occupied the southern and western parts of Georgia, were in the habit of assembling annually at Augusta, for the purpose of receiving those presents which were indispensable to the preservation of British influence over them. The usual time for holding these meetings was arrived; but the Americans being in possession of Augusta, it was necessary to transfer them to a British post, and the Indians were invited to keep down the south side of the Altamaha to its mouth, whence they were to be conveyed through the inland passage to Savannah. Arrangements had been made forbringing a strong party of Creeks and Choctaws, assembled on the south side of Altamaha, to Harris's bridge, on the Ogechee, about seven miles from that town, and Colonel Brown marched at the head of a strong detachment to convoy them into it. The Indians having quarrelled, instead of proceeding to Ogechee, returned home, and Brown marched back his detachment.
Wayne received intelligence of this movement, and, determined to avail himself of the opportunity given by this division of his enemy to fight him in detail, immediately put his army in motion. He was soon informed that Brown was on his return, and would reach Savannah that night. Disregarding the danger of throwing himself with inferior numbers between the two divisions of the British army, he determined on hazarding an action, and his advance, consisting of a troop of Virginia cavalry, commanded by Captain Hughes and Lieutenant Boyer, and a light company of Virginia infantry, commanded by Captain Parker, entered the road along which Brown was marching, about twelve at night, just as his front appeared in view. A vigorous charge was instantly made, which, being entirely unexpected, was completely successful. The British, struck with a panic, dispersed among the thickets and fled in all directions. Colonel Douglass and about forty men were killed, wounded, or taken. The American loss was five men killed and two wounded. The next day, after parading in view of Savannah, Wayne resumed his position at Ebenezer.
The resolution of Parliament against the farther prosecution of active war in America was followed by instructions to the officers commanding the armies of Britain, in consequence of which, propositions for the suspension of hostilities were made in the southern department, about the time that they were rejected in the north. The same motives continuing to influence congress, they were rejected in the south also, and the armies still continued to watch each other with vigilance.
To avoid surprise, Wayne frequently changed his ground, and was continually on the alert. While his whole attention was directed towards Savannah, an enemy entirely unlooked for came upon his rear, entered his camp in the night, and, had not his army been composed of the best materials, must have dispersed it.
A strong party of Creeks, led by a gallant warrior, Emistasigo, or Guristersego, instead of moving down on the south, side of the Altamaha, passed through the centre of Georgia with the determination of engaging the American posts. Marching entirely in the night, through unfrequented ways, subsisting on meal made of parched corn, and guided by white men, they reached the neighborhood of the American army then encamped at Gibbon's plantation, near Savannah, without being perceived, and made arrangements to attack it. In the night they emerged from the deep swamp in which they had been concealed, and, approaching the rear of the American camp with the utmost secrecy, reached it about three in the morning. The sentinel was killed before he could sound the alarm, and the first notice was given by the fire and the yell of the enemy. The Indians rushed into camp, and killing the few men they fell in with, seized the artillery. Fortunately some time was wasted in the attempt to turn the pieces on the Americans. Captain Parker, who commanded the light company, had been employed on a very fatiguing tour of duty near Savannah, and had returned that evening to camp. To allow his harassed soldiers some repose, he was placed in the rear near the artillery, and was asleep when the Indians entered the camp. Roused by the fire, and perceiving that the enemy was amidst them, he judiciously drew off his men in silence, and formed them with the quarter guard behind the house in which the general was quartered. Wayne was instantly on horseback, and believing the whole garrison from Savannah to be upon him, determined to repulse the enemy or die in the attempt. Parker was directed to charge immediately with the bayonet, and orders were despatched to Posey, the commanding officer in camp, to bring up the troops without delay. The orders to Parker were so promptly executed, that Posey, although he moved with the utmost celerity, could not reach the scene of action in time to join in it. The light troops and quarter guard under Parker, drove everything before them at the point of the bayonet. The Indians, unable to resist the bayonet, soon fled, leaving their chief, his white guides, and seventeen of his warriors dead upon the spot. Wayne, who accompanied his light troops, now first discovered the character, of his enemy, and adapted his pursuit to it. Yet only twelve prisoners were made. The general's horse was shot under him, and twelve privates were killed and wounded.[note 1]
This sharp conflict terminated the war in Georgia. Information was soon given of the determination to withdraw the British troops from Savannah; and arrangements being made, with the sanction of the civil government, for the security of such individuals as might remain in town, the place was evacuated. The regular troops retired to Charleston, and Colonel Brown conducted his loyalists through the islands into Florida. Wayne was directed to rejoin General Greene.
In South Carolina the American army maintained its position in front of Jacksonborough, and that of the British was confined to Charleston and its immediate vicinity. The situation of the ground as well as the condition of his army, was unfavorable to offensive operations on the part of General Greene; and General Leslie, who commanded in Charleston, was not strong enough to attempt the recovery of the lower country. While the two armies continued to watch each other, occasional enterprises were undertaken by detachments, in some of which a considerable degree of merit was displayed. In one of them, the corps of Marion, its general being attending in the legislature, was surprised and dispersed by the British Colonel Thompson; and in another, an English guard galley, mounting twelve guns, and manned with forty-three seamen, was captured by Captain Rudulph of the legion.
From the possession of the lower country of South Carolina, which was known to contain considerable quantities of rice and beef cattle, the army had anticipated more regular and more abundant supplies of food than it had been accustomed to receive. This hope was disappointed by the measures of the government.
The generals, and other agents acting under the authority of Congress, had been accustomed in extreme cases, which too frequently occurred, to seize provisions for the use of the armies. This questionable power had been exercised with forbearance, most commonly in concert with the government of the state, and under the pressure of such obvious necessity as carried its justification with it.
The war being transferred to the South at a time when the depreciation of paper money had deprived congress of its only fund, it became indispensably necessary to resort more generally to coercive means in order to procure subsistence for the troops. Popular discontent was the natural consequence of this odious measure, and the feelings of the people were communicated to their representatives. After the termination of the very active campaign of 1781 in Virginia, the legislature of that state passed a law prohibiting all impressment, “unless it be by warrant from the executive in time of actual invasion;” and the assembly of South Carolina, during the session at Jacksonborough, also passed a law forbidding impressment, and enacting, “that no other persons than those who shall be appointed by the governor for that purpose, shall be allowed or permitted to procure supplies for the army.”
The effect of this measure was soon felt. The exertions of the agent appointed by the governor failed to procure subsistence for the troops, and General Greene, after a long course of suffering, was compelled to relieve his urgent wants by an occasional recurrence to means forbidden by the law.
Privations, which had been borne without a murmur under the excitement of active military operations, produced great irritation during the leisure which prevailed after the enemy had abandoned the open field; and, in the Pennsylvania line, which was composed chiefly of foreigners, the discontent was aggravated to such a point as to produce a treasonable intercourse with the enemy, in which a plot is understood to have been laid for seizing General Greene and delivering him to a detachment of British troops, which would move out of Charleston for the purpose of favoring the execution of the design. It was discovered when it is supposed to have been on the point of execution; and a Sergeant Cornell, believed to be the chief of the conspiracy, was condemned to death by a court martial, and executed on the 22nd of April. Some others, among whom were two domestics of the general's family, were brought before the court on suspicion of being concerned in the plot, but the testimony was not sufficient to convict them; and twelve deserted the night after it was discovered. There is no reason to believe that the actual guilt of this transaction extended farther.
Charleston was held until the 14th of December. Previous to its evacuation, General Leslie had proposed a cessation of hostilities, and that his troops might be supplied with fresh provisions, in exchange for articles of the last necessity in the American camp. The policy of government being adverse to this proposition, General Greene was under the necessity of refusing his assent to it, and the British general continued to supply his wants by force. This produced several skirmishes with foraging parties, to one of which importance was given by the death of Lieutenant Colonel Laurens, whose loss was universally lamented.
This gallant and accomplished young gentleman had entered into the family of the Commander-in-chief at an early period of the war, and had always shared a large portion of his esteem. Brave to excess, he sought every occasion to render service to his country, and to acquire that military fame which he pursued with the ardor of a young soldier, whose courage seems to have partaken largely of that romantic spirit which youth and enthusiasm produce in a fearless mind. No small addition to the regrets occasioned by this loss was derived from the reflection that he fell unnecessarily, in an unimportant skirmish, in the last moments of the war, when his rash exposure to the danger which proved fatal to him could no longer be useful to his country.
During these last operations in the southern war, Lee took as usual an active part, and on one occasasion was near accomplishing a brilliant feat by surprising a British force stationed on St. John's Island in the Ashely river. But the night was so excessively dark, that after landing on the island, the two divisions of the attacking force became separated, and the attempt was necessarily abandoned. Soon after this affair, Lee, having become incapable from ill health of continuing in command of the light troops, obtained leave of absence and returned to his home in Virginia.