Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 15: The British Shift the Front: War in Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia (November 1778 to June 1779) - The Life of George Washington
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER 15: The British Shift the Front: War in Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia (November 1778 to June 1779) - John Marshall, The Life of George Washington 
The Life of George Washington. Special Edition for Schools, ed. Robert Faulkner and Paul Carrese (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The British Shift the Front: War in Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia (November 1778 to June 1779)
Invasion of Georgia.—General Howe defeated by Colonel Campbell.—Savannah taken.—Sunbury surrenders.—Georgia reduced.—General Lincoln takes command of the Southern army.—Major Gardener defeated.—Tories in South Carolina defeated.—Ash surprised and defeated.—Prevost marches to Charleston.—Battle at Stono ferry.—Invasion of Virginia.
1779It being no longer practicable to engage soldiers by voluntary enlistment, and government not daring to force men into the service for three years, or during the war, the vacant ranks were scantily supplied by drafts for nine, twelve, and eighteen months. A great proportion of the troops were discharged in the course of each year; and, except that the veteran officers remained, almost a new army was to be formed for every campaign.
Although the commander-in-chief pressed Congress and the state governments continually and urgently to take timely measures for supplying the places of those who were leaving the service, the means adopted were so slow and ineffectual in their operation, that the season for action always arrived before the preparations for it were completed. It was not until the 23d of January that Congress passed the resolution authorizing the commander-in-chief to re-enlist the army, nor until the 9th of March that the requisition was made on the several states for their quotas.1
1778The British arms had heretofore been chiefly directed against the Northern and Middle states—the strongest and most populous parts of the Union. Anticipating confidently the recovery of all the colonies, the government had formed no plan of partial conquest. The loss of the army commanded by Burgoyne, the alliance of America with France, and the unexpected obstinacy with which the contest was maintained, had diminished this confidence; and, when the pacific overtures made in 1778 were rejected, the resolution seems to have been taken to change the object of their military operations, and to direct their arms against the Southern states, on which, it was believed, a considerable impression might be made.
With this view, Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell2 sailed from the Hook about the last of November, 1778. He reached the isle of Tybee on the 23d of December, and, in a few days, the fleet passed the bar, and anchored in the Savannah.
The troops of South Carolina and Georgia were commanded by General Robert Howe,3 who, in the preceding summer, had invaded East Florida.4 The diseases incident to the climate having forced him to hasten out of the country, his army, consisting of six or seven hundred continental troops, and a few hundred militia, encamped in the neighborhood of the town of Savannah, situated on the southern bank of the river bearing that name.
Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell effected a landing on the 29th, about three miles below the town; upon which Howe formed his line of battle. His left was secured by the river; and a morass, believed to be impassable, stretched along the whole extent of his front, so far to the right as, in the opinion of the General, to cover that wing.
Campbell advanced on the great road leading to Savannah; and, about three in the afternoon, appeared in sight of the American army. While making dispositions to dislodge it, he was informed by a negro of a private path leading through the swamp round the right of the American line to its rear. A party was detached under Sir James Baird, which entered the morass by this path, unperceived by Howe.
Sir James, on emerging from the swamp, attacked and dispersed a body of militia, which gave the first notice to the American General of the danger which threatened his rear. At the same instant, the British in his front were put in motion, and their artillery began to play upon him. A retreat was immediately ordered, and the flying troops were exposed to a most destructive fire from the detachment which had gained their rear. The few who escaped crossed the Savannah at Zubly’s ferry, and took refuge in South Carolina.
The victory was complete. About one hundred Americans were killed, and thirty-eight officers and four hundred and fifteen privates, were taken. Forty-eight pieces of cannon, twenty-three mortars, and all the military stores, were the fruits of this victory, which was obtained at the expense of seven killed and nineteen wounded.
No military force remained in Georgia, except the garrison of Sunbury, whose retreat to South Carolina was cut off. All the lower part of the state was in possession of the British, who, to secure the conquest they had made, treated the people with a lenity as wise as it was humane. In pursuance of a proclamation inviting the inhabitants to repair to the British standard, and promising protection, military corps were formed, and posts of loyalists established for a considerable distance up the river.
Jan. 1779The northern frontier being supposed to be settled into a state of quiet, Colonel Campbell was about to proceed against Sunbury, when he received intelligence that the place had surrendered to General Prevost.5
Sir Henry Clinton had ordered that officer to co-operate from East Florida with Colonel Campbell. He entered the southern frontier of Georgia, and invested Sunbury, which surrendered at discretion. He then took command of the army, and detached Colonel Campbell to Augusta, which fell without resistance, and the whole state of Georgia was reduced.
While the expedition commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell was preparing at New York, Congress was meditating the conquest of East Florida.
In compliance with the solicitations of the delegates from South Carolina and Georgia, Howe had been ordered, in September 1778, to repair to the head quarters of General Washington; and Lincoln,6 whose military reputation was high, had been directed to take command in the southern department. In pursuance of this resolution, Lincoln repaired to Charleston, where he found the military affairs of the country in utter derangement. Congress had established no continental military-chest, and the army was dependent for supplies entirely on the state. The militia, too, though in continental service, were governed by the military code of the state.
When Lincoln received intelligence that the British fleet had appeared off the coast, the militia of North Carolina had reached Charleston; but were unarmed, and Congress had been unable to provide magazines.7 Arms were not delivered to them by the states, until it was too late to save the capital of Georgia. On receiving them, he proceeded towards the scene of action. On his march, he was informed of the victory gained over Howe; and was soon afterwards joined by the remnant of the defeated army, at Purysburg, a small town on the north side of the Savannah, where he established his head quarters on the 30th of January.
The effective force of Prevost must have amounted to at least three thousand British, and this number was augmented by loyalists who joined him in Georgia. The American army rather exceeded three thousand six hundred men, of whom about one thousand were continental troops, part of them new levies;8 and the rest militia.
Feb. 1779Major Gardner, who had been detached with two hundred men to take possession of the island of Port Royal, was attacked by General Moultrie, and compelled to retreat with considerable loss. This repulse checked the designs of Prevost on South Carolina.
The loyalists of the west had been invited to assemble and join the king’s standard at Augusta. About seven hundred embodied themselves on the frontiers of South Carolina, and were marching for that place when they were attacked at Kittle Creek, by Colonel Pickens, and defeated with considerable loss. Colonel Boyd, their leader, was killed, and five of those who escaped were executed as traitors. About three hundred reached Augusta. This defeat broke the spirits of the tories for a time.9
As the American army gained strength by reinforcements of militia, General Lincoln began to contemplate offensive operations. He had meditated an attempt on Augusta; but before he was in readiness to make it, Prevost withdrew his troops from that place to Hudson’s ferry. Lincoln then ordered General Ash to cross the Savannah, and take post near the confluence of Briar Creek with that river. This camp was believed to be unassailable.
March 1779Prevost, having determined to dislodge the Americans from this position, drew the attention of General Lincoln to his preparations for crossing the Savannah, and amused General Ash with a feint10 on his front, while Lieutenant-Colonel Prevost11 made a circuit of about fifty miles, and, crossing Briar Creek fifteen miles above the ground occupied by Ash, came down unsuspected on his rear, and was almost in his camp before his approach was perceived. The continental troops under General Elbert were drawn out to oppose him, and aided by one regiment of North Carolina militia, commenced the action with great gallantry, but were soon overpowered by numbers, and the survivors became prisoners of war. The main body of the militia threw away their arms and fled in confusion. The killed and taken amounted to between three and four hundred men. General Elbert and Colonel M’Intosh were among the prisoners.
This victory was supposed to give the British such complete possession of Georgia, that a proclamation was issued the succeeding day, for the establishment of civil government.
These disasters animated the state of South Carolina to still greater exertions. The legislature passed an act authorizing the executive to do whatever should be thought necessary for the public good; and the militia were called out in great numbers.
General Lincoln resumed his plan for the recovery of the upper posts of Georgia; and, on the 23d of April, marched up the Savannah. The high waters seemed to present an impassable barrier to an invading army; and a small military force was thought insufficient for the defence of the country. Eight hundred militia and two hundred continental troops were left with General Moultrie for this purpose.
In the hope of recalling Lincoln by alarming him for Charleston, Prevost crossed the Savannah with three thousand men, and obliged Moultrie to retreat. The militia would not defend the passes, and deserted in numbers. An express was despatched to Lincoln, but he, not believing that Prevost had any real designs on Charleston, detached three hundred light troops to the aid of Moultrie, and crossing the Savannah, continued his march down the south side of that river towards the capital of Georgia.
Though the original purpose of Prevost had been limited to the defence of Georgia, the opposition he encountered was so inconsiderable, and the assurances of the favorable dispositions of the people were so confidently given by those who flocked to his standard, that he was emboldened to hazard the continuation of his march to Charleston.
On receiving intelligence of this threatening aspect of affairs, Lincoln recrossed the Savannah, and hastened to the relief of South Carolina.
Had Prevost continued his march with the rapidity with which it was commenced, Charleston must have fallen; but he consumed two or three days in deliberating on his future measures; and while he deliberated, that state of things which determined him to proceed was rapidly changing. Fortifications on the land-side were vigorously prosecuted, the neighboring militia were called into town, the reinforcements detached by Lincoln, with the remnant of the legion of Pulaski, arrived, and the Governor, on the 10th of May, entered the town at the head of some troops who had been stationed at Orangeburg.12 The next day Prevost crossedMay 11 Ashly river, and encamped just without cannon-shot of the works. The town was summoned to surrender, and the day was spent in sending and receiving flags. The terms of capitulation not being agreed on, the garrison prepared to sustain an assault. But Prevost came to the prudent resolution of decamping that night and recrossing Ashly river.
The British army retired slowly through the islands south of Charleston. Soon after the commencement of their retreat, General Lincoln arrived; and, on the 20th of June, attacked a fortified camp on the main, at Stono ferry, which was defended by eight hundred men, commanded by Colonel Maitland. Strong reinforcements arriving from the island, the assailants retired with the loss of twenty-four officers and one hundred and twenty-five privates killed and wounded. That of the British was stated to be rather less.
The heat now became too excessive for active service; and Prevost, after establishing a post on the island contiguous to Port Royal and St. Helena, retired into Georgia and East Florida.
The American militia dispersed, leaving General Lincoln at the head of about eight hundred men, with whom he retired to Sheldon, where his primary object was to prepare for the next campaign.
Orders had been given to reinforce the southern army with Bland’s and Baylor’s regiments of cavalry,13 and the new levies of Virginia. The execution of these orders was suspended by the invasion of that state.
On the 9th of May, a fleet, commanded by Sir George Collier, convoying a body of troops commanded by General Mathew, entered the Chesapeake, and anchored the next day in Hampton Roads.
Virginia had raised a regiment of artillery for the performance of garrison duty, which had been distributed along the eastern frontier in slight fortifications, defensible only on the side of the water. Fort Nelson, garrisoned by about one hundred and fifty soldiers, commanded by Major Matthews, was designed for the protection of Norfolk and Portsmouth, and a marine yard at Gosport, a little above them.
On the 10th the fleet entered Elizabeth river, and landed a body of troops three miles below the fort, which was evacuated in the night. From his head quarters at Portsmouth, General Mathew detached small parties to the neighboring towns, who took possession of military and naval stores to a great amount, and of several vessels richly laden. After destroying what could not be removed, he returned to New York.
[1. ]Under the Continental Congress and the Articles of Confederation, the federal (national) government had no power of direct taxation; it could only request money (and, during the war, materiel) from the state governments, assigning a proportional quota for each state and issuing a requisition for that amount. Only with the 1787 Constitution could the national government directly levy and collect taxes.
[2. ]Archibald Campbell (1739–91), from 1775 Lieutenant Colonel in the British army.
[3. ]Robert Howe (1732–96) of North Carolina, from 1776 Brigadier General, and from 1777 Major General, in the Continental army.
[4. ]From the Treaty of Paris (1763) settling the Seven Years’ War in Europe and the French and Indian War in America, Spain had ceded its control of East Florida (now Florida and southern Georgia) to Britain.
[5. ]Augustine Prevost (1723–86), from 1779 Major General in the British army.
[6. ]Benjamin Lincoln (1733–1810) of Massachusetts, from 1777 Major General in the Continental army.
[7. ]Stores of ammunition or other military supplies.
[8. ]Newly drafted (compulsory service) troops.
[9. ]Native-born Americans who sided with the British, usually termed Loyalists, were also called Tories—a term from British politics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for supporters of Crown and Church, as against Whigs who sought republican reforms of the established orders; during the American Revolutionary War opponents of war and independence were called Tories, and proponents, Whigs.
[10. ]A troop movement intended to deceive the enemy.
[11. ]Younger brother of General Prevost (see note 5 above), also of the British army.
[12. ]John Rutledge (1739–1800) of South Carolina, from January 1779 the first patriot Governor of South Carolina.
[13. ]Colonels Theodorick Bland and George Baylor of Virginia, in 1779 commanders, respectively, of the First and Third Continental Dragoons (mounted infantry).