The Battle of Briar Creek, Georgia — A Crushing Loss for American Forces in the South

March 3, 1779

The Battle of Briar Creek (1779) was a key battle in the Southern Campaign. British forces defeated Americans in Eastern Georgia, securing British control of the area.

Lt Colonel Archibald Campbell, American Revolution

Archibald Campbell. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Battle of Briar Creek Summary

The Battle of Briar Creek — also spelled as Brier Creek — was fought between the United States of America and Great Britain on March 3, 1779, near Sylvania in eastern Georgia, around the confluence of Briar Creek and the Savannah River, during the American Revolutionary War. British forces executed a surprise attack on American forces under the command of General John Ashe after Ashe positioned his troops near Briar Creek. The British took advantage of a gap in the American line and rushed in with fixed bayonets, causing the American militia to flee. The British easily routed the Americans and captured men and supplies. With the victory, the British retained their hold on Georgia.

Battle of Briar Creek Quick Facts

  • Date Started: The Battle of Briar Creek started on March 3, 1779.
  • Date Ended: The battle ended on March 3, 1779.
  • Location: The Battle of Briar Creek was fought in eastern Georgia, around the confluence of Brier Creek and the Savannah River.
  • Theater: The battle took place in the Southern Theater of the Revolutionary War.
  • Campaign: The Battle of Briar Creek was part of the Southern Campaign.
  • Who Won: Great Britain won the Battle of Briar Creek.

What led to the Battle of Briar Creek?

After the British surrendered at Saratoga, the British were forced to reassess their military strategy in America. Although the British had control of New York City and Philadelphia, the war was not going well in the North or in the Middle Colonies. Further, France declared war on Britain and pledged military and financial support to the United States. 

Believing there was strong Loyalist support in the South, General Henry Clinton, Commander-in-Chief of British forces in North America, devised a plan that relied on the idea that Loyalists would turn out and fight with the British. The goal was to capture the Southern Colonies, control the South, and force the rest of the American Colonies into submission.

As part of the strategy, he evacuated Philadelphia and sent troops to capture Savannah, Georgia. On June 18, 1778, the British occupation of Philadelphia ended as Clinton and around 15,000 men left the city and sailed to New York.

The British Open the Southern Campaign

Clinton sent Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell and 3,100 men from New York to Savannah, for the purpose of capturing the city. A second British force, led by General Augustine Provost, marched out of St. Augustine, in the British Colony of East Florida, toward Savannah.

British Forces Capture of Savannah at the First Battle of Savannah

On December 23, Campbell landed downriver from Savannah. The city was defended by a small force of 650 to 900 men, under the command of General Robert Howe. The Americans took defensive positions just south of Savannah, where they were surrounded by swamps, which Howe hoped would slow the British advance. The British found a path through the swamps on the right flank of the American line and attacked. The Americans were overwhelmed and quickly retreated. Within an hour, the British were in control of Savannah.

British Forces Capture Augusta

After the battle, Augustine Prevost arrived and reinforced Campbell. As Campbell’s superior, Prevost assumed command of the garrison at Savannah. A month later, Campbell marched toward Augusta, expecting to be joined by Loyalists and Native American Indians who were allied with the British. The response was nothing near what Campbel expected. During the march, he was harassed by American forces, under the command of General Andrew Williamson. However, Williamson was not able to stop Campbell and the British captured Augusta on January 29, 1779. 

American Victory at Kettle Creek

Soon after the British captured Augusta, Colonel John Boyd, a Loyalist, worked his way through the backcountry of North Carolina and South Carolina, gathering Loyalists who were willing to fight for the British. As he marched to Augusta, he was harassed by Patriot forces. When General Benjamin Lincoln deployed American forces around Augusta, Campbell decided to abandon the city and return to Savannah on February 13. Boyd was unaware and continued his march, crossing into Georgia. Boyd was also unaware that South Carolina forces led by Colonel Andrew Pickens were closing in to engage him. On the morning of February 14, Boyd and his men were on the march when they stopped near Kettle Creek in Wilkes County, Georgia, just long enough for Pickens to launch his attack. After intense fighting carried on for roughly an hour and a half, Boyd was shot and fell, mortally wounded. Seeing him fall, his men scattered and moved south. The Loyalists suffered heavy casualties and the Patriots captured around 75 men. Although the Battle of Kettle Creek was a small victory, it came less than two weeks after the American victory at the Battle of Beaufort and helped boost American morale in Georgia.

What happened at the Battle of Briar Creek?

While Pickens moved to attack Boyd, General Benjamin Lincoln made preparations to attack British forces and drive them out of Georgia. He targeted Augusta, and from his camp at Purrysburg, he deployed:

  • General Andrew Williamson and 1,000 men to the east side of the Savannah River, directly across from Augusta.
  • General Griffith Rutherford and 800 men went to the Black Swamp.
  • General John Ashe and Colonel Samuel Elbert marched to reinforce Williamson. Ashe had 1,400 North Carolina Militia under his command and Elbert had 100 Georgia Continentals. Ashe led the reinforcements and they arrived at Williamson’s position on February 13.
General Benjamin Lincoln, Illustration
Benjamin Lincoln. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

As American forces converged near Augusta on the 13th, Campbell, and the British left and marched to Savannah.

Although most of his men were inexperienced militia, Ashe pursued Campbell and crossed into Georgia on February 25. Two days later, he found the Freeman-Miller Bridge over Briar Creek had been burned by the British. The bridge was necessary to cross the creek, which was close to the Savannah River and surrounded by a deep swamp. 

Ashe ordered his men to start rebuilding the bridge and waited for reinforcements from Lincoln and Rutherford. Once they joined together, they planned to resume the pursuit of Campbell.

Campbell was near Hudson’s Ferry, a fortified British outpost 15 miles south of Briar Creek when he received orders from General Prevost to engage Ashe and his men. Prevost also sent reinforcements. Campbell and the officers devised a plan that included:

  1. A diversion — Major William Macpherson and his First Battalion of the Seventy-first Regiment, along with a Loyalist Militia, would occupy the south bank of Briar Creek and fire on the Americans with two cannons. 
  2. An attack on the American rear — Lieutenant Mark Prevost, The general’s younger brother, would attack the rear of the American forces with the Second Battalion of the Seventy-first, Captain Sir James Baird’s light infantry, three companies from the Sixtieth Regiment, a troop of mounted Loyalists, and 150 militia infantry. 

The rear of the American force included General David Bryant’s brigade, Lieutenant William Lytle’s light infantry, Elbert’s Georgia Continentals, three small cannons, and two hundred mounted Georgia militia under the command of Colonel Leonard Marbury. On March 1, some of Marbury’s men had spotted the British but the messenger they sent to warn Ashe’s camp was intercepted.

On March 3, Campbell’s men moved into position and attacked. They were within 150 yards when Elbert’s Continentals moved out and fired on them. During the fight, a gap appeared in the American line. The British took advantage and rushed into the gap with their bayonets fixed. The militia forces on the line panicked and fled. Elbert and the Continental Regulars held their ground but they were surrounded, forced to surrender, and captured.

Ashe tried to rally his men, but too many of the militia headed for the swamps and the Savannah River. Although many of them were able to escape by crossing the river on rafts or by swimming, some of them also drowned.

Significance of the Battle of Briar Creek

The Battle of Briar Creek is important to United States history because it was a significant victory for the British, allowing them to maintain control of Georgia. From there, they planned to move north and capture the rest of the Southern Colonies.

William Moultrie’s Account of the Battle of Brier Creek

The different divisions of our army formed several camps, one at Purrysburg, commanded by Maj. Gen. Lincoln, of between 3 and 4,000 men: one at Briar Creek, on the west side of the river commanded by Maj. Gen. Ashe, of about 2,300 men; and one at Williamson’s house, on Black Swamp, under Gen. Rutherford, of 7 or 800 men; besides Gen. Williamson’s division at Augusta of about 1200 men all these together made a pretty strong army, and we began to prepare to cross the river, and give the enemy battle; and Gen. Lincoln sent a messenger to Gen. Ashe, to meet him and myself at Gen. Rutherford’s camp, to hold a council of war; upon a plan of operations, and of crossing the river, and attacking the enemy: accordingly, about the first of March, Gens. Lincoln, Ashe, Rutherford, and myself, had a meeting, and we agreed to march the army from Purrysburg (first leaving a strong guard there, to watch the enemy’s motion) to Gen. Rutherford’s camp, and cross the river, to join Gen. Ashe; this being settled, Gen. Lincoln and myself returned to Purrysburg. At the council of war, in conversation with Gen. Ashe, he assured us that he thought himself perfectly safe where he was; that he had taken a good position on Briar Creek, that his camp was very secure; and that the enemy seemed to be afraid of him, believing his numbers to be much greater than they were; he only asked for a detachment of artillery, with a field-piece or two, which Gen. Lincoln immediately ordered, under the command of Major Grimkie. On the 3d of March, in the evening, to our great surprise and astonishment, Col. Eaton having swam the river with his horse, came full gallop into our camp, and told us that Gen. Ashe and his whole army were cut off: this to be sure occasioned grave faces in camp: presently after this, Gen. Lincoln received the following letter from Gen. Ash.

William Moultrie, Portrait
William Moultrie. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Ashe’s Letter to Benjamin Lincoln

I am sorry to inform you that at 3 o’clock, p.m. the enemy came down upon us in force what number I know not: the troops in my division did not stand fire for five minutes; many fled without discharging their pieces. I went with the fugitives half a mile and finding it impossible to rally the troops, I made my escape into the river swamp, and made up in the evening to this place; 2 officers and 2 soldiers came off with me; the rest of the troops, I am afraid, have fallen into the enemy’s hands, as they had but little further where they could fly to: luckily Major Grimkie had not got the artillery out of the boat so that I  shall keep them here with Gen. Rutherford’s brigade to defend this pass until I receive further orders from you. This instant Gen. Bryant and Col. Perkins arrived.

Since writing the above, a number of officers and soldiers have arrived: we have taken a man, who says he was taken by them, and would not take their oath, and was formerly under Lee to the Northward.  He informed there were 1,700 redcoats, in the action, also a number of new levies from New York, Georgia militia, and Florida scouts: that 1,500 men had marched up to Augusta, to fortify that place; that they are fortifying Hudson’s very strongly: that the day before they marched off, 7,000 men had arrived from New York. Gen. Bryant and Rutherford are of opinion that it is better to retreat to your quarters; therefore I am inclined to march tonight when we get all our fugitives over.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title The Battle of Briar Creek, Georgia — A Crushing Loss for American Forces in the South
  • Date March 3, 1779
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Briar Creek, Brier Creek, Augustin Prevost, Mark Prevost, Archibald Campbell, John Ashe, Benjamin Lincoln, William Moultrie
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 18, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 11, 2024