Summary of the Capture of Savannah in 1778
The Capture of Savannah — or the First Battle of Savannah — was a battle between the United States of America and Great Britain that took place on December 29, 1778, in and around Savannah, Georgia. It was the first move in the British Southern Campaign, a strategy designed to capture the Southern Colonies, control the South, and force the rest of the American Colonies into submission. The first part of the plan was to capture Savannah, Georgia, which was defended by a small force of around 650 to 900 men, under the command of General Robert Howe.
On December 23, British forces under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell landed downriver from Savannah. Campbell had somewhere between 2,500 and 3,600 men under his command. Howe had his men take defensive positions just south of Savannah. The Americans were surrounded by swamps, which Howe hoped would slow the British advance.
Legend has it a local slave told Campbell there was a way through the swamp, on the right flank of the American line. On the 29th, the main body of the British force attacked the center of the American line — and sent a smaller contingent through the pass in the swamp. When the British contingent attacked, the American right was completely surprised and immediately collapsed. The Americans were overwhelmed and fell back. Within an hour, the British captured around 450 Americans and took control of Savannah. Howe and about 350 survivors escaped to South Carolina.
Quick Facts About the Capture of Savannah
- Date Started: The Capture of Savannah was fought on Thursday, October 29, 1778.
- Date Ended: The battle ended on October 29, 1778.
- Location: It was fought in Savannah, Georgia.
- Theater: The Capture of Savannah took place in the Southern Theater of the American Revolutionary War.
- Campaign: The battle was part of the British Southern Campaign.
- Who Won: Great Britain won the Capture of Savannah.
- Fun Fact: The Capture of Savannah is also known as the First Battle of Savannah, the Fall of Savannah, and the Battle of Brewton Hill.
What Happened at the Capture of Savannah?
After the British surrendered at Saratoga, the British had to reassess their entire 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.
British Southern Campaign
General Henry Clinton, Commander-in-Chief of British forces in North America, devised a plan to move the focus of the war to the South where there was Loyalist support. As part of the strategy, he decided to evacuate Philadelphia and send troops to capture Savannah. On June 18, 1778, the British occupation of Philadelphia ended. Clinton and around 15,000 men left the city and sailed to New York.
British and American Forces at Savannah
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.
General Robert Howe was in command of the American forces and had roughly 850 men under his command, both Continental Army soldiers and Georgia Militia.
Preparations for the First Battle of Savannah
On December 23, Campbell landed at Tybee Island, at the mouth of the Savannah River. He assessed the American forces and decided he had enough men to push forward with an attack
Howe held a council of war and it was decided to stay and defend the city, instead of evacuating and moving north to meet up with General Benjamin Lincoln. Howe positioned his men on the south side of Savannah, along Sea Island Road — present-day Wheaton Street. However, he made a critical mistake by leaving a passage through the swamp on his right flank completely unguarded.
On the right of the American line, where the pass through the swamp was, were South Carolina Continentals under the command of Isaac Huger and William Thompson. Although they were soldiers in the Continental Army, they were inexperienced. On the left were Georgia Continentals and Georgia Militia, under the command of Samuel Elbert. Elbert and his men were also inexperienced.
The First Battle of Savannah Begins
Six days later, on December 29, Campbell landed his forces east of the city at Girardeau’s Plantation near Brewton Hill and marched on the American forces. The British were about 800 yards from the American line when they formed their own lines.
Campbell had two battalions of the 71st Highland Regiment, two Hessian regiments — von Wissenbach and von Wöllwarth — and four companies of Loyalists, most of who were from New York.
At some point, Campbell found out there was an opportunity to flank the small American force and quickly capture Savannah. He was informed by a slave there was an unguarded pass through the swamp on the right side of the American line. Campbell sent around 350 Light Infantry under the command of James Baird through the pass in the swamp. Baird also had 250 Loyalists with him. The slave led them through the swamp to the American position — the Americans were completely surprised.
Campbell sent the main body against the center of the American line at the same time Baird and his men attacked the right flank. When Baird attacked, the Americans fled and the entire line collapsed. During the retreat, the Georgia Brigade, under the command of General Lachlan McIntosh, was cut off by the British and suffered heavy casualties.
Americans Retreat and the British Capture of Savannah
Howe ordered a retreat almost immediately. Most of those who survived or were not captured escaped to South Carolina. Some escaped by swimming across Yamacraw Creek. Writing about the American retreat, Campbell said, “…their Retreat was rapid beyond Conception.” The Americans also lost all their supplies.
The Aftermath of the First Battle and Capture of Savannah
After the battle, Prevost arrived and reinforced Campbell. A month later, Campbell marched to Augusta and captured it on January 29, 1779. Campbell occupied Augusta for about two weeks. However, he found that Loyalist support was not as strong as Clinton thought it was, and American forces in South Carolina were a threat to his position. As a result, Campbell returned to Savannah.
Why Does the Capture of Savannah Matter?
The Capture of Savannah is important to the history of the United States for the role it played as the first battle in the British Southern Campaign. Royal Governor James Wright returned to the city in July 1779 and an American-French force tried to retake the city a few months later. However, the Siege of Savannah failed, and the city remained under British control until the end of the war.
Interesting Facts About the Capture of Savannah
- Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell was a prisoner of war for two years. He was returned to the British in exchange for Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen.
- The American commander, General Robert Howe, clashed with local officials over command and defense of the city.
- Howe was in a difficult situation because the Continental Congress was not happy with his performance and replaced him with General Benjamin Lincoln.
- When the British attack on Savannah happened, Lincoln was on his way there.
- Howe was unaware the British were preparing to attack, until December 23.
- After Campbell landed at Tybee Island, he sent out a scouting party. The scouts captured two Americans, who gave Campbell “satisfactory intelligence concerning the state of matters at Savannah.”
- Isaac Huger was able to form a rear guard to protect the escape of the American troops.
- Howe escaped with around 340 of his men and went to Purrysburg, South Carolina.
- Some Americans who tried to escape by swimming across Yamacraw Creek were unable to make it and drowned.
Military Commanders at the Capture of Savannah
- Robert Howe
- Lachlan McIntosh
- Isaac Huger
- William Thompson
- Samuel Elbert
- Archibald Campbell
- James Baird
Suggested Reading About the Southern Campaign of the American Revolutionary War
- Partisans and Redcoats: The Southern Conflict that Turned the Tide of the American Revolution by Walter B. Edgar
- Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution by Dan Morrill
- The Revolutionary War in the Southern Backcountry by James Swisher
- The Southern Campaign of the American Revolution: The American Insurgency from 1780 to 1782 by the US Marine Corps
NOTE: The links for these books are Amazon affiliate links.