Siege of Savannah Summary
The Siege of Savannah — also known as the Second Battle of Savannah — was fought between the British and their Loyalist allies and the Franco-American alliance from September 16 to October 18, 1779, in Savannah, Georgia, during the American Revolutionary War.
General Benjamin Lincoln and the Southern Army were joined by French land and sea forces under the command of Vice Admiral Charles Henri d’Estaing and advanced on Savannah in September.
After bombarding the city for more than two weeks, the Allied forces launched a ground assault on October 9. Although the Allies had more men, they were unable to break the strong British defenses, which were commanded by General Augustine Prevost.
During the battle, the Americans lost Casimir Pulaski, who was mortally wounded and died two days later.
Following the failed assault, the French withdrew and sailed to the West Indies. Without their support, Lincoln was forced to withdraw and return to Charleston, South Carolina, setting the stage for the Siege of Charleston in the spring of 1780.
Siege of Savannah Facts
- Also Known As: The Siege of Savannah is also known as the Second Battle of Savannah.
- Date Started: The Siege of Savannah started on September 16, 1779.
- Date Ended: It ended on October 18, 1779.
- Location: The Siege of Savannah was fought in and around Savannah, Georgia.
- Theater: The battle took place in the Southern Theater of the American Revolutionary War.
- Campaign: The Siege of Savannah was part of the British Southern Campaign.
- Who Won: The British won the Siege of Savannah.
What Happened at the Siege of Savannah?
Following the Battle of Stono Ferry, the American Revolutionary War in the Southern Theater was at a stalemate. The British, under the command of General Augustine Prevost, controlled nearly all of Georgia and East Florida, from their positions at Savannah and Port Royal Island.
Savannah was not in the best defensive position, as it was on the west bank, sitting on a bluff overlooking the river. North of the city was a tree-filled swampy area that offered some protection, but the south side was open ground.
The Americans, under the command of General Benjamin Lincoln, held South Carolina. Neither of them had the resources necessary to strike at the other. However, South Carolina Governor Thomas Rutledge and General William Moultrie sent a message to the commander of the French fleet, Vice Admiral Jean Baptiste Charles Henri Hector, comte d’Estaing, and asked for him to sail to Savannah to aid Lincoln in an attack.
D’Estaing commanded 33 ships and somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 soldiers. Upon his arrival, he would give the Americans a significant advantage. He sent five ships to Charleston with a message informing the Americans he was headed to Savannah.
In early September, d’Estaing’s fleet arrived off the coast of Georgia and engaged British ships guarding the entrance to the Savannah River. The French easily captured the 50-gun Experiment, the frigate Ariel, and all supplies and money the ships carried. The remaining British ships sailed upriver and away from the French fleet.
The larger French ships could not follow, they were too big for the river, but two French frigates and several American ships were able to follow the British ships.
Prevost Prepares Savannah
Prevost was alerted to the arrival of the French and prepared to defend Savannah:
- He recalled Lieutenant Colonel John Harris Cruger and his men from Sunbury, along and Lieutenant Colonel John Maitland and his men from Beaufort.
- Captain James Moncrieff started the design and construction of defensive works in and around Savannah.
- A message was sent to New York to inform General Henry Clinton and Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot the French had arrived. It is estimated that 400-500 enslaved people were brought in from nearby plantations to help build fortifications.
- A British frigate and some smaller ships were sunk in the river to impede the French and American ships.
- The Germain was placed in the swamp to help defend the river approach.
- A row of logs was placed across the river, to keep the French Americans from attacking the British ships with fireboats.
French and American Forces Move Toward Savannah
D’Estaing anchored his ships at Tybee Island, at the mouth of the Savannah River, on September 8 and Lincoln started his march to Savannah on the same day.
D’Estaing started landing his troops on September 9 at Beaulieu Plantation, about 14 miles from Savannah. The landing was interrupted by a storm that lasted for two days, so the landing was not completed until the 12th. Once the landing was complete, the French land forces marched to Savannah. American forces led by Colonel Casimir Pulaski met with the French and joined the march on the 15th. Pulaski led his cavalry — Pulaski’s Legion — and Continental Light Infantry troops.
The Siege of Savannah Begins
D’Estaing and Pulaski arrived at Savannah on September 16. However, Lincoln was delayed and would not arrive until a few days later. While d’Estaing waited for Lincoln, he opened negotiations with Prevost regarding the surrender of the city. He sent a message that said it would be, “absolutely impossible and useless, due to the Superiority of the forces attacking him by Land and by Sea” to defend Savannah. D’Estaing also created controversy, because he asked Prevost to surrender “to the arms of the King of France,” not the United States.
The Americans wanted Prevost to answer immediately, but d’Estaing did not demand it. Instead, Prevost asked for 24 hours to respond — it was likely a ploy to buy time for reinforcements to arrive and to continue preparing defenses. However, d’Estaing agreed to the truce and the Allied forces set up their camps around Savannah.
British Reinforcements Arrive
During the delay, Maitland and his 800 were able to maneuver through the swamps around Savannah, avoid detection under cover of fog, and slip into the city. Their arrival gave Prevost around 2,500 men to defend the city, along with more than 100 guns. He finally replied to d’Estaing and made it clear he would not surrender by saying, “The evening gun to be fired this evening at an hour before sundown shall be the signal for recommencing hostilities.”
Allied Forces Bombard Savannah
D’Estaing had his men build trenches and move artillery into position. On the 23rd, Lincoln and his men arrived, along with more French troops. In total, Lincoln had more than 2,000 men, which put the full strength of the Allied Franco-American force at around 6,000 troops.
On September 24, the Allies continued to dig trenches and Prevost sent contingents of troops out to harass them. By October 3, the Allies had 53 heavy cannons and 14 mortars in battery positions placed within range of the British line, and the bombardment of Savannah started on October 4. The Allied ships in the river also opened fire on the city.
The destruction in Savannah was significant, and some civilians were killed. Prevost sent a message to the Allied commanders, asking them to allow the women and children to be allowed to leave the city. However, the request was rejected, apparently because the Allies believed the British would be able to use the time to further strengthen their defenses.
When the siege started, d’Estaing expected it would last no longer than 10 days to two weeks. On October 8, the British were still entrenched in Savannah. D’Estaing told Lincoln he would have to pull back from Savannah soon because he was running low on supplies. It was also hurricane season, and if one blew in from the Atlantic, it would destroy his fleet of ships. A council of war was held. Although many of the officers were against it, d’Estaing decided to launch a ground assault on Savannah the next day.
Allied Plan of Attack
The plan of attack focused on the Spring Hill redoubt and required well-time, well-coordinated movements by both French and American forces. The French, led by d’Estaing, would attack the right side of the redoubt while the Americans, led by Lincoln, would attack the left side of the redoubt. They planned to assemble their men at 1:00 in the morning and attack at 4:00 a.m.
The American force was further divided into two columns.
- The first column was led by Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens and consisted of the 2nd South Carolina Regiment and the Ist Charleston Militia Regiment.
- The second American column was led by Lieutenant Colonel Lachlan Mclntosh and included the 1st South Carolina Regiment, 5th South Carolina Regiment, and the Georgia Continentals.
According to the plan, after the Americans and French broke through the redoubt, Casimir Pulaski and his cavalry brigade would ride in and sweep through in the direction of the river, toward the British rear.
Prior to the main assault, two diversionary attacks were to occur:
- General Isaac Huger and 1,000 men would attack the British left, try to break through, and threaten the British rear.
- General Arthur Dillon would move along the swamp at the extreme right of the British line and attack near the river.
D’Estaing would keep a contingent of his Haitian troops in the rear as the reserve.
Prevost learned of the attack from a deserter, but did not have the exact details, and organized his defenses accordingly.
On his right — opposite the Americans — he had three redoubts garrisoned by various contingents of Loyalist militia from Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The Spring Hill redoubt was manned by the South Carolina Provincial dragoons, commanded by Captain Tawes, supported by the King’s Rangers, under the command of Georgia Loyalist Thomas Brown. The redoubts were flanked by several naval batteries that were manned by sailors and marines. Maitland was in command of the defense on the right, however, he was suffering from malaria.
On his left — opposite the French column — it was open terrain defended by several redoubts made from palmetto logs and dirt with heavy guns mounted on them. Cruger commanded the left and had the 1st Battalion of Delancy’s New York Loyalist brigade. He was supported by Major James Wright who commanded a contingent of Georgia Loyalists.
In the center of the British line were the regulars of the 71st Regiment, Hessian grenadiers, and light infantry.
The Assault on Savannah
The allied forces assembled but were slow due to fog and darkness, and the attack started an hour later than expected.
- Huger’s diversionary attack was slowed down when his men had to move through flooded rice fields and mud. When they finally arrived at their goal, the British were ready, opened fire, and stopped the advance.
- Dillon’s diversionary attack failed because he and his men lost their way in the Yamacraw Swamp. British ships in the river saw them and opened fire, forcing Dillon to fall back.
- The two main columns were confused and stumbled in the darkness as they tried to move on to Spring Hill. Instead of slowing down and waiting to organize, the French column moved forward.
As the two columns moved forward, the British guns fired on them.
Lincoln led about 600 South Carolina Continentals toward the Spring Hill redoubt, followed by McIntosh. When they reached the redoubt, there was brutal hand-to-hand fighting.
D’Estaing led his men forward three times and was pushed back three times. D’Estaing suffered at least two wounds but continued to fight.
Laurens and his men also pushed forward, and Lieutenant Colonel Francis Marion was able to plant the flag of the 2nd South Carolina and the French flag on the parapet of the redoubt. However, the British pushed Laurens and Marion back. The colors were captured and Sergeant William Jasper was killed.
Pulaski sat back watching and waiting for the signal to advance with his cavalry. Seeing the situation was desperate, he ordered his men to ride into battle. They were fired on by one of the batteries and Pulaski was hit by grapeshot and mortally wounded. When he fell from his horse, his men stopped their attack and returned to their position in the rear.
Finally, after about 45 minutes, Lincoln and d’Estaing called off the attack and retreated to their siege lines. The Allied forces suffered heavy casualties. It is estimated the French suffered 630 killed or wounded, and the Americans 460, for a total of 1,090.
The Siege of Savannah Ends
After the Allies fell back to their siege lines, some of the French officers suggested ending the siege. The Americans disagreed, and d’Estaing agreed with the Americans. The siege continued.
A brief truce was called so both sides could bury their dead and tend to the wounded. The relationship between the French and Americans was already strained, but the French made it worse when they blamed Lincoln for refusing to allow civilians to evacuate Savannah.
The French decided to give up the siege and marched back to their ships on October 19. Soon after, Lincoln marched back to Ebenezer and then to Charleston.
What was the Outcome of the Siege of Savannah?
Americans were upset that d’Estaing abandoned the siege and it was a blow to morale in the South. The victory at Savannah allowed General Clinton to move ahead with his Southern Campaign and launch an attack on Charleston in the spring of 1780.
Siege of Savannah Significance
The Siege of Savannah is important to United States history because it ended American attempts to reclaim Georgia and allowed the British to proceed with the next phase of the British Southern Campaign. After General Lincoln withdrew, he returned to Charleston, which set the stage for the Siege of Charleston.
Interesting Facts About the Siege of Savannah
The Siege of Savannah was the second deadliest battle of the Revolutionary War
The Americans, with help from the French, tried unsuccessfully to liberate the city from British occupation.
Count Charles Henri d’Estaing of France, Arthur Dillon and his “Wild Geese” of Ireland, and Polish cavalry leader Casimir Pulaski were senior commanders fighting with the Americans
The British forces were composed of British and Scots regulars joined by Hessian mercenaries, Loyalists, Native American Indians, and enslaved people
On September 3, 1779, a French fleet consisting of 33 warships and transports carrying more than 4,000 troops arrived at Tybee Island to recapture Savannah, however, the French struggled to move ashore due to the weather, and it took days for the disorganized forces to begin the march to Savannah.
The defeat at Savannah was humiliating for the French.
Georgia remained under British control and the British expanded operations north into the Carolinas and Virginia in 1780.
What Led to the Siege of Savannah?
After the British surrendered at Saratoga, they were forced to reassess their military strategy in America. Although they 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 to capture 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, which 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, 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 Campbell 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 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.
British Victory at Briar Creek
Following Kettle Creek, Lincoln moved his forces into position to attack Augusta. He sent General John Ashe to Briar Creek in Eastern Georgia. General Prevost ordered Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell to send men to engage Ashe.
On March 3, Lieutenant Colonel Prevost led the attack on the American camp. Ashe and his men were overwhelmed and routed, hampering Lincon’s plan to attack Augusta.
Although he continued his march to Augusta, his overall army was significantly reduced by the loss of Ashe’s men at the Battle of Briar Creek and the fact he had to leave Moultrie behind.
British Victory at Stono Ferry
Following the defeat at the Battle of Briar Creek, General Benjamin Lincoln was still determined to force the British out of Georgia. Lincoln took around 4,000 men and marched toward Augusta, leaving Moultrie and 1,000 men to guard Purrysburg and Black Swamp.
Prevost responded by marching toward Charleston, which forced Lincoln to move back toward the city. The British set up an outpost at Stono Ferry, near present-day Rantowles, South Carolina.
American forces under the command of General Benjamin Lincoln attacked the British on June 20. Despite having the advantage in numbers, Lincoln was unable to capture the post and was forced to retreat.
The outcome of the Battle of Stono Ferry allowed the British to retain control of Georgia, setting the stage for the Siege of Savannah in October 1779.