September 16 to October 18, 1779
In 1778, the city of Savannah, Georgia, was captured by a British expeditionary force under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Archibald Campbell.
The Siege of Savannah, or the Second Battle of Savannah, was a joint American and French attempt to retake Savannah from the British, fought from September 16 to October 18, 1779.
Kazimierz Michał Władysław Wiktor Pułaski of Ślepowron (Casimir Pulaski; March 6, 1745 – October 11, 1779) was a Polish nobleman, soldier, and military commander who has been called, together with his Hungarian friend Michael Kovats de Fabriczy, “the father of the American cavalry”. Following a recommendation by Benjamin Franklin, Pulaski emigrated to North America to help in the cause of the American War of Independence. He distinguished himself throughout the revolution, most notably when he saved the life of George Washington at the Battle of Brandywine. Casimir Pulaski became a general in the Continental Army, created the Pulaski Cavalry Legion, and reformed the American cavalry as a whole. At the Battle of Savannah, while leading a daring charge against British forces, he was gravely wounded, and died shortly thereafter.
Pulaski is remembered as a hero who fought for independence and freedom both in Poland and in the United States.
His units then acted as an advance guard for the allied French units under Admiral Charles Hector, comte d’Estaing. He rendered great services during the siege of Savannah, and in the assault of October 9 commanded the whole cavalry, both French and American.
Death and burial While attempting to rally fleeing French forces during a cavalry charge, Pulaski was mortally wounded by grapeshot. The reported grapeshot is on display today at the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah; The Charleston Museum also has a grapeshot reported to be from Pulaski’s wound. A wounded Pulaski was carried from the field of battle and taken aboard the South Carolina merchant brig privateer Wasp, under the command of Captain Samuel Bulfinch, where he died two days later, having never regained consciousness. His death, perceived by American Patriot supporters as heroic, further boosted his reputation in America.
The crucial event of the siege occurred on October 9, 1779, when a major American and French assault against the British siege works failed. During the attack, Polish nobleman Count Casimir Pułaski, leading the combined cavalry forces on the American side, was mortally wounded. With the failure of the joint attack, the siege was abandoned, and the British remained in control of Savannah until July 1782, near the end of the war.
In the Siege of Savannah, black soldiers known as the Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue, some 545 gens de couleur — free men of color — from Saint-Domingue (the French colony which later became Haiti), fought under the overall command of French nobleman Charles Hector, Comte d’Estaing, alongside American colonial troops against the British Army. The fighting men of this unit made a significant foreign contribution to the American War of Independence. This French colonial force had been established six months earlier, and included hundreds of black soldiers, in addition to white soldiers and a couple black slaves.
Contents [hide] 1 Background1.1 British defenses1.1.1 Vessels2 Siege2.1 Attack3 Aftermath and legacy3.1 Battlefield archaeology3.2 Influence on Haitian revolutionaries4 See also5 Notes6 References7 External links
Following the failures of military campaigns in the northern United States earlier in the American Revolutionary War, British military planners decided to embark on a southern strategy, with the expected support of Loyalists in the South, to control the rebellious colonies. Their first step in this new southern strategy was to gain control of the southern ports of Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina. An expedition in December 1778 took Savannah with modest resistance from ineffective militia and Continental Army defenders.
The Continental Army regrouped, and by June 1779 the combined army and militia forces guarding Charleston numbered between 5,000 and 7,000 men. General Benjamin Lincoln, commanding those forces, knew that he could not recapture Savannah without naval support, so he turned to the French, who had entered the war as an American ally in 1778. French Admiral Comte d’Estaing spent the first part of 1779 in the Caribbean, where his fleet and a British fleet monitored each other’s movements. In July 1779, he took advantage of conditions to capture Grenada, before acceding to American requests for support in operations against Savannah.
On September 3, 1779—an uncharacteristically early arrival, as there was still substantial risk of seasonal hurricanes—a few French ships arrived at Charleston with news that d’Estaing was sailing for Georgia with twenty-five ships of the line and 4,000 French troops. General Lincoln and French emissaries agreed on a plan of attack on Savannah, and Lincoln left Charleston with over 2,000 men on September 11, 1779.
British Defenses around Savannah
British troop strength in the area consisted of about 6,500 regulars at Brunswick, Georgia, another 900 at Beaufort, South Carolina, under Colonel John Maitland, and about 100 Loyalists at Sunbury, Georgia. General Augustine Prevost, in command of these troops from his base at Savannah, was caught unprepared when the French fleet began to arrive off Tybee Island near Savannah, and he quickly recalled the troops stationed at Beaufort and Sunbury to reinforce Savannah’s defensees.
Captain Moncrief of the Royal Engineers was tasked with constructing fortifications to defend against the expected siege. Using 500–800 African-American slaves working up to twelve hours per day, Captain Moncrief constructed an entrenched defensive line, which included redoubts, nearly 1,200 feet (370 m) long, on the plains outside Savannah.
The British Royal Navy contributed two old frigates, HMS Fowey and HMS Rose, to the defense of Savannah. The guns of these two ships and most of the crews went ashore to reinforce the land forces. In addition, the British also deployed the armed brig Keppel and the armed ship Germaine, the latter from the East Florida navy. There were two galleys, Comet and Thunder, also from East Florida. Lastly, the British armed two merchant vessels, Savannah and Venus.
A map of the siege
Comte d’Estaing began landing troops below the city on September 12, and began moving in by September 16. Confident of victory, and believing that Maitland’s reinforcements would be prevented from reaching Savannah by Lincoln, he offered Prevost the opportunity to surrender. Prevost delayed, asking for 24 hours of truce. Owing to miscommunication about who was responsible for preventing Maitland’s movements, the waterways separating South Carolina’s Hilton Head Island from the mainland were left unguarded, and Maitland was able to reach Savannah hours before the truce ended. Prevost’s response to d’Estaing’s offer was a polite refusal, despite the arrival of Lincoln’s forces.
On 19 September, as Charles-Marie de Trolong du Rumain moved his squadron up the river, he exchanged fire with Comet, Thunder, Savannah, and Venus. The next day the British scuttled Rose, which was leaking badly, just below the town to impede the French vessels from progressing further. They also burned Savannah and Venus. By scuttling Rose in a narrow part of the channel, the British effectively blocked it. Consequently, the French fleet was prevented from supporting the American assault.
Germaine took up a position to protect the north side of Savannah’s defenses. Comet and Thunder had the mission of opposing any attempt by the South Carolinian galleys to bombard the town. Over the next few days, British shore batteries assisted Comet and Thunder in engagements with the two South Carolinian galleys; during one of these, they severely damaged Revenge.
The French commander, rejecting the idea of assaulting the British defenses, unloaded cannons from his ships and began a bombardment of the city. The city, rather than the entrenched defenses, bore the brunt of this bombardment, which lasted from October 3 to 8. “The appearance of the town afforded a melancholy prospect, for there was hardly a house that had not been shot through”, wrote one British observer.
When the bombardment failed to have the desired effect, d’Estaing changed his mind, and decided it was time to try an assault. He was motivated in part by the desire to finish the operation quickly, as scurvy and dysentery were becoming problems on his ships, and some of his supplies were running low. While a traditional siege operation would likely have succeeded eventually, it would have taken longer than d’Estaing was prepared to stay.
Against the advice of many of his officers, d’Estaing launched the assault against the British position on the morning of October 9, 1799. The success depended in part on the secrecy of some its aspects, which were betrayed to Prevost well before the operations were supposed to begin around 4:00 am. Fog caused troops attacking the Spring Hill redoubt to get lost in the swamps, and it was nearly daylight when the attack finally got underway. The redoubt on the right side of the British works had been chosen by the French admiral in part because he believed it to be defended only by militia. In fact, it was defended by a combination of militia and Scotsmen from John Maitland’s 71st Regiment of Foot, Fraser’s Highlanders, who had distinguished themselves at Stono Ferry.
The militia included riflemen, who easily picked-off the white-clad French sildiers when the doomed assault got underway. Admiral d’Estaing was wounded twice, and Polish cavalry officer Casimir Pułaski, fighting with the Americans, was mortally wounded. By the time the second wave arrived near the redoubt, the first wave had been fighting their way through the trap, but were in complete disarray. The trenches below the redoubt were filled with bodies, and other attacks, intended as feints against other redoubts of the British position, were easily suppressed.
The second assault was commanded by the Swedish Count Curt von Stedingk, who managed to reach the last trench. He later wrote in his journal, “I had the pleasure of planting the American flag on the last trench, but the enemy renewed its attack and our people were annihilated by cross-fire”. He was forced back by overwhelming numbers of British troops, left with some 20 men—all were wounded, including von Stedingk. He later wrote, “The moment of retreat with the cries of our dying comrades piercing my heart was the bitterest of my life”.
After an hour of carnage, d’Estaing ordered a retreat. On October 17, 1779, Lincoln and d’Estaing abandoned the siege.
Aftermath and legacy
The Siege of Savannah was one of the bloodiest battles of the war. While Prevost claimed French and American losses at 1,000 to 1,200, the actual number of 244 killed, nearly 600 wounded and 120 taken prisoner, was severe enough.
British casualties were comparatively light: 40 killed, 63 wounded, and 52 missing. Sir Henry Clinton wrote, “I think that this is the greatest event that has happened in the whole war,” and cannons fired in celebration resounded in the city when the news reached London.
It was perhaps because of the reputation of the Siege of Savannah as a famous British victory that Charles Dickens chose the siege as the place for Joe Willet to be wounded (losing his arm) in Dickens’ novel Barnaby Rudge.
Three currently-existing Army National Guard units (the 118th Field Artillery, the 131st Military Police and 263rd ADA) are derived from American units that participated in the Siege of Savannah in 1779. There are only thirty current U.S. Army units with lineages that go back to the colonial era.
In 2005, archaeologists with the Coastal Heritage Society (CHS) and the LAMAR Institute discovered portions of the British fortifications at Spring Hill, the site of the worst part of the French and American attack on October 9. The find represents the first tangible remains of the battlefield.
In 2008, the CHS/LAMAR Institute archaeology team discovered another segment of the British fortifications in Madison Square. A detailed report of that project is available on line in .pdf format from the CHS website. CHS archaeologists are currently finalizing a follow-up grant project in Savannah, which examined several outlying portions of the battlefield. These included the position of the Saint-Domingue reserve troops at the Jewish Burying Ground west of Savannah.
An archaeology presentation and public meeting took place in February 2011 to gather suggestions for managing Savannah’s Revolutionary War battlefield resources. Archaeologist Rita Elliott from the Coastal Heritage Society revealed Revolutionary War discoveries in Savannah stemming from the two “Savannah Under Fire” projects conducted from 2007 to 2011. The projects uncovered startling discoveries, including trenches, fortifications, and battle debris. The research also showed that residents and tourists are interested in these sites. Archaeologists described the findings and explored ways to generate economic income which could be used for improving the quality-of-life of area residents.
General Casimir Pułaski 2 cent postage stamp of 1931
The battle is commemorated each year by Presidential proclamation, on General Pulaski Memorial Day.
Influence on Haitian revolutionaries
The Siege of Savannah is remembered in Haitian history. The Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue, consisting of some 545 gens de couleur—free men of color from Saint-Domingue—fought with the Americans. Henri Christophe later declared himself to be the king of (northern) Haiti, while a republic was established in southern Haiti. Christophe was 22 years old at the time, and may have been among these troops.
Many other individuals from Saint-Domingue served in this regiment and formed the officer class of the rebel armies in the Haitian Revolution, especially in the northern province around today’s Cap-Haïtien, where the unit was recruited.
Part of the American Revolutionary War
Siege of Savannah – A.I. Keller.jpg
Attack on Savannah by A. I. Keller
Date September 16 – October 18, 1779
Location Savannah, Georgia, 32°03′03″N 81°06′14″W Coordinates: 32°03′03″N 81°06′14″W
Result British victory
Belligerents United States France Great Britain
Commanders and leaders
United States Benjamin Lincoln
United States Lachlan McIntosh
Kingdom of France Comte d’Estaing
Poland Casimir Pułaski
†Sweden Curt von Stedingk
United States Count Benyovszky
Kingdom of Great Britain Augustin Prevost
Kingdom of Great Britain John Maitland
Casualties and losses
244 killed,584 wounded,120 prisonersTotal:948 40 killed,63 wounded,52 missingTotal:155[hide] v t e
Gunpowder Incident Kemp’s Landing Snow Campaign Savage’s Old Fields Great Cane Brake Great Bridge Norfolk Moore’s Creek Bridge Rice Boats Sullivan’s Island Lindley’s Fort Thomas Creek Alligator Bridge 1st Savannah Beaufort Van Creek Kettle Creek Brier Creek Chesapeake raid Stono Ferry Charles Town 2nd Savannah
Casimir Pulaski Monument in Savannah