George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General Benjamin Lincoln, 7 February 1779

From Major General Benjamin Lincoln

Purisburg [S.C.] Feby 7th 1779

Dear Genl

I have the honor to enclose your Excellency a return of all the troops here except the militia of this state whose numbers are so uncertain that I know not what return to make of them,1 indeed I hardly know in what light they are to be considered, for though the state declare they are in the pay of the Continent and are to act in conjunction with the regular forces, yet they are not to be governed by the rules and articles of war provided for all troops in the service of the united states; a complaint was made against one of their soldiers for mutiny a court was appointed, as, is directed by the 1st article of the 17th Section of the articles of war;2 the court refused to try the prisoner but by their own militia law. a representation was made to the President he laid it before the House, they came to the following resolution “That altho the militia under the command of Genl Lincoln are employed in the service of the United States, Viz. for the defence of Georgia & this state and are therefore to be considered in the Continental pay, yet it may tend more effectually to promote such service to establish regulations for their Government by a law now under consideration of this House, than to subject them to Continental articles;[”] so that really I have no hold of them, they leave the Camp and even their posts when they please with impunity, for their law only imposes on them a fine (excepting servants) they must have ten days notice before trial to prepare their defence & the President of the State must approve the sentence before it can be executed; what their present deliberations will produce I know not.3 I had reason to hope when I left Congress that we shou’d have seven thousand men besides the militia of this State and Georgia. by the enclosed you will see what proportion of them have arrived and near one half of those did not join us untill the 31st ultimo. Genl Elbert who collected a small force of 300 in the upper part of Georgia is driven out of it by Colo. Campbell who marched up to Augusta with about 1700 men4—We had the mortification from day to day to hear of the progress of the enemy, but had it not in our power to check it, or even to harrass them on their march, from the want of a sufficient force. The river Savannah which is between us tho narrow yet one of the most difficult to pass on the Continent, for the land adjoining is mostly swamp and often overflowed from two to four feet deep, the breadth of them is generally two miles, on both sides, no where for about one hundred miles is there high lands on both sides opposite, so that at particular times you cannot pass their causeways either in boats or otherwise, and as there are but few places at which you can pass at any rate, if you enter the country it must be done in force, for your communication may easily be cut off from this state, you must have little dependance on aid in Georgia, from their weakness and despursed & divided state. I expect in about three or four days there will be in the country opposite Augusta about two thousand men, and if I am not disappointed in reinforcements soon shall be able to follow them with one thousand more.5 The security of the upper part of those states are among the first objects of our duty they will claim our earliest attention for thence we expect most of our supplies. there the enemy will greatly increase their numbers and cut off the communication between us and the Indians and prevent our trading with them—by which we have preserved their friendship besides it is of importance to keep the enemy within narrower limits and prevent their receiving those supplies of which they now avail themselves as also to keep footing in the state and if possible to preserve the civil constitution thereof The officers here are Gentlemen of character and attentive to duty—Genl Moultrie an old Brigadier who distinguish’d himself at Fort Moultrie, and since, is brave and judicious a gentleman (who has much the confidence of the people[)] I hope will be thought on among the next promotions6 Our people mostly militia had a skirmish on port royall Island a few days since the particulars I enclose as received from Genl Moultrie who commanded; The troops did themselves honor.7


LB, MHi: Benjamin Lincoln Papers. The manuscript, which is in the handwriting of Lincoln’s aide-de-camp Everard Meade, is signed at the end: “Ex[amine]d E. Meade secy.”

1The enclosed return has not been identified. A general return of the troops under Lincoln’s command on 19 Jan., which is in the Lincoln Papers at MHi, shows a total of 3,340 Continentals and militia of all ranks, including those who were sick, on furlough, and on command.

2See JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 5:805.

3Rawlins Lowndes, who served as president of South Carolina from March 1778 to January 1779, had been slow and overly cautious in his response to Lincoln’s requests for militia and military supplies to defend Georgia in December 1778. On 3 Jan. 1779 Lowndes wrote Henry Laurens from Charleston: “I am sorry to say (entre nous) that our Militia in respect to Officers is not upon the most respectable footing—Coaxing & Wheedling is too much a part of our System to favour Action and Decisive operations— … Our present Situation requires indispensably some thing to be done to the Militia Law—the Question whether the Men are obliged to March out of the State is not Authoritatively decided and while that Important point is undefined Ill effects must arise” (Laurens Papers description begins Philip M. Hamer et al., eds. The Papers of Henry Laurens. 16 vols. Columbia, S.C., 1968–2003. description ends , 15:21–24). On 13 Feb. the South Carolina general assembly gave the new governor, John Rutledge, authority, with privy council approval, to send as many as one-third of the militia out of the state for as long as three months, but still under South Carolina militia law. Not until some days later did the assembly finally pass an ordnance “subjecting the militia to martial law” (Charles Pinckney, Jr., to Frances Brewton Pinckney, 24 Feb. in Gibbes, Documentary History description begins R. W. Gibbes, ed. Documentary History of the American Revolution: Consisting of Letters and Papers Relating to the Contest for Liberty, Chiefly in South Carolina . . .. 3 vols. 1853-57. Reprint. Spartanburg, S.C., 1972. description ends , 2:106–8; see also Laurens Papers description begins Philip M. Hamer et al., eds. The Papers of Henry Laurens. 16 vols. Columbia, S.C., 1968–2003. description ends , 15:23, n.5).

4Samuel Elbert (1740–1788), a prominent Savannah merchant and landowner, had begun his military career as a militia officer before the war, becoming captain of an elite volunteer unit, the Georgia Grenadiers, in 1772. In the summer of 1775, Elbert was elected to both the Georgia council of safety and the provincial congress, and in early 1776 he was commissioned lieutenant colonel of the Georgia regiment that was raised for Continental service. Promoted to colonel in September 1776, Elbert commanded an unsuccessful expedition against St. Augustine, Fla., in the spring of 1777, and later that year he succeeded Brig. Gen. Lachlan McIntosh as Continental commander in Georgia, following McIntosh’s departure for the northern theater of the war. Under southern department commander Maj. Gen. Robert Howe, Elbert participated in another abortive East Florida expedition in the spring of 1778 and in the failed defense of Savannah against Lt. Col. Archibald Campbell’s British invasion force in December 1778. A report of the troops under Brig. Gen. Andrew Williamson, posted in South Carolina opposite Augusta, Ga., on 1 Feb. 1779, shows that Elbert then commanded 100 Georgia Continentals (Lesser, Sinews of Independence description begins Charles H. Lesser, ed. The Sinews of Independence: Monthly Strength Reports of the Continental Army. Chicago, 1976. description ends , 102–3; see also n.5 to this document). Wounded and captured at the Battle of Briar Creek, Ga., on 3 March 1779, Elbert was exchanged in June 1781, not at his Continental rank of colonel, but at his Georgia militia rank of brigadier general, to which he had been appointed by some members of the state assembly (see Lincoln to GW, 23 Dec. 1779, MH: Jared Sparks Collection; see also Samuel Huntington to GW, 12 Feb. 1780; George Walton and Richard Howly to GW, 7 Aug. 1781; and GW to Walton and Howly, 13 Aug. 1781; all DLC:GW). Elbert served at the siege of Yorktown in October 1781 as “Superintendant of the deposit of the Trenches,” responsible for all fortification materials (see General Orders, 6 Oct. 1781). He was breveted a Continental brigadier general on 3 Nov. 1783 (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 25:800). In 1784 Elbert declined election as a Georgia delegate to the Continental Congress, but he served a one-year term as governor of the state from 1785 to 1786.

5On 1 Feb., Brig. Gen. Andrew Williamson was reported to have 870 Continentals and militia under his command on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River across from Augusta, Ga. (Lesser, Sinews of Independence description begins Charles H. Lesser, ed. The Sinews of Independence: Monthly Strength Reports of the Continental Army. Chicago, 1976. description ends , 102–3).

6William Moultrie, famed for his 28 June 1776 defense of the fort subsequently named in his honor on Sullivan’s Island at the entrance to Charleston Harbor, had been commissioned a brigadier general in September 1776. Captured at Charleston in May 1780, Moultrie was exchanged in February 1782, and he was promoted to major general the following October (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 23:656).

7Although this enclosure has not been identified, it undoubtedly was a copy of the letter that Moultrie wrote to Lincoln on 4 Feb. from Beaufort on Port Royal Island, S.C., describing the engagement of the previous day when about 300 South Carolina militia and a few Continental artillerymen under Moultrie’s command repulsed an attack on Beaufort by about 200 British light infantry commanded by Maj. Valentine Gardiner of the 16th Regiment of Foot. Moultrie’s letter, which was published by order of Congress, describes the tactics of the two sides: “This action was reversed from the usual way of fighting between the British and Americans, they taking to the bushes, and we remaining upon the open ground. After some little time, finding our men too much exposed to the enemy’s fire, I ordered them to take trees. About three quarters of an hour after the action began, I heard a general cry thro’ the line of ‘no more cartridges,’ and was also informed by Capts. [Thomas] Heyward [Jr.] and [Edward] Rutledge, that the ammunition for the field pieces were almost expended, after firing about forty rounds from each piece; upon this, I ordered the field pieces to be drawn off very slowly, and the right and left wings to keep pace with the artillery to cover their flanks, which was done in tolerable order for undisciplined troops: The enemy had beat their retreat before we began to move, but we had little or no ammunition, and could not of consequence pursue…. The enemy’s body consisted of two companies of the 60th and one of the 16th, all picked light infantry” (Pennsylvania Packet or the General Advertiser [Philadelphia], 13 March 1779).

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