George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General Benjamin Lincoln, 5–6 January 1779

From Major General Benjamin Lincoln

Purysburgh [S.C.]1 Jany 5th[–6] 1779
On the banks of the Savannah
30 miles from its mouth—So. Carola

Dear General,

On the evening of the 25th ulto I received information, at Charles-Town, that the enemy had arrived with upwards of twenty ships at Tybee, near the mouth of the river, Savannah, and in a harbour south of the river. The few troops at Charles-Town were immediately put in motion, and marched for Georgia; On my way, I met an express, from General Howe, who was in Georgia, informing that on the morning of the 29th the enemy landed in force a little below the town of Savannah, and that he, with five or six hundred men, occupied the heights in front of it; but upon perceiving that the enemy had turned his right, at some considerable distance, through a swamp he thought impassable, ordered a retreat, which he effected with part of the troops, though the enemy, it is said, were twenty-five hundred or three thousand strong: His loss in men and officers I enclose;2 What stores were lost I cannot yet learn; among them were six field pieces. One of the field-pieces only were under the direction of Major General Howe. The General speaks well of his officers & men, and that more than they did could not have been expected. He retreated over the Savannah I met him here, where we are collecting the troops—our whole force at this place amounts to about fourteen hundred. As soon as a body of men equal to covering the State of Georgia can be collected, we shall recross the Savannah: It ought to be with a respectable force, for the communication with this State is frequently cut off by the Savannah’s overflowing its banks, which renders the causeways impassable in boats or otherwise; There are no strong grounds in this country; many of the inhabitants of the State are very unfriendly; and besides the country abounds with navigable rivers, all of which the enemy command, & through which they can at any time fall in our rear.

I have met with almost every disappointment since I came into this department; After an encouragement to expect a force consisting of seven thousand men, besides the militia of South Caroli<na> & Georgia, I have now only fourteen hundred; I was assured <that there> were a great plenty of supplies & military stores; instead of which <there> were no field pieces, arms, tents, camp utensils, lead, & very little powder, entrenching tools, & in short hardly an article in the arsenal, or Qr Mr Genl store under the direction of the commg officer in this departt. This Deficiency of Stores did not arise from the neglect of the Commanding Officer, but of the want of a military Chest. I forbear—the subject is disagreeable—for you to hear will be painful.

I expected before now to have had the honor of forwarding to your Excellency a return of the troops here, but the distracted state of affairs still prevents it.

I have daily the unhappiness to see families of affluence fleeing before the enemy, reduced in a few hours to a state of want.

My wound, which was nearly closed when I left camp, is opening again, & in a worse condition than it was seven months ago; but I flatter myself nothing worse than some small exfoliations will take place. I am, my dear General, with the highest sentiments of esteem, Your Excellency’s most obedient servant

B: Lincoln 
Jany 6th [1779]

Last evening I heard that the enemy were reinforced by troops from St Augustine, & now amounted to 4000 and that Col. Campbell, the commander of the British forces in Georgia, had left Savannah & marched with his main body up the river; whether, with a design, to cross & attack this post, or n<ot,> is uncertain.

LS, DLC:GW; LB, MHi: Lincoln Papers. The text in angle brackets is missing from the mutilated ALS, and has been taken from the letter book.

A force of about 3,500 British, German, and Loyalist troops under Lt. Col. Archibald Campbell had left New York for Sandy Hook on 7 Nov. 1778, and sailed from thence on 26 Nov., bound for Georgia. The expedition anchored off Tybee Island on 23 Dec., and six days later Campbell came ashore with his troops at Brewton Hill, near Savannah. Planned British reinforcements from St. Augustine had withdrawn the previous month (see Jean-Baptiste de Ternant to GW, 28 Nov. 1778, n.2), but Campbell still heavily outnumbered Maj. Gen. Robert Howe’s mixed force of about 850 Continentals and militia. Campbell’s troops easily defeated the Americans by means of the flanking march described by Lincoln, and Howe then retreated with the remnants of his force toward South Carolina, while the British occupied Savannah. British casualties amounted to 26, against American casualties of 94 killed and wounded, and 453 captured (Peckham, Toll of Independence description begins Howard H. Peckham, ed. The Toll of Independence: Engagements & Battle Casualties of the American Revolution. Chicago, 1974. description ends , 56). The battle, variously known as the Battle of Savannah and the Battle of Brewton Hill, marked the opening act of the southern campaign.

1Purrysburg, S.C., now abandoned, was located on the Savannah River about twenty miles north of Savannah, Ga.

2The enclosed “Return of the Officers & men missing of the Continental Troops under the command of Majr Genl Howe which was in the field and actually engaged with the enemy the 29th Decr 1778” lists 254 men missing out of Howe’s two brigades (DLC:GW). Lincoln also enclosed a copy of an account by Howe, dated 30 Dec. 1778 at “Camp on the road four miles from Lublys,” Ga.:

“Yesterday about three oclock in the afternoon we were attacked in great force by the enemy. I was induced to throw myself between them & the Town of Savannah not only to preserve the Town till reinforcements came up but to keep out of their possession, if possible, a considerable quantity of provision and other stores the property of the United States, and which for want of boats, it had been out of my power to have removed, the situation I chose was the most defensible I coud find. The left flank covered by the river and a long extent of marsh; a morass in my front not easily passable, which extended so far beyond my right flank that I hoped it would secure me from being turned at least from its being done so suddenly as to prevent my retreat, There was a crossing place several miles above me, but this being so far removed and as I kept parties of horse continually patrolling I was persauded that I should undoubtedly have timely intelligence of their approach, should they attempt to double us by that pass, Here however as I have great reason to imagine they found means to pass a strong column, which by a rapid march was progressing between me and the place of my retreat. There was also another large body crossing the Defile nearer our right Flank. When those manœvers were anounced to me I thought it proper immediately to order a retreat which we effected, not however without considerable loss, as we retreated under a hot fire for at least a mile & quarter both from field peices, and Musquetry. I do not as yet know exactly what numbers are lost, but this I shall have an opportunity of ascertaining when I halt to day, and shall transmit you a return of, very few indeed would have been taken had not a part of the troops by attempting to cross a swamp, which tho’ usualy passable, was by a high tide not so at that time, & therefore, those who could not swim were liable to be made prisoners; yet as they know the country so well I have hopes that many of them will escape, in which I am the more sanguine, as several have already dropped in. Colo. Elbert who put himself at the head of those troops who left the line, either to bring them up again or to retreat with more regularity escaped being taken by swimming the Creek; but Major Habersham who was with him and who could not swim was obliged to return and deliver himself up; I am much indebted to Colo. Huger of the 5th South Carolina Regiment and to Colo. Elbert of the 2d of Georgia for their Conduct through the whole day—Colo. Huger headed a party and made a stand at a defile through which we were obliged to retreat, and by checking the enemy rendered us signal service—and Colonel Elbert for the order in which he kept his men, and the officer like direction of his light infantry, has high merit: The well-conducted fire of that Corps does honor to Major Moore who commanded it, Colo. Roberts of the Corps of Artillery, deserves great praise for every part of his conduct but particularly that thro a sandy road with tired horses he managed so well as to bring off three field pieces out of four, through a hot, long continued fire—nor would he even have lost one piece had not the driver of it been killed—Colo. Walton of the Militia behaved in a manner which did him great honor; sorry I am to add that by a wound in his thigh, he fell into the enemy’s hands, The Militia under his command, who formed part of our right, behaved exceedingly well particularly the company of Artillery under the Comand of Major Woodruff who notwithstanding a hot fire maintained against great odds for some time a field piece which seemed to be well directed and for which the Major deserves great Commendation. Colo. McIntosh and Colo. Harris were active and spirited—in short both officers & men behaved well, and considering that they were troops, few of which had seen action, their number not much exceeding 600. retreating for a long way under the fire of a well disciplined enemy (greatly superior in numbers) no more could be expected from them, than what they performed.

“some long pieces of Artillery, too unwieldy for field service, which were conveyed a little way out of town previous to the attack and which we had not horses to take off have fallen to the enemy.

“I am uncertain as yet where I shall take post; but being so exceedingly week, I think to retreat to the North side of savannah river, there to wait those reinforcements coming up, The enemy’s number by what I have learnt since the action are not less than 2500 men—how many they brought against us I cannot tell but they appeared to be very numerous, You will I am pursuaded, think it is necessary to drive them hence; if so a proportionable force will be requisite.

“Colo. Ternant, the inspector, laid me under obligations for his assistance, as well as by his activity and spirit in the action and on many other occasions.

“As all the men who retreated through the swamp left their arms, a number will be wanting, which I presume may be had of the state of South Carolina—I shall inform you the moment I take post, what place I am at and as the <swift> renders the crossing this river very difficult, I shall send forward to the troops coming up what place is the least so” (DLC:GW).

Also enclosed was a copy of an intelligence report from Daniel DeSaussure, dated 1 Jan. 1779 at Beaufort, S.C.: “I was informed on tuesday last that a small Privateer Schooner had come into St Helenas sound and had taken three of our coasting Vessells as the wind continued easterly I Imagined they might not get out soon and that by fiting out our pilot boat we cou’d retake them with the privateer: I got some Volunteers to join me, we set out on Wednesday evening and got down by next morning, at day light I discovered a sloop at a distance at Anchor but as we proceeded towards her she got under sail, she stood outwards, but not knowing the Channel she put about and stood for us, we soon discovered her to be an enemy and on our firing one shot, she struk her colours, she proves to be the transport sloop. Sally Soloman Smith master on board of which were two Captains in the new livies or Royall Americans, one of them having his wife on boa[r]d, four privates of same regiment, five of Artillery or rather drivers to the Artillery, two New York volunteers, four women and two children, three Seamen and two boys, with 19 horses on deck which belong to their Artillery but they are in exceeding bad order having had a long passage (say 36 Days) I got them safe here last evening, but we did not come up with our first object tho I have reason to beleive from information I received this morning that they are in Ashepoe river, I saw two Vessels in there yesterday but it was at such a distance I coud not discover whether they were coasters or not and as we had the sloop, I did not chuse to quit her—This Vessell is one of the fleet for Tybee, the Captain informs me they sailed the 25th of Novr with about 56 sail, four of which were Frigates, the others Transports and armed Vessels with about 5000 troops, consinsting of the 71st, New Levies & 7 or 800 Hessians the ship that engaged Mud fort, is amongst them and they also towed two Gallies with 24 pounders in their Bows—That their object is Georgia, that Colo. Campbell (formerly a prisoner to us) Commands the Expedition as Brigadier Genl <mutilated> & Genl Grant sailed some time in October with about <mutilated> but it was not given out where he was to go—that some Invalids were sent to England, those recovered from wounds or diseases were sent to Bermudas or Providence that neither New York or Rhode Island are to be evacuated that they had no late intelligence from England previous to their departure—One of the Captains told me that probably a future fleet may be sent out against Charles town, but he was by no means sure of it—That he believed they had about 15000 troops at New York and Rhode Island or perhaps above, but he could not be positive” (DLC:GW).

An enclosed copy of a proclamation of 4 Jan. “By Hyde Parker junr Esqr. Commodore of a Squadron of his Majesty’s ships of war and Lt Colo. Campbell commanding a detachment of the Royall army, sent for the releif of his Majesty’s faithful subjects in North & South-Carolina and Georgia,” at Savannah, reads: “Whereas the blessings of peace, freedom and protection, most graciously tendered by his Majesty to his deluded subjects of America, have been treated by Congress with repeated marks of studied disrespect and to the disgrace of human nature, have had no effect in reclaiming them from the bloody persecutions of their fellow Citizens, Be it therefore known to all his Majesty’s faithful subjects of the southern provinces, that a fleet and army, under our orders, are actually arrived in Georgia for their Protection, to which they are desired to repair without loss of time and by uniting their force under the royall standard, rescue their friend from oppression, themselves from slavery and obtain for both the most ample satisfaction for the Manifold injuries sustained.

“To all other well-disposed inhabitants, who, from a just regard to the blessings of peace, reprobate the idea of supporting a Fren[c]h league, insidiously framed to prolong the Calamities of war, and who, with his Majesties faithful subjects, wish to embrace the happy occasion of cementing a firm and perpetual Coalition with the Parent state free from the imposition of tax by the parliament of Great Britain and secured in the irrevocable enjoyment of every previlege, consistent with that union of interests and force, on which their mutual advantage, religion and liberties depend We offer the most ample protection in their persons families and effects, on condition they shall immediately return to the Class of peaceful Citizens, acknowledge their just allegiance to the Crown and with their arm<s> support it.

“To those who shall attempt to oppose the Reestablishment of legal Government, or who shall presume to injure such whom the dictates of reason, honor and Conscience prompt to embrace it, We lament the Necessity of exhibiting the rigours of war and call God and the world to witness, that they only shall be answerable for all the Miseries which may ensue.

“Deserters of every description who, from a due sense of their error, wish to return to their colours, have also our pardon, provided they return within this space of three months from the date of this proclamation. . . . God save the King” (DLC:GW).

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