Siege of Savannah

Last updated
Siege of Savannah
Part of the American Revolutionary War
Attack on Savannah, by A. I. Keller
Date16 September – 18 October 1779
Result British victory
Flag of the United States (1777-1795).svg United States
Royal Standard of the King of France.svg Kingdom of France
Union flag 1606 (Kings Colors).svg Great Britain
Commanders and leaders
Flag of the United States (1777-1795).svg Benjamin Lincoln
Flag of the United States (1777-1795).svg Lachlan McIntosh
Flag of the United States (1777-1795).svg Casimir Pulaski  
Royal Standard of the King of France.svg Curt von Stedingk
Royal Standard of the King of France.svg Comte d'Estaing
Union flag 1606 (Kings Colors).svg Augustine Prévost
Union flag 1606 (Kings Colors).svg John Maitland
Ground units:
Naval units:
42 ships
Ground units:
Naval units:
8 vessels
Casualties and losses
244 killed
584 wounded
120 captured [1]
40 killed [2]
63 wounded
52 missing [3]

The siege of Savannah or the Second Battle of Savannah was an encounter of the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) in 1779. The year before, the city of Savannah, Georgia, had been captured by a British expeditionary corps under Lieutenant-Colonel Archibald Campbell. The siege itself consisted of a joint Franco-American attempt to retake Savannah, from September 16 to October 18, 1779. On October 9 a major assault against the British siege works failed. During the attack, Polish nobleman Count Casimir Pulaski, 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 1779, more than 500 recruits from Saint-Domingue (the French colony which later became Haiti), under the overall command of French nobleman Charles Hector, Comte d'Estaing, fought alongside American colonial troops against the British Army during the siege of Savannah. This was one of the most significant foreign contributions to the American Revolutionary War. [4] This French-colonial force had been established six months earlier and was led by white officers. Recruits came from the black population and included free men of color as well as slaves seeking their freedom in exchange for their service. [5]


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 to conquer the rebellious colonies, with the support of Loyalists in the South. Their first step 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 defenses.

There were many reasons why the British wanted to invade the Southern colonies. Although part of America, the Southern colonies tended to be more sympathetic to the British than to the Americans. The British were hoping that ordinary citizens of the Southern colonies would continue their support of the British army during the southern campaign, as they had in prior years. [6] Moreover, the British were promising that any enslaved African Americans who fought for the British would be given freedom, which helped gain support for the British among southern slaves. [7] Finally, the British wanted to gain control over the South for economic reasons. The South grew many profitable crops, such as rice, indigo, and tobacco. The American revolutionaries were using the money made from those crops to buy military supplies from Europe. Taking over the south would not only isolate New England, but also give the British access to those resources. [8]

When British generals were scouting the coast, they spotted the first French ships sailing to Charleston, South Carolina. However, General Augustin Prevost mistakenly reported that the French ships had disappeared. He did not realize that the ships he saw were the faster ships of a group sent by French general d'Estaing to tell the American army they had arrived in Georgia. Prevost had been previously informed that a French army had arrived in Georgia. However, this information was not backed up by other intelligence. As a result, the British were unprepared for a possible French attack. Most of the British troops were in Beaufort or Sunbury, and fewer men were defending Georgia. [9]

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 assistance; for this he turned to the French, who had entered the war as an American ally in 1778. French Admiral the Comte d'Estaing spent the first part of 1779 in the Caribbean, where his fleet and a British fleet monitored each other's movements. He took advantage of conditions to capture Grenada in July before acceding to American requests for support in operations against Savannah. On September 3—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. Lincoln and the French emissaries agreed on a plan of attack on Savannah, and Lincoln left Charleston with over 2,000 men on September 11.

Order of Battle




The French expedition included detachments or full battalions from: [10]



British defenses

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 recalled the troops stationed at Beaufort and Sunbury to aid in the city's defense.

Captain Moncrief of the Royal Engineers was tasked with constructing fortifications to repulse the invaders. Using 500–800 African-American slaves working up to twelve hours per day, Moncrief constructed an entrenched defensive line, which included redoubts, nearly 1,200 feet (370 m) long, on the plains outside the city.


The British Royal Navy contributed two over-age frigates, HMS Foley and HMS Rose. They landed their guns and most of their men to reinforce the land forces. In addition, the British also deployed the armed brig HMS Keppel (1778) 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. [11] [12]


A map of the siege Siege ville de Savannah 1779.jpg
A map of the siege

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 .

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 burnt Savannah and Venus. [11] By scuttling Rose in a narrow part of the channel, the British effectively blocked it. Consequently, the French fleet was unable to assist 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. [11]

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. [13]

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.


Casimir Pulaski death near Savannah, by Stanislaw Kaczor-Batowski, 1933 Savannah 1779.png
Casimir Pulaski death near Savannah, by Stanisław Kaczor-Batowski, 1933

Against the advice of many of his officers, d'Estaing launched the assault against the British position on the morning of October 9. 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 troops when the assault was underway. Admiral d'Estaing was twice wounded, and Polish cavalry officer Casimir Pulaski, fighting with the Americans, was mortally wounded. By the time the second wave arrived near the redoubt, the first wave was in complete disarray, and the trenches below the redoubt were filled with bodies. Attacks intended as feints against other redoubts of the British position were easily taken.

The second assault column 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". [14] 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". [15]

After an hour of carnage, d'Estaing ordered a retreat. On October 17, Lincoln and d'Estaing abandoned the siege.

Aftermath and legacy

The battle was one of the bloodiest of the war. While Prevost claimed Franco-American losses at 1,000 to 1,200, the actual tally 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 the whole war," and celebratory cannons were fired when the news reached London. [16]

It was perhaps because of the siege's reputation as a famous British victory that Charles Dickens chose the siege of Savannah as the place for Joe Willet to be wounded (losing his arm) in the novel Barnaby Rudge.

Three currently-existing Army National Guard units (118th FA, [17] 131st MP [18] and 263rd ADA [19] ) are derived from American units that participated in the siege of Savannah. There are only thirty current U.S. Army units with lineages that go back to the colonial era.

Battlefield archaeology

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 Franco-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. [20] [21] [22]

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 Pulaski postage stamp, 1931 Issue, 2c General Pulaski 1931 Issue-2c.jpg
General Casimir Pulaski postage stamp, 1931 Issue, 2c

The battle is commemorated each year by Presidential proclamation, on General Pulaski Memorial Day.

Influence on Haitian revolutionaries

The battle is much-remembered in Haitian history;[ citation needed ] 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, who later declared himself to be the king of (northern) Haiti, while a republic was established in southern Haiti, was 12-years old at the time and may have been among these troops.

Many other less-famous 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.[ citation needed ]

See also


  1. Franco-American casualties total 800 (of which 650 are French) plus 120 prisoners. Marley p. 323
  2. Marley p. 323
  3. White, H\George (1 January 1854). Historical collections of Georgia . Retrieved 24 July 2016 via Internet Archive. Steamer Pulaski.
  4. George P. Clark (1980). "The Role of the Haitian Volunteers at Savannah in 1779: An Attempt at an Objective View". Phylon. 41 (4): 356–366. doi:10.2307/274860. JSTOR   274860.
  5. Davis, Robert Scott (22 February 2021). "Black Haitian Soldiers at the Siege of Savannah". Journal of the American Revolution. Retrieved 18 July 2022.
  6. Hough, Franklin (March 2009). The Siege of Savannah. Applewood Books. ISBN   978-1-4290-1947-7.
  7. "Why did African Americans join the British Army during the American Revolution -". Retrieved 2024-02-17.
  8. Pearson, Major Jesse T. (2015-11-06). Failure Of British Strategy During The Southern Campaign Of The American Revolutionary War. Pickle Partners Publishing. ISBN   978-1-78625-220-3.
  9. Lawrence, Alexander A.; Piecuch, Jim (2021-10-15). Storm Over Savannah: The Story of Count D'Estaing and the Siege of the Town in 1779. University of Georgia Press. ISBN   978-0-8203-5945-8.
  10. Louis Susane, Historie de l'ancienne infanterie Français (volumes II–VII used).
  11. 1 2 3 Sayen (1986).
  12. Buker (1979).
  13. Morrill, p. 60
  14. American Swedish Historical Museum: Yearbook 1957 , p. 34, at Google Books
  15. "Siege of Savannah During the American Revolutionary War". Archived from the original on 2015-02-22. Retrieved 2015-05-15.
  16. Morrill, p. 64
  17. Department of the Army, Lineage and Honors, 118th Field Artillery.
  18. Department of the Army, Lineage and Honors, 131st Military Police Company.
  19. Department of the Army, Lineage and Honors, 263rd Air Defense Artillery.
  20. "The Greatest Event That has Happened The Whole War" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-07-24.
  21. "Savannah Under Fire, 1779" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-07-24.
  22. "Sav Under Fire Boundaries 2011 Report.pdf" (PDF). Thelamarinstitute,org. Retrieved 2016-07-24.

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