October 18 This day during the American Revolution

October 18, 1779 – Siege of Savannah was an encounter of the American Revolutionary War 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, Kazimierz Pułaski, fighting on the American side, was mortally wounded. With the failure of the so-called joint American-French attack, the siege failed, and the British remained in control of Savannah until July 1782, near the end of the war. In 1779, more than 500 Haitian volunteers from Saint-Domingue, Haiti under the command of Comte d’Estaing, fought alongside American colonial troops against the British in the Siege of Savannah, one of the most significant foreign contributions to the American Revolutionary War. 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 southern states. 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. 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 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. British troop strength in the area consisted of about 2,500 regulars at Savannah, 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 in Savannah, was caught completely off guard when the French fleet began to arrive off Savannah and recalled the troops stationed at Beaufort and Sunbury to aid in the defense of Savannah. Captain James Moncrief of the Royal Engineers was tasked with constructing fortifications to repulse the invaders. Using 200-300 African American slaves working up to twenty 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.  D’Estaing began landing troops below the city on September 12. By September 16 he was moving in on the city. Confident of victory, and believing that Maitland would be prevented from reaching Savannah by Lincoln, he offered Prevost the opportunity to surrender. Prevost temporized and asked for 24 hours of truce. Owing to miscommunication about who was responsible for preventing Maitland’s movements, the waterways separating Hilton Head Island from the mainland were unguarded, and Maitland was able to reach Savannah hours before the truce ended. Prevost’s response to d’Estaing’s offer was a polite rejection, even though Lincoln had also arrived outside the city. 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 hardely 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 subordinates, d’Estaing launched the assault against the British position on the morning of October 9. The attack 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 Maitland’s company, who had distinguished themselves at Stono Ferry. The militia included riflemen, who easily picked off the white-clad French troops when the assault finally got underway. Admiral d’Estaing was twice wounded, and Polish cavalry officer Kazimierz Pułaski, 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 parts of the British position were easily repulsed. The second assault column was commanded by the Swedish Count Curt von Stedingk, who managed to capture 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 where annihilated by cross-fire. He was however forced back by overwhelming numbers of British troops and was pushed back with only some 20 men left, all, including himself, wounded. 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 the retreat. On October 17, Lincoln and d’Estaing abandoned the siege. 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. 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.

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