This Day in History: Patriots attempt to recapture Savannah

On this day in 1779, French and American forces launch an attack against the British in Savannah, Georgia. They hoped to break the hold that the British had had on the city since December 1778.

French naval forces led by Admiral d’Estaing were coming to the area to help with the effort. D’Estaing had 22 ships of the line and 11 frigates.  They were to work with American forces led by Benjamin Lincoln. Together, the allied force totaled more than 7,000 men.

Just imagine what British General Augustine Prevost thought when he saw that huge naval effort headed his way! He was badly outnumbered. Maybe worse, the defenses around the city had weaknesses that could be exploited. Prevost went to work rectifying those two problems. He sent a message to British Lt. Colonel John Maitland, then in Beaufort, requesting reinforcements.  He also caught a lucky break: His opponent didn’t have time for a lengthy siege.

D’Estaing was supposed to be returning home to France before hurricane season set in. So he was looking for short cuts. He tried to get Prevost to simply surrender without a fight. Prevost asked for 24 hours to consider his answer.  D’Estaing unwisely agreed. Unfortunately, this gave Prevost time to get reinforcements and to improve his defenses.

Maybe you aren’t surprised to hear that, at the end of the delay, Prevost refused to surrender?

D’Estaing finally began bombarding Savannah on October 4. The bombardment was intense. One observer wrote: “The appearance of the town afforded a melancholy prospect, for there was hardly a house which had not been shot through, and some of them were almost destroyed.” 

The bombardment continued for the better part of a week. D’Estaing was becoming increasingly impatient. He’d been there for more than a month, which was far longer than he’d intended.  He was worried that a British fleet would soon arrive from New York or the Caribbean. And he was still worried about the possibility of storms in the Atlantic.  He did not want to wait any longer. He convinced Lincoln to attack on October 9.

The plan of attack called for many feints to fool Prevost, but the main attack would occur at a redoubt on the British right. The right flank was thought to be a weaker point in the British defenses. Unfortunately, nothing really went according to plan.

An attack that was supposed to start at 4 a.m. started late. Swamps in the area had prevented all units from being in place in time. When the main attack did finally start, the British were ready to defend their redoubt. The French and American allied forces fought hard, but they kept getting repulsed. At one point, French and South Carolinian troops managed to reach the top of a wall and plant their flags. Unfortunately, the flag bearers were killed soon afterwards. Stacks of bodies began to accumulate in the ditch by the redoubt.

The allied force was eventually forced to cut off the attack and re-establish the siege. But, by that point, relations between the French and Americans were deteriorating. And d’Estaing still needed to go home. The siege petered out.

The British would continue to hold Savannah until 1782.