On this day in 1781, a Loyalist colonel surrenders the city of Augusta to American forces. Was the writing on the wall? The British surrender at Yorktown was mere months away.
Americans were on the cusp of victory!
At this point in the Revolution, the British were deep into their southern campaign. They’d hoped to build a base in the South, then use that base to crush the rebellion in the North. The strategy seemed to be working at first. Americans suffered tough losses in places such as Savannah, Charleston and Camden. But by early 1781, the tide was turning.
The American commander in the South, Nathanael Greene, decided to send forces toward Augusta. That city was then held by Loyalist Colonel Thomas Browne. The area was protected by three forts: Galphin, Cornwallis and Grierson.
Lt. Colonel Henry “Light Horse” Lee soon arrived at Fort Galphin. His forces captured it relatively easily when they tricked the British into abandoning the safety of their fort. The British left the fort (they thought) to attack a small detachment of militia. Instead, they were confronted by a unit of legion infantry.
Lee continued on toward Augusta, where he met up with Brigadier General Andrew Pickens and Colonel Elijah Clarke. (Interestingly, Lee had more authority than his rank might have suggested during this effort, due to his instructions from Greene. ) It was decided to attack Fort Grierson first. Grierson fell quickly, too. Many of the survivors fled toward Fort Cornwallis.
Some, I am sorry to say, were slain even as they tried to retreat. Historian Edward J. Cashin notes of this period: “The rebel raiders felt justified in committing any manner of outrage in retaliation for the treatment of their families and properties by the British. Each side blamed the other for atrocities.”
The American commanders turned their focus to Fort Cornwallis. Browne had previously refused to communicate with Clarke, whom he considered a mortal enemy. But when Lee and Pickens arrived on the scene, lines of communication were established. A captured British soldier was even allowed into the fort to retrieve medicines for some of the injured British held by the Americans.
The cooperation was temporary. Lee suggested that a “Maham Tower” be built so American artillery could be placed at an advantage. Browne worked to disrupt their progress by sending out sallies from the fort. It didn’t work. The tower was completed on June 1. Suddenly, Americans had a huge advantage! In fact, their newly positioned cannon knocked out two British cannon in relatively short order.
Browne wasn’t ready to give up. He sent a pretended deserter out of the fort. The “deserter” was to gain Lee’s confidence, then get himself into a position to destroy the tower. Fortunately, the suspicious Lee was not taken in.
Next, Browne burned several log houses just outside the fort’s perimeter, but he left two of the houses untouched. He was trying to trick the Americans into using the empty house as a base from which to launch an attack—but he’d rigged it to explode. Fortunately, that ruse did not work, either.
By June 4, Browne needed to surrender, but it was King George III’s birthday. He could not bring himself to do it on that day. The final surrender occurred on June 5.
Americans were marching solidly on toward victory at Yorktown.
Edward J. Cashin, The King's Ranger: Thomas Brown and the American Revolution on the Southern Frontier (1999)
William R. Reynolds, Jr., Andrew Pickens: South Carolina Patriot in the Revolutionary War (2012)