This Day in History: The British capture of Savannah
On this day in 1778, British forces begin landing at Girardeau’s Plantation, in Georgia. They would capture Savannah from Americans the next day. Needless to say, it was a low point for the Patriot cause.
The British were then beginning a new effort aimed at the South. The war in the North had stalled. They needed a new strategy.
Thus, in November 1778, General Sir Henry Clinton dispatched Lt. Colonel Archibald Campbell to Georgia. Campbell was doubtless aching to strike at Americans. He had been a prisoner of war for 2 years, but he’d just been released in return for Ethan Allen. His instructions were to attack Savannah.
In the meantime, Major General Robert Howe was in charge of Continental forces in the South, but he was ill-equipped to handle the blow that was about to come. Not only were the defenses around Savannah insufficient, but he was also mired in conflict with civilian authorities in the area.
Making matters worse, he’d recently been replaced. The Continental Congress was unhappy with him and intended to replace him with General Benjamin Lincoln. Unfortunately, Lincoln had not yet arrived.
On December 23, British ships appeared near Savannah. Campbell soon sent some men ashore with instructions to “seize any of the inhabitants they might find on the Banks of Wilmington Creek” so that the British might gather information. It worked. Campbell later wrote that “[t]wo men were procured by this means, by whom we learnt the most satisfactory intelligence concerning the state of matters at Savannah.”
Americans were badly outnumbered.
Campbell decided to land at Girardeau’s Plantation, about two miles below Savannah. By then, Howe knew that the British were coming. He made a few decisions that were later criticized:
First, he sent a force that was too small to slow the advance of the British near Girardeau’s. He also failed to provide that force with field artillery. Unsurprisingly, American resistance to the British landing was nearly non-existent. Second, Howe failed to make his own decisions. He could have evacuated the town and gone north to meet Benjamin Lincoln. Instead, he let his Council of War decide whether Americans should stay or go. They decided to stay, a decision that was later called the “most ill-advised, rash opinion that could be given.” Finally, Howe was criticized for the arrangement of his defenses around the city. There was a “very easy dry pass” through a wooded swamp that was not sufficiently considered until too late. The British used this decision to their advantage.
The loss was total and devastating. More than 500 men were wounded, dead or captured. All the Americans’ supplies were lost. One historian summarized the significance of the loss: “Savannah was the first step in the train of events that followed—the capture of Charlestown, the overrunning of South Carolina and parts of North Carolina, and the three years of bloody civil war that ensued in those regions.”
A victory over the British must have seemed virtually impossible in those days. If only they could have known that a final British surrender at Yorktown would finally come, although that event was nearly three years away.
Alexander A. Lawrence, General Robert Howe and the British Capture of Savannah in 1778 (The Georgia Historical Quarterly; December, 1952)
A.M. Hooper, Retreat of General Howe from Savannah, From Memoirs of Howe (The N.C. University Magazine; May 1854)
John C. Fredriksen, Revolutionary War Almanac (2006)
Letter from Lt. Col. Campbell to Lord George Germain (January 16, 1779)
Proceedings from the Court Martial of General Howe (available HERE).