There was blood on the ground. Lots of it, and most of it belonged to the Americans. It was an ambitious plan to win the city from the British who had so easily taken it a year earlier. It may have even worked, had so much not gone wrong. Miscommunication, or even no communication between the Americans and their new French allies, difficulty negotiating the swampland on the approach march, and even a narcoleptic commanding General all conspired against the American troops. Despite all of the preparations, the Siege of Savannah would go on record as being one of the biggest American losses of the Revolution.
The Savannah History Museum celebrates the city’s role in Georgian and American history from it’s inception in 1733 as America’s first planned city to the near present day. Visitors can see artifacts from the first colonial settlers up through the famous park bench used in the Forrest Gump film. The museum dedicates a good amount of floor space, about 25%, to the city’s role in the American Revolution, in addition to Battlefield Park located across the street where the Siege of Savannah occurred. The museum itself is located in an old railroad depot on the outskirts of the city’s historic district and is within walking distance of many of the town’s most popular sights and neighborhood squares. As a bonus, the Coastal Heritage Society has a large parking lot at the Georgia Railroad Museum next door where you can stash your car for the day while you stroll around the museum and then the historic district. The parking lot gate is locked at 5:00pm, so be sure to return by then.
American Revolution artifacts include uniforms of the British and Continental Regiments, poster displays that depict the events and significance of the battle, small arms and an artillery gun, and a diorama of the battle. The museum also runs a program Thursday-Saturday called Loyalists & Liberty. I happened to visit during this time and was able to catch the one hour show where a re-enactor presents an overview of the battle. The program begins inside the museum with a setting of the stage for the battle that would occur on October 9, 1779. The tour then heads outside to Battlefield Park where guests listen to how the Siege of Savannah went down. The park includes the actual site of the Spring Hill Redoubt that the British occupied on that morning, a scaled-down version of the fortification, and a memorial that consists of 800 stones representing the casualties of those killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.
The Savannah History Museum is a great place to brush up on your American Revolution history if you are visiting the city. The proximity to the historic district makes it an easy stop as you walk through Savannah’s neighborhood squares, riverfront, or city market areas. Plan to spend about two hours at the museum if you go during the guided Loyalists & Liberty tour, which is recommended.
The Battle Unfolds
The first three years of the American Revolution saw heavy fighting in the north, and although the British had some victories, they were unable to decisively win any campaigns against General Washington and his Continental Army. In December of 1778, the British launched a southern campaign beginning in Savannah to open up another front and spread thin the American’s resources. They took the city with only minor resistance.
By September of the next year, American General Benjamin Lincoln felt that he could re-take the city with naval assistance, which came in the form of 25 French gunships carrying 4,000 troops under the command of Charles Hector, Compte d’Estaing. The allies developed a plan and d’Estaing began landing troops south of the city in September of 1779, then sailed further in toward the city to provide naval gunfire support. The action initially caught British General Augustine Prevost by surprise. When d’Estaing offered Prevost the chance to surrender, he responded with a request for a 24-hour truce to consider the offer, which d’Estaing granted. The delay allowed enough time for reinforcing ships to sail in from South Carolina and bolster the British naval defenses. After the 24-hour truce had expired, Prevost refused to surrender and settled in for a hearty defense.
D’Estaing attempted to bombard the fortifications with cannon, but instead nearly destroyed the entire city. Traditional siege operations (surrounding the city, cutting off supplies) would take more time and resources than the Americans or French had to spare. There had to be an assault if they were to unseat the British.
On October 9th, the American and French allies began to attack. It went badly from the start. Advancing forces became lost in the early morning fog. They arrived after sunrise, losing any hope of surprise. The fortification was heavily defended not by Loyalist militia as initially thought, but by professional British Grenadiers as well as Scottish and German soldiers. The first wave of the assault was chaotic. The second wave was equally unsuccessful. After an hour, d’Estaing could take no more and ordered a retreat of his French troops, with Lincoln following right behind him. There would be no victory for the Americans or their new allies on that day.
The Significance of the Siege of Savannah
It’s human nature to want to forget our losses. There are not too many National Historical Parks that memorialize battles in which our own forces were so decisively beaten. At the end of the day, American and French bodies littered the battlefield and floated motionless in the flooded ditch of the Spring Hill Redoubt. 457 Americans were either killed or wounded and French casualties would double that number, while British casualties numbered around 150 killed, wounded or missing. Why not just forget about this hiccup? It did not alter the course of history. The British would still surrender at Yorktown in another two years. Let’s just push this one to the side.
But the Siege of Savannah is certainly worth remembering. It was the point at which the American Revolution became an international war. The British had been employing Scottish Highlanders and German/Hessian mercenaries since almost the beginning of the war, both of whom were present in Savannah. But it was here that French forces of the Army and Navy would join the side of the Continentals at scale. The French would also bring to the battlefield a regiment of Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue, free men of color from the French colony that would eventually be known as Haiti. The Chasseurs-Volontaires contribution to the battle cannot be overstated. Although the American losses that day were severe, they would have been much worse were it not for the Chasseurs who created a rear guard and allowed the Continental Regiments, Georgia and South Carolina militia, and French units to withdraw from the failed attempt to take the British positions. In 2007, a monument to the Chasseurs was placed in Franklin Square, one of the few monuments anywhere to recognize the efforts of African descendants in the fight for America’s independence.