The Battle of Savannah 1779

2970 words (12 pages) Essay in History

08/02/20 History Reference this

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The American Revolution had been going for three years and Savannah swapped hands between the American and British on multiple occasions. The British wanted Savannah, as they needed a port town on the coast of Georgia to help secure their foothold in the South. Britain captured Savannah on December 29, 1778 in order to further their control of the southern states. Originally, they thought there was a large pro-British population waiting to join their cause in Georgia.[1] General Lincoln sent word to Admiral d’Estaing requesting assistance with retaking Savannah. This was the first time the French and American forces fought a land battle together. The deciding battle during the siege of Savannah came on October 9, 1779 when the Franco-American forces made an ill-prepared attack against an organized British defense. The Battle of Savannah could have been a success if any of the six basic mission principles were used. Admiral d’Estaing’s failure to accept prudent risk, build cohesive teams through mutual trust, and create shared understanding led to a failed and the last attempt to secure Savannah.[2]

The Siege of Savannah started on September 16, 1779 when an impetuous Admiral Count d’Estaing sent message to General Prevost demanding he surrender Savannah to France.[3] This was the beginning of many brash and ill-planned moves by the French commander. Admiral d’Estaing granted the British request for 24 hours to consider and consult his war council. The time was granted despite the American and French armies not being on station to begin an attack. General Prevost had Captain Moncrief fortify around Savannah as soon as French ships were spotted. The city was further reinforced during this 24-hour timeframe and reinforcements arrived from Beaufort, SC. This was a break from European protocol.[4] The British placed an abatis, a fortification made of trees laid across with sharpened branches placed on top, around the city and Spring Hill redoubt.[5] The fortifications were improved during the siege using lessons learned from the American forces at Fort Sullivan by using sand that allowed the forts and Soldiers to take less damage.[6]

A redoubt on the eastern rice fields was supported by DeLancey’s 128 man First Battalion. General Prevost expected the western side to be the main effort by Admiral d’Estaing and his columns due to the forest and swamps providing concealment to within 50 yards of the fortifications. Near the Spring Hill redoubt, a broad line of land led towards the fort and he expected the Franco-American forces to use it while coming out of the swampy areas.[7] Spring Hill redoubt on the western road from Augusta was manned by Captain Tawes’ 110 man regiment and the South Carolina Tory Regiment. Captain Moncrief placed a 15-gun battery in the center of the defense facing south to counter the French artillery and allow for fire in either direction.[8] The remaining British Soldiers were positioned along newly built redoubts from east to west along the southern portion of the city in a semi-circle between the city and three outer redoubts.[9]

The French were camped separate from the Americans, who were despised and not permitted inside the French camps.[10] On October 8, 1779, Admiral Count d’Estaing and General Benjamin Lincoln, the American Commander, along with their war council, decided upon an early morning attack on the ninth.[11] The Allied forces had 7,722 men and 38 cannons to attack while the British only had 4,813 men and 84 cannons for defense.[12] The plan was to begin marching at 0100 and the attack was to begin at 0400 but the earliest the troops were in place was 0530. None of the troops knew the land and they were slowed down by darkness, fog, and terrain.[13]

General Huger was to take his men from the western American camp to the far eastern redoubt and provide a feint attack hoping to pull men from the western fortifications.[14] He got lost in the swamp and forest emerging about 500 yards from the redoubt in a rice field and immediately began receiving fire.[15] Admiral d’Estaing led the central charge onto Spring Hill after hearing the feint begin. His troops were immediately bombarded with musket and artillery fire taking numerous casualties, including d’Estaing himself.[16] Count Dillon was to provide support for his right flank but got lost in the swamp and did not emerge from the woods until daylight. As they emerged, the column received well aimed fire and were forced back into the wood line.[17] Baron de Steding was supporting the left flank but had retreating forces from d’Estaing’s columns breaking his line and momentum.[18] He led the most successful of the French charges towards Spring Hill redoubt but was unable to take it.

Lieutenant Colonel Laurens led the Second South Carolina Continentals and First Battalion Charles Town militia around the northwestern aspect of Spring Hill redoubt.[19] They came behind de Steding’s troops and were able to assault the Spring Hill redoubt and place a set of colors on the parapet.[20] General McIntosh was directed to circle around the French forces while they regrouped. This maneuver forced his columns into the Yamacraw Swamp where they became disoriented and began to receive fire from the British ship Germaine.[21] General Pulaski led his cavalry charge in a failed attempt to get behind the Spring Hill redoubt and exploit the battlefield. He was quickly blown off his horse by grape shot and was carried off the battlefield mortally wounded.[22]

After d’Estaing was wounded a second time, his commanders were able to get him to agree to a retreat. At this time, the 60th Royal Marines pushed the few Franco-American troops from Spring Hill and started a counter attack with the 16th Grenadier Regiment.[23] This was thwarted by the French Reserves which moved from a Jewish cemetery and pushed the British forces back to the redoubt. The feint attack to the retreat lasted about an hour.[24] General Prevost granted a four hour truce to retrieve the dead and dying.[25] The British would hold Savannah until the end of the American Revolution.

This battle could have turned out differently if Admiral d’Estaing would have properly used any three of the six mission command principles. The Americans and French had the manpower and could have had the upper hand if accepting prudent risk, building cohesive teams through mutual trust, and creating shared understanding were used appropriately.[26] Failing to use the aforementioned three principles led to a failed mission.

Accepting prudent risk requires a commander to balance the risks to benefits of a deliberate exposure to injury or known loss while planning the mission[27]. Admiral d’Estaing made multiple risky decisions that were not thought out and resulted in loss of life, equipment, and time. The decisions made by d’Estaing at the beginning of the siege ultimately complicated the battle for Savannah. Admiral d’Estaing’s delay to attack and grant General Prevost 24 hours to consider the surrender allowed Lieutenant Colonel Maitland to reach Savannah after marching from Beaufort, SC.[28] This delay further allowed General Prevost to task citizens, slaves, and Soldiers to continue fortifying Savannah.[29] Admiral d’Estaing’s naval commanders pushed for him to abandon the siege as they were losing 35 Sailors per day to scurvy but he refused to abandon the attack on Savannah.[30] He continued the siege while the navy continued to lose Sailors to disease, non-battle injuries. When more time was requested for the siege, he declined and then finally pressed for an attack on the ninth.[31] The decision to attack and not keep waiting was possibly his best use of prudent risk in regards to saving his Sailors during this conflict.

Admiral d’Estaing was informed a full frontal attack was not prudent and his response was “extreme bravery can conquer everything”.[32] An attack to a less reinforced area or to continue advancing the siege works could have resulted in fewer casualties as suggested by his Adjutant General.[33] The frontal attack caused this battle to be the second bloodiest of the American revolution and the bloodiest for the Allies.[34] Prior to the actual engagement, d’Estaing had the opportunity to regroup once he realized no one was online by the planned time of 0530. He was more concerned about looking bad to the Americans than regrouping and delaying the attack that he pushed forward despite of how well fortified the Spring Hill redoubt was.[35] His ego was more important than the loss of Soldiers as noted by his decision to press forward with the attack.

Building cohesive teams through mutual trust entails commanders and subordinates to work with each other in something as simple as everyday routine tasks or working with partners.[36] General Lincoln was not sure of Admiral d’Estaing’s intentions at the beginning of the Siege when he demanded the surrender of Savannah for the King.[37] The American commanders resented this unpredictable behavior and it created further distrust between the American and French commanders.[38] The French and Americans had no intentions of combining camps or duties to build any form of trust between the Allied forces. “General Lincoln’s command was so much despised by the French as not to be allowed to go into their camp, no communication together”.[39] The distrust amongst the Allied forces was not limited to the officers. They published orders to stay out of each other’s camp for fear of fights breaking out.[40] It is hard to build a team when your time is spent keeping them from fighting each other.

Admiral d’Estaing and his officers did not trust the ability of the American officers to win, which resulted in Allied columns being led by French officers and thus undermining the trust the American officers had with their troops.[41] Baron Steding wrote about the rebel troops “so badly armed, so badly clothed, and I must say so badly commanded, that we could never turn them to much account”.[42] Sailors felt they have been forgotten and d’Estaing’s efforts on the ground were his only focus. That left them feeling betrayed as they were losing Sailors from illness and their food was old and unpalatable.[43] This was not the case, but perception is reality and that will kill the trust subordinates have with their leadership.

Finally creating shared understanding is accomplished by planning together and making sure all levels understand the end state of the mission.[44] French naval officers felt ignored with their damaged ships and bad food, along with worry of the upcoming hurricane season. General d’Estaing’s concern for his Sailors was a leading factor for the speed of the planning, as he knew the navy could not afford to allow for continued siege warfare. This was never communicated to the Sailors, so they did not understand the rationale.[45] Admiral d’Estaing, with his senior officers, presented a plan to General Lincoln. The lead columns were with the French and the Americans were in the rear.[46] They did not involve any other American officers and gave a plan they supported. American officers were not consulted, which could have changed the plan if the French had known exactly what the American capabilities were. The consideration of capabilities of all parties involved is part of shared understanding.[47]

General McIntosh followed his portion of the plan and made it to the northwestern area of the Spring Hill redoubt. McIntosh was redirected into the Yamacraw Swamp by Admiral d’Estaing while he was trying to reform his breaking ranks. The impromptu order pushed General McIntosh and his troops into unfamiliar areas and they soon began taking fire from the British ship Germaine and had to withdraw.[48] He was unable to use his fresh troops and ended up not supporting the attack, but rather retreating. The order was issued by d’Estaing hastily, without any understanding of what McIntosh was to accomplish. All it provided the battle was to give Admiral d’Estaing the ground he wanted to regroup after losing his center ground and alienating a capable fighting force.

The Battle of Savannah was a failure and gave the British the foothold they needed in the south. Smarter strategies could have possibly ended this battle sooner rather than later, but pride was the downfall of the French commander. Admiral d’Estaing’s failure to use prudent risk, build cohesive teams through mutual trust, and create shared understanding, coupled with the poor decisions made led to a failed attempt to retake Savannah. Taking time to learn the troops’ abilities and evaluating the entire picture prior to committing to a battle plan can mean the difference between winning and losing.


1.  S. Martin and B. Harris. Savannah 1779: The British Turned South (Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2017), 33.

2.  US, Department of the Army, ADP 6-0, Mission Command (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, May 2012), 2-5.

3.  S. Martin and B. Harris, 72.

4.  Ibid, 72.

[5].  Wikipedia, Abatis, Internet, available from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abatis, accessed 22 October 2018.

6.  Ibid, 70.

[7].  Mark Boatner III, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1975), 980-987.

[8].   S. Martin and B. Harris, 72.

[9].  Ibid, 70.

[10].  M. Boatner III, 984.

[11].  S. Martin and B. Harris, 77.

[12].  Ibid, 24.

[13].  Ibid, 79.

[14].  Henry Lumpkin, From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in the South (New York: Paragon House Publishers, 1978.), 27-40.

[15].  Ibid, 38.

[16].  FreeRepublic. The FReeper Foxhole Remembers the Siege of Savannah (1779). Internet, available at http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/fvetscor/1489070/ posts; accessed 22 October 2018.

[17].  H. Lumpkin, 38.

[18].  S. Martin and B. Harris, 80.

[19].  M. Boatner III, 985.

[20].  S. Martin and B.Harris, 80.

[21].  M. Boatner III, 987.

[22].  Ibid, 989.

[23].  S. Martin and B. Harris, 81.

[24].  Ibid, 87.

[25].  Ibid, 87.

[26].  Department of the Army, 2.

[27].  Ibid, 5.

[28].  M. Boatner III, 984.

[29].  H. Lumpkin, 33.

[30].  M. Boatner III, 984.

[31].  Ibid, 984.

[32].  S. Martin and B. Harris,77.

[33].  Ibid, 77.

[34].  Freerepublic, 11.

[35].  Ibid, 11.

[36].  Department of the Army, 2-3.

[37].  H. Lumpkin, 33.

[38].  Ibid, 33.

[39].  M. Boatner III, 984.

[40].  S. Martin and B. Harris, 74.

[41].  Ibid, 78.

[42].  Freerepublic, 8.

[43].  Ibid, 9.

[44].  Department of the Army, 3.

[45].  Freerepublic, 9.

[46].  S. Martin and B. Harris, 78.

[47].  Department of the Army, 3.

[48].  M. Boatner III, 987.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Boatner III, M. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, 980-987. New York: David  Company, Inc. 1975.
  • FreeRepublic. The FReeper Foxhole Remembers the Siege of Savannah (1779).     Online at http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/fvetscor/1489070/ posts; accessed on 22 October 2018.
  • Lumpkin, H. From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in the South, 27-40. New York: Paragon House Publishers, 1978.
  • Martin, S and Harris, B. Savannah 1779: The British Turned South, Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2017.
  • US, Department of the Army, ADP 6-0, Mission Command. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, May 2012.
  • Wikipedia, Abatis. Internet. Available from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abatis. Accessed 22 October 2018.
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