A Failed Counterattack

Both sides lay low during the warm months of summer. General Lincoln could not build up sufficient forces in South Carolina to assure a successful offensive to retake Savannah. There simply were not enough men to be had in the Deep South. A third force was necessary to break the impasse before Savannah. The Americans thought of Admiral d'Estaing and his fleet in the West Indies. Governor John Rutledge of South Carolina was among those who in the spring and summer of 1779 wrote the French Admiral asking for his assistance.

The Arrival of the French

Admiral d'Estaing had been weighing his options. General Washington wanted d'Estaing to sail north and help him strike Clinton. The French admiral preferred a closer target. He sent word that he was on his way to Savannah. He arrived on September 8 with twenty ships of the line, eleven frigates, and 6,000 soldiers. Along the way he captured four British ships, including a transport carrying the wages due the redcoats in Georgia.

The defenses of Savannah were still inadequate. The British had not reckoned on the command of the sea passing to their enemy. Prevost had the men of the garrison, townspeople, and 500 requisitioned slaves working frantically on new fortifications. Had d'Estaing moved aggressively, he could have taken the place easily. On the September 12 he offloaded 3,500 infantry and artillerymen eight miles from the town. On September 16, he formally demanded the surrender of Savannah “to the arms of the King of France.” In the meantime, Prevost had been reinforced by 800 regulars and had completed his defenses, which mounted 100 guns. He bid defiance to the French, and the siege began in earnest.

The Battle of Savannah

Benjamin Lincoln arrived with 600 Continentals and 750 militiamen on September 16, bringing the total number of allied troops to nearly 5,000. Prevost held Savannah with 3,200 redcoats and loyalists. The French and Americans began digging parallels toward the British defenses on September 23. Guns were hauled up from the fleet and a general cannonade began on October 4. This shot up the town but had little effect on Prevost's lines. After five days of fruitless bombardment, d'Estaing grew restless. His ships were vulnerable to storms and he worried about the arrival of a British fleet. He insisted that the besiegers attempt to take the town on October 9.

Louis XIV's great military engineer Marshal Sebastien Vauban held that the arts of fortification and the taking of fortifications could be reduced to geometric principles. He made siegecraft a science. A good military engineer could time a siege almost to the day. D'Estaing's engineers estimated it would take ten more days to take Savannah than he thought he had, a judgment that led him to order an assault on the city.

The plan called for 3,500 French and nearly 1,000 American troops to attack in four columns before dawn. A traitor in the American ranks learned the details of the attack and deserted to the British. Thanks to his information, the British were able to reinforce the most threatened point of their line. Errors and accidents further disrupted the allied plan. One column went astray and was unable to lend its weight to the attack. Delays forced the other three columns to launch their assault after daybreak. The forewarned British caught the advancing troops in the open with a firestorm of shot and shell. Whole ranks were mowed down in the crossfire. A few troops made it to the British fortifications, only to be trapped beneath the parapet. The British counterattacked and threw the survivors back after a brutal hand-to-hand melee.

The attempt to storm Savannah was a complete failure. The allied casualties — 244 dead and 584 wounded — amounted to a fifth of the entire assault force. Casimir Pulaski, the dashing Polish cavalry officer, was among the dead, killed at the head of his men. British casualties were forty dead, sixty-three wounded, and fifty-two missing.

General Lincoln wanted to carry on the siege, but Admiral d'Estaing had had enough. His first concern was his fleet, still exposed to imminent storms, his crews beset with an outbreak of scurvy. D'Estaing withdrew his troops to the waiting fleet and sailed off to Martinique. Lincoln was forced to trudge back to Charleston. The crushing failure of another attempt at Franco-American military cooperation was a heavy blow to Patriot morale. The spirits of the British and loyalists were correspondingly lifted. Despite the demonstrated capacity of the French to strike the American mainland, the British were emboldened to widen their operations in the south.

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