Friday, October 9, 2009

This Day in Revolutionary War History (2nd Patriot Naval Fiasco, at Savannah)

October 9, 1779—Only two months after native-born Americans launched the disastrous Penobscot Expedition in the North, Southern patriot leaders looked to the French navy to break British sea supremacy over the colonies.

But the same ills that beset the earlier operation—notably, slowness on the naval side and lack of cooperation all around—doomed this attempt to defeat the British, as an American attempt to lift the siege of Savannah foundered.

This was the first time French regular army units fought beside Americans, but it’s unlikely this was the kind of result that Louis XVI had in mind when he committed to an alliance with the colonists two years before.

The British saw the seaport of Savannah as key to their “Southern strategy,” believing that they could capitalize on loyalists in the hinterlands. They had seized Savannah the prior December. The Americans wanted it back, badly.

French Admiral Valery D’Estaing had aborted an assault on Newport already and had come in for some flack for it. Then, in September 1779, he decided to bring to bear 33 warships, 100 transports, and more than 4,000 troops on the Savannah River, demanding the surrender of the British troops there.

The British commander, Augustine Prevost, didn’t budge. Lt. Col. John Maitland had just led an amazing forced march through the marshs and swamps—and, more important, under the nose of the French blockade—so Prevost could muster more troops behind his effort than at the beginning of D’Estaing’s campaign, when the Frenchman could have practically waltzed into the seaport.

Instead of thinking about surrendering, then, the British set about strengthening fortifications. When D’Estaing and the American general in charge of the land operation, Benjamin Lincoln, awoke to the danger, they faced a nearly impregnable enemy.

Deciding they could not lose what they set out for, they ordered an early-morning assault on Spring Hill on October 9. It was a disaster—the bloodiest single hour of fighting in the whole war for the Americans. While the British lost only 55 dead or wounded, the Americans and their allies suffered casualties of 1,000 from their original assault force of 5,000.

As grievous was the psychological blow this dealt the colonists. A bayonet charge drove the Americans and their allies back from the ramparts, forcing them into a ditch below that soon filled with bodies.

Grapeshot victims were scattered on the field for 100 yards beyond. At the sight of them, John Laurens—a valued aide to General George Washington and friend of Alexander Hamilton’s— threw down his sword in disgust.

The Americans were revolted by the presumptuousness of D’Estaing. The admiral, in turn, couldn’t conceal his disdain for his new allies, especially how badly trained and badly clothed the troops were.

Instead of ratcheting down the war effort, as the British Parliament had been heatedly debating, Prevost’s success at Savannah encouraged them to stay the course. Or, at least, continue to do so until General Nathanael Greene led his own hit-fight-and-run campaign in the Carolinas the next year, slowly draining redcoat strength.

In this type of catastrophe, one looks around for some kind of silver lining. It must have been hard to find at the time, but nowadays, reviewing our history as what President Kennedy called “a nation of immigrants,” it’s easy to see that the battle represented a constellation of foreign talent who came to the United States believing in its possibilities for freedom—and willing to shed their own blood for it.

Ancestors of people represented by several countries fought on the American side at the Battle of Savannah: France, Haiti, Scotland, Poland, Sweden, Ireland, and Germany.

Among the foreign soldiers who took a prominent part in the battle:

* Count Casimir Pulaski, often considered the founder of the U.S. cavalry, mortally wounded when he tried to lead 200 cavalrymen between two British redoubts.

*Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant, future architect of the city of Washington, one of the first Frenchmen to volunteer for the war effort, had tried unsuccessfully, the day before the Continental assault, to set fire to the British abatis, a barrier of sharpened tree limbs designed to slow attackers. During the assault, he was one of the last surviving soldiers recovered from the big ditch of bodies during the fruitless assault on the British fortifications. In later years, he would require laudanum to control his terrible pain.

* Count Arthur Dillon, an Irish expatriate, led a regiment that included Irish soldiers serving the King of France. (Fifteen years later, he would be executed during the Reign of Terror.)

* Curt von Stedingk, a dashing Swedish baron well-known around the courts of Gustavus III, Louis XVI and Catherine the Great, led another French column, and was wounded in the left leg during the assault.

* Henri Christophe, a 12-year-old West African slave, is believed to have served as a drummer boy in the French contingent. Nearly a quarter century later, he became one of the leaders of the Haitian Revolution, then, in 1811, became King of Haiti.

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