HAVING military possession of Georgia, General Prevost prepared to attempt the subjugation of South Carolina. Informed that Lincoln was far up the Savannah River, and assured by timid men who professed loyalty and took protection from Prevost, to save their property, that Charleston might be easily captured, the British leader, with about two thousand regulars and a body of Tories and Indians, crossed the river at Purysburg, and took the nearest road leading to that city. When Lincoln heard of this movement, he resolved to attempt to regain possession of Georgia. He was then at the head of five thousand men. Sending a detachment, under Colonel Harris, to reinforce Moultrie, who was flying before Prevost, he crossed the river near Augusta, and marched down its Georgia side for Savannah, hoping to recapture that place, or to recall Prevost. When he discovered that the latter continued to press on toward Charleston, Lincoln recrossed the Savannah, and gave chase. At the same time Governor Rutledge, who had been gathering recruits near Orangeburg, was hastening toward Charleston with six hundred men; and at the beginning of May was seen the interesting spectacle of four armies marching upon the South Carolina capital.
Prevost had marked his pathway with plundering and fire; and Lincoln was hailed as a deliverer by the people who swelled his ranks. Stopping to exercise cruelty, Prevost was so tardy, that Rutledge, Harris, and Moultrie were allowed to reach Charleston before his arrival, and the inhabitants were given an opportunity to cast up strong intrenchments across the Neck. It was the morning of the 11th of May, 1779, before he appeared in front of these works and made a demand of the instant surrender of the town, which was met by a prompt refusal. The works on the Neck were well manned. Fort Moultrie, in the harbor, was well garrisoned; and the leaders of the troops felt confident that they could protect the city. The day was spent by both parties in preparations for a serious conflict; and the succeeding night was a fearful one for the citizens of Charleston, for they expected to be greeted at dawn with bomb-shells and red-hot shot. During that day of preparation, Count Pulaski, who was at Haddrell's Point, with his legion, was ferried over the Cooper River, and at noon he led his infantry to attack the British advanced-guard, when he was repulsed with heavy loss.
That evening there was an important executive council held by Governor Rutledge, in Charleston. The Continental Congress had been advised of the exposed condition of both Georgia and South Carolina, and the difficulty of raising recruits there, because the planters, fearing a servile insurrection, would not leave their homes. Washington's army was too weak to allow any reinforcements to be sent to Lincoln. When young John Laurens heard in the camp of the peril of his State, he was anxious to fly to its protection, proposing to place himself at the head of a regiment of faithful slaves. His friend, Colonel Alexander Hamilton, in a letter to the President of Congress, recommended the arming of the negroes; and Laurens said to Washington, that with three thousand of such black men as he could raise, he could drive the British out of Georgia. But Washington shook his head in doubt. The Congress, however, having nothing better to offer, recommended the extreme Southern States to select three thousand of their most trusted slaves, and arm them for battle under white officers.
While the British were marching on Charleston, Laurens arrived from Philadelphia, with the recommendation of the Congress. The South Carolinians were greatly irritated by what seemed the indifference of the Congress to their imminent danger. Many of them regretted having entered upon the struggle for independence, and were favorable to secession from the Union and assuming a neutral position. Governor Rutledge, dreading the taking of Charleston by storm, sent a flag to Prevost to ask his terms for a capitulation, and was answered: "Peace and protection for the loyal; the condition of prisoners of war for the remainder." Some of the military officers who were invited to the council, declared the ability of the troops to successfully defend the city, and leading patriots decided in favor of resistance; but a majority of the council declared in favor of neutrality, and leaving the question as to whether South Carolina should finally belong to Great Britain or the United States, to be decided by a treaty between those powers. Young Laurens was requested to carry a message to that effect to Prevost, but he scornfully refused the duty. A civilian was sent, but Prevost refused to treat with the civil power, and demanded the surrender of the troops as prisoners of war. Moultrie, who was present, said to the governor and his council: "Then we will fight it out," and left their presence. Gadsden, the stern patriot, and another, followed Moultrie out, and said to him: "Act according to your own judgment, and we will support you."
Ignorant of these deliberations, the citizens of Charleston momentarily expected an attack from the invaders. Every able-bodied man was at his post. The night wore away, and at the early dawn--the opening of a beautiful and serene day--not a scarlet coat was to be seen in front of the lines. Had the city awakened from a terrible dream? Beyond the Ashley, a long line of soldiers of flame-color uniform, with glittering fire-arms, were seen crossing the ferry to James' Island. During the night Prevost had been informed that Lincoln was near with four thousand men, and he and his army had withdrawn in haste and abandoned the siege. They retreated leisurely toward Savannah, by way of the sea-islands along the coast. For more than a month a British detachment lingered on John's Island. On the 20th of June they had a fight with some of Lincoln's men at Stono Ferry, where the British had some works garrisoned by eight hundred men under Colonel Maitland. The contest was severe, each party losing almost three hundred men. The Americans, who had attempted to dislodge their enemy, were established a military post at Beaufort and on Lady's Island near, and finally made their way to Savannah. The hot season put an end to military operations in the South, and for awhile that region enjoyed comparative repose.
This invasion of the richest portion of South Carolina seems more like a raid for plunder than an expedition for conquest. Almost every house over a wide extent of country was entered by the soldiery, who stripped the women of their jewelry and fine clothing, the men of their money, valuable horses and other wealth, and the houses of plate, furniture, bedding, and rare ornaments. Tombs were actually rifled by the soldiery in search of treasure. Gardens were devastated, beautiful conservatories were laid waste, and live-stock and fowls were wantonly slaughtered. So complete was the devastation of the country, that many hundred fugitive slaves died of starvation in the woods, many perished by fever in the British camp, and full three thousand were carried into Georgia by the army, many of whom were sent to the West Indies and sold. This was done under the sanction of the king and his ministers. Germain had instructed the British officers to confiscate and sell not only the negroes employed in the American army, but those who voluntarily sought British protection.
D'Estaing sailed to the West Indies late in 1778 to attack the British possessions there. He found the naval strength of the enemy in those waters to be superior to that of the French, and for six months he kept his fleet sheltered in the Bay of Port Royal. After that, he fought Admiral Byron successfully; and on the first of September, in response to the expressed wishes of the Congress and the urgent appeals of the South Carolinians, he appeared so suddenly off the coast of Georgia, with a powerful fleet, that he surprised and captured four British ships-of-war. He announced his willingness to co-operate with the republican army in the reduction of Savannah, provided he should not be detained too long on that dangerous coast, for he could find neither roadsteads, harbor, nor offing for his twenty great ships-of-the-line. His entire fleet consisted of thirty-three sail, bearing a large number of very heavy guns.
On the appearance of the French fleet, Prevost summoned the troops from all his outposts to come to the defence of Savannah. Three hundred negroes from the neighboring plantations and others not engaged were pressed into the service to strengthen the fortifications. Thirteen redoubts and fifteen batteries with connecting lines of intrenchments were speedily completed, upon which seventy-six cannon were mounted, and before them strong abatis were laid. The works on Tybee Island, at the mouth of the Savannah River, were also strengthened. All of these defences were constructed under the supervision of the talented engineer, Major Moncrief.
Meanwhile General Lincoln had marched from Charleston and concentrated his army at Zubley's Ferry, on the 12th of September. On the same day the French troops of D'Estaing's fleet landed below Savannah, and moved up to a point within three miles of the town. Lincoln had sent Count Pulaski, with his legion of horse and foot, and McIntosh's infantry, to attack the British outposts, while he moved cautiously toward Savannah. On the 16th, he was within three miles of the town, with his whole force. On that day D'Estaing summoned Prevost to surrender the fort to the arms of the French king. The latter asked for a truce until the next day, for he hourly expected eight hundred men from Beaufort, under Maitland. It was unwisely granted. Meanwhile the British employed a large force in strengthening their works. Maitland came in time, warm with a fatal fever, and then Prevost sent a defiant answer to D'Estaing. The golden opportunity for the combined armies was lost by the unwise forbearance of the French commander.
It was now perceived that the town must be taken by regular approaches, and not by assault. The heavy French ordnance, and the stores, were brought up from their landing-place, and on the 23d of September the siege began. It was continued, with varying success, until the 8th of October. D'Estaing became impatient to depart, for the season of dangerous gales on that coast had arrived. It was rumored, too, that Admiral Byron was approaching with a British fleet. A council was held. The engineers decided that it would take ten days more to reach the British lines by trenches; whereupon D'Estaing told Lincoln that the siege must be raised immediately or an attempt must be made to take the place by storm. The latter alternative was chosen, and the sanguinary work began the next day, October 9, 1779. The plan of the attack was revealed to Prevost the night before, by a citizen of Charleston, named Cunny, a sergeant-major of Lincoln's army, who had deserted to the enemy. It gave the British a decided advantage.
About forty-five hundred men of the combined armies moved to the attack just before the dawn, completely shrouded in a dense fog, and covered by a heavy fire from the French batteries. They advanced in three columns, the main one commanded by D'Estaing in person, assisted by Lincoln; another led by Count Dillon, and a third by General Isaac Huger, of Charleston. The latter was to make a feigned attack to divert attention from the movements of the other two. The right of the British, where the principal assault was to begin, was commanded by the gallant Maitland, who was then suffering from the fever that finally destroyed him. His chief defence was a strong work on the Augusta road, known as the Spring-Hill redoubt. This D'Estaing was to attack, while Count Dillon was to make his way along the edge of a swamp to the weakest point of the British lines on the east, and assail them there.
Dillon became entangled in the swamp, and failed. At dawn D'Estaing and Lincoln attacked the redoubt. A fierce battle ensued, and lasted almost an hour. D'Estaing was wounded and carried to his camp. Whole ranks of the assailants were mowed down by bullets and grape-shot; yet the gallant allies pressed forward, leaped the ditch, and placed the French and American flags on the parapet of the redoubt. Fresh forces within pressed them back into the ditch, and tore down the ensigns. The American flags were two that were embroidered and presented to the Second South Carolina regiment by Mrs. Susannah Elliot of Charleston, and were planted on the parapet by Lieutenants Hume and Bush. These officers were both killed. Lieutenant Gray seized the standards and kept them erect. He, too, was slain, when Sergeant Jasper, the hero of Fort Sullivan, rushed to the rescue of the flags, and fell into the ditch mortally wounded. "Tell Mrs. Elliot," said the dying hero, "that I lost my life supporting the colors she presented to our regiment." The flags were of silk; a blue field bearing a white crescent.
While this fearful struggle was going on at the redoubt, Huger and Pulaski were trying to force their way into the enemy's works on different sides of the town. The latter, at the head of his legion and with his banner in his hand, was fighting his way not far from the Spring-Hill redoubt, when he was mortally wounded by a grape-shot. His troops were driven back. Already the French had withdrawn from the assault, and the Continentals under Lincoln were falling back. After five hours hard fighting, the allies showed a white flag, and asked for a truce to bury their dead. It was granted. D'Estaing and Lincoln held a consultation about the future. The former had lost many of his men, and wished to abandon the siege; the latter, confident that a victory might be speedily won, wished to continue it. The former refused to remain any longer; and on the evening of the 18th, the allies withdrew--the French to their ships and the Americans to Zubley's Ferry. Lincoln made his way to Charleston with the remains of his army, and at the beginning of November, the French fleet sailed for France. The allied armies had lost over a thousand men in the siege and assault; the British only one hundred and twenty. The South Carolinians were disheartened by the result, and looked to the future with gloomy forebodings.
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