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True to the Old Flag: A Tale of the American War of Independence, a novel by George Alfred Henty

Chapter 18. The Siege Of Savannah

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After the surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga the English Parliament made another effort to obtain peace, and passed an act renouncing all rights to tax the colonists and yielding every point as to which they had been in dispute. Commissioners were sent over with full authority to treat, and had the colonists been ready nominally to submit to England, a virtual independence, similar to that possessed by Canada and the Australian colonies at the present time, would have been granted. As a very large body of the Americans had from the first been desirous of coming to terms, and as the paralyzed state of trade caused great and general distress, it is probable that these terms might have been accepted had it not been for the intervention of France. That power had all along encouraged the rebellion. She had smarted under the loss of Canada, and although her rule in her own colonies was far more arbitrary than that of England in America, she was glad to assist in any movement which could operate to the disadvantage of this country. Hitherto, nominally she had remained neutral, but now, fearing that the offers of the English would induce the colonists to make peace, she came forward, recognized their independence, and engaged herself to furnish a large fleet for their assistance.

The colonists joyfully accepted the offer, seeing that the intervention of France in the struggle would completely alter its conditions. Heretofore the British had been enabled to send over men and stores at will, but were they blockaded by a French fleet their difficulties would be immensely increased.

As there had been no cause of quarrel between England and France, this agreement was an act of wanton hostility on the part of the latter. On obtaining information of the signature of the treaty between France and the colonies, the English ambassador was recalled from Paris and both countries prepared vigorously for war.

The first result was that the English deemed it prudent to evacuate Philadelphia and retreat to New York. Washington endeavored to cut off their retreat, and a battle took place at Freehold Court House, in which the Americans were worsted. Washington drew off his army, and the British army continued its march to New York without further opposition. Early in May the French sent off a fleet of twelve ships of the line and six frigates, carrying a large number of troops commanded by Count D'Estaing. An English fleet, under Admiral Byron, was lying at Portsmouth, and this sailed on June 9 in pursuit; for it was not until that time that information was received of the intended destination of the French fleet.

D'Estaing reached the American coast upon the very day on which the English army re-entered New York, and after making a demonstration before that town the French fleet sailed for Rhode Island to expel the British troops, under Sir Robert Pigott, who held it.

Lord Howe sailed with the fleet from New York to give battle to that of D'Estaing. For two days the fleets maneuvered in sight of each other. Howe, being inferior in force, wished to gain the weather-gauge before fighting. Failing to do this, on the third day he offered battle, but a tremendous storm prevented the engagement and dispersed both fleets. The French vessels retired to Boston and the English to New York.

Taking advantage of the departure of the French fleet, Sir Robert attacked the American force, which had crossed to Rhode Island to act with the French, and drove them from it. While crossing the Atlantic the fleet under Admiral Byron had met with a tremendous storm, which had entirely dispersed it, and the vessels arrived singly at New York. When their repairs were completed the whole set out to give battle to the French, but D'Estaing, finding that by the junction of the two English fleets he was now menaced by a superior force, sailed away to the West Indies.

After his departure an expedition was sent down along the coast to Georgia and East Florida. This met with great success. Savannah was captured and the greater part of South Carolina was occupied. The majority of the inhabitants joyfully welcomed the troops and many companies of volunteers were raised.

Harold had arrived in New York early in the spring. He had been offered a commission, but he preferred remaining with his two comrades in the position of scout. In this way he had far greater independence, and while enjoying pay and rations sufficient for his maintenance, he was to a great extent master of his own movements. At an earlier period of the war he was offered by General Howe a commission in the army, and his father would have been glad had he accepted it. Harold, however, although determined to fight until the struggle between the colonists and the mother country came to an end one way or the other, had no great liking for the life of an officer in the regular army, but had resolved at the conclusion of the war to settle down upon a farm on the lakes--a life for which he felt far more fitted than for the strict discipline and regularity of that of an officer in the army.

As, with the exception of the attack by the French fleet and American army upon Rhode Island, both parties remained quiet all through the summer of 1778, the year passed uneventfully to him, and the duties of the scouts were little more than nominal. During the winter fighting went on in the Carolinas and Georgia with varied success.

In the spring of 1779 Harold and his comrades were, with a party of scouts, sent down to Georgia, where constant skirmishes were going on and the services of a body of men accustomed to outpost duty were required. They were landed in May and joined General Prevost's force on the island of St. John, situated close to the mainland and connected with it by a bridge of boats, at the end of which on the mainland a post had been erected. Shortly afterward General Prevost left for Savannah, taking with him most of the troops, which were carried away in the sloops which had formed the bridge of boats. On the American side General Lincoln commanded a considerable army, which had been dispatched by Congress to drive the English from that State and the Carolinas.

Lieutenant Colonel Maitland, who commanded the post on the mainland, was left with only a flat-boat to keep up his communication with the island. He had under his command the first battalion of the Seventy-first Highlanders, now much weakened in numbers, part of a Hessian regiment, some provincial volunteers, and a detachment of artillery, the whole not exceeding 500 effective men. Hearing that General Lincoln was advancing against him, Colonel Maitland sent all his sick, baggage, and horses across to the island, and placed the post as far as possible in a defensive position. Most of the scouts who had come down from New York had accompanied General Prevost to Savannah, but Harold, with Peter Lambton, Jake, and three or four others, had been ordered to remain with Colonel Maitland, and were sent out to reconnoiter when the enemy were known to be approaching.

"This is something like our old work, Peter, upon Lake Champlain," Harold said, as with his two comrades he took his way in the direction from which the enemy were advancing.

"Ay, lad, but they've none of the redskins with 'em, and there'll be no great difficulty in finding out all about 'em. Besides, we've got Jake with us, and jest about here Jake can do better nor we can. Niggers swarm all over the country and are as ready to work for one side as the other, jest as their masters go. All Jake has got to do is to dress himself as a plantation nigger and stroll into their camp. No question will be asked him, as he will naturally be taken for a slave on some neighboring estate. What do you say, Jake?"

Jake at once assented, and when they approached the enemy he left his comrades and carried their plan into execution. He was away six hours, and returned saying that the enemy were 5000 strong, with eight pieces of artillery.

"We must hurry back," Peter said. "Them are big odds agin' us. Ef all our troops was regulars, I don't say as they might not hold the place; but I don't put much count on the Germans, and the colonists aint seen no fighting. However, Colonel Maitland seems a first-rate officer. He has been real sharp in putting the place into a state of defense, and I reckon ef the Yankees thinks as they're going to eat us up without trouble they'll be mistaken."

Jake reported that the enemy were on the point of marching forward, and the scouts hurried back to give Colonel Maitland news of their coming.

It was late in the afternoon when they reached the post.

"At what time do you think they will arrive here?" the colonel asked, when Jake had made his report. "Dey be pretty close by dark, for sure," Jake replied.

"But I don't think, sir," Peter added, "they'll attack before morning. They wouldn't be likely to try it in the dark, not knowing the nature of the place."

The commander was of the same opinion, but to prevent the possibility of surprise he placed pickets at some distance round the fort, the scouts being, of course, of the party.

The night passed quietly, but at seven in the morning Peter, Harold, and Jake, who were at some distance in advance of the others, saw the enemy approaching. They fired their pieces and fell back upon the outposts. Their position was rather to the right of the line of defense. The pickets were about to fall back when 70 men, being two companies of the Seventy-first under Captain Campbell, were sent out to feel the enemy.

"We're going to have a skirmish," Peter said. "I know these Highlanders. Instead of jest firing a bit and then falling back, they'll be sticking here and fighting as if they thought they could lick the hull army of the Yankees."

It was as Peter predicted. The Highlanders took post behind a hedge and maintained a desperate resistance to the advance of the enemy. Harold and his comrades for some time fought with them.

"It's time for us to be out of this," Peter said presently. "Let's jest get back to the fort."

"We cannot fall back till they do, Peter"

"I don't see that," Peter said. "We're scouts, and I don't see no advantage in our chucking away our lives because these hot-headed Highlanders choose to do so. Peter Lambton's ready to do a fair share of fighting, but when he's sure that fighting aint no good, then he goes."

And suiting the action to the word, Peter rose from his recumbent position and began to make his way back to the camp, taking advantage of every bit of cover.

Harold could not help laughing. For an instant he remained irresolute, and then, seeing the overwhelming forces with which the enemy were approaching, he called to Jake and followed Peter's example. So obstinately did the Highlanders fight that they did not retreat until all their officers were killed or wounded, and only 11 men out of the two companies succeeded in regaining the camp.

The whole force of the enemy now advanced against the works, and halting at a distance of three hundred yards opened a tremendous fire from their cannon on the intrenchments. The defenders replied, but so overwhelming was the force of the assailants that the Hessians abandoned the portion of the works committed to them and fell back.

The enemy pressed forward and had already gained the foot of the abattis, when Colonel Maitland brought up a portion of the Seventy-first upon the right, and these gallant troops drove the Americans back with slaughter. Colonel Maitland and his officers then threw themselves among the Hessians and succeeded in rallying them and bringing them back to the front. The provincial volunteers had also fought with great bravery. They had for a time been pressed backward, but finally maintained their position.

The Americans, finding that all their efforts to carry the post were unavailing, fell back to the forest. On the English side the loss amounted to 129. The Americans fought in the open and suffered much more heavily.

The position of matters was suddenly changed by the arrival of Count D'Estaing with a fleet of forty-one ships-of-war off the coast. The American general, Lincoln, at once proposed to him to undertake a combined movement to force the English to quit Georgia. The arrival of the French fleet was wholly unexpected, and the _Experiment_, a frigate of fifty guns, commanded by Sir James Wallace, having two or three ships under his convoy, fell in with them off the mouth of the Savannah River. Although the _Experiment_ had been much crippled by a gale through which she had recently passed, Sir James Wallace would not haul down his flag and opposed a desperate resistance to the whole of the French fleet, and did not surrender until the _Experiment_ was completely dismasted and riddled with shot.

Upon the news that the French fleet was off the mouth of the river, Captain Henry, who commanded the little squadron of four small English ships, fell back to Savannah after removing all the buoys from the river. He landed his guns from the ships and mounted them on the batteries, and the marines and blue-jackets were also put on shore to assist in the defense. Two of the brigs of war were sunk across the channel below the town to prevent the French frigates coming up. A boom was laid across above the town to prevent fire-rafts from being sent down.

D'Estaing landed the French troops at the mouth of the river, and, marching to the town, summoned General Prevost to surrender. The English commander, who had sent off a messenger to Colonel Maitland, ordering him to march instantly to his assistance with the force under him, which now amounted to 800 men, asked for twenty-four hours before giving an answer. D'Estaing, who knew that General Lincoln was close at hand, made sure that Prevost would surrender without resistance, and so granted the time asked for. Before its expiration Colonel Maitland, after a tremendous march, arrived at the town. As the French commanded the mouth of the river he had been obliged to transport his troops in boats through the marshes by a little creek, which for two miles was so shallow that the troops were forced to wade waist-deep, dragging the boats by main force through the mud.

Upon the arrival of this re-enforcement General Prevost returned an answer to Count D'Estaing that the town would be defended to the last. Some time was spent by the enemy in landing and bringing up heavy artillery from the ships, and the French and Americans did not begin their works against the town until September 23. The garrison had utilized the time thus afforded to them to erect new defenses. The allied force of the assailants consisted of more than 10,000 Americans and 5000 French troops, while the garrison, including regulars, provincial corps, sailors, militia, and volunteers, did not exceed 2500.

Nevertheless, they did not allow the enemy to carry on their work without interruption. Several sorties were made. The first of these, under Major Graham of the Sixteenth Regiment, reached the lines of the enemy and threw them into confusion. Large re-enforcements came up to their assistance, and as Graham's detachment fell back upon the town, the enemy incautiously pursued it so close up to the British lines that both artillery and musketry were brought to bear upon them, and they lost a large number of men before they could regain their works. On the morning of October 4 the batteries of the besiegers opened fire with fifty-three pieces of heavy artillery and fourteen mortars. General Prevost sent in a request to Count D'Estaing that the women and children might be permitted to leave the town and embark on board vessels lying in the river, there to await the issue of the fight; but the French commander refused the request in a letter couched in insulting terms.

The position of Savannah was naturally strong. The river protected one of its sides and a deep swamp, partially flooded by it, covered another. The other two were open to the country, which in front of them was for several miles level and clear of wood. The works which had been thrown up on these sides were extremely strong. When the French first landed there were but ten pieces of cannon upon the fortifications, but so incessantly did the garrison work that before the conclusion of the siege nearly one hundred pieces of artillery were mounted on the redoubts and batteries erected round the town. Upon the side of the swamp there was not much fear of attack, but three redoubts were erected to prevent a surprise from this direction. The defense on the right face of the town was conducted by Colonel Maitland. The defense on the left, consisting of two strong redoubts and several batteries, was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Cruger. In the center were several strong works, of which General Prevost himself took the special supervision. The whole British line, except where the swamp rendered no such defense necessary, was surrounded by a thick abattis. The French fire made no sensible impression upon the English defenses, and finding that the British artillery equaled his own, D'Estaing determined to discontinue the attack by regular approaches and to carry the place by storm. His position was a perilous one. He had already spent a long time before the place, and at any moment the English fleet might arrive from the West Indies and attack his fleet, which was weakened by the men and guns which had been landed to carry on the siege. He therefore determined to risk an assault rather than remain longer before the town. To facilitate the attack an officer with 5 men on October 8 advanced to the abattis and set fire to it. The wood, however, was still green, and the flames were easily extinguished.

The attack was fixed for the following morning. Bodies of the American militia were to feign attacks upon the center and left, while a strong force of the combined armies was to make a real attack in two columns upon the right. The troops composing the two columns consisted of 3500 French soldiers and 950 Americans. The principal force, commanded by Count D'Estaing in person, assisted by General Lincoln, was to attack the Springfield redoubt, which was situated at the extreme right of the British central line of defense and close to the edge of the swamp. The other column, under the command of Count Dillon, was to move silently along the margin of the swamp, pass the three redoubts, and get into the rear of the British lines.

The troops were in motion long before daylight. The attempt to burn the abattis had excited the suspicion of the English that an assault might be intended, and accordingly pickets were thrown out in front of the intrenchments and the scouts were ordered to keep a sharp watch among the trees which grew in and near the swamp.

Harold with his friends had accompanied Colonel Maitland's column in its march to Savannah and had labored vigorously at the defenses, being especially occupied in felling trees and chopping wood for the abattis. Before daybreak they heard the noise made by the advance of the enemy's columns through the wood and hurried back to the Springfield redoubt, where the garrison at once stood to arms. In this redoubt were a corps of provincial dismounted dragoons, supported by the South Carolina regiment.

Just as daylight appeared the column led by Count D'Estaing advanced toward the Springfield redoubt, but the darkness was still so intense that it was not discovered until within a very short distance of the works. Then a blaze of musketry opened upon it, while a destructive cross-fire was poured in from the adjoining batteries. So heavy was the fire that the head of the column was almost swept away. The assailants kept on with great bravery until they reached the redoubt; here a desperate hand-to-hand contest took place. Captain Tawse fell with many of his men, and for a moment a French and an American standard were planted upon the parapet; nevertheless the defenders continued to cling to the place and every foot was desperately contested.

At this moment Colonel Maitland, with the grenadiers of the Sixtieth Regiment and the marines, advanced and fell upon the enemy's column, already shaken by the obstinate resistance it had encountered and by its losses by the fire from the batteries. The movement was decisive. The assailants were driven headlong from the redoubt and retreated, leaving behind them 637 of the French troops killed and wounded and 264 of the Americans.

In the mean time the column commanded by Count Dillon mistook its way in the darkness and was entangled in the swamp, from which it was unable to extricate itself until it was broad daylight and it was fully exposed to the view of the garrison and to the fire from the British batteries. This was so hot and so well directed that the column was never able even to form, far less to penetrate into the rear of the British lines.

When the main attack was repulsed Count Dillon drew off his column, also. No pursuit was ordered as, although the besiegers had suffered greatly, they were still three times more numerous than the garrison.

A few days afterward the French withdrew their artillery and re-embarked on board ship.

The siege of Savannah cost the allies 1500 men, while the loss of the garrison was only 120. The pleasure of the garrison at their successful defense was marred by the death of Colonel Maitland, who died from the effects of the unhealthy climate and of the exertions he had made.

A few days after the raising of the siege the French fleet was dispersed by a tempest, and Count D'Estaing, with the majority of the ships under his command, returned to France.

During the course of this year there were many skirmishes round New York, but nothing of any great importance took place. Sir Henry Clinton, who was in supreme command, was unable to undertake any offensive operations on a large scale, for he had not received the re-enforcements from home which he had expected. England, indeed, had her hands full, for in June Spain joined France and America in the coalition against her and declared war. Spain was at that time a formidable marine power, and it needed all the efforts that could be made by the English government to make head against the powerful fleets which the combined nations were able to send to sea against them. It was not only in Europe that the Spaniards were able to give effective aid to the allies. They were still a power on the American continent, and created a diversion, invading West Florida and reducing and capturing the town and fort of Mobile.

In the spring of 1780 Sir Henry Clinton sent down an expedition under the command of Lord Cornwallis to capture Charleston and reduce the State of South Carolina. This town was extremely strongly fortified. It could only be approached by land on one side, while the water, which elsewhere defended it, was covered by the fire of numerous batteries of artillery. The water of the bay was too shallow to admit of the larger men-of-war passing, and the passage was defended by Fort Moultrie, a very formidable work. Admiral Arbuthnot, with the _Renown, Romulus, Roebuck, Richmond, Blonde, Raleigh_, and _Virginia_ frigates, with a favorable wind and tide ran the gantlet of Fort Moultrie, succeeded in passing up without great loss, and co-operated on the sea face with the attack of the army on the land side.

A force was landed on Sullivan's Island, on which Fort Moultrie stood, and the fort, unprepared for an attack in this direction, was obliged to surrender. The American cavalry force which had been collected for the relief of the town was defeated by the English under General Tarleton. The trenches were pushed forward with great vigor, and the batteries of the third parallel opened at short range on the town with great execution. The advances were pushed forward at the ditch, when the garrison, seeing that further resistance was impossible, surrendered. Five thousand prisoners were taken, 1000 American and French seamen, and ten French and American ships-of-war.

With the fall of Charleston all resistance ceased in South Carolina. The vast majority of the inhabitants made their submission to the British government and several loyalist regiments were raised.

Colonel Tarleton, with 170 cavalry and 100 mounted infantry, was dispatched against an American force under Colonel Burford, consisting of 350 infantry, a detachment of cavalry, and two guns, which had taken post on the border of North Carolina. Tarleton came up with him, and after a sharp action the Americans were entirely defeated. One hundred and thirteen were killed on the spot and 207 made prisoners, of whom 103 were badly wounded.

For some months the irregular operations were continued, the Americans making frequent incursions into the Carolinas. The British troops suffered greatly from the extreme heat and the unhealthiness of the climate.

In August the American General Gates advanced toward Camden, and Lord Cornwallis also moved out to that town, which was held by a British garrison. The position there was not hopeful. Nearly 800 were sick, and the total number of effectives was under 2000, of whom 500 were provincials. The force under General Gates amounted to 6000 men, exclusive of the corps of Colonel Sumpter, 1000 strong, which were maneuvering to cut off the English retreat. Cornwallis could not fall back on Charleston without abandoning the sick and leaving all his magazines and stores in the hands of the enemy, besides which a retreat would have involved the abandonment of the whole State with the exception of Charleston. He therefore decided upon giving battle to the enemy, who were posted at Rugeley's Mills, a few miles distant, leaving the defense of Camden to Major M'Arthur, with some provincials and convalescent soldiers and a detachment of the Sixty-third Regiment, which was expected to arrive during the night.

The army marched in the following order: The first division, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Webster, consisting of four companies of light infantry and the Twenty-third and Thirty-third regiments, preceded by an advanced guard of 40 cavalry. The second division, consisting of provincial troops and two battalions of the Seventy-first Regiment, followed as a reserve. The dragoons of the legion formed the rear guard. The force marched at ten o'clock on the night of August 16, intending to attack at daybreak the next morning, but it happened that at the very same hour in which the British set out, General Gates, with his force, was starting from Rugeley's Mills with the intention of attacking Camden in the morning.

At two o'clock in the night the advanced guards of the two armies met and fired into each other. In the confusion some prisoners were taken on both sides, and the generals, finding that the two armies were face to face, halted and waited till morning. Lord Cornwallis placed Webster's division on the right; the second division, which was under the command of Lord Rawdon, on the left; the battalion known as the Volunteers of Ireland were on the right of Lord Rawdon's division and communicated with the Thirty-third Regiment on the left of Webster. In the front line were two six-pounders and two three-pounders under the command of Lieutenant Macleod, R. A. The Seventy-first, with two six-pounders, was in reserve, one battalion being placed behind each wing. The dragoons were held in reserve, to charge in the event of a favorable opportunity.

The flanks of the English position were covered by swamps, which somewhat narrowed the ground and prevented the Americans from utilizing fully their great superiority of numbers. The Americans were also formed in two lines.

Soon after daybreak Lord Cornwallis ordered Colonel Webster to advance and charge the enemy. So fiercely did the English regiments attack that the Virginia and North Carolina troops who opposed them quickly gave way, threw down their arms, and fled. General Gates and General Casswell in vain attempted to rally them. They ran like a torrent and spread through the woods in every direction. Lord Rawdon began the action on the left with no less vigor and spirit than Lord Cornwallis on the right, but here and in the center the contest was more obstinately maintained by the Americans.

[Illus: Plan of the Battle Fought Near Camden, August 16th, 1780.]

Their reserves were brought up, and the artillery did considerable execution. Their left flank was, however, exposed by the flight of the troops of Carolina and Virginia, and the light infantry and Twenty-third Regiment were halted in the pursuit, and, wheeling around, came upon the flank of the enemy, who, after a brave resistance of nearly three-quarters of an hour, were driven into total confusion and forced to give way on both sides. Their rout was continued by the cavalry, who continued their pursuit twenty-two miles from the field of action.

Between eight and nine hundred of the enemy were killed and about 1000, many of whom were wounded, were taken prisoners. Among these were Major General Baron de Kalb and Brigadier General Rutherford. All the baggage, stores, and camp packages, a number of colors, and several pieces of cannon were taken. General Gates, finding himself unable to rally the militia, fled first to Charlotte, 90 miles from the seat of action, and then to Hillsborough, 180 from Camden. General Gist, alone of all the American commanders, was able to keep together about 100 men, who, flying across the swamp on their right, through which they could not be pursued by the cavalry, made their escape in a body. The loss of the British troops amounted to 69 killed, 245 wounded, and 11 missing. The loss of the Americans in killed, wounded, and prisoners exceeded the number of British regular troops engaged by at least 300. It was one of the most decisive victories ever won. _

Read next: Chapter 19. In An American Prison

Read previous: Chapter 17. The Scout's Story

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