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The Siege of Savannah

From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol II.  Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859. [Paragraphs added for readability.]

The chief-justice of Georgia, in a letter to his wife, dated November ninth, gives the following particular account of the siege of Savannah:

Soon after my arrival, I made application to the barrack-master to be provided with apartments; but Savannah was so full that it was with difficulty I got two rooms in a house in which the town adjutant and his wife were quartered; and those worthy people showed me great civility, doing every thing in their power to make my life comfortable. After some time my health was so much impaired with living in town, that I proposed going to my house in the country, which is on the Salts. With the assistance of friends and a good deal of trouble, I at last moved my baggage and some provisions to the country, where I soon grew better; but I had not been there many days, and had scarcely completed the removal of my baggage, when (on the third of September) the Count D’Estaing, with twenty-two sail of the line, and fourteen frigates, and a number of transports, appeared on the coast, and a descent being preconcerted with the rebels in South Carolina, the latter had sent parties within ten miles of Savannah, and taken several prisoners, negroes, and horses. I now moved into town, and ordered my negroes to bring in my baggage; but before that was completed, the French landed on the twelfth of September, and came into my neighborhood, by which means I lost the wine, provisions, furniture, some books, and other articles that were left behind. Several of my negroes were also left at the plantation, and Fanny, that was just delivered, ran into the woods to avoid being taken.

The house in which I was quartered, was that in which Mrs. Lloyd formerly lived; and under the house there was a cellar, which a merchant desired the town adjutant and myself would permit him to apply to the barrack-master for the use of, and we accordingly consented to it. This merchant lent his cellar to two others, who, without the knowledge of the town adjutant or myself, inhumanly put twenty-five puncheons of ram into the cellar, after the town had been invested, and Count D’Estaing had demanded the surrender thereof to the arms of France.

The French and Americans had invested the town, and the Trench had intrenched themselves up to the chin, about two hundred yards from our lines, some time before their artillery and ammunition came up from their ships; and as a slight cannonade had passed over, many began to flatter themselves that the enemy would go away without any further effects. But in this they found themselves much mistaken; for at midnight of the third of October, when all the women and children were asleep, the French opened a battery of nine mortars, and kept up a very heavy bombardment for an hour and a half, in which time those who counted the shells found that they fired one hundred, which were chiefly directed to the town.

I heard one of the shells whistle over my quarters, and presently afterwards I got up and dressed myself; and as our neighborhood seemed to be in the line of fire, I went out with a view to go to the eastward, out of the way; but a shell that seemed to be falling near me, rather puzzled me how to keep clear of it, and I returned to the house not a little alarmed. I then proceeded to the westward, and then the shells seemed to fall all around; there I soon joined a number of gentlemen who had left their houses on account of the bombardment, and like me, were retiring from the line of fire to Yammacraw; here we stayed till between one and two in the morning, when the bombardment ceased. Fortunately for us, there was no cannonade at the same time, and in the night shells are so discernible that they are more easily avoided than in the day. Being indisposed, I had not slept a wink from my going to bed at nine till the bombardment began at twelve; and before I returned again, it was near three in the morning, when from fatigue I soon fell asleep; but at five I was awakened with a very heavy cannonade from a French frigate to the north of the town, and with a bombardment and cannonade from the French lines in the south, which soon hurried me out of bed; and before I could get my clothes on, an eighteen-pounder entered the house, stuck in the middle partition, and drove the plastering all about. We who were in the house now found ourselves in a cross fire; and notwithstanding the rum in the cellar, we thought it less dangerous to descend there than to continue in the house, as the fall of a shell into the cellar was not so probable as the being killed in the house with a cannon ball; for the cellar being under ground, a shot in its usual direction would not reach us. The cellar was so full of rum and provisions, that Mrs. Cooper, the negroes, and myself, could hardly creep in; and after we had descended into it, some shot struck the house, and one passed through the kitchen, from which the negroes had then lately come down; and had they not luckily moved away, it is probable that several of them would have been killed. Whilst we were in the cellar, two shells burst not far from the door, and many others fell in the neighborhood all around us. In this situation a number of us continued in a damp cellar, until the cannonade and bombardment almost ceased, for the French to cool their artillery; and then we ascended to breakfast.

As the cannonade and bombardment were chiefly directed to the town, no mischief was done in the lines that I heard of; but a Mr. Pollard, deputy barrack-master, was killed by a shell in that house on the bay which was formerly inhabited by Mr. Moss; and the daughter of one Thomson was almost shot in two by a cannon ball, at the house next to where Mr. Elliott lived. I am told there were other lives lost, but I have not heard the particulars. Fortunately for us, after breakfast the town adjutant’s wife and myself went over to Captain Knowles, who is agent for the transports, and to whose cellar Mr. Prevost, the general’s lady, and several gentlemen and ladies had retired for security. This house was directly opposite to my quarters, and about thirty or forty feet distant. The general’s lady and Captain Knowles invited us to stay there, which invitation we accepted, and we continued in the cellar, with several others, as agreeably as the situation of matters would admit of, until three o’clock on Tuesday morning. During the whole of this time the French kept up a brisk cannonade and bombardment, the shot frequently struck near us, and the shells fell on each side of us with so much violence, that in their fall they shook the ground, and many of them burst with a great explosion.

On Monday night we heard a shot strike my quarters, and in the morning we found an eighteen-pounder had entered the house and fallen near the head of my negro, Dick, who providentially received no hurt. The guns seemed to approach on each side, and about three o’clock on Wednesday morning a shell whistled close by Captain Knowles’ house. Soon afterwards another came nearer, and seemed to strike my quarters, and I thought I heard the cry of people in distress. We all jumped up, and before I could dress myself, my quarters were so much in flames that I could not venture further than the door, for fear of an explosion from the rum. George and Jemmy were over with me in Captain Knowles’ cellar; the others were at my quarters. George ran over before me, and fortunately for me drew out of the flames the two black trunks with some of my apparel, &c., that I brought out with me, and then removed them over to Captain Knowles’ passage, which was all the property I saved, except a little black trunk that was put into one of the large ones by accident; for I momently expected that the explosion of the rum would blow up the house, and kill every one near it; and as soon as the French observed the flames, they kept up a very heavy cannonade and bombardment, and pointed their fire to that object to prevent any person approaching to extinguish the flames.

I retired to Captain Knowles’, where, in vain, I called out for some negroes to help me to save my two trunks, for I expected that Captain Knowles’ house, and the commodore’s next to it, would be destroyed. No negro came to my assistance, and I was informed that mine, who slept at the quarters, being frightened at the shell, had ran away; but unfortunately that information was not true. Being in the direction of the French fire, I was every moment in danger of being smashed to pieces with a shell, or shot in two with a cannon ball; and as each of the trunks were too large for me to carry off, I thought it safest to abandon them, and retire to a place of safety, than to run the risk of losing my life as well as my property. I had some distance to go before I got out of the line of fire, and I did not know the way under Savannah Bluff, where I should have been safe from cannon balls; and, therefore, whenever I came to the opening of a street, I watched the flashes of the mortars and guns, and pushed on until I came under cover of a house; and when I got to the common, and heard the whistling of a shot or shell, I fell on my face. But the stopping under cover of a house was no security, for the shot went through many houses; and Thomson’s daughter was killed at the side opposite to that where the shot entered.

At last I reached an encampment made by Governor Wright’s negroes on the common between Savannah and Yammacraw, and it being dark I fell down into a trench which they had dug. I proposed to stop at the house of a Mr. Tully; but a soldier, who was on guard at the Hessian Hospital at Yammacraw, advised me to go further from the line of fire, and conducted me to the house of Mr. Moses Nones, at the west end of Yammacraw, which was quite out of the direction of the enemy’s batteries. This place was crowded, both inside and out, with a number of whites and negroes, who had fled from the town. Women and children were constantly flocking there, melting into tears, and lamenting their unhappy fate, and the destruction of their houses and property. Several of them I helped out of a chair, which was immediately despatched to fetch more from the danger they were threatened with.

The appearance of the town afforded a melancholy prospect, for there was hardly a house which had not been shot through, and some of them were almost destroyed. Ambrose, Wright, and Stute’s, in which we lived, had upwards of fifty shot that went through each of them, as I am informed; and old Mr. Habersham’s house, in which Major Prevost lived, was almost destroyed with shot and shells. In the streets, and on the common, there was a number of large holes made in the ground by the shells, so that it was not without some difficulty the chair got on; and in the church, and Mr. Jones’ house, I observed that the shells came in at the roof, and went through to the ground; and a number of other houses suffered by shells. The troops in the lines were much safer from the bombardment than the people in town. Those who pitched marquees on the common to the south-west of the town, were quite out of the line of fire; and some of the militia officers’ ladies, and several other women, repaired to the lines for safety, and not one of them were hurt.

Many of the inhabitants went on board the ships in the river, and others retired to Hutchinson’s island, opposite the town, which you may remember is a rice swamp, and very unwholesome, particularly in the fall. I twice took a stroll to that island, and in Mr. M’Gillvray’s rice barn the ladies told me there were fifty men, women, and children. Other places seemed to be equally crowded; but neither the ships nor island were places of security, for many shells fell into the river, and some into the shipping, and it required only a greater elevation of the French mortars and more powder, to throw the shells among them on the island. One of their brass cannon threw a great number of balls into a point of Hutchinson’s island that lay next the town; besides, a descent on the island was expected from the French frigate and galleys in the back river; and at one time, some gun-boats from the French ships landed there, but a party of armed negroes drove them off.

In short, the situation of Savannah was at one time deplorable. A small garrison in an extensive country was surrounded on the land by a powerful enemy, and its seacoast blocked up by one of the strongest fleets that ever visited America. There was not a single spot where the women and children could be put in safety; and the numerous desertions daily weakened that force which was at first inadequate to man such extensive lines; but the situation of the ground would not permit the able engineer to narrow them. However, with the assistance of God, British valor surmounted every difficulty, and the siege has rendered famous a sickly hole, which was in woods, and had only one white man in it at the time General Oglethorpe landed. But insignificant as some may think it, this place is the key of the southern provinces, and the Gibraltar of the Gulf passage; for to the south of this province there is not a port on the continent that will receive a sloop of war. Most of the houses in the town had banks of earth thrown up, and those that had cellars secured them as well as circumstances would admit of.

Captain Knowles, for the security of the ladies in his cellar, had in some places thrown up a bank of sand on the outside, and in other places put large casks filled with sand; he also propped up the floor over the cellar, and put such a quantity of sand on it that it was bomb-proof. This worthy man and able officer, had been taken prisoner by the rebels in Carolina, and was on parole unexchanged; he therefore could not go into the batteries, which was a loss to his Majesty’s service.

To add to our misfortunes, we heard during the siege that the Experiment, Sir James Wallace commander, was taken on the coast by the French fleet. She had money on board to pay the troops, a brigadier-general for this place, and several other officers.

On the seventh and eighth of October, at night, the French fired carcases on the town to set it on fire; but by the vigilance of those who were appointed by the general to act as firemen, only one house was burnt. The enemy finding that their artillery did not make such an impression on the town as to bring about a capitulation, at half-past four on the morning of Saturday the nineteenth of October, marched up in columns, and attacked two redoubts on the west; but the principal attack was made on a redoubt built by the spring near the edge of the road that goes out to Mr. M’Gillvray’s plantation. The enemy showed themselves in parties all round the lines, and were, by the blessing of God, repulsed everywhere. But the principal slaughter was at the redoubt near the spring, where their loss was very great. On the side of the British troops only one captain and seven men were killed. However, I do not mean to be particular on this head, as his excellency the general’s account will be exact and authentic. I shall only observe, that some who were taken prisoners by the French, and afterwards exchanged, said that the French acknowledged that they embarked twenty-five hundred men less than they landed. Even the people at Charleston admit that twelve hundred French and rebels fell on the ninth. Amongst the slain were Charles Price, formerly prothonotary, who was killed in the governor’s plantation, nearly opposite his own house; young Baillie and John Jones, who formerly lived out at Sunbury, and some others from Carolina and Georgia, whom you did not know.

The French behaved with great bravery, and several of them got on the top of the redoubt; but they all accuse the rebels of backwardness, and the French officers mentioned them in the most contemptible manner to the British officers that went out with flags. The affair of the ninth made such an impression on the enemy, that their fire was afterwards very slack, and they were chiefly employed in removing their cannon and stores. On the nineteenth of October, the French quitted their lines, on the twenty-first of the same month they embarked, and two or three days ago the last of their ships quitted this port. You will naturally wish to know what the amount of the forces were that acted against us. I have it from good authority that about forty-five hundred men landed from the French ships; and although the number of rebels is not known, yet they are generally agreed to have amounted to about twenty-five hundred at least; some say a greater number. The French fleet consisted of twenty-two sail of the line and fourteen frigates, as I mentioned before, besides a number of Carolina galleys and privateers; and the French took from us the Experiment of fifty guns, Sir James Wallace commander, and the Ariel of twenty, commanded by Captain M’Kenzie.

The British regulars in the lines never amounted to two thousand effective men; the militia that came in were about three hundred and fifty, and the sailors hardly exceeded that number. Many who did not think so much of religion before, now acknowledge that our deliverance was miraculous, and arose from the immediate interposition of God in our favor. Had the French marched up to town immediately, or had they prevented Colonel Maitland joining us with the troops under his command, I will leave you to judge what the consequences must have been. At first I found numbers in despair; but I did all that I could to support those who desponded, and I would not suffer the language of fear to pass my lips. Colonel Maitland died on the night of the twenty-sixth of the month, (October,) regretted by all that knew him.

The French and Americans plundered the country in the most shameful manner. Not content with taking away provisions and stock, they even robbed poor people of their bedding and clothes. Colonel Mullryne came in before the siege, as did most of his Majesty’s well-affected subjects; but Mrs. Mullryne was at her own house all the time, and it would shock you to hear her relate how basely the French and Americans treated her. They pillaged the house of every thing but the furniture of one room. Many of those who had taken the oaths to government after Colonel Campbell’s arrival, and had obtained his Majesty’s protection, thought the French and rebels were so sure of taking the town, that they joined them. Several of these false brethren are now in jail.2


1 Extract of a letter from Savannah, in Rivington’s Gazette, November 20.
2 Upcott, v. 33S.