Savannah, Charleston, and Pensacola, 1778 To 1781

As found in the book, "The Hessians The Revolution", By Edward J. Lowell.



The alliance between France and the United States increased the probability of the final independence of the latter. It therefore became important to diminish the amount of territory held by the Americans, even if their main army could not be destroyed. Lord George Germaine hoped that the thinly inhabited southern provinces might speedily be reduced to obedience, and the royal authority established from the Gulf of Mexico to the Susquehanna River.[Footnote: Bancroft, vol. x. p. 284.]

There was a further advantage to be gained by occupying at once the Northern and the Southern States. The summer and autumn were the season of activity in the former, the winter and spring in the latter. The British general, who could move his troops by sea, might thus leave each department with only soldiers enough to act on the defensive when the weather limited the operations that could be conducted, and maintain a superiority in each, when such a superiority was most important.

On the 6th of November, 1778, about thirty-five hundred men, under Lieutenant-colonel Campbell, were embarked at New York. Two Hessian regiments were of the expedition. The transports, delayed by bad weather, did not clear Sandy Hook until the 27th, and arrived in the Savannah River on the 24th of December, after a stormy passage. The party landed on the 29th, and put to flight some eight hundred Americans who attempted to oppose them, killing and wounding about eighty, and taking four hundred prisoners. Nearly fifty cannon, a considerable quantity of stores, and several ships fell into the hands of the British, whose loss, including Hessians and Tories, was twenty men killed and wounded.

The town of Savannah was composed of about six hundred lightly built houses. Most of the inhabitants had run away with the rebels, taking with them such valuables as they could carry. Mahogany furniture was lying about broken in the streets—a sad sight to see. The Hessians are said not to have plundered, like the other invading troops. They were quartered in the fine barracks of the town.[Footnote: Schlözer’s “Briefwechsel,” vol. v. p. I et seq.; MS. journal of Regiment von Wissenbach. See, also, a description of the State of Georgia in 1776, Sparks’s “Correspondence,” vol. i. pp. 148—151. Many of the troops with the expedition were Tories, the least disciplined soldiers in the British army.]

In January General Prevost arrived from St. Augustine to take command of the army. Then began the interminable series of marches that distinguished these southern campaigns. Augusta was occupied, then abandoned. General Lincoln, with an American army, marched towards Augusta, and General Prevost gave him the slip and threatened Charleston. Lincoln returned from Georgia, and Prevost withdrew to John’s Island, on the coast of South Carolina. At last Beaufort was occupied and John’s Island abandoned by the British, and their main army returned to Savannah.

One or two incidents occurred during this campaign which especially concerned the Hessians. At a place called Stono Ferry a small fortification had been erected, originally as a tête de pont. It was separated by an inlet from John’s Island, and the bridge which it once protected had been removed. The fortification was occupied by the Hessian Regiment von Trumbach and by one battalion of Highianders, in all about five hundred men.. This post was attacked on the i9th of June, 1779, by Lincoln’s army. The Hessians at first gave way,but were supported by the Highianders. They then rallied and renewed the battle. The Americans retreated before the arrival of German and Scotch reinforcements.[Footnote: Stedman, vol. ii. pp. 115—119; Lee’s “Memoirs,” pp. 130, 131; Eelking’s “Hulfstruppen,” vol. ii. pp. 26—28; MS. journal of the Regiment von Wissenbach.]

It was about this time that two different engagements occurred in the inlets about John’s Island between Hessians, using their field-pieces, and small vessels or galleys of the enemy. On each occasion the Hessians were successful, and caused the retreat or destruction of the vessels engaged. It is said that on one of these, named the Rattlesnake, were retaken sundry cannon and flags which had been captured at Trenton with Rail’s brigade. How these trophies came to be in South Carolina is not mentioned.[Footnote: Eelking’s “Hulfstruppen,” vol. ii. p. 28, where the diary of the non-commissioned officer Reuber is given as authority. The story told by Eelking does not agree as to dates, etc., with the journal of the Regiment von Wissenbach. The Regiment von Trumbach, which fought at Stono Ferry, was Rall’s old regiment.]

On the 4th of September, 1779, the French fleet, under Count d’Estaing, appeared suddenly off the mouth of the Savannah River. Immediately all the outlying detachments of the British army were called into Savannah. On the 23d Lincoln and his men joined the French from Charleston, and volunteers from South Carolina flocked into their camp. But while d’Estaing was opening regular approaches, the soldiers of the garrison and the negroes of the town were busily strengthening the fortifications. It was too late in the season for the French fleet to remain with safety on the coast. D’Estaing determined to try an assault. This should have been done earlier, before reinforcements had been received by the British from Beaufort, and before their works had been strengthened, or it should have been postponed until those works had been crippled. The assault was undertaken on the 9th of October. Both Frenchmen and Americans behaved with spirit, and planted their banners on the parapets of Savannah, but both were repulsed with great slaughter. Colonel von Porbeck, of the Regiment von Wissenbach, was complimented in Prevost’s report. A week later the French sailed away, while some of the Americans returned with Lincoln to Charleston, and others dispersed to their homes.[Footnote: According to the” Histoire de Ia Derniere Guerre,” 101 n., the French and American army numbered five thousand five hundred and twenty. four. The British had—white men, three thousand and eighty-five; Indians, eighty; negroes, four thousand. Stedman (vol. ii. p. 127) gives the number of the garrison at less than twenty-five hundred white men. The French loss was about seven hundred; the American loss not far from two hundred and fifty. The journal of the Regiment von Wissenbach gives the British loss, killed and wounded, at fifty.six; about one half of the number usually given.]

In the summer of 1779, Sir Henry Clinton planned an expedition against Charleston. The execution of the design was postponed on account of the neighborhood of the French fleet, but when this had sailed for Europe a corps of about eighty-five hundred men was prepared in New York. This corps was made up of Englishmen, Tories, and Hessians. The Hessians chosen were the four battalions of grenadiers, a regiment of infantry, and about two hundred and fifty chasseurs. With the last-mentioned were Captain Ewald and Lieutenant Hinrichs. Lieutenant- general von Knyphausen was left in command at New York. Sir Henry Clinton commanded the expedition in person. The soldiers were embarked about the i9th of December, but on account of the weather they did not put to sea until the 29th. The voyage was a very stormy one, and when, in the first days of February, 1780, the main body of the fleet arrived in the mouth of the Savannah River, many transport ships were missing. A bark, the Anna, containing thirty Hessian and Anspach chasseurs, and other soldiers, had been dismasted early in January and taken in tow by a man-of-war. In a subsequent storm the tow-line snapped, and the Anna, a sheer hulk, was left to the fury of the waves. For eight weeks this bark, with two hundred and fifty souls on board, was driven before the westerly gales. She was provisioned only for a month and for a hundred men, and famine presently set in. The dogs were eaten; bones were ground up and boiled with shavings from salt-beef barrels. The master proposed that the crew and passengers should feed on each other, beginning with the women. This inhuman proposal was rejected with disgust. At last the Irish coast came in sight. The vessel grazed on a rock and sprang a leak. It was noticed that the master was putting out to sea, and, on inquiry, it was discovered that he was afraid of having to pay thirty guineas for a pilot. The master was thereupon sent below and the boatswain took command of the bark. He brought her to St. Ives in Cornwall, where, in answer to her signals of distress, two boats with a pilot and a carpenter put out to her assistance. The carpenter was so frightened at the sight of the famished Hessians that he started off again for the shore as fast as his oars would take him. The pilot succeeded in beaching the bark just as she was about to sink, and the crew and passengers were saved at last.[Footnote: The above particulars are taken from Eelking’s “Hulfstruppen,” vol. ii. pp. 63, 64. As usual, Eelking gives no reference. Bancroft, however, gives the outlines of the story, and there are various contemporary authorities for the fact that the ship was separated from the fleet and driven to England.]

The English fleet waited at Tybee Island until the 9th of February, 178o, for the scattered transports to’ reassemble. It then put out to sea again, and on the iith all but the heavy men-of-war entered the mouth of the North Edisto River, and the troops were disembarked on Simon’s Island. For a month the soldiers were busily landing stores and artillery, making good their footing, and advancing over the sandy islands southwest of Charleston Harbor. It was not until the 12th of March that fire was opened on the town from Wappoo Neck, and only on the 29th did the British army cross the Ashley River. Meanwhile fortifications had been springing up like mushrooms in the Charleston sand.

No serious opposition was offered to the landing, nor to the advance of the army. Yet the opportunities for resisting or, at least, for annoying the British, must have been such as to have tempted a more able and energetic commander than Lincoln. The invaders were landing from a long and exhausting voyage, and were without horses to drag their cannon and stores. Lincoln’s true course would probably have been to imitate Washington in the campaign before Philadelphia. He might have risked a battle, and, if defeated, have abandoned Charleston and preserved his army for the protection of the Southern States. Those states were now to be given up to plunder and blood. The war in the Carolinas and Virginia was marked by a degree of barbarity which had no parallel in the Eastern and Middle States, except in the small plundering expeditions in the neighborhood of New York. Already in the preceding year Prevost’s soldiers had begun this barbarous style of warfare. The marks of their plundering were visible in every house on the islands they had occupied near Charleston.

While Lincoln was throwing up his sand-works in the town, the English were receiving reinforcements from Savannah. The men-of-war, all but the heaviest, were lightened, brought over the bar and refitted. Fort Moultrie, however, still defended the town, and the American and French ships in the harbor, and between it and Charleston the besieged had sunk vessels to impede further navigation. Small parties of Americans watched the movements of the British. On the 26th of March Sir Henry Clinton and several of the generals rode out to meet Colonel Patterson, who was bringing reinforcements from Savannah. They returned safe, though without an escort; but a Tory colonel and a hospital inspector, who rode a short way behind them, were taken prisoners.[Footnote: Eelking’s “Hülfstruppei,” vol. ii. pp.67,68; Lee’s “Memoirs,” p. 146.]

Ewald tells with glee how, at John’s Island, in South Carolina, in the spring of 1780, he reconnoitred a position by calmly lounging up to an outpost of the enemy, taking off his hat, and falling into conversation with the officer in command. The outpost was made up from Pulaski’s Legion, which was officered by Poles and Frenchmen, in whose gallantry the German captain confided—a kind of gallantry which the native Americans either could not or would not understand.[Footnote: Pulaski himself had been killed at the siege of Savannah.]

On the 30th of March, 1780, the English army was encamped some three thousand yards from the lines of Charleston. Towards evening the Hessian chasseurs on the picket line stood about a mile from the city. Before them lay a flat, sandy plain, unbroken by a house, tree, or bush. The only possible shelter consisted in a few ditches. On the night of the 31st of March the first parallel was opened. The next morning the inhabitants began to move off their families and their valuables, going in boats up the Cooper River, the only way left open. Down this river, on the 7th of April, came seven hundred Virginian Continentals to reinforce the garrison. They were received with ringing of bells and with salvoes of artillery. Night by night the work on the trenches continued. The artillery of the city tried in vain to stop it.

The afternoon of the 8th of April was cloudy, the tide was on the flood, and a strong breeze was blowing from the south. Nine men-of-war and a transport ship approached Fort Moultrie, sailing in line, one behind the other. Before them all came Admiral Arbuthnot, in a jolly-boat, with the lead in his hand, piloting.the fleet. The fire from the fort was terrific. he Roebuck, leading the line, sailed close to the works, gave a broadside, and passed on into the harbor, uninjured. The second ship lost a piece of her foremast. Another luffed before the fort and kept up a continuous fire, so that the whole ship seemed like a long flash of lightning. The whole squadron entered the harbor except the transport ship, which ran aground and was set on fire. The beautiful sight was watched by thousands of deeply interested spectators. The Americans covered the ramparts of the town. The Englishmen and Germans leaped on their siege-works. So absorbing was the interest of the operations in the bay, that fighting on land ceased for the time. As soon as the second ship had passed the fort, the Americans disappeared from the walls of Charleston, and presently a crowd of small boats was seen on the Cooper River, carrying off the more timid of the inhabitants.[Footnote: See the MS. journals of the Jager Corps (this part by Lieutenant Heinrichs) and of the Grenadier Battalions von Minnigerode and von Platte. A singular discrepancy exists in the original accounts as to the day on which the British fleet passed Fort Moultrie. For the 8th of April we have Clinton’s official report, Lincoln to Washington, Laurens to Washington, and the MS. journals above quoted. For the 9th of April we have Admiral Arbuthnot’s official report, Tarleton, Ewald, and Stedman. See Tarleton, pp. II, 39, 49; Sparks’s “Correspondence,” vol. ii. pp. 434, 436; Ewald’s “Belehrungen,” vol. iii. p. 252; Stedman, vol. ii. p. 180.]

Communication between Fort Moultrie and Charleston was now cut off. The British fleet, however, found its progress further barred by a line of sunken hulks, and could not sail up the Cooper River and take the American works in their rear. As some of the ships in that river interfered with the operations of the besiegers, several large row-boats were hauled overland to operate on it, the vehicle used for this purpose being dragged by one hundred and thirty-four negroes. Work on the approaches went on unceasingly, but the siege was somewhat delayed by the fact that some of the heavy artillery and most of the horses had been lost at sea. The place of the siege-train was supplied by cannon from the ships, brought with great labor overland from James Island. On the j3th of April hot shot were fired by the Hessian artillery, and several houses caught fire. Sir Henry Clinton ordered his batteries to slacken their fire, that the flames might be extinguished. On the following night the second parallel was opened, and soon after this counter-approaches were begun by the Americans, so that not only artillery, but musket-balls, could be brought to bear. On the 20th, however, the siege-works had so far advanced that the chasseurs were able to pick men off in the embrasures of the fortifications, and render the service of the guns very dangerous. The third parallel was opened in the following night, and on the 2 1st, Lincoln, who had refused to surrender on the day after Fort Moultrie had been passed by the fleet, offered to capitulate. Hostilities were suspended for six hours, but at the end of that time they were renewed, as the generals had not agreed on terms. On the 24th the Americans made a sortie, and penetrated in some places as far as the second parallel, but were presently driven back into the town. On the 26th the British took possession of a fort commanding the Cooper River, and the besieged were completely shut up in Charleston.

On the night of the 3d of May, a party of men from the besieging camp rowed silently up to a three-masted vessel lying close to the town. They climbed on to the deck, which they found undefended, cast off the moorings, and took back the ship within the British lines. Next morning they examined their prize, and on going below found her to be a hospital-ship, full of small-pox patients.[Footnote: Journal of the Grenaclier Battalion von Platte.]

The end of the siege was approaching. On the night of the 7th of May, 178o, Fort Moultrie was taken by sailors from the fleet. On the 8th, negotiations for a surrender of the town were renewed and again broken off; but on the i ith, Clinton’s terms were agreed to. These were that the garrison should march out with colors cased and bands playing, but not an English or Hessian tune, and lay down their arms outside the town. The Continentals were to be prisoners of war, the militia were to return to their homes on parole. In consequence of this capitulation the Continentals marched out on the 12th, the bands playing a Turkish march. The officers were allowed to retain their swords, but were deprived of them a few days later, on the pretext that they were making “disorders” in the town. The garrison had been reduced to a very ragged and pitiable condition. They were not much more than half as numerous as the besiegers, even counting the American militia. Of the Continentals there were about twenty-five hundred, and the English army can hardly have numbered less than twelve thousand men. The town was defended only by earthworks, and was a fortified camp rather than a fortress. The loss of the besiegers, in killed and wounded, is set down in a Hessian journal at two hundred and sixty-five men.

The town of Charleston contained about fifteen thousand inhabitants, and had been one of the richest and gayest towns in North America. The large and handsome houses were not set close together as in other towns, but much free space was left for the circulation of air. They were well furnished with mahogany and silver-ware, and great attention was bestowed on keeping them clean. The streets were unpaved and sandy, but had a narrow foot-path at the sides. Even in May, the dust was intolerable. Most of the rich families had fled at the approach of the British. There were many Germans and German Jews in the town, and many doctors, on account of the unhealthy climate. The women, at least most of those that remained, were sallow and ugly. The place, of course, was full of negroes, who formed quite half of its population.

The negroes had been accumulating in the British camp. Two companies of them had been brought from Savannah at the end of February. The slaves of rebels had been confiscated. These slaves, in South Carolina, were the most degraded on the continent, and had been the worst treated by their former masters. The field hands among them, according to a Hessian journal, usually received a quart of rice or Indian corn a day. This they ate half-cooked, finding it more nourishing in that condition than if fully boiled. Many of them had hardly a rag to cover their nakedness. Few could understand English.[Footnote: MS. journal of the Grenadier Battalion von Platte.] On the 31st of May ten slaves were given to each regiment starting for New York. The negroes formed a part of the booty of the campaign, and thousands of them were shipped to the West Indies to be sold.

Early in June, Sir Henry Clinton sailed for New York. With him went the Hessian grenadiers and chasseurs, but some of the Hessian regiments remained behind.

The expeditions to Savannah and Charleston were not the most distant in which the German auxiliaries were engaged. In the autumn of 1778 about twelve hundred men,Waldeckers and Provincials, under Major-general John Campbell, were sent to reinforce the garrisons of West Florida. Sailing early in November and touching at Jamaica, these troops were landed at Pensacola at the end of January, 1779. Pensacola was then a town of about two hundred wooden houses, defended by forts built of logs and sand. It stood in a sandy desert, surrounded by thick and interminable forests. It was a four weeks’ journey overland to Georgia by the old trading path. The woods were infested by Indians, who received three pounds sterling from the British for every hostile scalp. Among the Indians the Waldeckers found a countryman of their own, one Brandenstein, who had deserted in his youth from the Waldeck service, and after many adventures had assumed the manners and the costume of an Indian warrior.

The garrison of Pensacola was at first occupied in fortifying the town. Lieutenant-colonel Dickson, an English officer, held Baton Rouge. In the course of the summer of 1779 three companies of Waldeckers were sent to reinforce him. Meanwhile war had broken out between England and Spain. Don Bernardo de Galvez, the Spanish governor at New Orleans, was young and energetic. He seized several small vessels in the Mississippi and the waters near its mouth. In September fifty-three Waldeckers were taken prisoners on Lake Pontchartrain. The Spaniards advanced against Baton Rouge, and after two attempts to carry the works by assault began a regular siege. Dickson capitulated, and the garrison marched out of the fort with all the honors of war. They numbered over four hundred, and the besiegers under Galvez between fourteen hundred and two thousand men. Nearly one half of the capitulating garrison were Waldeckers, and more than thirty of the regiment had been killed or wounded.

The news of Dickson’s surrender reached Pensacola on the 20th of October, but was at first received with incredulity. “Is not this a cursed country to make war in ?“ writes the Waldeck chaplain, “where the greater part of a corps may be prisoners for five weeks, and twelve hundred miles of country taken by the enemy, and the commanding-general not know it with certainty.”

In March, 1780, a part of the garrison of Pensacola marched to the relief of Mobile, but arrived too late to save the latter place. Soon after the return of the troops to Pensacola, a Spanish fleet of twenty-one sail was seen off the harbor, but three days afterwards it disappeared again. The Spaniards held the country as far as the Pertido River, and once crossed it in April, but were driven back by the Indians. The latter, however, were but unruly auxiliaries. The remainder of the year 1780 passed without any important occurrence in Florida.

Early in January, 1781, Colonel von Hanxleden, with one hundred and fifteen white men and three hundred Choctaws, made an expedition against French Village. They met with a determined resistance, and were repulsed. The number of killed and wounded on the English side was considerable, and among the killed was Colonel von Hanxleden.

On the 9th of March a Spanish fleet of thirty-eight sail appeared before Pensacola, and during the night following that day a body of troops was landed on the island of Santa Rosa, which lies at the mouth of the harbor. From this time the siege of the place went on steadily. On the i9th the fleet, profiting by a favorable wind, ran past the fortifications into the bay. Reinforcements were received by the Spaniards from time to time. On the 25th of April a deserter reported that Galvez had ten thousand men with him. The writer of the Waldeck journal speaks of this force as being fifteen times superior to that in Pensacola, whence we may infer that General Campbell commanded between six and seven hundred white men. The Indians, though drunken, barbarous, and undisciplined, were useful to the British. At last, on the morning of the 8th of May, a shell exploded in the powder-magazine of one of the redoubts, killing many of the Pennsylvania Tories who occupied the work, and causing great confusion. The Spaniards hereupon increased the fury of their fire, and in the afternoon of the same day General Campbell hung out the white flag, and surrendered on terms in accordance with which the garrison were all shipped to New York on condition of not serving against Spain, or her allies, until exchanged. As the United States were not at the time allied with Spain, the Waldeckers could be immediately employed against the Americans.[Footnote: For the Waldeckers in Florida, see Eelking’s “Hülfstruppen,” vol. ii. pp. 135—153. Eelking had access to two MSS. The MS. now in the library of the Prince of Waldeck at Arolsen is a fragment beginning April 11th, 1780. See, also, Schlözer’s “Briefwechsel,” vol. v. p. 112, and an article by George W. Cable in the Century Magazine for February, 1883.]

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