In early February, 1779, the Southern Armies of the United States and Great Britain were facing across the Savannah River on a battle line reaching fromSavannah to the Broad River above Augusta. The British controlled Georgia and the Americans South Carolina. A victory for the American forces meant an early end to the war. Each side, realizing the importance of the impending struggle, was carefully maneuvering troops for an opening blow.
Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, Commander of the American forces of six or seven thousand men, decided to flank the British above Augusta in an attempt to drive the Red Coats, under Gen. Augustine Prevost, into the malarial swamps of the Georgia coast. The first objective was accomplished when Col. ElijahClarke and Col. Andrew Pickens overtook and defeated the forces of the Tory Gen. Boyd at Kettle Creek. Meantime, Gen. Lincoln, from his headquarters atPurysburg, ordered Gen. John Ashe to join Gen. Andrew Williamson opposite Augusta.
Col. Archibald Campbell, commanding British forces in Augusta, saw his position become precarious, evacuated the city, and marched down the riveron the Georgia side to join Gen. Prevost, whose headquarters were at Hudson`s Ferry.
Gen. Lincoln then ordered Gen. Ashe, with 1,800 men, to cross the Savannah River, follow Col. Campbell as far as Freeman-Miller Bridge on Brier Creek, andsecure his position there. Gen. Ashe arrived there on February 27 and found that Col. Campbell had burned the bridge. Col. Campbell crossed Brier Creekjust before the arrival of Gen. Ashe, losing a cannon that became buried in the mud of 'Cannon Lake.'
On February 28, Gen. Ashe left for a Council of War with Generals Lincoln, Moultrie, and Rutherford at Black Swamp, S.C. Gen. Bryant, left in charge ofthe American forces, moved the camp up the creek, for security, to near this spot (A). He established a picket line up the creek and a company of infantryat the burned bridge. He ordered Col. Leonard Marbury to take a position at Paris` Mill, 14 miles up the creek. On March 1, Gen. Bryant was joined by Maj.Ross with 300 horsemen who were too fatigued for immediate duty.
After reconnoitering Gen. Ashe's position, Gen. Prevost determined to strike him from the rear in a surprise move before he cold consolidate his position.Col. Mark Prevost commanded the British in one of the most skillful military maneuvers of the Revolution. Maj. McPherson was placed with the First Battalion of the 71st Regiment at Buck Creek, three miles south of the burned bridge, as a decoy.
Col. Prevost led the main force of the British army, about 1,500 men, up the west side of Brier Creek. Traveling all night, he arrived on the west bank of the reek at Paris' Mill mid-morning of March 2. He found the bridge destroyed. Dispatching his Infantry and Light Horse across the creek, he soon encounteredCol. Marbury's Dragoons, cutting them off from Ashe`s forces. He captured some, while others succeeded in getting safely across Burton's Ferry. Col. Prevost built a bridge and crossed the creek on the morning of the 3rd.
Gen. Ashe returned midday of the 2nd. It was agreed, at the Council of War, that Ashe was to make secure his position and wait until joined by GeneralsWilliamson, Rutherford and Lincoln. Then a general offensive would be launched to drive the British seaward. On the morning of March 3rd, Ashe, unaware of the British movements, sent Maj. Ross, with his Light Horse of 300 men, to reconnoiter the position of Prevost at Hudson's Ferry. He soon encountered McPherson's men at Buck Creek. His failure to advise Gen. Ashe came near being the decisive blunder of the Revolution.
About 2:30 P.M. on March 3, Gen. Ashe received a message from Col. Smith, who was guarding the wagons and baggage left at Burton's Ferry, warning himof the approach of the British. Within a few minutes the British appeared, coming down the main road six abreast. They deployed, right and left, forminga battle line from the position of this marker to the Savannah River swamp. Hastily, Generals Ashe, Samuel Elbert and Bryant reversed their front, prepared to meet the enemy by taking positions in battle line across the British front. Confusion and hysteria reigned among the American soldiers as theirofficers vainly tried to keep them in line while ammunition was being distributed. Gen. Elbert`s and Col. McIntosh's command formed on the American left next to the creek, Gen. Bryant's command formed the center and Col. Young's the right.
The British opened on the American center with cannon. Gen. Bryant, still trying to get ammunition to his men, was unprepared. With dead and woundedfalling on every side, the center broke and retreated in riot. The British poured through the hole in the American center and within a few minutes, the rightunder Col. Young broke and ran into the swamps of the Savannah. Gen. Elbert and Col. McIntosh, with 60 Continentals and 150 Georgia Militia, made one ofthe valiant stands of military history. So fiercely did these Georgians fight that the British had to bring up reserves. Asking no quarter, they fought until nearly every man was dead or wounded. Gen. Elbert saved himself by giving a Masonic sign from the ground as he was about to be bayonetted. Gen. Elbert, Col. McIntosh and the rest of his command surrendered.
Thus ended, in disaster, the well laid plans to win control of the South and bring the war to an end. Only the matchless bravery of the Georgians in thelast stand gave solace and inspiration in an almost hopeless situation.