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English corps made their junction with reciprocal felicitations. General Prevost repaired to Savannah, where he took the command of all the British troops that, coming from New York and from St. Augustine, had conquered to the king the entire province of Georgia. After such brilliant success, the British commanders deliberated upon what they had to do next. They were perfectly aware that their forces were not sufficient to act in a decisive manner against Carolina, a powerful province, animated with the same spirit, especially in the maritime parts, and governed by men endowed with the best talents, and exercising a great influence over the multitude. The reduction of Georgia was, in truth, the only object which general Clinton had as yet proposed to himself. He had purposed to defer the invasion of Carolina until the arrival of the reenforcements which admiral Arbuthnot was to bring him from England. Nevertheless, considering the importance to the success of future operations of continuing offensive war, rather than halting upon the defensive, it was determined to make several excursions into Carolina, in order to keep alive in that province the terror of the royal arms, and to reanimate the hopes of the loyalists. Major-general Gardner was accordingly detached with a numerous corps, to take possession of Port Royal. But this expedition had the most disastrous issue; the Carolinians sell vigorously upon the English, and expelled them from the island with severe loss, both in officers and soldiers.
On the failure of this project, the British generals endeavored to excite a movement among the adversaries of Congress. They inhabited, as we have related, in very considerable number, the back parts of Georgia and the two Carolinas. The hope placed in them was one of the principal causes that had occasioned the invasion of the southern provinces to be undertaken. Of these loyalists there were several sorts; some, more violent and rancorous, had not only abandoned their country, but had attached themselves to the Indians, in order to inflict all possible mischief on their fellow-citizens, in the incursions on the frontiers. Others lived solitary and wandering upon the extreme confines of the Carolinas, watching with the most eager attention for any favorable occasion that might offer itself, for the recovery of their settlements. Others, finally, either less bitter or more politic, continued to reside in the midst of the republicans, feigning an acquiesence in the will of the majority. Though they had quitted arms for the labors of agriculture, they were still always ready to resume them, whenever the possibility of a new change should become perceptible. In the meantime, they had recourse to artifice, and exerted their utmost diligence to keep their outlawed friends advised of all that passed within the country, and especially of all the movements of the republicans; of this, the generals of the king were not ignorant.
In order, therefore, to encourage and support the loyalists, they moved up the Savannah as far as Augusta. As soon as they were in possession of that post, they left no means unattempted that could reanimate their partisans, and excite them to assemble in arms. They sent among them numerous emissaries, who exaggerated to them the might of the royal forces. They assured them that if they would but unite, they would become incomparably superior to their enemies; they were prodigal of promises and presents; they exasperated minds already imbittered by flaining pictures of the cruelties committed by the republicans. Such were the opinions propagated by the British generals among the friends of the king. Their instigations produced the intended effect ; the loyalists took arms, and putting themselves under the command of colonel Boyd, one of their chiefs, they descended along the western frontiers of Carolina in order to join the royal army. More properly robbers than soldiers, they continually deviated from their route, in order to indulge their passion for pillage. What they could neither consume nor carry off, they consigned to the flames. They had already passed the Savannah and were near the British posts, when they were encountered by colonel Pickins, who headed a strong detachment of Carolinians, levied in the district of Ninety-Six. Instantly, the action was engaged with all the fury excited by civil rancor, and all the desperation inspired by the fear of those evils which the vanquished would have to suffer at the hands of the victors. The battle lasted for a full hour. At length the loyalists were broken and completely routed. Boyd remained dead upon the field; all were dispersed, many sell into the power of the republicans. Seventy were condemned to death, only five, however, were executed. This success made a deep impression throughout Georgia, where the disaffected were already on the point of arming against the Congress. The incursions of the loyalists were repressed, and the republicans could proceed with greater security in their preparations for defence against the royal arms. Another consequence of it was, that the English evacuated Augusta, and, retiring lower down, concentred their force in the environs of Savannah.
This measure was the more prudent on their part, as general Lincoln, to whom Congress had intrusted the command of all the troops in the southern provinces, was already arrived, and had encamped at Black Swamp, on the left bank of the Savannah, at no great distance from Augusta. This general, born in Massachusetts, having distinguished himself in the campaigns of the north, had been proposed to the Congress by the Carolinians themselves, on their first receiving intelligence of the projects of the enemy against the southern provinces. The Congress had yielded the more readily to their recommendation, as they had themselves a high opinion of the talents of general Lincoln, and were not ignorant how essential it is to the success of operations, that soldiers should have perfect confidence in their chiefs. The president, Lowndes, employed all the means in his power to inflame the ardor of the inhabitants of South Carolina, and to excite them to take arms in defence of country. In private, as well as in public, he addressed them the most stimulating exhortations; he directed that all the cattle of the islands and towns situated upon the coast, should be withdrawn into the interior of the country. The militia assembled and joined the continental troops. The same zeal for the public cause broke forth at the approach of danger in North Carolina; in a few days, two thousand of its militia were imbodied under the generals Ashe and Rutherford. If this corps could have been furnished with arms as promptly as the conjuncture required, it would have made its junction in time with that of general Howe, and perhaps might have decided in his favor the fortune of the day of Savannah. The enthusiasm of the Carolinian patriots was then at its height; every day added to the strength of their army. They had indeed great efforts to make. Washington was far from them, and before succours could arrive, they were exposed to the most fatal reverses. Moreover, the commander-in-chief was himself much occupied with the guard of the passes of the mountains, and his forces were continually mined by a pest which was still but impersectly remedied; the shortness of engagements. It was not to be expected then, that he should strip himself in order to reenforce the army of the south; yet more, the same intestine disease which enfeebled the army of Washington, was also the cause that little reliance could be placed in that of Lincoln, although it was already combined with the relics of the corps of Robert Howe. With the exception of six hundred continental troops, the rest were militia, little accustomed to war, and bound only to a few months of service. General Lincoln, however, not in the least discouraged, found resources even in his own ardor. In order at first to show himself to the enemy, he had repaired to Black Swamp, on the north side of the Savannah. This movement, together with the recent discomfiture of the loyalists, had induced the British general to retire down the river, leaving, however, an advanced post at Hudson's Ferry. But Lincoln extended his views farther ; he purposed to restrict the enemy still more, and to press him close upon the coast, in order to deprive him of the resources he would find in those fertile countries, and to put an end to the intercourse, whether open or secret, which he kept up with the loyalists of the upper parts. He accordingly, ordered general Ashe to leave his baggage behind, and passing the Savannah, to take post on a little river called Briar Creek. This order was executed with diligence, and the camp seated in a very strong position. It was covered in front by the creek, which for several miles above was too deep to be sorded ; on the left by the Savannah and a deep morass; the right was secured by a corps of cavalry. General Ashe had with him about two thousand men.
Notwithstanding the strength of his encampment, the English resolved to attack him. Colonel Prevost, who was posted at Hudson's Ferry, set out on this expedition. Having divided his force in two columns, he advanced the right, with two pieces of cannon, towards Briar Creek, with an apparent view of intending to pass it, in order to take up the attention of the republicans. The left, consisting of nine hundred men, among which were grenadiers, light infantry and horse, he led himself a circuitous march of about fifty miles, in order to cross Briar Creek, and thereby turning the right, to fall unexpectedly upon the rear of the enemy. At the same time, general Prevost made such dispositions and movements on the borders of the river, between Savannah and Ebenezer, as were likely to divert general Lincoln from thinking of Ashe. This general, who, in such a proximity of the enemy, should have redoubled his watchfulness, instead of having the country scoured by his cavalry, had detached it upon some distant and unprofitable expedition. The English, therefore, arrived so unexpectedly, though in open daylight, that the Americans received the first notice of danger srom the havoc which the assailants made in their camp. The militia were panic struck, and fled without firing a shot. But many of them encountered in flight that death which they might have avoided by a gallant resistance. Their cowardice did not shield them ; the deep marsh and the river, which should have afforded security, became now the instruments of their destruction. Blinded by their flight and terror, they were swallowed up in the one, or drowned in the other. The regular troops of Georgia and the Carolinas, commanded and animated by general Elbert, made a brave resistance; but, abandoned by the militia, and overwhelmed by number, they were also compelled to retreat. This rout of Briar Creek, took place the third of March. The Americans lost seven pieces of cannon, all their arms and ammunition, with not a few killed and prisoners. The number of the drowned and wounded is not known; but it appears that more perished in the water than by wounds. Of all the corps of general Ashe, scarcely four hundred soldiers rejoined general Lincoln, who, in consequence of this disaster, found his forces diminished more than a fourth part. This victory rendered the royal troops again masters of all Georgia. It opened them communications with the loyalists in the back parts of this province and the two Carolinas. Those who were not yet recovered of the terror inspired by their recent defeat, took fresh courage; there was nothing now to prevent their going to reenforce the royal army.
The Carolinians, though deeply affected at so severe a check, were not, however, disheartened; and, in order to prevent the victorious enemy from overrunning their fertile territory, they made every exertion to assemble their militia, and to reanimate their ardor. Rigorous penalties were decreed against those who should refuse to march when called out, or to obey their commanders; high bounties were promised; regiments of horse were organised; the officers were chosen among the most leading men of the country. John Rutledge, a man of extensive influence, was elected governor of the province, and empowered to do whatever he should judge necessary to the public welfare. Animated by the love of country, and stimulated by the prospect of those evils which would be their portion if the English should gain possession of the province, the republicans displayed so much zeal and activity in their preparations for defence, that by the middle of April, general Lincoln found himself at the head of more than five thousand fighting men. While these preparations were in process in the Carolinas, general Prevost busied himself in Georgia, in reorganising all those parts of the service which had suffered by the war. He established an internal administration in the province, and strenuously urged the loyalists to rally around him. He did not immediately attempt to cross the Savannah, because it was extremely swoln by the rains; and, besides, he had not a sufficient force to attack lower Carolina, where there were none but patriots; and general Lincoln, notwithstanding the rout of Briar Creek, still maintained his position on the left bank, ready to oppose him, if he inclined to pass. Not, however, that the American general was in a condition to act offensively before he was reenforced; he might even have deemed himself extremely fortunate in not being attacked. But as soon as he found his sorce augmented, as we have just seen, he made a movement which provoked another of extreme importance on the part of his adversary. He marched, about the beginning of May, towards Augusta, whether to protect an assembly of the deputies of the province, which was to convene in that town, or for the purpose of taking a strong position in upper Georgia, in order to watch over the interests of the confederation in that part, and to interrupt the transmission of provisions and recruits which the loyalists furnished to the British. He was already arrived in Georgia, and all his measures were taken for the execution of his design. He had left general Moultrie, with fifteen hundred men, in front of general Prevost, in order to dispute his passage across the Savannah. He considered this corps the more sufficient for the defence of the left bank and the approaches of Charleston, the capital of South Carolina, inasmuch as the breadth of the river, the marshes which border it on the north side, and the numerous creeks which intersect that province, appeared to him obstacles capable by themselves of arresting the enemy. But general Prevost saw his position in a different light. His army was increased by the junction of the loyalists. He hoped that his presence in Carolina would excite some movements there; he wanted provisions, which he was sure of finding in abundance in that province; and lastly, he calculated that the effect of his invasion would