The Siege of Augusta
May 22-June 5, 1781 at Augusta, Richmond County, Georgia
The Siege of Augusta,also known as Siege of Fort Cornwallis, was conducted against British troops occupying the town of Augusta, Georgia. Fort Cornwallis, the primary defenses, were successfully exposed to cannon fire by the construction of a tower 30 feet high on which the Americans mounted a small cannon. The garrison surrendered on June 6.
Facts about the Siege of Augusta
- Armies - American Forces was commanded by Brig. Gen. Andrew Pickens and consisted of 1,600 Soldiers. British Forces was commanded by Lt. Col. Thomas Brown and consisted of 630 Soldiers.
- Casualties - American casualties were 16 killed and 35 wounded. British casualties were 52 killed and 334 captured.
- Outcome - The result of the Siege was an American victory.
On April 16, Patriot militia companies under the command of Micajah Williamson arrived on the outskirts of Augusta, Georgia and established a fortified camp. The garrison of the town's primary fortification, Fort Cornwallis, was commanded by Loyalist Thomas Brown, and did not immediately confront Williamson due to exaggerated reports of his troop strength.
Gen. Andrew Pickens maneuvered a force of 400 men between Augusta and Ninety Six, South Carolina to prevent the British outpost there from reinforcing Brown.
On May 15, Williamson was joined by his commander, Elijah Clarke and another 100 men, effectively cutting British supply lines.
Gen. Nathanael Greene had sent Maj. Henry Lee to attempt the capture of Ninety Six, but when Lee neared he learned that the town had been fortified in anticipation of Greene's arrival. Greene then ordered Lee to assist Pickens at Augusta. Pressing on, Lee reached Augusta after traveling 75 miles in three days.
On May 21, the stockaded house of George Galphin, an Indian agent, located 12 miles south of Augusta, was attacked by forces under Clarke and Lee. After a brief exchange, in which one Patriot died of the heat and eight to ten were wounded, the British garrison there surrendered after three or four men were killed. A total of 126 men, mostly regulars, surrendered. The prize (and the reason for the Patriot attack) was much-needed supplies and military equipment which had been intended for distribution to the local Indians.
Fort Grierson was a secondary fortified outpost located about half a mile from Fort Cornwallis. This fort was defended by about 80 men under Colonel Grierson.
On May 23, the Patriot forces began to encircle the fort in a manner intended to draw Grierson out in an attempt to reach Fort Cornwallis. Brown, aware of the danger to Grierson, sallied forth from Cornwallis, but when faced with Lee's strength, limited his support attempt to an ineffective cannonade. Grierson, desperate to escape the trap, attempted to flee along the riverbank but his entire company was captured. Clarke's men then took their revenge for actions perpetrated by Brown and refused quarter, killing Grierson and all of his men.
Augusta was made up of two forts within a half mile of each other, a smaller one at Fort Grierson, and the main defenses, Fort Cornwallis. In Fort Cornwallis, the larger of the two posts, was Col. Thomas Brown with 240 men, including the King’s Carolina Rangers, and an additional 200 blacks, some of whom may have been armed. Fort Grierson was defended by Lieut. Col. James Grierson with two pieces of artillery and about 80 Georgia loyalists. The ground around Augusta was fairly flat and level, so there was no terrain overlooking the town, though there were some houses situated not far outside Cornwallis.
On May 23, the main body of Lee's forces arrived in Augusta. A half-mile west of Fort Grierson was Fort Grierson. It was quickly overrun by the Americans. The fort's garrison attempted to fight their way to Fort Cornwallis but was stopped. Most were captured and 30 men were killed. Fort Grierson was surrounded, with Brown firing his cannon at Lee's troops. Lee had his men build a Maham Tower close to the fort. There was an abandoned house between the tower and the fort. Brown secretly moved some gunpowder into the house
Brown devised a plan to sent a Tory that masqueraded as a "deserter" to the American lines. The deserter's mission was to burn down the tower and get Lee's force to burn down the house to clear their field of vision. Brown had planned on blowing up the house when the Americans surrounded it on their way to attack the fort. Lee sniffed out the Tory plan and jailed the deserter. Lee then had the house destroyed.
On May 31, Brown was given another chance to surrender his forces, which he again declined. In making their approaches to Fort Cornwallis, the Americans dug trenches, and later used Maham towers, the first erected on the night of 30-31 May, on which they mounted a six-pounder, which disabled Brown's own six-pounder (or else two cannon, one of which was a six-pounder.) Brown had tried unsuccessfully, by means of sorties, to sabotage both the trench (when it was being worked on), and the Maham tower. In the case of one of the towers subterfuge, in the way of British soldier masquerading as a deserter from Brown, was tried as well. At one point in the siege, Brown also had set explosives in a nearby house used by Rebel sharpshooters, hoping to catch them there. However, the explosives were detonated at a time when the house was empty. Compared to earlier sieges of the British outposts, Augusta was long and trying, involving much shelling, and sniping between the besiegers and the garrison. Two of Brown’s field pieces were dismounted on June 2nd.
On June 4, Lee's force formed up for a final assault on the fort when Brown agreed to consider a conditional surrender. Brown decided he could no longer hold out against the artillery and riflemen mounted in the towers. Despite what had been vigorous and spirited defense on the part of himself and his provincials, he was force to surrender the fort to Pickens and Lee, the former as ranking American officer, and the latter representing the Continental Army.
On June 5, Fort Cornwallis at Augusta surrendered to Pickens and Lee. Lee returned to join Greene at Ninety-Six. Pickens remained at Augusta removing stores taken there, but by the 17th had likewise joined Greene. After Pickens left, Major, now Lieut. Col., James Jackson took command of the post. The liberation of the Georgia upcountry from British occupation, made possible the revival of more normal state government. Among its first measures was to form militia and state troops to cooperate with the Continentals. Although a Georgia State Legion was subsequently raised under Jackson, the state had no funds to pay them. Instead land, slaves, horses, clothing, provisions, salt, usually confiscated from Tories, were used. Former loyalists were given the opportunity to prove their new American allegiance by serving in the militia or state troops. “But for the need of many to prove their loyalty to the United States, it is doubtful if there would have been any state troops worth mentioning.”
British casualties, based on immediate after siege reports were 52 killed, and 334 captured, i.e. Brown plus, 7 officers, 7 loyalist officers, 162 Provincials, and 130 Tory militia and "about" 200 Blacks. Lossing says the “Americans had sixteen killed and thirty-five wounded. The loss of the British was fifty-two killed; and three hundred and thirty-four, including the wounded, were made prisoners of war.” The officers taken were paroled to Savannah, while the rank and file were sent north as prisoners. These latter were escorted to Ninety-Six by Maj. Samuel Hammond's regiment, and the detachment of N.C. Continentals, which were now under the command of Capt. Robert Smith. Smith had replaced Maj. Pinkertham Eaton, after Eaton’s death on the 24th. during the fighting before Fort Grierson. No mention is made of the Creek Indians who were present in April, but who apparently were able to escape homeward some weeks before the surrender.
Tarleton Brown: “We now commanded the siege of Brown of Brown's fort. In taking this fort, we had great difficulty. We raised a platform fifteen or twenty feet high, and mounted a cannon upon it, and from thence fired at them in the fort. In this way we destroyed a good many of them, but finding we were too hard for them in this way, and to screen themselves from the thunder and lightning of our platform, they dug several caves in the sides of the walls of the fort and crawled into them, We then continued the entrenchment, and as we entrenched, we rolled up cowhides and placed them on the embankment for portholes to shoot through. One morning I was standing next to young Stafford, who was about to shoot through one of our portholes, and there came a ball from the fort and killed him dead. Young Stafford was [earlier] with me in General Marion's Army, and he was, indeed, a brave and patriotic fellow, and dying in freedom's cause, his memory should never fade from our recollection. Before Brown would surrender, we entrenched so near his fort that I ran a hoe-halve from the entrenchment into the fort. On finding we were so near upon him, he marched out and surrendered with all his force and goods. Brown had been such a desperate fellow, there existed great anxiety to kill him; but as he came under capitulation, we had not chance to do so at this time, but I determined to do so on his way down the river. I took a few brave fellows, and slipped down the river to carry into execution my determination, but he made his escape, through the shades of the night, in a small canoe.”