The Province of Georgia was overrun by the British in 1779, and Savannah and Augusta fell into their hands. Early in September the French Comte d’Estaing, with 20 ships of the line and 11 frigates, having on board 6,000 soldiers, suddenly appeared of the southern coast. He had successfully battled the British admiral commanding in the West Indies and was now come to assist in driving the British troops from Georgia. A plan was soon arranged between D’Estaing and Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, commanding the Southern Department, to besiege Savannah, but after protracted operations in the months of September and October the attempt met with ignominious failure. The French then sailed for the West Indies, and the American troops, under General Lincoln, returned to Charleston, S. C.
“There was little that could be done, either by Washington or Congress, to sustain the South in the struggle about to be precipitated upon its territory…”
During the winter of 1779-80 the Continental Army was quartered in the jerseys and upon the Hudson River. Washington’s headquarters was at Morristown, about 25 miles west of the town of New York. The seat of government was at Philadelphia, sufficiently near to Washington’s headquarters for his friends in Congress to lean heavily upon him and his enemies to harass him with their nefarious machinations to effect his downfall. There was little that could be done, either by Washington or Congress, to sustain the South in the struggle about to be precipitated upon its territory, for the all-important concern of each was for the maintenance and preservation of the Army which protected the Northern States. Events transpiring south of the Chesapeake merely presented collateral issues, to which only limited thought and assistance could be given by the Central Government; the salvation of the Southern States was left largely to themselves for accomplishment.
There never has been a stage of the war in which the dissatisfaction has been so general or alarming.
Congress was becoming more futile every day, losing its strength to the voracious demands of the States. Much of the Army was starved, unclothed, and unpaid, these matters being now provided for, in theory at least, by the several States. Little less than its dissolution would have long since occurred had it not been for a spirit of patriotic virtue, seconded by the unremitting pains which had been taken to compose and reconcile both officers and men to their situation. There was one hope that enabled Washington to preserve his calm equanimity during this period of gloom; it was that La Fayette would soon return from France with ships, men, and money in sufficient quantity to turn the tide of events in favor of the Revolutionary cause. Such was the condition of affairs in the sadly harassed infant Nation when Washington heard from General Lincoln that his army was besieged in Charleston and that both it and the city were doomed.
The Commander in Chief at once determined to aid the South with such Continental troops as might be spared, despite the fact that every man under arms was needed in the North, where we run a serious risk in this quarter, from the facility with which the enemy, by the help of their fleet, can unite their force at any point where they find us weak. Washington realized, furthermore, that reenforcements in all probability would arrive too late to be of any service in raising the siege of Charleston; nevertheless they might “assist to arrest the
General de Kalb arrived in Philadelphia on the 8th day of April and learned that Congress had adopted Washington’s recommendations concerning the expedition and was making the necessary preparations for it. The troops, to the number of 1,400, broke camp at Morristown on the 16th of April and after several days’ march reached Philadelphia, where the force was divided, the artillery, ammunition, and baggage proceeding south by land and the Infantry marching to the head of Elk River, where it embarked on the 3d of May. The Board of War fixed upon Richmond as the place of rendezvous for the whole. De Kalb was detained in Philadelphia by the Board of War until the 13th of May to complete his affairs, and on that day he set out to join his command. Two days were spent at Annapolis waiting for funds, for the Maryland troops, to be paid by the State of Maryland, and on the 22d of
The troops now under De Kalb’s command were the Maryland and Delaware Continentals and a Virginia regiment of 12 pieces of artillery, which had previously departed from Petersburg on its march south. He was promised further reenforcements of militia from Virginia and North Carolina— but such is the dilatory manner in which all things are done here, that I can not depend upon them, much less wait for them, he wrote to friends. De Kalb could not proceed farther on his march, however, until supplied with wagons by the State of Virginia, and it was not until the 1st of June that he was able to dispatch the first of the three brigades into winch he had divided his command. The second brigade was started on the 6th of the month, on which day Major Jamison arrived from Georgetown, S. C., with the information that Charleston had capitulated on the 12th of the preceding month.
Orders were at once dispatched to the first brigade and the regiment of Artillery, which on the 6th of June crossed into North Carolina, to halt where they were until De Kalb could join them with the second brigade, at which time he would consider what steps to take, determine whether or not a junction could be effected with Governor Rutledge, of South Carolina, and the troops under his command, and weigh the prospects of obtaining additional militia from Virginia and North Carolina. Fearful that the strength of the British troops in South Carolina was far superior to his own numbers, De Kalb determined to hold his command on the defensive until reenforced, and on the 6th of June, before leaving Petersburg, wrote the Board of War to that effect, adding that he would expect— further orders and directions either from your Board, Congress, or the Commander in Chief.
The difficulties attendant upon the march, lack of food, limited transportation, long stretches of barren and unsettled country, the pestilential voraciousness of insects, violence of thunderstorms, the indifference of the inhabitants to the Revolutionary cause, all these things were strange to De Kalb, who was accustomed to warfare only in Europe, and he feared that he might be compelled to retreat, for want of provisions, without striking a blow. In writing to a friend regarding the difference between warfare in Europe and in the southern part of the United States De Kalb said that Europeans did not know what warfare was, that they “know not what it is to contend against obstacles.”
The State of North Carolina had made no provision for the troops of the Union; it was solely occupied with its own militia, which could be maintained only with difficulty, as the Tory sympathizers outnumbered those who were loyal to the Revolutionary cause. De Kalb’s applications and protestations to the governor produced but little effect. It was necessary to send small detachments throughout the surrounding country to collect provisions from the inhabitants, who at this season of the year had but little to spare. In this dilemma the troops remained several days; but the resources failing in the vicinity of the camp, it became necessary to
In the new camp it was soon found that shortage of supplies still continued. There was scarcely sufficient grain even for the immediate subsistence of the troops, and the only meat ration that could be procured was lean beef, driven daily out of the woods and cane, brakes, where the cattle had wintered. Inaction, bad fare, and the difficulty of preserving discipline when there was no apprehension of danger were circumvented only by the activity of the officers and the enthusiasm of the entire command to hasten the time when they would encounter the foe.
The situation in which this expeditionary force found itself was brought to the attention of Congress by De Kalb, and he repeatedly remonstrated to the Governor of the State of North Carolina because of his delay in furnishing aid. Promises were made that a plentiful supply of provisions would be provided and that the Continentals would be joined by a considerable force of militia, under Maj. Gen. Richard Caswell, of North Carolina. It was in vain that De Kalb called repeatedly upon Caswell to join his command, and it was equally fruitless to expect much longer to find subsistence for his soldiers in a country where marauding parties of militia swept all before them. He was therefore undecided whether to march his force to join the militia, with the hope of finding that General Caswell’s complaint of a want of provisions for himself was fictitious or to move up the country and gain the fertile banks of the Yadkin. Before any decision was made, however, the approach of Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates to take command of the expeditionary force was announced by the arrival of his aide-de-camp, Major Armstrong.