In the fall of 1778 Colonel McIntosh, who had been left in command of the town after the repulse of the British in March, 1776, notified General Robert Howe, commander of the American forces in this section, with headquarters at Charleston, that an advance of the enemy upon Savannah was anticipated, and that his small force, two hundred and fifty men, with one hundred for duty, was inadequate to defend the place. General Howe came over and took command. He had about five hundred regulars and three hundred and fifty militia. He learned that the enemy had planned for Colonel Prevost to advance from Florida and arrive near Savannah in time to cooperate with the fleet under Sir Hyde Parker and the troops under Lieutenant Colonel Campbell, to be sent from New York. Prevost advanced as far as Sunbury. The Americans made a show of being in strong force and Prevost retreated. Howe then returned to Savannah and ordered all of the troops to assemble there. The town was in an almost defenseless condition, excepting from the water side. The fort on the eastern end of the bluff, where the gas house now stands, had been considerably enlarged, more guns mounted, and made quite formidable. It was named Fort Wayne, in honor of General Anthony Wayne.
By the 27th of December the whole of the British fleet had anchored off Tybee. The vessels composing the armed squadron were the Phoenix, forty-four guns; the Rose and Fowey, twenty four guns each; the Vigilant, twenty eight guns; and the brig Keppel, the sloop Greenwich and the galley Comet. The transports brought about thirty-five hundred men. Howe had about nine hundred men to oppose their force. The British were not at first aware of the weakness of the Americans and were disposed to wait the arrival of Prevost's command before commencing the assault upon the town. To gain information Colonel Campbell sent a boat's crew ashore to capture some of the inhabitants. The crew landed on Wilmington island and took two men prisoners, who informed them of the exact condition of the Americans. Believing the information received to be correct, Campbell decided to attack without delay. On the 28th the squadron sailed up within two miles of town, opposite to Girardeau's plantation, and preparations were made to land early the next morning.
Howe was not correctly informed concerning the strength of the enemy, and believing he could cope with them, determined to defend the town. Observing this movement of the enemy, he rightly concluded that the troops would land below Brewton hill 4 and advance upon the town by the great road, now known as the Thunderbolt road, and Captain John C. Smith, with his company of South Carolinians, was sent to the hill to watch the enemy. The marsh on the east side of the city was then much wider and more difficult to cross than now. On the high ground west of the marsh General Howe placed his command so as to cover the great road, which crossed the marsh by a narrow causeway, and burned the bridge over the rivulet which ran through the center of the marsh. To present still further obstructions, a deep ditch was dug three hundred yards west of the marsh and filled with water. The army was divided into two brigades; the first, commanded by Colonel Elbert, constituted the left, and the other, under Colonel Huger, the right wing. 5 Five pieces of cannon were posted in front of the causeway. To the right of the position of the Americans a small path led through the swamp to the high grounds on the opposite side. This path was pointed out to General Howe by Colonel Walton as a place which should be guarded, but the General, thinking differently, paid no attention to the suggestion. About what is now the corner of Liberty and Bull streets were the New barracks. The roads to White Bluff and the Ogeechee river united near the barracks, and Colonel Walton, with one hundred militia, was posted there.
About dawn of the 29th the British landed on Girardeau's place. From the point of landing to Brewton's hill was a narrow causeway six hundred yards in length. A body of Highlanders, under Captain Cameron, landed first and were thrown forward to secure the hill. Captain Smith ordered his men to reserve their fire until the enemy were close. The Highlanders marched in solid column halfway up the hill, when the Americans opened upon them, killing Captain Cameron and two privates, and wounding five others. The first and second battalions of DeLancy's corps of New York Volunteers and the first battalion of the 71st regiment of foot, all under Lieutenant Colonel Maitland, had landed immediately after the Highlanders, and hearing the firing rushed forward to participate. The Highlanders, who had been thrown into confusion by the effective fire of the Americans, rallied and advanced with their reinforcement. Captain Smith, who had been instructed to retire if attacked by a large force, retreated to the main body. The entire force of the enemy now landed and formed line-of-battle on top of the hill and there remained, while Colonel Campbell with a small party rode forward to reconnoiter. This done, the light infantry, under Sir James Baird, were thrown forward, supported by DeLancy's New York Volunteers. Following these came the first battalion of Hessians, with two three-pounders. By three o'clock the army arrived within eight hundred yards of the Americans and halted. The advantageous position selected by General Howe was duly noted and appreciated by Colonel Campbell, and he determined that no benefits should be derived from it, and therefore aimed to turn Howe's right flank or get into his rear.
In his reconnoisances he ran across an old Negro named Quanimo Dolly, generally called Quash, who informed him of the private path through the swamp, by which the rear of the American line could be gained. Overjoyed at this discovery, Campbell returned to his command, and ordered Sir James Baird, with the light infantry and the New York Volunteers, to follow the Negro through the swamp and attack the first body of troops found. To deceive the Americans, Colonel Campbell manoeuvred his troops in front as if about to attack. This caused the Americans to play upon them with their artillery. The British did not return the fire, but still manoeuvred, waiting to hear from Baird. He followed the Negro through the swamp, coming out at a point near where is now Waringsville, and struck the White Bluff road, down which he advanced, falling suddenly upon the small force of Walton's. This was swept away after a short but brave resistance, during which Walton was wounded, and the conqueror turned to the right to strike the rear of the American line. The firing notified Campbell that Baird had accomplished his purpose, and he immediately advanced his line at a rapid pace. The artillery, which had been concealed behind a hill, was pushed forward to the top and a rapid fire opened upon the Americans. Sir James Baird also charged from the rear. The Americans were between two fires, and opposed to them was a force much larger and better disciplined. Nothing but a retreat was now left to them. The order was given for Colonel Daniel Roberts, with the artillery, to secure the causeway on the Augusta road leading across Musgrove creek and swamp, on the west of the town. This he did, and the right flank retreated to it and crossed in safety. The left flank attempted to retreat by this route, but before their arrival the British drove Colonel Roberts across the causeway and took possession. Colonel Elbert's command, many of whom had been shot and bayoneted as they ran through town, finding this avenue of retreat denied them, rushed through the rice fields near the river.
The tide was up and Musgrove creek full of water. A large number threw away their arms and accoutrements and attempted to swim it. Most of them succeeded, but thirty of the number were drowned. The remainder of the command, two hundred in number, either could not swim or dared not attempt to cross and there stopped, to be captured a few moments after. These were marched, back to town, disarmed, and robbed by the Highlanders. Sir James Baird coming up at the time with others of the Highlands "mounted himself on a ladder and sounded his brass bugle- horn, which the Highlanders no sooner heard than they all got about him, when he addressed himself to them in Highland language, when they all dispersed and finished plundering such of the officers and men as had been fortunate enough to escape the first search".
During the attack by the army the British fleet was made ready for action, and as soon as it was ascertained that the American line had given way Sir Hyde Parker sailed up the river and passed Fort Wayne, receiving a few shots therefrom, which killed and wounded five seamen. The galley Comet was sent further up the river and prevented any of the American vessels from escaping; thus securing to the squadron three ships, three brigs, and three smaller vessels, and one hundred and twenty-six prisoners. The army captured thirty-eight officers, four hundred and fifteen non-commissioned officers and privates, one stand of colors, forty-eight cannon, twenty-three mortars, six hundred and thirty-seven stand of arms, ninety barrels of powder, and other munitions of war; all done with the loss of only one commissioned officer and three men killed and one sergeant and fourteen men wounded. The Americans lost eighty-three men killed, thirty drowned, and a large number wounded.
The conduct of the British troops upon entering the town was of such a character as to strike terror to the hearts of all the inhabitants. Before the soldiers could be restrained lawless and brutal acts were committed; women were insulted, citizens who had not been engaged in the fight shot and bayoneted in the streets, and a number seized and carried aboard the ships, where they endured the most terrible sufferings from lack of food, pure air and water. Among those thus imprisoned were the Honorable Jonathan Bryan, his son James, Reverend Moses Allen, Mordecai Sheftall, and his son Sheftall Sheftall, Edward Davis, Dr. George Wells, and David Moses Vallaton.
The remnant of Howe's army retreated up the river to Zubly's ferry and crossed into South Carolina. Campbell left Lieutenant Colonel Innis in command of Savannah and marched to Augusta, shortly after which Brevet Brigadier-General Prevost arrived and relieved Colonel Innis. General Prevost established his headquarters at the house situated on the north side of Broughton street next east of the Masonic hall.