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The Battle of Briar Creek

March 3, 1779 at Briar Creek, Georgia

American Forces Commanded by
Gen. John Ashe
Strength Killed & Wounded Missing / Captured
1,700 200 173
British Forces Commanded by
Lt Col. Mark Prevost
Strength Killed Wounded Missing / Captured
900 5 11 ?
Conclusion: ? Victory
Southern theater, 1775-83

Planning a three-pronged attack, Lincoln sent General Williamson and 1,200 troops to the east bank of the Savannah River opposite Augusta. General Rutherford was sent with 800 men to the Black Swamp while General John Ashe with 1,400 North Carolina militia and Colonel Elbert with 100 Georgia Continentals appears to have marched south to the Savannah River then proceeded north to join Williamson. British Lt. Colonel Archibald Campbell holding Augusta, noted the approach of the two forces and evacuated Augusta taking the road south toward Savannah.

The force commanded by General Ashe was later reinforced to a strength of 1,700 men which included 200 light horse. Noting the abandonment of Augusta and the British retreat southward, Ashe crossed the river and pursued the British who crossed Briar creek destroying the bridge behind them. Ashe arrived at the creek on February 27th and began rebuilding the bridge. It is not mentioned how British General Augustine Prevost came to appear on the scene but he is credited with the plan to thwart the rebels by leaving a force on the south side of the creek while sending another force across the creek northwest of the American position to fall on their rear so that the Americans would be caught front and rear.

The actual Battle of Briar or Brier Creek (As it is spelled on today's map) occurred on March 3rd, on a site roughly designated as at a bridge over Briar creek south of Augusta which appears to be where today's U.S. Hwy 25. and State Highway 121 cross Brier Creek, just northwest of the present day town of Waynesboro, Georgia.

In a circular movement covering 50 miles, a force of about 900 men crossed the creek west of Ashe’s position, proceeding to move to his rear. By the afternoon of March 2nd several British reconnoitering parties were seen; more were seen the following morning. Ashe took no action against them, other than positioning militia facing the apparent enemy in his rear. As the British advanced and opened fire, the militia broke and ran for the swamps. The Continentals were now trapped by fire from both sides of Briar Creek. They held and fought until it was obvious that there was no hope of surviving, then and only then did they break and run. Ward records that the entire American van was captured along with 11 officers, including Colonel Elbert commander of the Continentals and 162 non-commissioned officers and men. Several hundred other men died, either killed by enemy action, lost in the swamps or drowned trying to cross the Savannah River to return to South Carolina. British losses were negligible with 5 killed and 11 wounded. Of the 1,700 Americans present at the beginning of the battle, around 450 rejoined the army, the others who survived without capture were presumed to have simply gone home.

It should be noted at this time that several things contributed to defeat of the Patriot Army. First and foremost was the fact that with the exception of the 100 Georgia Continentals that none of the American force had been trained to stand and fight against a professional army that was trained to advance stolidly against all odds until they closed with the enemy. American militias were locals with little of no training, especially in open warfare facing a seasoned enemy. Militia officers in charge were generally no better trained than the rank and file. The rule of the day was that a militia was recruited by men who became their officers or officers were elected to their rank by the men in that militia unit.

While militia had been successful at Kettle Creek, their victory was partially good leadership and the fact that the enemy was Loyalist militia no better trained than the American militia. The militia at Briar Creek broke and ran from an enemy that they had no ability to cope with. Additionally, Ashe appears to have failed to use his light horse for reconnaissance to detect the troops in the circular movement. Nor did he seek to avoid a battle with the enemy behind him or choose a place more suitable to his own force and ability. He knew the opposing force across Briar Creek had stopped their retreat, yet when a second force appeared behind him he did nothing. This allowed the enemy to choose the time and place to their advantage, placing him between two fires that squeezed him as in a vise.

This was the third time that British commanders had successfully used this encircling tactic, first at the Brandywine, then Savannah and now at Briar Creek. The Americans were Patriots, not military experts. It might be said that they were on the job trainees, learning as the war progressed. The experience was not entirely a waste. In most wars combat sorts out the competent from the incompetent, and new leaders emerge who can cope with the enemy. In view of militia's inability to stand up to a professional force in a set piece battle it was later determined that militia could be used effectively in the front rank to fire one volley then retreat through the Continentals who could stand up to and meet the enemy on his own terms.

March 3rd ended any thought of recovering the state of Georgia. The public euphoria that existed after Kettle Creek and Beaufort turned into a panic that British General Prevost would be so encouraged by his victory at Briar Creek that he would invade South Carolina with like results.

TIMELINE

  • On February 13, Ashe joined up with Williamson at his post during the evening. That same night, the British foces evacuated Augusta.
  • On February 14, Col. Archibald Campbell withdrew his British forces from Augusta and stopped at Hudson's Ferry, located about 15 miles south of Briar Creek. Gen. Augustine Prevost sent some reinforcements to Hudson's Ferry with orders to stop Ashe's advance.
    The British plan was for Maj. ?? Macpherson to occupy the south bank of the creek as a diversion. Prevost's younger brother, Lt. Col. Mark Prevost, would then take a 900-man force and make a 50 mile wide circle movement towards the west and attack the American rear.
  • On February 25, Ashe's force crossed into Georgia and made his way to Savannah.
  • On February 27, Ashe entered the Briar Creek area and found that the only bridgecrossing had been destroyed by the retreating British forces. The creek was too deep to wade across since it ran through a deep swamp almost 3 miles wide. He decided to rebuild the destroyed bridge and construct a road to Savannah so that ?? Rutherford could reinforce his army from Matthew's Bluff, South Carolina. Matthew's Bluff was about 5 miles to the east of Briar Creek.
  • On March 1, in the afternoon, Col. ?? Marbury's cavalry had spotted Col. Prevost's force when they were 8 miles to the rear of the American camp. They followed them through the morning of March 2. Marbury sent a messanger to Ashe telling him of Prevost's plan. The messanger was caught by the British.
  • On March 3, Ashe was caught unaware by Prevost's force. Ashe formed his men in columns with the Continentals in front. The British deployed when they were 150 yards away. Confusion in the American ranks had created a gap in the North Carolina militia battleline. The British capitalized on this and rushed into the gap. Panic spread throughout the American line and the militia soon began to scatter. The Continentals held their ground for a little while but were soon routed. Elbert and some of the Continentals were captured by the British. Elbert ended up staying in prison until his release in 1781. Ashe had tried to rally the fleeing militia but they were running away too fast for Ashe to be effective in his efforts. The militia headed to the nearby swamps and Savannah River. Most of them escaped by swimming across or were ferried across on rafts. Some of them drowned in their attempts.
    Late that afternoon, the battle finally ended with the American forces suffering a humiliating defeat. With their victory, the British restored their hold on Georgia. Many of the patriots demanded that Ashe be brought up on charges for this embarrassing defeat.
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