The American War of Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell
By Robert A. McGeachy
« Continued from previous age
Admittedly, Judge Jones as a leading Loyalist cannot be described as a disinterested observer of the Revolution, but it should be borne in mind that he was often as critical of British military and political incompetence, as he was of Patriot treachery. Even allowing for some exaggeration in the Judge’s account of Lee’s captivity, many other contemporary accounts tend to support the view that Lee enjoyed considerable freedom and was not being oppressed. A report in the Scots Magazine (1777), for example, stated that: “All the accounts from New York agree, that Gen. Lee, though under confinement, is comfortably lodged, has proper attendants, and a plentiful table”.46 Probably the most persuasive accounts concerning the true nature of General Lee’s captivity can be found in Patriot sources. Washington, for example, was one of the first on the Patriot side to question whether or not Campbell of Inverneill’s treatment was merited. In a letter to the Massachusetts Council of 28 February 1777, Washington referred to Campbell of Inverneill’s confinement being “shocking to humanity” and at complete variance with Congress’ resolution that Archibald Campbell and General Lee should receive the same treatment, particularly since as the latter was “only confined to a commodious House with genteel accommodations”.47
This was one of the first reports to emerge which suggested that the details of Lee’s confinement had been exaggerated, if not simply misrepresented. In a follow-up letter to Congress dated 1 March 1777, Washington expressed the view that the Patriots’ retaliation against Archibald Campbell “seems to have been prematurely begun, or to speak with more propriety, Severeties have been and are exercising towards Col. Campbell, not justified by any that Gen. Lee has yet received”.48 As more people became aware of the true circumstances of Lee’s captivity, Congress was forced to back-peddle. This is evident in a letter from John Hancock, the President of Congress, to George Washington dated 17 March 1777, which disingenuously stressed security considerations as the principal factor justifying Campbell of Inverneill’s harsh treatment: “…it was not their [Congress’] intention that Col. Campbell should experience any other hardship than such confinement as is necessary to his security…”.49
General Lee was exchanged for General Prescott in a “general exchange of officers” on 6 May 1778. This cartel made no provision for the private soldiers of either side, or for Campbell of Inverneill who remained a prisoner of war. Significantly, despite Washington’s interventions, Campbell of Inverneill’s treatment did not improve until Lee himself wrote to Washington and to Congress in May 1777 confirming that the British had actually treated him kindly, before there was any noticeable improvement in Campbell’s conditions. On 2 June 1777 Congress passed a resolution requesting that the Council of Massachusetts and the Governor and Council of Virginia should ensure that Archibald Campbell and the five captured Hessian officers were treated humanely. As a measure of this improvement, it is reported that Campbell of Inverneill was liberated from the jail at Concord on parole in June 1777, and was allowed to stay with his jailor’s family.50 Archibald Campbell, however, still faced daily abuse and threats from local Patriot supporters, which were serious enough for Washington to again complain to Congress that Campbell’s treatment “cannot be justified either on the principles of generosity or strict retaliation”.51
In August 1777 Washington finally received authority to propose an exchange to the British for Campbell and the Hessian officers. Once the exchange had been agreed in principle, Washington wrote to Campbell to offer his congratulations, and to apologize for the treatment he had received:
“…Give me leave to congratulate you upon the prospect of your exchange, which will be immediately effected, Mr Boudinot having given orders to his Deputy to accompany you to Elizabeth Town, where I expect you will meet Lieutenant Col. Allen. I am sorry that a variety of Obstacles have prevented your Exchange before this time, but I can assure you, that no proposition has ever been made in your favour but has been acceded to on my part. I wish you a happy sight of your family and Friends, and am…”. 52
Such congratulations were slightly premature as the practicalities of the exchange had been overtaken by events. In this respect, General Lee had already been exchanged, and it was to require further lengthy negotiations between the British and Patriot leaders before the exchange of Archibald Campbell for Ethan Allen was finalized.
On 3 May 1778, Ethan Allen was eventually taken to Staten Island and remained there until 6 May 1778, when Archibald Campbell arrived from Elizabeth Town under the charge of Elias Boudinot, the Patriots’ Commissary General in charge of British prisoners of war. Both Archibald Campbell and Ethan Allen had endured a long captivity, and Allen’s own account of his ordeal suggests that the two men were deeply conscious of the manner in which their fates had intertwined throughout the conflict:
“The next day Col. Archibald Campbell (who was exchanged for me) came to this place, conducted by Mr Boudinot, the then American Commissary of Prisoners, and saluted me in a handsome manner, saying that he never was more glad to see any gentleman in his life. I gave him to understand that I was equally glad to see him, and was apprehensive that it was from the same motive. The gentlemen present laughed at the fancy, and conjectured that sweet liberty was the foundation of our gladness; so we took a glass of wine together, and then I was accompanied by General Campbell, Colonel Campbell, Mr Boudinot and a number of British officers, to the boat, which was ready to sail to Elizabeth Town Point. Meanwhile I entertained them with a rehearsal of the cruelties exercised towards our prisoners; and assured them that I should use my influence that their prisoners should be treated in future in the same manner as they should in future treat ours; that I thought it was right, in such cases, that their example should be applied to their own prisoners; then exchanged the decent ceremonies of compliment, and parted”.53
Campbell emerged from captivity with a similar concern for the remaining prisoners of the conflict. A letter of 13 May 1778 in Elias Boudinot’s correspondence confirms that immediately after his release, Archibald Campbell proposed to the Patriot Commissary General that they should both go to New York “as he [Campbell of Inverneill] thought he could aid me greatly in furthering some immediate relief to our suffering prisoners”.54 Significantly, after his release Campbell of Inverneill, showed great humanity towards his Patriot foes and took special care to protect civilians, rather than being embittered by his experiences as a prisoner of war. These aspects of his character were frequently commented upon by contemporaries, many of whom already admired him as a military commander of some distinction. Boudinot, for example, had great respect for Campbell of Inverneill, whom he found to be a man “of strict honour and unbounded benevolence”. The Commissary General for Prisoners found this to be all the more remarkable, given his own opinion that Archibald Campbell had endured the worst captivity “of any Prisoner during the War”.55 The view which emerges from contemporary sources is that Archibald Campbell stood out amongst the British military leadership, not just as a highly regarded battle field commander but also for his humanity, especially as many British generals justified their harsh treatment of Patriot prisoners on the grounds that they were “rebels” deserving little, if any, consideration.
Return to Active Service
Not long after the exchange, Archibald Campbell rejoined his old regiment, the 71st Highlanders, and was involved in the British operations which routed the Patriot privateers at Old Taapan on 28 September 1778.56 Campbell of Inverneill was then appointed to lead the British expeditionary force which was sent to the southern colonies, when the onset of winter began to make campaigning in the central and northern colonies extremely difficult. Apart from the weather, there were a number of important strategic factors which underpinned the British Government’s decision to concentrate on the south. It was, for example, thought that launching an offensive there would allow Britain to exploit what was purported to be large reservoirs of Loyalist support in the region. This was highlighted in contemporary newspapers and journals such as the Annual Register (1779), which suggested that consolidating the British presence in the south would rally this support and “could not fail greatly to influence the future operations and fortunes of the war”.57 The British Government also hoped that the re-capture of Georgia would help to protect the isolated British outposts in East Florida against Patriot incursions launched from neighbouring West Florida and, in turn, expose the Patriots’ position in South Carolina. In addition, the capture of Savannah or Charleston were seen as vital to the support of British operations in the West Indies against the French and Spanish. Another key consideration was the plentiful supplies of rice, tobacco, indigo and deerskins in Georgia, for the use of the British armed forces, or to raise hard currency through export sales of these commodities to Europe.
The expeditionary force commanded by Campbell of Inverneill, whom the newspapers described as “a brave and able officer”, was made up of 3,500 men consisting of the two battalions of the 71st Highlanders, two battalions of Hessians, four battalions of Loyalists and a detachment of artillery. It sailed from Sandy Hook on 27th November 1778 with a naval escort led by Commodore Hyde Parker. The British plan stipulated that Major General Prevost, the commander of Crown forces in East Florida, should invade Georgia as soon as the expeditionary force sailed, and was to continue his advance until he joined up with Campbell of Inverneill’s detachments. The combined British force was then ordered to attack the Patriot army at Savannah.58
The Southern Campaign
Archibald Campbell’s force endured a stormy passage before arriving at Tybee Island, near the mouth of the Savannah River, over a month later on 23 December 1778. The small fleet apparently arrived undetected, and Archibald Campbell immediately landed a reconnaissance patrol near Wilmington Creek to gather intelligence. Campbell of Inverneill’s own dispatch to Sir Henry Clinton dated 16 February 1779 confirms that the patrol consisted of a light infantry detachment from the 71st Highlanders. This patrol captured some prisoners who, according to Archibald Campbell, provided “the most satisfactory intelligence concerning the state of matters at Savannah”.59 The prisoners confirmed that the Patriot shore batteries at the mouth of the river at Salter’s Island were weak and poorly defended, and that the Patriot force was itself under-strength and awaiting reinforcements. Campbell also discovered that the leader of the local Patriot forces, Major General Robert Howe, was only recently returned from a raid on East Florida, and had established his headquarters at Gerridoe’s Plantation.60 The rest of the fleet joined Campbell of Inverneill on the 27 December 1778, and it is reported that he used the slight delay to reorganize his units. Campbell had two corps of raw Loyalist light infantry, and attached one to each of his two companies of the veteran 71st Highlanders to stiffen the resolve of the newer recruits:
“A measure excellently calculated, to transfuse the spirit, vigour, and confidence of veteran troops, equally inured to danger and to victory, to those who being yet raw, were diffident of their own powers, from mere ignorance of their effect”.61
This offers further proof that Campbell of Inverneill was an energetic and shrewd leader, who paid careful attention to every detail of battlefield command.
The British battle plan had envisaged Campbell of Inverneill’s and Major General Augustin Prevost’s combined force attacking Savannah. Upon discovering, however, that the Patriot commander could only muster about 1,500 men and was awaiting reinforcements, Campbell of Inverneill immediately demonstrated his marked flair for spotting tactical opportunities. Campbell concluded that he did not need Prevost’s force to accomplish his objective, and wasted no time in organizing his force to attack the Patriot positions. He ordered his men to re-embark on board the naval transports, and the small fleet sailed up-river and landed a few miles below Savannah at Girridoe’s plantation around 4pm in the afternoon. Archibald Campbell’s account confirms that this was the first accessible landing place on the Savannah river “as the whole tract between it and Tybee [Island] is a continuous swamp, intersected by several creeks of considerable width, and other cuts of water, all impassable for troops at high tide”.62 Campbell’s dispatch to Clinton of 16 February 1779 states that many of the transports ran aground, and that this delayed the landing of the troops until the following day. At daybreak on 17 February 1779, the light infantry detachments of the 71st Highlanders were disembarked, and the dispatch describes their successful charge against the Patriots’ forward positions:
“The Highlanders under Captain Cameron were the first ashore, and with their usual impetuosity rushed against the house, which was defended by about fifty Rebels, who opened a smart fire of musketry upon them. These they instantly drove into the woods, without giving them time to repeat their fire, and happily secured a landing for the rest of the army. Captain Cameron, a spirited and most valuable officer was killed, and seven soldiers killed or wounded”.63
The Patriot pickets, screening their main force under Major General Howe, were unable to withstand the fury of the charging Highlanders, who wreaked havoc with their Claymore broadswords. The Highlanders’ losses were comparatively light, and the British force wasted no time in pushing forward to engage the Patriot army.
Upon advancing, Campbell of Inverneill discovered that the Patriots were deployed in two divisions about half a mile east of Savannah in a strong position across the main Savannah road. Archibald Campbell observed that the Patriots’ left wing was protected by a river, while the right wing was screened by a swamp. On the right, two regiments of Carolina troops commanded by Colonel Eugee were deployed, with a wooded swamp protecting the right of their position, which was also covered by sharpshooters in the neighbouring houses. The left of the Patriot position was held by Colonel Elliot and his three battalions of infantry from Georgia. These troops had the road to their right, and a swamp covering their left. The Patriots’ position was further strengthened by trenches, fronted by more swamp and by two field guns which dominated the position. Campbell of Inverneill’s dispatch to Clinton reveals his determination to bring the Patriots to battle, rather than to allow the enemy to escape without a fight: “I thought it expedient to go in quest of the Enemy, rather than give them an opportunity to retire unmolested”.64
By this stage, nearly half of Campbell of Inverneill’s force still remained on board the transports. Conversely, the Patriot commander, General Howe, held a strong position and considered the swamp on his right to be inaccessible, and that the British attack would have to fall on his left. Significantly, unknown to the Patriot commander, Archibald Campbell had learnt from Quamino Dolly, described variously as a slave or as a local Black scout serving with the Loyalists, that a hidden path cut right through the swamp protecting the enemy’s right wing. Campbell of Inverneill immediately saw that sending a force along this path would enable him to fall on the rear of the Patriots’ position. Archibald Campbell’s dispatch to Clinton outlines how he preserved the element of surprise by skilfully exploiting the battlefield’s natural contours:
“I discovered from the movements of the enemy that they expected an attack upon their left, and I wished them to retain that belief, as I had found a Negro who knew a private path through the Wooded Swamp upon the Enemy’s right. A happy Fall of ground concealed my movements, and Sir James Baird had directions to lead the Light Infantry backward to a place where he could follow the private path through the Wooded Swamp, and get to the rear of the enemy’s right flank”.65
Archibald Campbell now displayed his rare gift for improvisation, and ability to exploit tactical openings to maximum effect, qualities which set him apart from most of his contemporaries on the British side. To encourage the deception that he intended to attack the enemy’s left wing, Campbell ordered the first battalion of the 71st Highlanders and some of the New York volunteers under the command of Sir James Baird to file off to their right, as if they intended to extend the British line and to launch an attack from that direction on the enemy’s left. By skilfully deploying these detachments in hollow ground, Archibald Campbell was able to conceal the real direction of their movements from the Patriots. Campbell of Inverneill then ordered these units to double back in the direction of the enemy’s right wing, until they joined the path running through the swamp. He was also able to conceal his artillery in hidden ground, with the intention “to run them up this hillock when the signal to engage was given”.66 The Patriots were, according to General Campbell, completely unaware of their peril, and “continued to amuse themselves with their cannon”. Upon reaching the hidden path, Sir James Baird’s force edged its way through the swamp, led by their local guide. Emerging from the swamp, they fell on the American right flank with complete surprise. When Campbell of Inverneill heard the firing, and was certain that Baird’s force had fully engaged the Patriots’ right wing, he ordered the artillery to open fire, and a general advance of all his forces:
“…I commanded the line to move forward briskly. The well aimed fire of the artillery, and the rapid advance of the troops caused the Enemy to disperse instantly. As the Light Infantry under Sir James Baird came out of the Swamp, the scattered remains of the Carolina and Georgia Brigades ran across his front, and he dashed forward on their flank, and with his usual gallantry terminated the Fate of the Day with a brilliant success”.67
The well-executed attack was a complete success, and the Patriots retreated in disarray. An account of the action was reported in the Annual Register (1779): “The well-directed fire of the artillery, the rapid advance of the 71st regiment [of Highlanders], and the forward countenance of the Hessians, so overpowered the enemy, that they instantly fell into confusion, and dispersed”.68
The Patriots’ retreat became a total rout, as their disorientated soldiers fled before the advancing British forces, particularly the 71st Highlanders who “with the rapidity peculiar to that corps, threw themselves in headlong pursuit on the flanks of a flying enemy, already sufficiently broken and confused”.69 General Campbell sent a report of his success, and the losses suffered by the Patriot forces to Lord George Germain, the Secretary of State for the American Department:
“Thirty-eight officers of different distinctions, and four hundred and fifteen non-commissioned officers and privates…forty-eight pieces of cannon, twenty three mortars,ninety-four barrels of powder, the fort with all its stores…and, in short, the capital of Georgia, the shipping in the harbour, with a large quantity of provisions, fell into our possession before it was dark, without any other loss on our side than that of Captain Peter Campbell, a gallant officer of Skinner’s light infantry, and two privates killed, one sergeant and nine privates wounded. By the accounts received from their prisoners, thirty lost their lives in the swamp, endeavouring to make their escape”.70
Archibald Campbell’s performance as a battlefield commander at Savannah underlined the quality of his generalship. Campbell’s skilful tactics, meticulous planning in executing a complex joint Army-Navy operation, and well developed capacity to improvise and to exploit battlefield advantages, were all testimony to his tremendous ability. This was a stark contrast to the indecisive and blundering leadership displayed by most other British commanders, which the Patriots had long come to expect of the British military elite during the conflict:
“Our people were not accustomed to such energy on the part of their foes. In the dashing impetuosity of the Highland leader there was no trace visible of the slow, irresolute, halting tactics of Gage, the Howes, of Clinton and Burgoyne. The immediate results of the new policy were startling. By one prompt movement vigorously pressed Savannah was taken; and our forces, largely inferior in numbers, be it said, and unskilfully handled, everywhere melted away before the determined purpose of a genuine leader of men”.71
No victory, according to Bancroft’s History of the United States, “was ever more complete”.72
The Patriot commander, General Howe, subsequently faced a Court of Inquiry into his defeat, which resulted in the loss of Savannah, but he was cleared “with highest honours”. It would appear, however, that some of Howe’s contemporaries were less than impressed by the Court’s verdict, and Howe, provoked by the criticism of General Gadsden, later fought a duel with the latter. Both men survived, with Gadsden suffering a minor wound to his ear.73 British sources such as Charles Stedman’s history of the war emphasized that Howe was only partly to blame for the Patriots’ defeat, which the former attributed primarily to Campbell’s skill as a commander, and also to the bravery and discipline of the troops under his command:
“So decisive a victory gained at so inconsiderable an expence rarely occurs, and must be attributed partly to the inexperience of the American general, but principally to the superior military skill and address of the British commander in improving to the utmost every favourable circumstance which presented itself for the final success of the day, added to the zeal, vigour, promptitude and exactness with which his orders were obeyed by the brave little army which he commanded. By the unremitting exertions of Lt Col. Campbell, aided by the zeal and activity of all who bore a share in this expedition, the remains of the provincial army were driven across the Savannah River into South Carolina, the different posts upon the river were secured for 50 miles up, and the lower parts of the province were entirely at peace in less than 10 days after the defeat of the American Army at Savannah”.74
Campbell of Inverneill’s decision to press home the attack, without awaiting the arrival of General Prevost’s force, was also critical. In Stedman’s opinion this demonstrated Campbell’s ability to quickly review a situation, and to act decisively to exploit any advantages which presented themselves. By doing so, Campbell was able to drive Howe’s army out off Georgia before it could be reinforced, and avoided the need for a long drawn out campaign. Indeed, Stedman confirmed that the reinforcements sent to help the Patriot commander arrived on the north bank of the Savannah River “just in time to collect the scattered remains of the American General’ Howe’s defeated army”.75
The Conclusion of the Southern Campaign
In less than a fortnight Campbell of Inverneill had recaptured almost the whole of Georgia, with the exception of the towns of Sunbury and Augusta, and had established military posts to secure the frontier with South Carolina. To feed his troops and the sailors attached to the naval squadron, Archibald Campbell seized all cattle belonging to local Patriots, and quickly established markets at the main British posts to encourage the farmers to sell their produce. To restore the Crown’s authority, Campbell of Inverneill issued proclamations to the inhabitants requesting them to take oaths of allegiance to the Crown, and to join its Loyalist regiments, and offered rewards for the capture of Patriots raiding Georgia from their bases in South Carolina.