The Siege of Savannah (September 16 to October 18, 1779) was a significant event of the American Revolutionary War, during which an outnumbered British garrison held the capital of Georgia against a Franco-American force. Savannah had been captured by the British the year previous, and unlike in most other places in the Thirteen Colonies the majority-Loyalist population of the city generally welcomed the ‘occupation’.
During the siege, the city was surrounded by a sizeable army led by American General Benjamin Lincoln, supported by a very large naval contingent under the famed French Admiral, the Comte d’Estaing, with their forces having a combined strength of 5,050 men and 42 ships. The Franco-American expedition notably included Count Casimir Pulaski, the Polish nobleman who joined the Patriot cause, and was known as the “Father of American Cavalry”. The British forces, numbering 3,200 men, were backed by only 8 vessels.
The seminal event of the siege occurred on October 9, when the Franco-American forces tried to storm the British defenses of Savannah but were repelled with great loss. Memorably, Count Pulaski was one of the casualties, robbing the Patriot cause of one of their most inspiring figures. While Lincoln’s men lingered around for another week or so, they were a spent force, and the Franco-Americans soon withdrew from the area, leaving Savannah in British hands until July 1782.
The British commander at Savannah, Brigadier General Augustine Prévost (1723 – 1786), a native of Geneva, Switzerland, already had a generation of distinguished service to Britain in the American colonies. In 1756, Prévost enlisted in the 60th Regiment of Foot, or the Royal Americans, a storied battle group formed by soldiers recruited from the European continent. He was a highly driven and disciplined officer, variously serving as the interim military governor of West Florida (1763), and the deputy inspector general of the British Army in Jamaica (1772-4), as well as a regional commander in St. Augustine, East Florida. Upon the outbreak of the American Revolution, Prévost was one of the leading figures in the British Army in the Southern Colonies.
A consequential, but little known, factor in the British victory in Savannah was the presence of a small contingent of British subjects from Jamaica, who had experience in the island’s militia. Notably, the Jamaican militia was highly experienced and effective in counterinsurgency and frontier warfare, useful skills in Savannah.
The leader of the Jamaican contingent was Aaron Manby (c. 1743-1779), a native of Yorkshire, who as a youth was sent to Kington, Jamacia to live with relatives. There, he eventually became a successful master iron smith, and a very active member of the island’s militia, such that he was nicknamed “The General”. However, in the late 1770s, his health started to fail, causing him to decide to return to England. However, before that could occur, he had to settle some business affairs in the Bahamas. While in Nassau, Manby and his men (many being veterans of the Jamaican militia), using their own vessel, were recruited on a relief mission to deliver supplies to the British garrison in Savannah. Once there, the Jamaicans found themselves trapped in the siege, and Manby, who was an acquaintance of Prévost from the latter’s time in Jamaica, volunteered to fight on the front lines, being entrusted to hold the “Jamaica Battery”, which weathered a heavy assault on the day of October 9. Sadly, however, in the wake of the siege, Manby’s health continued to deteriorate, and he died at Savannah on November 13, 1779.
Despite Manby’s prior financial success in Jamaica, his death left his business affairs in great disorder, such that his widow and two children (who resided in Shropshire, England) were left virtually destitute. As it turned out, however, in the future his family would not fair so badly. Manby’s second son and namesake, Aaron Manby (1776 – 1850), became a world-famous engineer and a very wealthy man, having notably created the first iron-hulled steamship.
The Present Manuscript in Focus
Here is an original manuscript letter, dated December 22, 1785, from Augustine Prévost (then living in retirement in London) to the Reverend Thomas Shaw, in Staffordshire. Shaw (d. 1812), the minister of the St. John’s Church, Wolverhampton, was a very important figure in the Midlands, being something of a “fixer”. In 1786, only a matter of months after the present letter was written, Shaw would inherit a vast estate, including the manor home of Wodehouse, from Sir Samuel Hellier (causing Shaw to change his name to Thomas Shaw-Hellier).
Evidently, Shaw had had found himself in the position of trying to aid Aaron Manby’s widow and children. He contacted Prévost to inquire as to nature of Manby’s service at the Siege of Savannah, presumably so that such information could be used to gain some sort of pension, donation or grant for the Manby family, in recognition of Aaron’s valour.
The present letter is Prévost’s reply to Shaw and reveals the critical role that Manby and his Jamaican comrades played in the successful defense of Savannah. The letter is possibly a draft, as it features corrections and some lines crossed out in pencil; it is signed “A Prevost”.
The letter reads in full:
In Answer to your inquiry concerning the Behaviour of the Late Mr. Aaron Manby of Jamaica when Under my Command at the Savanna, who I am sorry you informed me Died in very Incumbered Circumstances and has left a Young Widow and two Children quite Distress’d and unprovided for – I do hereby Certify and Assure you, that He being at the Savanna in a ship fitted out by Him with many Necessary’s (for the relief of the Garrison) at the time when we were assured of the intent of Count D’Estaing Laying Siege to us, He immediately and most Generously and Voluntarily came to me and offer’d Himself and His Ships Company to take any Command I should Appoint Him to, to Assist in our Defence, and I do farther Certify, that from the good opinion I had of Him for having known Him before at Jamaica as an officer in the Militia, I appointed Him to the Command of a Battery of some Consequence, which He and His Friends Christened the Jamaica Battery, and in which He behaved with so much Gallantry, and Intrepidity on the Memorable 9th of October 1779, and during the whole Siege, as the Contribute greatly to Our Success, and his own Honour – But Unhappily he Did not long Survive the fatigue He had endured during the Siege but Contracted a Sickness of which he Died on the 13th of the following Month, to the Great sorrow of His Friends and the Irreparable Loss the his Disconsolate Widow and two Innocent and Destitute Children who it is not in my power to believe But hope on a Proper Application something may be done for them – and I am Dear Sir
Your very Humble Servant, A Prevost
London Dec 22d 1785
[Addressed on reverse:] The Rev. Mr. Shaw Wolverhampton
References: N/A – letter unrecorded.