Letter from John Ashe to Richard Caswell
Ashe, John, 1725-1781
Volume 14, Pages 39-43
GENL. JOHN ASHE TO GOVERNOR CASWELL.
[From Executive Letter Book.]
Camp, Zubley's Ferry, March 17th, 1779.
I should have wrote you long since, had I had time or opportunity, but we have been constantly marching since we left Elizabeth—from thence to Charlestown, to Purisburg, to Augusta—to prevent the Enemies' crossing into this State and making a junction with the disaffected (which are numerous) of this and our State. The night of our arrival opposite to Augusta, the Enemy encamped and made a precipitate retreat down the Savannah River (tho' double our number), from an information that my command amounted to eleven thousand, when in fact it did not exceed twelve hundred. I halted at this place, considering it an important pass to the State of South Carolina, till directed by General Lincoln to cross the River, and march down to a place called Bryer Creek, the bridge of which the Enemy had burnt down on their Retreat. The Creek makes out of the Savannah River, on the Georgia side, about sixty miles below Augusta; runs at right Angles from the River, about half a mile back of the River Swamp, and then runs almost parallel with the River, so that forty miles up the River it is but ten miles distant, the swamp of the River being generally three miles wide; and on the creek a deep swamp, eight miles above the bridge a Mill, and several fords
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between the bridge and , and also above. Here we reached, on the 27th Ulto., and till the 3rd Instant, expecting to be reinforced with such of the Georgia Militia as were well affected—about one hundred and thirty Georgia Continentals, horse, and some of the Militia from South Carolina, and General Rutherford's Brigade—none of which, except two hundred and seven horse from South Carolina, one hundred and fifty only of which were fit for duty, joined us. Genl. Rutherford, with part of his Brigade, had reached Matthews' Bluff, about five miles above, with the River between, and Col. Marbury, of the Georgia horse, lay a few miles above on Bryer Creek, so that I had with me only Genl. Bryan's Brigade, consisting of nine hundred men; Lieut. Col. Lytle's light Infantry of about two hundred, fit for duty; about seventy Georgia Continental Troops (the South Carolina light horse being sent over the Creek to reconnoitre); one four-pound brass fieldpiece, and two iron two-pound Swivels, mounted as field-pieces. From these are to be deducted near a hundred waggoners & Carters, which were always returned as Soldiers in Gen. Bryan's Brigade, with a guard of 50 men that had been sent to guard the baggage across the River, about eight miles above us (which had fortunately been effected a few minutes before the enemy appeared), and fifty on a fatigue party, to make bridges and clear the road (about three miles above us) to the River, for General Rutherford's Brigade, and two brass field-pieces, that had been sent from Head Quarters to Matthews' Bluff. In this situation, without a possibility of Retreat, I had advice of the Enemy being about eight miles above, in full march toward us. We immediately beat to Arms, formed the Troops into two lines, and served them with Cartridges, which they could not prudently have been served with sooner, as they had several times received Cartridges which had been destroyed and lost for want of Cartouch Boxes. We marched out of lines to meet the Enemy—some carrying their Cartridges under their arms, others in the bosoms of their shirts, and some tied up in the corners of their hunting shirts. Having advanced about a quarter of a mile from our encampment, I saw the Enemy on a quick march, in force amounting, as I have since been informed, to eighteen hundred regulars. Several hundred Georgia and Florida Scouts, with four or five hundred horse (by some said to be nine hundred), formed in three Columns, with
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several field-pieces, called Grasshoppers. When they came within one hundred and fifty yards of us, they then displayed their Columns to the right and left to form a line. It was now that the Georgia Continentals and Col. Perkins' Regiment, which formed the right of our first line, began their fire. The Georgia Continentals, under Genl. Elbert, who acted as Col., after two or three Rounds advanced without orders a few steps beyond the line, and moved to the left in front of the Regiment from the district of New Bern, which much impeded their firing. By this movement, and that of the Edenton Regiment, which had been obliged to move a little to the Right, there was a vacancy in the line. At this instant of time the Halifax Regiment, which was upon the left of the second line, broke and took to flight, without firing a gun. The Wilmington (except a small part under the command of Lieut. Col. Young, who were advancing in their line to the right to prevent being flanked, and fired two or three rounds) and the New Bern Regiments followed their example. The Edenton Regiment continued for two or three discharges longer, when they gave way and took to flight, just as Lieut. Col. Lytle, with his light Infantry and a brass field-piece (which had been posted at the Bridge, about a mile and a half from the field), came up. As he saw the impossibility of the Troops being rallied, and that it would be only exposing his small corps to no purpose, he moved off in order in the rear of the fugitives, reserving his fire. The Georgia Continentals still continued in action some little time longer, till their Genl. surrendered himself a prisoner.
When I found the second line had given way, I rode across from the rear of Perkins' Regiment and the Georgians, where I had taken post for a better observation of the movement of the Enemy, to the rear of the fugitives, and called to the officers to rally their men, which I was in expectation might be done, while there was an opposition made by the first line, but by the time I had wheeled my horse and got a few paces on my return, I saw the Edenton Regiment break and take to flight. I then used my utmost exertions to get in front of the fugitives for half a mile or three-quarters, in order to rally them; in which I was assisted by Col. Perkins, Lieut. Cols. Young & Williams, Majors Blount & Doherty, with some few others, who exerted themselves on this occasion, when, finding it impossible, and that if I proceeded much further
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I must unavoidably fall into the hands of the Enemy, I wheeled to the left into the River Swamp, and made my escape to Matthews' Bluff, which I had crossed on my return from Genl. Lincoln the preceding day—a place unknown to the Troops, about four miles up the Swamp—accompanied by Majors Pointer and McIlhean, and one light horseman, swimming several Lagoons on our horses.
I imagined most of the troops would have been either killed or taken, as they had very little further to fly before the broken Bridge at Bryer Creek must stop them; but by a lucky halt which the Enemy made for a few moments at the place of our encampment, they made their escape down the Creek and thro' the River Swamp, many of which swam the River; some crossed on rafts which they made, and others were fetched across in Canoes, which were ordered down from Matthews' Bluff; so that we have only one hundred and fifty missing, upwards of fifty of which, we hear, crossed the River above and returned into our State. Col. Alston and two Captains, one from Perkins' the other from Eaton's Regiments, are prisoners, with two Lieutenants and four Ensigns. Your son had that morning got leave to go up to his baggage to get some clothes, and the next in command, Lieut. Col. Smith, had been appointed by Genl. Bryan (in my absence to meet Genl. Lincoln at the Two Sisters) to command the Baggage Guard. I enclose you a Return (the best I can procure) of Genl. Bryan's Brigade since the action of the 3rd Instant. The little attention paid to orders, both by officers and soldiers, the several Mutinies of the Halifax Regiment, and Desertions from the Brigade, and Genl. Bryan's unhappy temper, from my march from Elizabeth to Bryer Creek, have rendered my command very disagreeable; and since the action, his conduct has been such as will forever render him contemptible to me; of which I shall inform you when I have the pleasure of seeing you, which I hope will be ere long. Let it suffice that at present I only add that he has, by himself and his Tools, endeavored to propagate a Report that I was both a traitor and coward, on which I have procured a Court of Inquiry to be held. It was waiting for their Report, in order to send to you, that I have not sent the dispatch sooner. Whenever it is made, I shall forward it to you, be what it will.
I hope to return before the rising of the next Assembly, when, I make not the least doubt, I shall render such an account to you
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and my Country as will give satisfaction and justify my conduct.
Our loss in the field was about Ten or Twelve killed; about the same number drowned in the Lagoons. Their loss in the field supposed to be double to that of ours. We are now encamped at Zubley's Ferry, about two miles above Purisburg, where Head Quarters are. The Enemies' lines from the Town of Savannah to above the Two Sisters. 'Tis supposed they are drawing in their Troops to Savannah, in order to move round to Beaufort or Charlestown. They still continue superior in number to us.
I am, with respect ane esteem,
Your Excellency's mo. ob. humbl. Serv't,