Battle of Brier Creek
On the afternoon of March 3, a rider galloped into the American camp, warning of the British approach.
While the exact amount of time they had to deploy is uncertain, the relatively hurried nature of their deployment was clear. The number of troops that actually formed up was about 900, as a number of troops had been dispatched to the south for scouting, and others were on duty at the burned-out bridge. Distribution of ammunition to the men was complicated by the shortage of cartouche boxes (to hold the ammunition) and varying musket calibers. When the American lines were finally formed, the left side was flanked by Brier Creek, but there as a large gap on the right side, between the end of the line and the river. The left was held by the North Carolina New Bern regiment, the center by a combination of Georgia militia and Continental Army units under Samuel Elbert, and the right was held primarily by the North Carolina Edenton regiment.
Prevost's troops approached in three columns. Baird's light infantry were on the left, the 1st battalion of the 71st was in the center, and Carolina provincials and "rangers" formed the right. Prevost held in reserve the light dragoons and grenadiers. Both sides opened fire at long range, and then Elbert's men moved forward to close the range. Two things then occurred to create a gap in the American line. Elbert's men drifted left as they advanced, partially screening the fire from the New Bern men, and British cavalry threatened the right, drawing the Edenton men away from the center. Seeing this opening, Prevost ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge.
Most of the North Carolina militia did not have bayonets. Seeing the British charging at them, many broke and ran without even firing a shot. The Edenton men fired a few rounds, and then abandoned the fight. Elbert's Continentals held formation in the center while the militia around them fled for the swamps, and were eventually surrounded, forcing Elbert to surrender. The 200 men at the bridge came up to the battlefield late in the fighting, but quickly withdrew before getting drawn into the rout.
The British counted 5 killed and 11 wounded. The carnage on the American side was never fully tallied, as many militiamen retreated all the way back to North Carolina, and an unknown number drowned in the swamps. Prevost claimed that 150 American bodies were found on the battlefield, and that 227 captives were taken, mostly from Elbert's Continentals.
Anthony Lytle, the commander of the American light infantry, dispersed his men to avoid capture. General Ashe was seen riding after the militia companies, and was widely blamed for the disaster, often amid claims that he led the retreat. A court martial acquitted him of charges of cowardice, but did convict him of failure to secure his camp.
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 Brier 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 Brier 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 Brier 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 Brier 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 Brier 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 Brier 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 Brier Creek that he would invade South Carolina with like results.