I was looking at Facebook (March 2021), and saw an article about cannon from the Revolutionary War period having recently been discovered in the Savannah River. I had written an article for Treasure Quest Magazine in their Spring 1994 issue about this period regarding Savannah and which may help identify where these cannon originated. As the following article tells, both the Americans and British sank some of their own vessels to deter the enemy's advance.
Revolutionary War Shipwrecks in the Savannah River
by Steven D. Singer
During the Revolutionary War, the practice of sinking vessels or other objects in rivers and bays was a common practice in order to create an obstruction in the waterway, thus preventing the enemy from proceeding any further. The procedure was most notable when the Continental Navy sunk a number of vessels in the Chesapeake opposite Fort McHenry, thus preventing the approach of the British to Baltimore.
Previous to the war, ships drawing eighteen feet could be navigated to the city of Savannah, but after the war, only vessels with a draft of twelve feet or less could reach Savannah due to the many vessels sunk in the river as an obstruction. As late as 1846, when the Savannah Chamber of Commerce petitioned the U.S. Senate for funds to remove these wrecks, these obstructions still caused a major problem. $250,000 had been appropriated for the removal or clearing of the wrecks in the Chesapeake, and the city of Savannah thought it appropriate that they too should be compensated for the removal of vessels that were sunk for wartime purposes. Some of these vessels were later removed or destroyed, though much could still remain.
In January of 1776, four British armed ships from Charleston arrived at Tybee at the mouth of the Savannah River. These were the Syren of 28 guns, the Raven of 18 guns, the Tamer of 20 guns, and the Cherokee of 8 guns. According to the Georgia Gazette, dated January 24, 1776, “Since their arrival a schooner was sunk at Byran’s Bank, to prevent any of them from getting up to town; and many of the inhabitants have moved their effects into the country.”
In Drayton’s Memoirs of the American Revolution, vol. ii, chap.14, page 205, says: “About the 8th or 20th of January, 1776, the Provincial Congress of Georgia took into custody his excellency Sir James Wright, with the view of preventing his intrigues, and as hostage against hostilities from the British vessels of war. They sank hulks for preventing the approach of the shipping, and erected a battery at the trustee’s gardens.”
Colonel Cambell of the British Army, took the city of Savannah in 1778, when General Howe commanded the Americans. At this time Sir Hyde Parker’s fleet attempted to reach the city. On Dec. 27th, 1778, they crossed the bar and came up to Cockspur Island. His fleet consisted of the man-of-war Vigilant, the brig Keppel, the sloop-of war Greenwich, and the galley Comet, followed by the transports in three divisions. A number of vessels were sunk at this time to stop their approach, and they only got as far as the Reach at Four Mile Point, where they were cannonaded by the American galleys Congress and Lee, without much success.
On Sept. 1, 1779, Count d’Estaing made his appearance off the Georgia coast, along with twenty ships-of-the-line. General Prevost, who was the British commander in Georgia, was at Savannah with only part of his troops. He immediately sent word to the commander at Port Royal Island, Colonel Maitland, to rejoin him as soon as possible. The British armed vessels retreated towards Savannah. The French destroyed the battery at Tybee, and the British sunk a number of vessels to try and prevent the French from getting near the town.
In Gordon’s American Revolution, vol. iii, page 326, Sept.14,1779, it stated: “As the French frigates approached the bar, the Fowey and Rose, of 20 guns each, the Kappel and Germaine, armed vessels, retired toward the town…To prevent the French frigates getting too near, the Rose and Savannah, armed ships, with four transports, were sunk in the channel, a boom was laid across it, and several small vessels were also sunk above the town.”
In McCall’s History of Georgia, vol. ii, page 256, it states: “the ship Rose, Savannah, and four transports, were sunk in a narrow part of the channel, three miles distant from the town. Some small craft were, also, sunk above the town, and a boom stretched across the channel to prevent the galleys which passed up the north river, round Hutchinson’s Island, from assailing them in that direction.” Another source stated the boom was laid across to prevent fire rafts from being sent down.
In Ships of the Royal Navy, by J.J. Colledge, the Rose is listed as a 6th rate, 24 guns, 449 tons, 110’ x 30’, built in 1757, and sunk as a blockship at Savannah, Sept., 1779. The Savannah is listed as a brig-sloop, 14 guns, sunk Sept.16, 1779 to block the Savannah River. According to Colledge, the Rose would have had twenty-two nine-pounder, and two three-pounder cannons on board. The Savannah would have carried fourteen six-pounders.
Some artifacts and remains of these vessels should still lie on the bottom of the Savannah River, and no doubt many clues to its past can be found under its waters.
I should also note that during the War of 1812, two French Privateers were burned in the Port of Savannah. The La Vengeance near Twigg's Wharf, and the La Franchise, Nov. 15, 1812.