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Posted on Aug 24, 2006 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Savannah – Boardgame Review

By Johnny L. Wilson

The Curse of Admiral d’Estaing

GMT’s Great Battles of the American Revolution: Volume IV: Savannah

savcover.jpgThe Battle of Savannah turned heavily on the fortunes of war (some of these to be delineated in the historical synopsis). By introducing a “random event” card deck, designer Mark Miklos and developer Andy Lewis, have transformed a relatively static siege battle into an intriguing challenge. As such, GMT’s Great Battles of the American Revolution: Volume IV: Savannah potentially promotes itself as the game with the most replay value in the series (I realize that many fans of Great Battles of the American Revolution: Volume I: Saratoga will disagree with me).

Historical Prelude

In July, 1779, four months before the heaviest fighting (the “tactical” portion of GMT’s Savannah on October 9th ) for this port city fortress, Admiral d’Estaing won a decisive victory off the coast of Grenada. It was not a brilliant victory as the French Admiral had Vice-Admiral John Byron heavily outgunned. The French, as was their strategy, performed their typical disabling tactics by using chain shot to disable British sails and rigging so that four British ships were quickly crippled and taken out of the battle. 1

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August of 1779 signaled the beginning of the hurricane season and d’Estaing felt the British setbacks that he had managed to produce within the Caribbean region was sufficient to allow for a refit in France so that he could bring ships in optimal condition back for the next season. Politics, of course, often overrule more practical considerations and the results of postponing D’Estaing’s retrofit were significant. When the French consul in Charleston, South Carolina (Monsieur Plombard) joined with South Carolina’s governor, John Rutledge, and General Benjamin Lincoln of the Continental Army in requesting D’Estaing’s cooperation in a combined attack on the British port of Savannah, Georgia, the French Admiral agreed, 2 partially to erase the sting of an earlier failure where his flagship (Languedoc) had been completely dismasted and he was forced to retreat to Boston Harbor for repairs. 3

British frigates spotted 37 ships off Tybee Island, Georgia on September 4, 1779. As a result, the British garrison immediately began to reinforce their position with the arrival of Colonel John Harris Cruger’s Loyalist garrison from Sunbury, Georgia (Fort Morris had fallen on January 9, 1779). The Royal Navy offloaded cannon to augment the fortified portion of the town and sunk ships in the channel below the town so that the French would not even be able to deploy frigates in order to harass the defense of Savannah. 4

As a result, the French actually arrived on September 9, 1779 and immediately discovered that the depths of the Savannah river were too shallow for the ships of the line and that even the frigates couldn’t anchor where they needed to plant themselves and provide the right kind of covering fire. As a result, D’Estaing’s forces scrambled for smaller boats and were not able to land their full complement of 4,000+ by September 12th . Even then, they did not actually land in Savannah itself but at Beaulieu, a beach on Ossabaw Sound that is miles away from Savannah. There, they managed to put about 1,200 men ashore. 5

By the 16 th of September, D’Estaing managed to press upon the 2,200 effective combatants of the British with his approximately 4,500 men. 6 He had lost patience in waiting for Benjamin Lincoln’s forces to arrive from the north and ordered the immediate surrender of Savannah. He made no mention of the imminent arrival of fresh allies and possibly hoped to gain credit for taking Savannah on his own. As a result, General Augustine Prevost vamped for 24 hours to consider the surrender demand. During the delay, Lt. Colonel John Maitland arrived with reinforcements from Beaufort, South Carolina and the British pushed a detail of black laborers into the defense of Savannah.

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HERE’S MUD IN YOUR RICE The fortress town of Revolutionary War Savannah was surrounded by a swamp, rice fields, and heavy forest. Though the hardest fighting was right around the fortress, the strategic challenge preceding the battle was to find a way past the obstacles. The map for GMT’s Battles of the American Revolution: Volume IV: Savannah reflects this maneuvering or the map would only need to have been one-sixth to one-eighth of its size.

As a result, the French failed to take the city before Lincoln arrived on September 23rd. Then, even with a combined 7,000 men against the roughly 2,500 defenders of Savannah, the allies were unable to take the city. The first delay required preparing the ground for the artillery barrage. It wasn’t until October 4th that they were able to open up with 53 heavy cannon and 14 mortars. The five days of artillery barrage accomplished nothing. An October 8th attempt to burn the abatis failed due to defensive fire and green wood which simply smoldered. The assault proper began on October 9th and that is where the “tactical” game in GMT’s Savannah begins.

In the historical battle, the attack failed, D’Estaing himself was wounded, 7 and a hurricane threatened. The French set sail for Europe and Lincoln raised the siege on October 19, 1779 8 after the combined French and Continental forces had suffered 901 casualties (637 French, 264 Americans) compared to 54 for the defenders. 9

The City of Savannah The entire field of play.

So, why did GMT publish a game based on such a less than sterling performance by the superior force? And, you may well ask, why did the reviewer spend so much time recounting the familiar facts of the battle? Fact: Great Battles of the American Revolution: Volume IV: Savannah is a marvelous example of how the use of a simple new mechanic can add variety to game play and bring the “What if?”’s of history to life. It is precisely in those strange circumstances leading up to the basic October 9th siege that the card mechanic provides opportunity for either better luck for or the historical cursed luck for the French and their Continental allies.

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