powered by google
Documenting the American South Logo
Colonial and State Records of North Carolina
Advanced Search Options
Minutes of the court-martial of John Ashe
United States. Continental Army. Court-Martial (Ashe : 1779)
March 13, 1779 - March 16, 1779
Volume 14, Pages 275-284

COURT MARTIAL UPON GEN. JOHN ASHE.
[Reprinted from Moultrie's Memoirs of the American Revolution, Vol. 1, pages 337 & 353, inclusive.]

The proceedings of a Court of Inquiry, held at Purisburgh, the 13th of March, 1779, by order of Major Gen. Lincoln, and continued by different adjournments to the 16th.

The court being met, the order was produced and read, as follows:


After Orders, 9th March, 1779.

A Court of Inquiry to sit to-morrow morning, to examine into the affair of the 3rd instant, at Brier Creek, and the conduct of Major Gen. Ashe, relative to his command there. All witnesses to attend.

President, Brig. Gen. Moultrie.
Gen. Rutherford. Col. Armstrong.
Col. Pinckney. Col. Locke.
Edmond Hyrne, D. A. General.

Gen. Ashe, being asked by the President if he wished to say anything before the witnesses were examined, answered in the affirmative; and having observed that the court now met had been held at his particular desire, in order to refute some reports highly injurious to his character, proceeded to describe the situation of his camp, between Brier Creek and Savannah river, and about a mile higher than the spot where the brigade had been; the creek was fordable both above and below his camp; and

-------------------- page 276 --------------------
above so narrow, in some places, that a tree might have been felled over so as to permit men to pass. The camp, which had been fixed upon in the absence of Gen. Ashe by Generals Bryant and Elbert, fronted up the fork; the left nearly touched the creek, and the right reached within about half a mile of the swamp that borders upon Savannah river. In advance about a mile was a field officer's piquet of one hundred men, which had been divided into several smaller ones, with a chain of sentries between each, and advanced sentries to the whole, and in the rear was posted the light infantry, with one brass four-pounder, near where the bridge had stood; a detachment of the horse, under Major Ross, joined the camp on the 1st of March, (Gen. Ashe being absent,) part of whom had been sent out on the morning of the 3rd, the day of the action, in order to reconnoitre the enemy; they were directed to go as far as Hudson's, or near it, the Gen. intending, when he should be reinforced by Rutherford, to attack that post, if there should appear, from their report, any prospect of success. They might plainly have perceived, from several proofs, that a considerable corps of the enemy had moved, but did not return to give notice of it; another body of horse were, as Gen. Ashe had been informed by Gen. Elbert, upon his return to camp on the 2nd day preceding the action, a few miles up Brier creek; and it appears since the action, by a witness whom Gen. Ashe could produce, that this party, which was under the command of Col. Marberry, not only saw the enemy cross the creek, but even exchanged fires with them, and yet did not send any information of their approach. The first intelligence that Gen. Ashe received of the enemy's motions was from an express that was on his way up to Gen. Williamson's, who had scarcely communicated it when a message from Col. Smith confirmed it. Col. Smith commanded a party that guarded the baggage about eight miles up the river. Gen. Ashe immediately ordered the drums to beat to arms, drew up his men, who, by fatigue parties, the baggage guard and absentees, were reduced to about 600, in two lines, and saw cart ridges distributed among them, and advanced about a quarter of a mile to meet the enemy. They came down about three in the afternoon, in three columns, six abreast; the centre column came down the road, at least (the other two the Gen. could not discern so plainly,) and begun to fire at three hundred yards' distance, and
-------------------- page 277 --------------------
having deployed when about 150 yards off, kept up from that time a regular and general fire, as well with small arms as with several grasshoppers; the first line stood about five minutes and broke; the second, which was the first to break, was not at all engaged, but for a moment, on the right, Col. Young, who commanded there, having been ordered to extend to the right to prevent our being flanked. Gen. Ashe then added, with respect to his own vindication, that he had no intrenching tools; that he had been too short a time on the ground to become well acquainted with the environs of it; that the people were totally unprovided with pouches or cartouch boxes to hold their ammunition in, nor could he have prevented them from wasting it had they been supplied before the action. He acknowledged that he galloped off the field whilst the Georgians were still engaged, but adds that it was in order to get in front of his own people, with a view of rallying them, and that finding, after riding after them near three-quarters of a mile, that they could not be stopped, and that either death or captivity must be his fate if he persisted, he had entered the swamp in order to make his escape towards the ferry, over which he had passed the day before; with regard to his men being so panic-struck, he attributed it to the long, fatiguing march they had undergone, to the scarcity of provisions that had prevailed for many days before, to the total want of all necessary accoutrements, and to the superior number of the enemy, which he imagines to have been 3,000. Upon being asked if he heard any officer say, aloud, that the enemy was turning his flank, he answered, he heard several, but mentioned Gen. Bryant in particular.

Major Dogherty, Gen. Ashe's aid de camp, was now called upon, to declare what he knew of the affair, and particularly of the conduct of Gen. Ashe on the 3rd. He had been with Gen. Ashe all the preceding part of the day, and was with him when the news of the enemy's approach arrived. He was immediately dispatched to order Col. Lytle, with his infantry, to the field; and then with a message to Col. Young, the purport of which has been already adverted to; found every thing in confusion upon his return, and the general, who had appeared cool and composed in giving his orders, now endeavouring to rally his men. He adds that the Georgians and a small part of the first line were still engaged,

-------------------- page 278 --------------------
but that the second line was entirely broken, for the greater part of the men fled, as he believes, without having discharged their pieces. Mr. Chapman was with the General when the news arrived, went out to reconnoitre, returned, saw the men served with cartridges; saw them break in a few minutes, and the general attempting to rally them.

Major Pointer: He saw Gen. Ashe endeavoring to rally the men, and came up with him as he entered the swamp.

Col. Perkins: He did not see Gen Ashe; his regiment, which was for a few minutes engaged with the enemy, was entirely broken when Major Pointer left the field; he does not think they had more than 15 minutes' notice of the enemy's approach.

Capt. Falls: He came up to the General, in consequence of the order that had been sent to Col. Lytle, with whom he was accidentally upon a visit, having crossed over from Gen. Rutherford's brigade a few hours before, with 15 light-horse, was immediately sent out to engage the enemy; went full speed, and met them about half a mile of the place where he had left the army drawn up: The general appeared cool and composed, though hurried in giving his orders.

The court adjourned to the 14th, to Mr. Porcher's.

The court met according to adjournment the 14th of March.

Mr. John Moore, a volunteer with Capt. Fall's light horse—He saw the general endeavoring to stop several of the men; after the whole broke, saw him also gallop off, as he (Mr. Moore) imagined, to make his escape.

The above witnesses had all been examined at the desire of Gen. Ashe, who, saying that there was no one besides present he wished to call upon, but Gen. Bryant could probably give some information, Gen. Bryant was accordingly desired by the president to relate what he knew of the matter. Gen. Bryant said that on Saturday, the 26th of Feb., he marched towards the lower part of Brier creek; that he had pointed out, as his opinion, the impropriety of encamp ng close upon the bridge; that he thought the general had coincided, but that the army, nevertheless, moved down and encamped in an old field, the second line being at the distance of 200 yards from the bridge; this he imagines to have been in consequence of the general's orders, as he saw the brigade quarter-master, who would not have acted from his own authority,

-------------------- page 279 --------------------
laying out the encampment and assigning to the officers their different stations. A detachment of 400 were sent out that evening under Col. Caswell to surprise a piquet of the enemy's. They passed the creek in a flat, near where the bridge had been; that on the 28th, which was Sunday, Gen. Ashe left camp about ten O'clock in the morning to meet Gen. Lincoln at Williamson's, but without (having crossed near the Two Sisters ferry) giving him (Gen. Bryant) any orders; that, the command now devolving upon him, he called a council of his field officers, and determined, for several reasons, in conjunction with them, to move the camp a mile higher up the fork. He could have wished to encamp across the road, but consulted the convenience of getting water on the left, so that his right did not reach within 200 yards of it. He immediately fixed places about three-quarters of a mile in front for the piquets, which consisted of a field officer and 100 men, whilst the camp was further secured by a chain of sentries from the creek Swamp across the road, and down the road to the light infantry in the rear; these precautions they thought sufficient for that evening. On Monday, the 1st of March, Col. Williams, who was field officer of the day, acquainted him (Gen. Bryant) that the enemy, both horse and foot, had been on their lines all night. Gen. Bryant, upon this, doubled all the piquets, but had no horse to send out till about 12 O'clock, when Major Ross was prevailed upon, though his men had suffered very much for want of provisions, and their horses for want of forage. He sent out a party of sixty men to patrol in the neighborhood of Paris's Mill the remainder of the day and all next night, upon Gen. Bryant expressing to him these apprehensions of the enemy crossing somewhere thereabout. On Tuesday, the 2nd of March, about 12 O'clock in the forenoon, Gen. Ashe returned, and was waited upon in an hour or two after, who introduced Maj. Ross to him, acquainting Gen. Ashe of the party that was sent out the day before, and of their having made no discoveries. As Gen. Bryant left Maj. Ross with the General, he knew not what orders the General may have given him, but is certain that no horse were sent out that night, and well remembers upon his urging to Gen. Ashe the danger that might result from it. This was his answer: That the horse then in camp were so worn down with fatigue that many of the riders are unarmed, but that, if the enemy did not surprise them that
-------------------- page 280 --------------------
evening, he would take care to have the country well patroled for the future. Here Gen. Bryant adds how excessively uneasy he had been when he considered the long, fatiguing march the men had undergone, how wretchedly they were equipped, and that the enemy were ever receiving the best intelligence. Wednesday the 3rd (this was the day of the action) Gen. Bryant said he was sent for, about 3 O'clock P. M. by Gen. Ashe, and he heard the intelligence received from Col. Smith, and immediately concurred with Gen. Elbert and the Gen. that it was advisable to march out and meet the enemy; the brigade quarter master being out of the way, Gen. Ashe desired him (Gen. Bryant) to order the drums to beat to arms, and to see the men supplied with cartridges; before the latter part of his orders could be well executed, the piquets were fired upon; as the right of the line was some distance from the road, Gen. Bryant was apprehensive of the enemy's marching down that way and turning their right flank, and ordered, upon his expressing his apprehensions to Gen. Ashe, a regiment that way to prevent it, in consequence of which Col. Perkins' regiment was ordered to move towards the road, as no alarm post had been assigned. Col. Perkins found the Georgians in his front, and was obliged to place his regiment on their right; Col. Perkins' and one or two other regiments were advancing towards the road, after having gone a straight line about 100 yards, and not more from the place of encampment; when the enemy appeared in sight the three regiments fired pretty smartly for a few mintutes; Gen. Bryant saw the left break very soon, and Gen. Ashe riding across the bottom through the men, in order, as he believes, to rally them; at this time the right was not yet broke, but the whole very soon gave way, and in great confusion, towards the creek: Gen. Bryant, seeing them incline to the right instead of going to the left, which he knew to be the only way of escaping, and having in vain endeavored to rally them, did not follow them any longer, but took to the left, in order to make his escape. Gen. Bryant added that he had received no orders with respect to forming the line: that what he had said of the enemy turning their flanks was not aloud: that he believes the men's knowledge of their situation, added to the causes the general had mentioned, made them retreat so suddenly; and that he agreed with the general as to the impracticability of fortifying
-------------------- page 281 --------------------
themselves, the want of boats, and the impossibility of rallying the men; he added, more over, that there was nothing like surprise or flutter about the general, and that he believed that every thing was done which the circumstances admitted of. Lieut. Col. Young said he had been formed to the right of the second line, and was ordered by the general to extend the line, in order to prevent the enemy from flanking; that he never saw the general afterwards; and that his men were drawn up some time before the enemy came down, and appeared eager to engage; that they soon broke, however, except 25, 25, with whom he joined Col. Lytle, and marched to the edge of the swamp. Lieut. Col. Williams said he was on the right of the first line; he saw Gen. Ashe once, and once only, which was when the fighting first begun; the second line was soon in a great confusion, and got very soon too near the first; to the reasons already mentioned why the men were so panic struck, he added that the cartridges given out did not many of them suit the calibers of the guns; he does not think they had above fifteen minutes notice and remembers Gen. Ashe saying the enemy were only after their baggage. When their approach was mentioned, every precaution was not, in his opinion, taken against a surprise, as 200 horse had been in camp that morning, many of whom might have been employed as videts.

Col. Clinch, of Eaton's, was on the left of the second line; his attempt to rally them in vain; answered by several whom he spoke to, that their general had left them, and it was time to shift for themselves: imagined that there was about 15 minutes' notice before the action, and did not see the general.

Major Blount of Caswell's was on the left of the first line, which broke immediately after the second line; did not see Gen. Ashe at all; believes that there was about fifteen minutes' notice; and that the men were not yet all served with ammunition when the piquets were fired upon; not above 20 or 30 of his regiment discharged their pieces; he added that he joined Col. Clinch in the swamp, whom he heard exclaim against Gen. Ashe in the strongest terms, and asserted that Gen. Ashe was a coward, and had ordered a retreat. Here Col. Clinch begged leave to observe that what he said had been collected from the common men, and neither built upon his own knowledge or any officer's information.

-------------------- page 282 --------------------

Col. Eaton had no notice of the enemy's approach till they fired upon the piquets, he drew up in his encampment, and ordered to form two deep; he saw Gen. Ashe once, but does not remember particularly what time; remembers very well that there was no videts ahead of the piquets, and no light horse up at Paris' mill that day, although it was the general opinion of the camp that if the enemy did cross at all it would be there.

Lieut. Col. Brevard said he had crossed with Captain Fall, and corroborated that gentleman's testimony; he said, moreover, that he saw a column of the enemy coming down the road, in very close order, six abreast; he heard Gen. Ashe say to some one near the brass field-piece that it was too late to rally any of the men, and adds that the greatest part were far ahead of Gen. Ashe, flying to the swamp.

Maj. M'Lewain saw Gen. Ashe once between the lines, but did not see him again till near the swamp, and remembers not to have seen many people before him in the retreat. Mr. Carter was a mile from the camp when drums beat to arms, found all in confusion on his arrival, and saw the general but once at first. Major Sherlock said that the notice they had of the enemy's approach was about fifteen minutes; that they marched out of their encampment before the cartridges were well served out to the men; that they advanced one hundred yards, then inclined to the right; that proper posts had not been assigned to the officers, nor would they have had time to take them; that he saw Gen. Ashe once at the head of Perkins' regiment, but that the privates complained as they were going off that the Gen. had left them.

Lieut. Patton, of Capt. Fall's light horse, confirms what Capt. Fall had said, and added that the picquets were absolutely surprised, and never fired at all; that some of the sentries were found asleep by the enemy, and that the firing which was heard in the camp, and attributed by several officers to be the picquets, was between the enemy and them. This Col. Brevard also asserted.

Gen. Ashe, having heard the gentlemen above mentioned, from Gen. Bryant, go through their evidences, and having also heard a paper read which had been drawn up by Gen. Moultrie, and signed by both him and Gen. Rutherford, and containing the substance of what those gentlemen remembered of the conference at

-------------------- page 283 --------------------
the white house, begged leave to make a few observations; and began with remarking upon Gen. Bryant's evidence, that it was too late to change the place of encampment the evening he arrived near the creek; but he is positive, notwithstanding what may be asserted to the contrary, that he did, upon his departure from camp, on the 28th of February, leave verbal orders with Gen. Bryant to move the camp higher up the fork, and to see that all proper guards and sentries were placed for the security of the army, adding that he would be back as soon as possible; he returned to camp on Tuesday, the 2nd March, about 12 in the forenoon; but, being much taken up with some necessary dispatches, did not see Gen. Bryant till an hour or two after. Gen. Bryant then informed him of the parties that had been seen upon the lines all night, who were, as he believes, nothing but horse thieves; and also of the light horse that had been detached to Paris' Mill; they, Gen. Ashe says he understood from Mr. Bryant, were not only to patrol but to take post there; as to the party that was sent out on the morning of the 3rd, Gen. Ash expected them back so early as to be able to send them on some other service that day, though he is certain that had there been a day, nay, even a week's notice of the enemy's approach, the confusion among his men would have been the same. Gen. Ashe observed that he was the first that proposed they should march and meet the enemy, and asserted that not a moment's time was lost after receiving the intelligence; with regard to what he said of their coming after the baggage only, it was before Col. Smith's message arrived; that what Gen. Bryant said of the danger of their flanks being turned, it was aloud, and when the action was already begun; that a post had been assigned the Georgians, which was to repair to the center, whilst the other regiments had been ordered to draw up in their encampments (though not in general orders), and that as to any further order of battle being given, it was first necessary to observe the enemy's motions, which his people did not give him time to do; he well remembers there having been a space of about 70 or 80 yards between the two lines when they were first formed. Gen. Ashe then added, in answer to two or three questions made him by the court, that his orders with respect to crossing the river were indeed discretionary, and he believes he should not have crossed the river had he not been
-------------------- page 284 --------------------
advised by Gen. Williamson and importuned by his own officers; that in what he had said to Gens. Lincoln, Moultrie and Rutherford, of his security at Brier creek, he looked forward to the large and speedy reinforcements he had been promised, and to supply of entrenching tools; that he was unacquainted with the nature of the ground, having been but very little time upon it, and may naturally been mistaken in his account of it, at the time of Mr. Williamson's conference above mentioned; and lastly, that the generals must have misunderstood him with respect to the number of boats, as he only said, by all he can recollect, that he expected several large boats from Augusta with corn, which might be detained for the purpose of transporting the army over the river, if necessary.

The court adjourned.

Tuesday, the 16th, the court met, according to adjournment, at Mr. Porcher's house.

OPINION OF THE COURT.

The court having maturely considered the matter before them, are of opinion that Gen. Ashe did not take all the necessary precautions which he ought to have done to secure his camp, and obtain timely intelligence of the movements and approach of the enemy; but they do entirely acquit him of every imputation of a want of personal courage in the affair at Brier creek, and think he remained in the field as long as prudence and duty required.

Signed,
WILLIAM MOULTRIE, President.

The court adjourned, sine die.