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American Revolution
In Coastal Georgia


Three Expeditions into British East Florida – Overview
Southernmost Battles of the American Revolution

The Continental Congress recommended Georgia and the Carolinas launch an expedition into British East Florida. The objective was to retaliate against the cattle raids on coastal Georgia plantations by Loyalist Florida Rangers and Creek Indians, and drive them further south of the St. Marys River. In addition, they wanted to defeat the garrison of 500 British Regulars stationed at St. Augustine in British East Florida, which were planning to invade Georgia and capture Savannah. Three separate attempts were made by Georgians to neutralize the British East Florida impact on coastal Georgia, but all were unsuccessful.  

First Florida Expedition in 1776- In June, Major General Charles Lee, Southern Department Continental Army Commander, decided to attack British East Florida with a force of 1,500 men. Unfortunately, most of the troops were recalled to defend their own states, but the 300 man Georgia advance guard reached the St. Johns River where they fought a band of pro-British Indians at the Cow Ford (now Jacksonville). They also skirmished with the Florida Rangers and their Indian allies on the Satilla River; but never engaged the British Regulars and did not even threatened St. Augustine. 

Second Florida Expedition in 1777- In February, Button Gwinnett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, became Commander of the Georgia Militia, and wanted to punish the Florida Rangers for capturing Fort McIntosh on the Satilla River and threatening Fort Howe on the Altamaha. About 600 Continental and 200 Militia troops from Georgia, along with 1,000 South Carolina Continentals, met at Sunbury for a planned invasion of Florida. Major General Robert Howe, newly appointed Southern Department Continental Army Commander, recalled the South Carolina Continentals with him for the defense of Charleston. The commanders of the Georgians, Button Gwinnett and General Lachlan McIntosh, quarreled over command, before it even got underway.  Their quarrel led to a duel, held on May 19, 1777, after which Gwinnett died from wounds suffered in the duel.  

The Second Florida Expedition, now commanded by Continental Colonel Samuel Ebert, was launched from Sunbury. Separate forces, one marching overland and the other sailing though the Inland Passage, were to rendezvous on May 12 at Sawpit Bluff at the mouth of the Nassau River. Continental Lieutenant Colonel John Baker arrived at Sawpit Bluff at the appointed time, but Elbert’s galleys were delayed trying to cross the Amelia Narrows. Baker moved westward to a place on Thomas Creek, a tributary of the Nassau River, where he felt was more favorable to await Elbert’s troops.  

The Floridians had monitored Baker’s movements, and about 10 o’clock in the morning of May 17, the British force surprised Baker’s forces. Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Brown positioned some Florida Rangers on Baker’s flank, while his main body of 100 men fired at Baker’s oncoming 180 mounted troops. Baker had no alternative but to retreat directly into Major Marc Prevost’s 100 British Regulars who were advancing rapidly in three columns with fixed bayonets. In the ensuing action, Baker’s forces were quickly overwhelmed, several were killed, wounded or captured, and the others retreated into the swamp. The second invasion of East Florida ended with the loss of about 150 men, many from disease contracted in the heat and swampy conditions, and no success in preventing the Florida Rangers and Indians from continuing to raid coastal Georgia plantations.  

Third Florida Expedition in 1778- In February, Georgia's assembly authorized Governor John Houstoun to organize a third expedition against East Florida. The expedition was opposed by the Continental Army's Southern Department commander, Major General Robert Howe, who sought a more defensive posture. Eventually organized, the Third Florida Expedition involved 2,600 Patriot troops in four separate commands: Governor John Houstoun, who had no prior military experience, designated General James Screven to led the Georgia Militia; Georgia and Carolina Continentals were under General Robert Howe; South Carolina Militia was commanded by General Andrew Williamson; and Georgia Naval vessels were under the command of Commodore Oliver Bowen. Dissension among the commanders and illness and desertion among the troops caused the invasion to fail in a battle near Alligator Creek Bridge on June 30, 1778.

General Howe’s Continentals finally began crossing the Altamaha in late May, frequently fired on by raiding parties of Florida Rangers and Indians, but their greatest enemy was illness. On June 6, about 300 Continentals became so sick that they returned to Darien. 

Governor Houstoun’s 400 man volunteer militia finally reached General Howe’s Continental troops, now only about 500 men, on the St. Marys River in June, but they could not agree on how to proceed. Houstoun wanted to march directly toward St. Augustine, forcing a confrontation with General Augustine Prevost’s brother, Major Marc Prevost, and his British Regulars posted fifteen miles away on the King’s Road.  Howe’s first priority was to attack the East Florida Rangers and capture Fort Tonyn, ten miles downstream on the Nassau River.

On June 28, Howe’s Continentals began their march to Fort Tonyn, but their delay had given LtCol. Thomas Brown’s 200 Florida Rangers time to burn the fort and then begin the retreat south toward Alligator Creek. The next day, Howe’s force “captured” the burned fort.

Governor Houstoun opted to attack the 500 British Regulars, 200 South Carolina Royalists and Indians under the command of Major Marc Prevost at Alligator Creek Bridge. They had constructed a redoubt of logs and brush with a wide moat to defend the bridge over that tributary of the Nassau River. Governor Houston ordered General Screven’s mounted Georgia Militia to pursue Brown’s Rangers as they retreated south from Fort Tonyn. Brown’s Rangers were overtaken by Screven's militia shortly before he got to Alligator Bridge. Since neither Screven's nor Brown's forces had conventional uniforms, the British Regulars thought all of those arriving were Brown's Florida Rangers. This changed quickly however, and a firefight broke out.

Colonel Elijah Clarke led 100 mounted militia on an attack on the weakest British flank, so Screven could advance on the British front. But Clarke’s militia were unable to penetrate the entrenchments at the bridge, and during the skirmish, Clarke was shot through his thigh, and barely escaped capture. With the failure of Clarke’s attack, Screven’s main reserve force did not attack and many narrowly escaped being trapped before Screven ordered the retreat.

The third expedition suffered from the same lack of coordination that doomed the previous two assaults on the Georgia- Florida borderlands. General Howe's Continentals managed to “capture” Fort Tonyn on the St. Marys River after it was burned and abandoned by Brown’s Rangers, and Governor Houstoun’s Georgia Militia were repulsed by Major Marc Prevost’s Regulars,  Florida Rangers and South Carolina Royal Americans at the Battle of Alligator Creek. With very limited successes and significant losses due to illness, the Patriots returned to Savannah.