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.
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
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.
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.
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,
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,
could not agree on how to proceed. Houstoun wanted to march directly toward
St. Augustine, forcing a confrontation with
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.
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
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.
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.
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