Rotary District 6920 Conference Main

American Revolution
In Coastal Georgia


Third Florida Expedition - April – June 1778  

On January 10 1778, John Houstoun was elected as the new Governor of Georgia. Born at Frederica, he was a lawyer in Savannah — only 27 years old when elected governor.  Expectations were high as one on the Council of Safety stated, “…We have some reason to expect Good order and harmony will succeed the Anarchy and Tyranny which has so long distracted this unhappy State…” Instead Houstoun became one of Georgia’s greatest disappointments in the American Revolution.

The frontier between the Independent state of Georgia and the Loyal British province of East Florida was, for the first three years of the American Revolutionary War, the scene of ongoing cattle raids by the Loyalist Florida Rangers and allied Indians. Political and military leaders in Georgia believed that East Florida's capital, St. Augustine, was vulnerable, and repeatedly promoted expeditions to capture it. The first two failures did not dissuade Georgians from a third attempt upon Florida in 1778.

The southernmost post in Georgia was Fort Howe (before the war known as Fort Barrington), on the banks of the Altamaha River above Darien, and the northernmost Florida outpost was at Fort Tonyn, near Kings, also called Mills, Ferry on the St. Marys River, in present-day Nassau County. East Florida Governor Patrick Tonyn had under his command a regiment of Florida Rangers led by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Brown, and five hundred British Regulars under the command of Brigadier General Augustine Prevost.

Tonyn and Prevost squabbled over control of Brown's regiment, and disagreed on how the province should be defended against the recent forays from Georgia. Prevost was under orders to stay on the defensive, while Tonyn sought a more vigorous defense. To that end Tonyn deployed Brown's force along the St. Marys River, which formed the border between Florida and Georgia. Brown and his men, sometimes with support from Creeks and Seminoles, engaged in regular raids into coastal Georgia, harassing the defenders and raiding plantations for cattle to supply some of the province's food needs.

In February 1778, 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, like his counterpart Prevost, sought a more defensive posture. Plans began to take shape in March taking on more urgency after Brown's Rangers captured and burned Fort Howe in a surprise attack. After this occurred, the Loyalists ranged freely throughout Georgia's backcountry, and began recruiting in the upcountry of Georgia and the Carolinas. Their actions led Georgia's leadership to conclude that a British invasion of the state was being planned, and military preparations began to accelerate.

In addition to land forces, both sides had coastal naval forces to marshal. Florida Governor Tonyn deployed several ships near Darien and in the Frederica River, separating Saint Simons Island from the mainland, seeking to neutralize the row galleys in the Georgia arsenal. Commodore Oliver Bowen commanded the Continental Georgia Navy, consisting of six Continental galleys which defended the intercoastal waterways, several provincial sloops brought supplies, and a few privateers screened the open sea.

General Howe reluctantly agreed to support the expedition, and in early April, Georgia's 500 Continental troops, under Colonel Samuel Elbert began to move south, occupying the site of the burned Fort Howe on April 14.  The next day, Elbert learned that four British vessels were sailing in the St. Simons Sound; he sailed with three Georgia Navy galleys and captured three British ships near the ruins of Fort Frederica. Elbert returned to Fort Howe to wait for General Howe and additional troops. On May 10, they were joined by Howe with detachment of 500 South Carolina Continentals and Artillery, and they understood that General Andrew Williamson, leading 800 to 1,000 South Carolina Militia, was en route to Fort Howe.

Frederica Naval Action  

During the preparation for the Third Florida Expedition at Fort Howe, Elbert learned on April 15 that four British vessels were sailing in the St. Simons Sound, between St, Simons and Jekyll Islands. Sailing from Darien with three row galleys and artillery in another vessel, Elbert’s flotilla arrived near Fort Frederica on April 18. (The “fort” was ruins of a British fort commanded by General James Oglethorpe, beginning in 1736 until 1748, when a peace treaty was signed with the Spaniards.)

Colonel Elbert observed the attack preparations of the British, and at daybreak on April 19, he initiated an attack against the British vessels as anchored at the fort. Beginning at dawn on April 19, 1778, the Georgia Navy galleys: Lee, Washington, and Bulloch, attacked HM brigantine Hinchinbrook, the armed sloop Rebecca, and another armed brig.  The British attempted to retaliate, but were out-gunned and out-maneuvered.  As they tried to gain an advantage by moving down river their ships grounded, were abandoned, and captured.  This remarkable victory, called the Frederica Naval Action, boosted patriot morale and delayed by more than eight months the British invasion of Georgia.

The Third Florida Expedition was better equipped than the other two. Armaments of all sorts were in better supply than they had been, and even Artillery was available. Nevertheless, such amenities as tents, camp kettles, canteens and medicines continued to be almost nonexistent. As the days passed at Fort Howe, the weather grew hotter, heavy rains seriously endangered their ammunition, provisions ran short, morale deteriorated steadily, and there were frequent desertions, leading to at least eleven executions.

Governor John Houstoun had issued a proclamation calling on volunteers to meet at a camp in Burke County, offering plunder that they may capture. On April 26, a force of 400 Georgia militia arrived at the camp, and General James Screven was designated the military commandant of this contingent. Governor Tonyn and General Prevost were aware of Howe’s progress, since Brown’s Rangers and Indian forces continued to perform reconnaissance, occasionally skirmishing with the Georgians and testing the security of their camps. On one occasion, Brown was challenged by a picket, and followed by horseman so closely that he was forced to drop his baggage, including his coat, in order to escape into the swamp. The contents of the baggage revealed that the Georgians had nearly captured Thomas Brown, himself. General Prevost moved some of his Regulars forward to the Alligator Creek Bridge on the Nassau River, placing most of them on the King’s Road, the main route to St. Augustine.

Houstoun, who had no prior military experience, and his volunteer militia finally reached General Howe’s troops on the St. Marys River in late June. At this point the expedition almost broke down because General Howe and Governor Houstoun could not agree on how to proceed. Houstoun wanted to march directly toward St. Augustine, forcing a confrontation with the Major Prevost’s Regulars posted fifteen miles away on the King’s Road.  Howe wanted to first attack the East Florida Rangers and capture Fort Tonyn, ten miles downstream.

The destruction of Fort Tonyn was one of the principal goals of Howe’s forces invading East Florida. The fort, located in present-day Nassau County on the south side of the St. Mary's River, about one mile east of Kings Ferry which was also called Mills Ferry, had become a nuisance to Georgians because it was a base for raids into that state by Brown's Florida Rangers as well as a haven for fleeing Loyalists.  

Raiding parties of Florida Rangers and Indians fired on the Patriot forces, but their greatest enemy was sickness. General Howe’s expedition force finally began crossing the Altamaha on May 28, but on June 6, about 300 Continentals became so sick that they returned to Darien. The only encouraging note was Howe’s announcement on June 1 that France had publicly acknowledged the independence of the United States of America. In celebration, thirteen cannon were fired, and an issue of grog was served to all.

Howe’s force moved very slowly, crossing the Satilla on June 21 and reaching the St. Marys River on June 26. The “usual order of march” was Georgia Continentals in the lead followed by detachments of militia. The South Carolina Continentals trailed, sometimes as far back as the previous river crossing. No one was sure where Williamson and the South Carolina Militia were, except they were far behind.

On June 28, Howe’s Continentals finally began their march to Fort Tonyn. Their delay had given Brown’s Rangers time to secure their equipment and burn the fort. On June 28, Brown abandoned the fort and retreated into Cabbage Swamp, from which they annoyed the Continentals as much as possible. The next day, June 29, Howe’s force of over 400 men “captured” the fort and occupied it through July 11, 1778.

One of Commodore Bowen’s Georgia galley had entered the Nassau River, and Continental Colonel John White with ninety infantry and fourteen dragoons (light horsemen) camped at Nassau Bluff near the mouth of the river. Prevost dispatched twenty of his dragoons, and chased White’s men into the swamp. The British force dined on the dinner that had been prepared for the Georgians, and then fell back toward Alligator Creek

On June 30, Brown’s Rangers and Indians left Cabbage Swamp and marched toward the Nassau River and encamped about six miles north of Prevost’s forces. The way south from Fort Tonyn on the King’s Road led to a bridge across Alligator Creek, a Nassau River tributary about fourteen miles away, where British General Prevost had placed detachments of the 16th and 60th Regiments of Regulars and the South Carolina Royal Americans led by Daniel McGirth. They had constructed a redoubt of logs and brush with a wide moat to defend the Alligator Creek Bridge over that tributary of the Nassau River. In addition to Brown’s 200 Florida Rangers, these forces included 200 South Carolina Royal Americans and 500 British Regulars, all under the command of General Prevost's younger brother, Major Marc Prevost.                                                    

Gov. Houstoun opted to attack the Regulars at Alligator Creek; but first he ordered General Screven’s 100 mounted Georgia Militia to pursue Brown’s Rangers as they retreated south from Fort Tonyn toward Alligator Creek. Brown continued moving down the road toward the bridge, but was surprised and overtaken by Screven's militia shortly before he got there. As a result, Brown's men were chased directly into the established British position at the bridge.

There was some initial confusion, because neither Screven's nor Brown's forces had conventional uniforms, so the British Regulars thought all of those arriving were Brown's men. This changed quickly however, and a firefight broke out. Prevost's Regulars quickly took up positions and began firing on Screven's men, while some of Brown's men went around their flank.

Colonel Elijah Clarke led 100 mounted militia on an attack on the weakest British flank, so Screven could advance on the British front. The British Regulars and Rangers met Clarke’s forces whose horses penetrated the abatis of logs and bushes with great difficulty but found the moat too wide to leap. 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. In the pitched battle, men on both sides went down; the Georgians’ loss being thirteen killed and several wounded, while the British suffered nine casualties.

General Andrew Williamson’s South Carolina Militia finally crossed the Altamaha River in July. Like Houston, Williamson refused to co-ordinate with General Howe. The Militia and Continentals were encamped about eight miles apart on opposites of the St. Marys River. Governor Houston urged General Howe to again attack the British at Alligator Creek on July 2. Howe promptly agreed on the condition that Houston supply the Continentals with rice.  The Continental forces were out of rice, since a supply galley had failed to arrive. Houston replied that he did not have sufficient provisions with his own camp for the next day’s rations. The Patriot attack did not take place.

The Continental force had been reduced by disease and desertion to only 400 effective soldiers; the hospital returns contained one-half of Howe’s command. By this time the scarcity of forage had reduced the Continental’s horses to below the number required to drag the artillery, ammunition, provisions and baggage.The shortage of food and the ongoing command disagreements spelled the end of the Third Expedition.

On July 11, General Howe called a council of war for his Continental officers and they resolved to retreat from the St. Marys River, starting July 14. The militia forces of Houstoun and Williamson had no choice but to follow. Thomas Pickney stated of the 1778 Florida Expedition, “…before we had taken possession of Fort Tonyn, which the British abandoned at our approach, more than half of our troops were in their graves or in the hospitals.”

The expedition suffered from the same lack of coordination that doomed the previous two assaults on the southern 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 Houston’s Georgia Militia were repulsed by Major Marc Prevost’s Regulars,  Florida Rangers and South Carolina Royal Americans at the Battle of Alligator Creek, which is also the called Battle of Alligator Creek Bridge. With limited successes and significant losses due to sickness, the Patriots returned to Savannah.                  

Alligator Creek Historical Marker  “SKIRMISH OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION”      

   June 30, 1778, a force of 300 American Cavalry commanded by Colonel Elijah Clarke, participating in General Robert Howe's invasion of Florida, attacked a column of British at this place (Alligator Creek Bridge), but were unable to penetrate the nearby entrenchments of 450 British Regulars and South Carolina Royalists under the command of Major James Marc Prevost. In this skirmish, Colonel Clarke was wounded and the Americans withdrew. The next day, the British retired in the direction of the St. Johns River. Casualties: Americans 13 British 9”.  Erected by Jacksonville Chapter, Florida Society Sons of the American Revolution                                 

Although not specifically located, the site Battle of Alligator Creek is believed to have occurred on the north side of Callahan where U.S. Highway 301 joins with U.S. Highway 1. The Historical Marker is located on the east side of U.S. Highway 1 in Callahan in Nassau County, located approximately 20 miles northwest of Jacksonville.  


Prepared by Bill Ramsaur, Marshes of Glynn Chapter, Georgia Society Sons of the American Revolution, Revised 2/15/2014 


  • Boatner, Mark M. Landmarks of the American Revolution.  (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1973)

  • Buker, George E. and Richard A. Martin. “Governor Tonyn’s Brown-Water Navy: East Florida During The American Revolution, 1775-1778,” The Florida Historical Quarterly, Volume 58, Issue 1, (July 1979), pp   58-71.

  • Cashin, Edward J (1999). The King's Ranger: Thomas Brown and the American Revolution on the Southern Frontier (Bronx, New York: Fordham University Press, 1999) 

·         Coleman, Kenneth. The American Revolution in Georgia, 1763-1789 (Athens,

Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1958)

  • Searcy, Mary. The Georgia–Florida Contest in the American Revolution, 1776–1778 (University, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1985)

  • Smith, Gordon Burns. Morningstar’s of Liberty: The Revolutionary War in Georgia 1775-1783, Volume One (Milledgeville: Boyd Publishing, 2006)

  • Smith, Gordon Burns. Morningstar’s of Liberty: The Revolutionary War in Georgia 1775-1783, Volume Two- Georgia Continental Officers During the Revolutionary War (Milledgeville: Boyd Publishing, 2011)

  • Wood, Virginia Steele. “The Georgia Navy’s Dramatic Victory of April 19, 1778” Georgia Historical Society Quarterly 90, no 2 (2006) pp 165-195