As continental troops pushed the British out of most of New Jersey, other parts of the country were inspired to get more active as well. Patriots had taken over Georgia, forcing most of the Tories in that colony to flee to East Florida, mostly to St. Augustine.
Florida In the Revolution
I guess the first question to address is why Florida did not join the rest of the colonies in the protests and later rebellion and independence. The short answer is that there really wasn’t much to Florida at the time. Britain had only acquired Florida at the end of the Seven Years War in exchange for returning Cuba to Spain. When Spain withdrew from Florida, all but eight Spanish subjects left as well. Britain had attempted to attract new settlers with little luck
Many of the British land owners in Florida by the 1770’s were absentee land speculators who still were not quite sure if Florida was going to go back to Spain at some point in the future. The oppressive heat and mosquitoes did not make the area particularly attractive for settlement.
|Gov. Patrick Tonyn|
What little population that lived in East Florida beyond Indian tribes lived in and around St. Augustine. The estimated population was around 3000, half of which were slaves of African descent. Another thousand or so were Roman Catholic indentured servants, mostly from the Mediterranean island of Minorca (modern spelling Menorca), which was a British possession at this time. So only about 500 were free people, and a good number of those were women, who had no say in politics. This meant that there were only a few hundred free Englishmen living in Florida. For the most part, the weather was unbearable, and many died from tropical illnesses. Few people wanted to live there, and those who did often did not last long.
Florida’s Governor, Patrick Tonyn had been a career officer with 30 years experience in the Regular army, rising to colonel. In 1774 he came to St. Augustine to collect on the 20,000 acre land grant the Crown had given him, and also to serve as the colony’s new governor.
Almost right away, his little colony started to grow as Tories from Georgia and the Carolinas began to flee Patriot harassment in their home colonies. Tonyn used the opportunity to grow his colony by providing land grants to the new refugees, eventually getting permission from London to take ownership of some private lands that absentee landlords had never come to claim.
In the spring of 1776, Patriots from South Carolina and Georgia conducted several raids into Florida, mostly to burn or plunder Tory plantations. Around the same time, Lord Dunmore in Virginia ordered Governor Tonyn to send reinforcements to Virginia. Florida had to send away most of the single regiment stationed at St. Augustine. Tonyn complained that he barely had enough soldiers to garrison the fort, let alone fight off any potential attack.
Florida’s government had a small patriot faction that Tonyn thought posed a potential risk. The Governor identified at least four prominent men who he thought supported seditious activities. William Drayton, the Chief Justice of the colony was a cousin of patriot William Henry Drayton of South Carolina. Two wealthy merchants, James Penman and Spencer Mann, also seemed to favor the patriots. Tonyn also suspected Andrew Turnbull, who was Provincial Secretary and clerk of the East Florida Council as leaning toward the patriot cause as well. Each of these men eventually ended up back in South Carolina, though many of their issues seemed to be related toward an animus with Governor Tonyn. Mostly they did not like Tonyn, as opposed to having some ideological support for the patriots.
|British Florida (from Swanbourne)|
Despite Moultrie’s efforts, the attempts to raise six white companies and four black companies, presumably made up of slaves, did not seem to come of much. It does not appear that the regiment ever recruited the men it hoped to muster. There simply were not enough men in Florida to form a regiment and still keep the plantations going. They mostly raised a few small companies of Rangers who could conduct hit and run raids.
Governor Tonyn next turned to the largest source of men and military power in the region, the Creek and Seminole Tribes. The Creeks largely wanted to remain neutral and stay out of this fight. But the Seminole were more inclined to support the British. The Seminole were a relatively new political organization, having broken away from the Creek nation about a generation earlier. They came primarily from natives who had been treated particularly badly by the Spanish when Spain controlled Florida. The Seminoles had allied themselves with the British in Georgia in order to fight the Spanish in Florida. When Britain took control of Florida after the French and Indian War, the Seminole enjoyed a period of relative peace and prosperity. They had good relationships with British Indian agents, and had every reason to want to remain loyal allies. They were especially concerned about Indian agents’ warnings that the colonists wanted to move further inland and take over their lands. So, backing royal authorities seemed to be in their direct interest.
The Seminole Chief Ahaya, known as Cowkeeper because, well he had become a prosperous cattle rancher in northern Florida, supported Tonyn and agreed to provide warriors to fight the Georgians who were threatening Florida. Although the Creeks overall remained neutral, some local Creeks also joined with the Seminole, with particular interest in raiding the Georgia frontier.
|Button Gwinnett |
He then tried his luck at politics, organizing settlers in western Georgia to reduce voting requirements and let more of them vote. When the patriots took over the colony in January 1776, Button became commander of the Georgia militia. However, most officers balked at his appointment. Gwinnett had no military experience, and many even doubted if he was really a committed patriot. A month later, the new government sent Gwinnett to Philadelphia as a delegate to the Continental Congress, and turned over military leadership to Lachlan McIntosh.
While in Philadelphia, Gwinnett tried to get himself a commission as a general in the Continental Army. However, the others in the Georgia delegation supported McIntosh, who got the appointment in September. About that same time, Gwinnett returned to Georgia to become Speaker of Georgia’s Provincial Congress.
Lachlan McIntosh was also an immigrant, from Scotland. He then lived in South Carolina for years, before moving to Georgia with his brothers. He was a merchant who also had little combat experience, but was a respected patriot and longtime militia officer. He had seen some combat a year earlier in some of the early skirmishes in 1775.
Colonel McIntosh replaced Gwinnett as commander of the Georgia Battalion in early 1776. He then received a general’s commission in the Continental Army in September, which Gwinnett also wanted. Henry Laurens, who was at the time Vice President of South Carolina, knew McIntosh before the war and was a business associate. He supported McIntosh’s commission in the Continental Army. Gwinnett, despite his success in becoming Speaker of Georgia’s Assembly, seemed to hold a grudge against McIntosh that would cause problems for both men.
I mentioned back in Episode 92, that the Georgia Provincial Congress was at this time in the middle of creating its first State Constitution. Leaders had begun drafting the document in April 1776. Before the Declaration of Independence, many contemplated this to be a temporary document until they settled the dispute with London. After independence, it took on more significance. Leaders debated the Constitution for months, eventually approving it to take effect on February 5, 1777.
The new Constitution put most of the power in the legislature, and created a separation of powers. However, on February 22, about two weeks after it took effect, the Council of Safety declared a state emergency based on rumors of a British invasion from Florida. It gave State President Archibald Bulloch virtually dictatorial powers over the state. Bulloch had been President since June and was a big supporter of Lachlan McIntosh. He had even served under then Colonel McIntosh a year earlier before becoming President.
Two days after receiving dictatorial powers, Bulloch died. Rumors circulated that he was poisoned, although no one ever proved anything. On his death, Speaker Button Gwinnett assumed the presidency. A big part of his agenda seemed to be settling scores with his political enemies. The top of that enemies list was Lachlan McIntosh.
Gwinnett, while still in the legislature, had launched an investigation of Lachlan’s brother, William McIntosh who was at the time a lieutenant colonel leading Georgia patriots in the western part of the state. Gwinnett accused Colonel McIntosh with negligence for failing to defend several plantations against a raid by British soldiers and Indians from East Florida. Exhausted from fighting and frustrated by Gwinnett’s inquiry, Colonel McIntosh took a leave of absence and gave up his command. Incidentally, William McIntosh had a Creek wife. His son, William McIntosh Jr. would grow up to be an important Creek Chief who sold out the Creeks in the State of Georgia decades later, leading to their removal from the state. But that is getting into a whole different story.
When Bulloch died in February 1777, Gwinnett found the Hancock’s letter and ordered McIntosh arrested. Since the Assembly was out of session at the time, Gwinnett sent a sheriff to bring back McIntosh in chains to Savannah. Once he arrived, Gwinnett denied him bail and threw him in jail to await trial. McIntosh remained in jail until Gwinnett missed a meeting of the Committee of Safety, at which time the Committee voted to release McIntosh on bail.
Undeterred, Gwinnett wrote to the Major General Robert Howe, the commander of the Continental army’s southern department, asking the General McIntosh be removed from command because his brother’s arrest for treason might create a resentment that would result in his failure to perform his military duties. General Howe, continued to have faith in McIntosh and refused to act on the letter.
First Raid on Fort Mcintosh
As the patriots fought among themselves, Florida Governor Tonyn had cobbled together a force of local militia and Seminole warriors to challenge the Georgia border. General McIntosh had ordered a series of small forts built along the Georgia-Florida border. The word “forts” might be a little generous. The largest of these posts were log stockades with minimal defensive measures. The militia sent to occupy them had been left there for months without pay or supplies. They were not designed to defend against any serious siege. They served as bases for militia who tried to stop roving bands of mounted loyalists who raided southern Georgia, mostly in search of cattle and slaves to steal.
Fort McIntosh, which was known as Beard’s Bluff at the time, was a small wooden stockade that housed a company of 27 militiamen who were in no mood to be there. On December 28, 1776 the garrison rode out on a standard patrol only to run into an ambush about 400 yards from the fort. The patrol commander, Lieutenant Bugg, took an arrow, as did his horse. Three other soldiers were also wounded. The other eight soldiers on the patrol turned and fled back to the fort without firing a shot, abandoning their comrades. Bugg, who could still walk, eventually made it back to the fort, but the Seminole killed and mutilated the bodies of the other three soldiers left behind.
Back at the fort, Bugg called on the men to prepare to defend the fort until reinforcements could arrive about two days later. The men though, were in no mood to fight. They had been left for months in the middle of nowhere. They had no interest in being massacred. The soldiers decided to flee the fort and run away. Left alone, Bugg had to ride to Savannah and report what had happened. The army did not prosecute the militia for desertion, but Lieutenant Bugg resigned his commission a few weeks later. It’s not clear whether it was from his own disgust, or because he felt pressure to do so after being unable to control his men.
Siege of Fort McIntosh
General McIntosh decided to reoccupy the fort, this time using a small company of Continental soldiers, supplemented by South Carolina militia who had fought at the battle of Fort Sullivan. They had come to Georgia to prevent any British invasion from the south. Militia Captain Richard Winn of South Carolina commanded the new outpost, now given the name Fort McIntosh. The combined force of about 80 men rode on patrol, trying to capture any enemy raiding parties that had crossed the border and threatened local farms. Over the next few weeks, they captured a few Indians, but did not have any major confrontations.
On February 17, 1777 a group of about 70 Florida Rangers and 80 Indians attacked Fort McIntosh. Colonel Thomas “Burntfoot” Brown commanded the attacking force. Brown had been a Georgia loyalist. He got his nickname after patriots burned the bottom of his feet in an attempt to get him to renounce his loyalty to the King. They also tarred and feathered him, fractured his skull, and scalped him. Brown escaped with his life and fled to Florida. He helped to organize the Florida Rangers from other loyal colonists. Given his background, he was not terribly interested in showing much mercy to the patriots.
Along with Brown was another officer named Daniel McGirth who had been fighting with the patriots in South Carolina. According to one story, a superior officer ordered McGirth to give up his horse. When McGirth refused, the patriot militia court martialed him, ordering him whipped and imprisoned. McGirth then escaped to Florida where he took a commission in the loyalist militia. So McGirth also had a personal motivation for revenge.
|Nothing remains of Fort McIntosh today, except this maker|
Fighting continued for the rest of the day, with the defenders suffering one killed and three wounded. After dark, Winn sent a messenger to nearby Fort Howe (aka Fort Barrington) calling for reinforcements. But since Fort Howe only had a garrison of about 40 men, even if the entire garrison rode to their rescue, the enemy would still outnumber them.
The following morning, about 200 British regulars arrived along with more Creek warriors. Winn estimated he was facing a force of about 400 to 500 men. Fighting resumed as Winn held out hope of reinforcements who never came.
With the arrival of the regulars, the command of the attacking force fell to an officer identified in Winn’s reports as “Colonel Frasier.” This was actually Lieutenant Colonel Lewis Fuser, an officer of the 60th Royal American Regiment then operating out of St. Augustine. The fighting continued for most of the day. In the afternoon, Winn and Fuser ceased fire and met in the middle of the field outside the fort for a parlay. Unlike Brown’s demand of unconditional surrender a day earlier, Fuser was willing to allow the garrison to leave the fort and retreat north, taking only two officers as hostages.
Winn however, remained concerned that after his men gave up their arms, and left the fort, the Rangers and Indians would attack and massacre them. He requested a company of Regulars escort the garrison north to protect them from attack. Colonel Fuser agreed to the terms. By evening of the 18th, the British occupied the fort.
The garrison marched north protected by a company of British Regulars. After marching about two miles, the Regulars abandoned the men and returned back to Fort McIntosh. Fearing a setup, the men kept off the road, marching through swamps. Fortunately, no attack came and the garrison reached Fort Howe without further incident.
General McIntosh did not hear about the siege until the morning of the 18th. He tried to arrange a relief force of men and supplies. Before he could get organized though, an express rider rode in with the message that the British and Indians had taken the fort.
Brown and the Florida Rangers did not attempt to attack the retreating garrison. They satisfied themselves by rounding up about 2000 head of cattle and taking them back to Florida. The Regulars did not remain at the fort long. They left a contingent of Rangers to garrison the fort. A few weeks later Colonel John Baker led a contingent of Georgia militia to retake the fort. But the presence of an armed British ship on the river nearby forced them to call off the attack.
For the next few months loyalist Rangers and their Indian allies conducted multiple raids across southern Georgia, with the patriots unable to mount an effective defense.
Next Week: The Continental Congress meets in Baltimore.
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Next Episode 131 Continental Congress - Baltimore Edition
Previous Episode 129 Prisoners of War
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Porter, Kenneth W. “The Founder of the ‘Seminole Nation’ Secoffee or Cowkeeper” The Florida Historical Quarterly, 1949: http://www.jstor.org/stable/30138772 (free to read with registration).
Hawkins, Philip C. Creek Schism: Seminole Genesis Revisited, University of South Florida: unpublished masters thesis, 2009: http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3003&context=etd
Smyrnea: Dr. Andrew Turnbull and the Mediterranean Settlement at New Smyrna and Edgewater, Florida, 1766-1777: https://www.unf.edu/floridahistoryonline/Turnbull/index.htm
Beeson, Kenneth H. “Janas in British East Florida” The Florida Historical Quarterly, 1965: http://www.jstor.org/stable/30147732 (free to read with registration).
San Marco, Florida history
The Tonyn Family: http://www.swanbournehistory.co.uk/charles-william-tonyn-vicar-of-swanbourne-1760-1767
Piecuch, Jim, “Patrick Tonyn: Britain’s Most Effective Revolutionary-Era Royal Governor” Journal of the American Revolution, 2018 https://allthingsliberty.com/2018/03/patrick-tonyn-britains-most-effective-revolutionary-era-royal-governor
Smith, Roger C. The Fourteenth Colony: Florida and the American Revolution in the South, University of Florida: unpublished doctoral dissertation, 2011: http://ufdcimages.uflib.ufl.edu/UF/E0/04/27/45/00001/smith_r.pdf
Button Gwinnett: https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/declaration/bio13.htm
Lachlan McIntosh: https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/lachlan-mcintosh-1727-1806
Gen. Lachlan McIntosh: http://www.ushistory.org/valleyforge/served/mcintosh.html
Lawrence, Alexander A. “General Lachlan McIntosh and His Suspension from Continental Command During the Revolution.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 2, 1954, pp. 101–141: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40577507
Pennington, Edgar Legare. “East Florida in the American Revolution, 1775-1778.” The Florida Historical Society Quarterly, vol. 9, no. 1, 1930, pp. 24–46: http://www.jstor.org/stable/30149717
Continental Congress committee report clearing George McIntosh of accusations of being a Tory Oct. 9, 1777: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-05-02-0182
Richard Winn: http://www.carolana.com/SC/Revolution/patriot_leaders_sc_richard_winn.html
Thomas Brown: https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/thomas-brown-1750-1825
Lynch, Wayne “Richard Winn at Fort McIntosh” Journal of the American Revolution, 2013:
Lynch, Wayne “Daniel McGirth, Banditti on the Southern Frontier” Journal of the American Revolution, 2016: https://allthingsliberty.com/2016/08/daniel-mcgirth-banditti-southern-frontier
Just for fun: Stephen Colbert and Lin-Manuel Miranda sing about Button Gwinnett: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhFeQSBZUSk
(from archive.org unless noted)
Clemens, William M. Button Gwinnett, Man of Mystery, Pompton Lakes, NJ: Self-published, 1921.
Corse, Carita Dr. Andrew Turnbull and the New Smyrna colony of Florida, Florida: Drew Press, 1919.
Hawes, Lilla M. (ed) Collections of the Georgia Historical Society, Vol. 12: the Papers of Lachlan McIntosh, Savannah: Georgia Historical Society, 1957.
Jones, Charles C. Biographical Sketches of the Delegates from Georgia to the Continental Congress, Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1891.
Jones, Charles C. The History of Georgia Vol. 2, Boston: Houghton & Mifflin Co. 1883.
McCall, Hugh The History of Georgia, containing brief sketches of the most remarkable events up to the present day, (1784), Atlanta: A.H. Caldwell, 1909 reprint.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Cashin, Edward The King's Ranger: Thomas Brown and the American Revolution on the Southern Frontier, New York: Fordham University Press, 1999.
Coleman, Kenneth The American Revolution in Georgia, 1763–1789, Univ of Georgia Press, 1958.
Drewien, D.J. Button Gwinnett: A Historiography of the Georgia Signer of the Declaration of Independence, Pittsburgh: Rosedog Books, 2007
Jackson, Harvey H. Lachlan McIntosh and the Politics of Revolutionary Georgia, University of Georgia Press, 1979.
Johnson, Daniel M. This Cursed War: Lachlan McIntosh in the American Revolution, Self-published, 2018.
O'Donnell James H. Southern Indians in the American Revolution, Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1973.
Piecuch, Jim Three Peoples, One King: Loyalists, Indians, and Slaves in the Revolutionary South, 1775-1782, Columbia: Univ. of South Carolina Press, 2008.
Searcy, Martha C. The Georgia-Florida Contest in the American Revolution, 1776-1778, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1985.
Wright, James L. Florida in the American Revolution, Univ. Presses of Florida, 1975.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
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