Sunday, March 7, 2021

ARP191 Battle of Alligator Bridge

It has been a while since we checked in on the war in Florida.  I think the last time was Episode 138 when I talked about the battle of Thomas Creek and the duel between Button Gwinnett and Lachlan McIntosh, which took place in May 1777. Over the next year, neither side prioritized the southern theater. All of the action was taking place further north in the Saratoga Campaign and the Philadelphia Campaign. 

General Robert Howe

The Continental commander in the south from the April of 1777 until September, 1778 was General Robert Howe, who I’ve said before, is no relation to British General William Howe or Admiral Richard Howe.  Robert Howe came from a family that had lived in South Carolina for several generations.  Howe’s great-grandfather was South Carolina Governor James Moore.  Other ancestors had served in the South Carolina government as well.

Robert Howe

Howe’s father moved to North Carolina with his wife and was rather prosperous. Robert was born in 1732 on the family plantation in Cape Fear, one of seven children.  Young Robert to London for his education.  He returned and married the daughter of another wealthy planter. 

Robert’s position in a wealthy and powerful family allowed him to assume leadership positions from a young age. In his early twenties, Howe became a captain in the local militia.  A few years later he took a seat as a justice of the peace and served in the colonial assembly.  By the 1770’s Colonel Howe was in his forties, commanded a regiment of militia, and owned several large plantations of his own.

Howe also got used to the good life.  He had to sell or mortgage several of his plantations that he had inherited in order to stay out of debt.  He and his wife separated in 1772, a highly unusual happening.  He suffered from rumors of repeated infidelity and that he starved his family in order to keep up appearances.

Bob Howe, as he was known, earned a reputation as a man of charm and sophistication  He enjoyed dancing and was the life of any party.  In the colonial assembly, he focused on finances and matters involving the colonial militia.

You may recall from Episode 35  that North Carolina had a reputation for Sheriffs collecting taxes and fees in the backcountry, ripping off the locals.  Howe worked to enact legislation that would criminalize fraudulent collections.  He served for many years as a capable and active legislator.  When William Tryon became Royal Governor, he and Howe became friends and political allies.

Governor Tryon also appointed Howe to be the commandant of Fort Johnston, which was the primary defense for Cape Fear.  During the Regulator movement, which led to the Battle of Alamance, Howe supported the governor in suppressing the rebellion.  Howe commanded the artillery corps and served as quartermaster during the government campaign to crush the regulator rebellion.

After Tryon’s departure, Howe did not get along so well with the new Governor, Josiah Martin.  The governor thought that Howe’s position as commander of Fort Johnson and baron of the Court of Exchequer created a conflict of interest.  He removed Howe from his position on the Court of Exchequer.  A short time later, Captain John Collet of the British regulars assumed command of the fort, thus depriving Howe of his other appointment at Fort Johnson.   Later, Howe and Governor Martin butted heads over legislation designed to make it more difficult to seize the property of non-residents for debt.  The Governor had instructions from London to prevent seizures that might adversely impact wealthy and powerful men living in England who owned property in the colony.

NC Gov. Josiah Martin
(from NCpedia)

Over the next couple of years, Howe became a leading opponent of the Royal Governor of North Carolina.  Howe began corresponding with other leaders in the patriot movement in other colonies.  Following the closure of Boston Harbor in 1774 in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party, Howe served on a committee to collect food for the residents of Boston.  When Governor Martin prorogued the assembly to prevent it from sending delegates to the First Continental Congress, Howe served on the extra-legal committee that selected delegates anyway.  He took a leading role in the provincial Congress, in defiance of the royal governor.

In 1775 Howe was commanding and training local militia, also in defiance of the governor’s orders.  Later that year, Governor Martin removed or spiked the cannons from Fort Johnston to prevent them from falling into rebel hands and fled the colony.  See, Episode 69.  

As George Washington took command of the new Continental Army near Boston, Robert Howe and James Moore took command of the two North Carolina regiments to protect North Carolina from any attack by British regulars.  Howe’s regiment went to Virginia where it participated in the Battles of Great Bridge and Norfolk, see Episode 77.  

In March of 1776, the Continental Congress commissioned North Carolina’s military leaders; James Moore and Robert Howe, as brigadier generals in the Continental Army.  Howe also served as military advisor to the North Carolina Provincial Congress.  A few months later when the British under General Henry Clinton landed at Cape Fear, General Howe, by this time serving under Major General Charles Lee, moved to oppose the landing.  Because the North Carolina Loyalists had been defeated at Moore’s Creek Bridge, see Episode 82, the British moved on after a few minor coastal attacks.  The fight went to South Carolina where the patriots prevented the British from capturing Fort Sullivan in Charleston Harbor.

After General Lee went north in late 1776 to assist with the defense of New York, General James Moore took command of the southern department.  When Moore got sick and died rather suddenly in the spring of 1777, Robert Howe took command of the southern department, including everything from Virginia to Florida.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier episodes, the southern command was always a mess, even from the beginning, when Charles Lee tried to organize it.  Politicians, particularly in South Carolina and Georgia, tried to run the military directly.  Many of the state armies there did not put themselves under the command of the Continental Army.  Governors and legislators wanted to appoint key officers.  If the state paid for soldiers, they felt that gave them the authority to set policy and direct military offensives.  They expected the Continentals to back them up while state leaders set military strategy..

In addition, none of the states really wanted to spend enough money to raise large numbers of soldiers to fight in their proposed campaigns.  They were constantly demanding that other states send more soldiers to assist them.  Even when everyone agreed on a campaign, the state official refused to put their state soldiers under the command of the Continental leadership.  The Continental Congress declared that Continental officers could order militia in the field, which was necessary to a unified command.  State officials, however, simply ignored those dictates and permitted militia to ignore Continental orders.  That divided command led to the debacle at Thomas Creek and contributed to the fatal duel between Continental General Lachlan McIntosh and Georgia President Button Gwinnett that I discussed in Episode 138.  Those lessons apparently had not changed behavior and the divisions remained a problem into 1778.

In addition to fighting with politicians, Howe had to fight for control with his own generals.  Continental General Christopher Gadsden took the position that as a South Carolinian, he should command all troops in South Carolina, despite the fact that General Howe was his senior and had been given overall command of the region.  He got the South Carolina legislature to debate this question.  In the end, the legislature decided that, no, you are a Continental officer, and need to take orders from a more senior Continental officer. General Gadsden then pitched a fit, through his epaulette at General Howe and resigned his commission.  Gadsden then got elected to a seat in the state legislature, and then lieutenant governor of the state, where he remained an implacable foe of General Howe.

About the same time Gadsden resigned, Congress promoted Howe to major general in October 1777, perhaps in an attempt to confirm his overall command.

Invasion of Florida

Despite the ongoing conflicts with state officials, General Howe also still needed to worry about the enemy in Florida.  Following the loss at Thomas Creek in the spring of 1777, Continental and state militia troops pulled back into Georgia and assumed mostly defensive positions.  Things were relatively quiet for the rest of the year, other than minor raids.  

In January 1778, the Georgia legislature began planning another invasion of Florida.  Officials demanded that General Howe provide the Continental forces to assist the militia with the planned invasion.  Howe pointed out that the timing of the invasion in the spring was a bad one because the militia would need to do their planting at that time.  The legislature took offense at Howe’s comments and suggested to the Continental Congress reprimand the general for insubordination.  Congress, of course, ignored the suggestion because, among other reasons, a Continental general was not subordinate to a state legislature. 

Area between Savannah
& St. Augustine
As the squabbling continued, a troop of Florida loyalists under Colonel Thomas “Burntfoot” Brown rode fifty miles into Georgia and captured Fort Howe, about sixty miles south of Savannah.  This was only one of multiple raids that the loyalists from Florida had launched that spring.  A month later, in April, General Howe recaptured the fort, and forced the loyalists to retreat Around this same time, he received word that about 500 loyalists from the back country had organized and were riding to Florida to join with a larger force there.  Howe deployed infantry to intercept them, but the loyalists on horseback easily outpaced the infantry, and made it to Florida.

During this deployment, the Continentals did manage to capture the British brig Hinchinbrook, which was full of supplies, as well as the fourteen gun Rebecca, which was Florida’s main naval support at the time. They also sank several smaller ships.  These new offensives only increased the demands of the Georgia legislature to take the fight to Florida.

At the recaptured Fort Howe, General Howe arrived with about 400 Continentals who had been stationed in Georgia.  He called up more Continentals to be deployed from South Carolina and for any militia volunteers. By the end of May, he had a combined force of about 1300 soldiers.  He began marching south in early June.  Once again though, Howe did not have a unified command. Commodore Oliver Bowen of the Georgia Navy commanded a small fleet along the coast.  Newly-elected Georgia Governor John Houstoun retained command of the Georgia militia. Colonel Charles Pinckney insisted on an independent command of the South Carolina militia.

Militia problems aside, Howe also had trouble commanding his own continentals.  Four men attempted to desert in mid-May.  Two of the deserters were Frenchmen who had joined the Continental Army.  As punishment, Howe ordered the men to run a gauntlet where other soldiers beat them.  A French officer protested at the disgrace and said his men would rather be hanged or shot.  The men being punished, however, disagreed and decided to run the gauntlet.

A few days later, a sergeant and a private deserted.  The sergeant attempted to get a larger group to leave with them.  The two men were captured and shot.  A day later, a squad of eight more deserters were executed.  These men had been former British regulars who were captured at Saratoga. They had joined the Continental Army, but had attempted to rejoin the British as soon as they got the chance.

Despite these problems, the American offensive began with no real coordination. Governor Houstoun wanted to march his militia directly along the coast to St. Augustine, forcing a confrontation with the British and loyalist forces.  General Howe wanted to capture Fort Tonyn, which sat miles inland along the St. Mary’s River. Since they could not agree, Howe took his Continentals to Fort Tonyn while Houstoun waited with the militia near the coast.  Howe requested 300 slaves to help cut a road through the wilderness.  The legislature supplied 56.  Howe also lost a substantial food supply when Governor Houstoun ordered that 200 barrels of rice for the Continentals be detained and use them to feed his militia instead.  On another occasion the state seized twelve horses designated to carry supplies to the Continentals so that, again, they could be used for the needs of the militia.

Despite these and many other incidents of deprivation, the Continental Army advanced.  As the Continentals approached Fort Tonyn, the small garrison burned the fort and retreated into the swamps.  After taking the ruins of Fort Tonyn  At least some of the Georgia militia also joined Howe at the fort. Loyalist Colonel Brown had his cavalry in the area.  

Howe dispatched a force of cavalry under the command of militia General James Screven to locate and engage Brown’s loyalists.  Screven took about 100 mounted soldiers and managed to get intelligence on the enemy’s position from either a deserter or captured prisoner.  With that, the Americans ambushed the loyalists and sent them into retreat.

The loyalists moved southeast to a small bridge over Alligator Creek.  There, several companies of regulars under the command of Major James Marcus Prevost, known also as Mark Prevost, the younger brother of General Augustine Prevost, had set up defenses.  Combined with loyalist militia, Prevost had about 200 men.  Brown's loyalists rode into camp followed closely behind by Screven’s militia.  Since neither group wore uniforms, the British defenders were not sure where the escaping loyalists ended and the pursuing Georgia militia began.  

After a few moments of confusion, a firefight broke out as the two sides formed lines of battle.  As the two sides fired on each other, Brown’s loyalists reformed behind the British lines and moved around the lines in an attempt to hit the Americans from the rear and trap them.  They managed to wound General Screven, who ordered a retreat and escaped with most of his men.

The Americans later reported nine killed, while the British reported five killed.  The numbers of wounded are unknown, and there were no prisoners, as was common with skirmishes between loyalist and patriot militia. 

The following day, Major Prevost gathered his militia and regulars and moved forward to find the enemy.  After making contact with a small group though, the British thought better of it.  They began to retreat, felling trees across the roads to prevent any advance by the enemy.


A few days after the skirmish at Alligator Bridge, the rest of the Georgia militia joined the Continentals at Fort Tonyn.  Disease and desertion, however, had thinned the ranks of both groups.  On top of that, they were running out of food. The Georgia legislature was unwilling or unable to send more supplies.  

Gov. John Houstoun
In addition the militia was still unwilling to cooperate in any way with the Continentals. On one occasion Houstoun sent a squad of militia into the Continental Camp with orders to arrest a Continental officer.  On another occasion, the militia tried to seize a boat full of Continental wounded being sent home for care.

Even with this bickering, Houstoun encouraged Howe to go on the attack again, saying he would back up the Continentals with his militia.  Howe said he could only move if the governor could find some provisions for his army.  Houstoun replied that he did not have any to spare.  

On July 11, Howe convened a council of war with his Continental officers.  The officers agreed that they had met their goal of forcing the loyalists and British to leave Georgia and a that further advance into Florida was ill-advised given the lack of supplies, the lack of cooperation of the militia, and the spread of disease among the troops. 

After the meeting of his council, Howe dispatched a messenger to Colonel Andrew Williamson of the South Carolina militia and Governor Houstoun commanding the Georgia militia, to meet at his command tent and discuss their options.  Both men refused to enter the Continental camp and said Howe should come to them.  Finally, after some negotiation, Howe agreed to meet at a spot between the two camps.  After the meeting the officers withdrew for further discussions with their own officers.  Without waiting for further discussions, Houstoun returned to his militia camp and sent an aide to request that Howe inform him of his plans.  After waiting another day to try to get Houston to talk to him, Howe gave up.  On July 14, he ordered a general withdrawal of the Continental Army northward to Savannah.  

Howe-Gadsden Duel

While General Howe was deployed in southern Georgia, fighting for ground with the loyalists and fighting for supplies with the militia, a third front opened up against him.  In June, Lieutenant Governor Gadsden received a copy of a letter that Howe had sent to Congress nearly a year earlier when Gadsden was insisting that he command all Continental troops in South Carolina.

Christopher Gadsden
Gadsden was outraged that Howe had written a letter critical of him and demanded that South Carolina delegates in the Continental Congress judge the propriety of this letter.  Gadsden also made an appeal to General Charles Lee.  Nobody seemed to want to act on Gadsden’s demands because, well, generals are allowed to write letters to Congress which are critical of other officers, particularly subordinates who refuse to follow orders.

Unable to get satisfaction that way, Gadsden began circulating rebuttals, claiming that Howe was a man of “downright low cunning, Jockeying, and sharping” who had said these terrible things in order to “wedge himself into Command” based on his personal ambition.

When Howe returned from the field in late July, he received word of Gadsden’s comments, and demanded a response from Gadsden.  Howe was willing to resolve the issue by assuring Gadsden that it had not been his intent to reflect upon or injure Gadsden by his letters and that anything said that Gadsden took issue with might have been from a lack of understanding, rather than integrity.  In light of that, he called on Gadsden to apologize for the attacks on Howe’s integrity.

Gadsden, however, refused to budge.  With his honor in question, Howe challenged Gadsden to a duel.  The two men agreed to pistols on August 30th, under the Liberty Tree in Charleston.  Because such a large crowd showed up to watch the duel, they moved the location to a more private venue at the last minute.  There, the two men took eight short paces, turned and pointed their pistols at the other.  Then, both just stood there, not firing.  Finally, Howe demanded that Gadsden take the first shot.  Gadsden insisted that Howe fire first.

Finally, Howe took his shot, which reportedly grazed Gadsden’s ear. Gadsden then pointed his gun away from Howe and wasted his shot. Gadsden’s second commented that by firing away, he could not have offered a finer apology and that Howe had also acted honorably.  Gadsden then said he did not apologize for questioning Howe’s right to command, but only for his abusive language.  That satisfied Howe.  The two men shook hands and parted ways.  They would remain enemies, but would not find another need to meet on a field of honor. 

For most of the rest of the year, the border fighting between Georgia and Florida returned to a period of relative quiet.  That would all change near the end of the year when the British attacked Savannah.  That, of course, will be the topic of a future episode.

Next week, we return to upstate Pennsylvania for the Wyoming Valley Massacre.

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Next Episode 192 Wyoming Valley Massacre 

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Further Reading


Battle of Alligator Bridge

Golden, Randy The Third Florida Expedition:

Lynch, Wayne “John Houstoun and the 1778 Expedition to East Florida” Journal of the American Revolution, 2013

Lynch, Wayne “James Screven - Ambushed!” Journal of the American Revolution, 2014:

Dacus, Jeff “General Robert Howe’s Alleged Treason” Journal of the American Revolution, 2017.

Piecuch, Jim, “The Loyalist Exodus of 1778” Journal of the American Revolution, 2016:

Piecuch, Jim, “Patrick Tonyn: Britain’s Most Effective Revolutionary-Era Royal Governor” Journal of the American Revolution, 2018

Schenawolf, Harry “American Revolution: In the South, Not a War for Liberty, But a Brutal Civil War Between Patriots and Loyalists” Revolutionary War Journal, 2017.

Smith, Roger C. The Fourteenth Colony: Florida and the American Revolution in the South, University of Florida: unpublished doctoral dissertation, 2011:

Pennington, Edgar Legare. “East Florida in the American Revolution, 1775-1778.” The Florida Historical Society Quarterly, vol. 9, no. 1, 1930, pp. 24–46:

Christopher Gadsden:

Thomas Brown:

Ross, Tara The odd duel between Christopher Gadsden and Robert Howe:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

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 unless otherwise noted)*

Bennett Charles E.  and Donald R. Lennon A Quest for Glory: Major General Robert Howe and the American Revolution, NC Univ. Press, 1991.

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

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.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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