Sunday, March 1, 2020

Episode 138 Thomas Creek




A few weeks ago in Episode 130 I provided some background on the ongoing disputes between the loyalists in East Florida and the patriots in Georgia.  I ended that episode in February 1777 with the loyalist having captured Fort McIntosh and leaving the border open to continuing raids by loyalists and their Creek and Seminole allies.

Border Chaos

Following the patriot loss at Fort McIntosh, local morale fell.  The 400 man force of Georgia militia dwindled down to about 200.

Incident at Thomas Creek, by Jackson Walker
(from Jackson Walker Studio, used with permission)
American General Robert Howe held command of the southern theater but was up in Charleston, South Carolina.  Robert Howe was no relation to British General William Howe.  Robert was a North Carolinian and was spending most of his time fighting with South Carolinians over troop levels.  South Carolina had recruited a bunch of North Carolina soldiers following the British attack on Charleston in early 1776.  By 1777, North Carolina officials wanted their men back for the defense of their own state.

Howe was dealing with this fight and not giving much attention to the Georgia-Florida border fighting.  With the desperate need for troops following the loss at Fort McIntosh, Howe managed to sent about 150 Virginia recruits and about 160 soldiers from South Carolina to supplement the 200 Georgians still trying to defend the border.

Robert Howe (Wikimedia)
Georgia forces also had five or six small military vessels armed with cannons, as well as sixteen military transports.  The primary goal of these ships was to disrupt trade between East Florida and Britain's island colonies in the West Indies.  At the same time, Georgia maintained its own trade with Charleston and Philadelphia, as well as several colonies in the French and Dutch West Indies.  It even still covertly traded with the British-controlled Bahamas, despite trade bans.

Fortunately for the Americans, British forces in East Florida also remained dismally low.  Governor Patrick Tonyn, a former British officer himself, had been trying to cobble together a defense force for East Florida.  His one regiment, the 14th commanded by Colonel Augustine Prevost, received about forty reinforcements, only to be quickly followed by an order from General William Howe to send about half of the regiment to New York.  British General Howe ordered Colonel Prevost to keep East Florida on the defensive and make no attempt to engage in further raids into Georgia.

Following the parole of American prisoners captured at Fort McIntosh, Governor Tonyn expected the return of British prisoners in Georgia to be returned as part of the prisoner exchange.  But Georgia did not have enough prisoners to exchange.

Seminole Chief Ahaya
(from Native-Americans)
The result of all this was that East Florida’s defenses relied on militia, primarily loyalist refugees from Georgia.  Colonel Thomas "Burnfoot" Brown commanded the militia.  He had led the raid on Fort McIntosh and was eager to engage with the enemy.  The remaining defenses came from local tribes under the control of Seminole Chief Ahaya, more commonly known to the British as Cowkeeper.  Governor Tonyn had also tried to get British Indian agent David Taitt to provide warriors.  But Taitt was mostly involved with the the Creek nation, which was farther from the conflict and showed less interest.

Governor Tonyn’s naval support was also almost non existent.  It had dwindled down to one fourteen gun ship, the Rebecca.  This allowed Georgia ships to intercept and capture a number of merchant ships trying to bring supplies to St. Augustine.  To supplement this, Tonyn pressed into service three transport ships: the Meredith, the Triumvirate, and the Hawke, mounting ten guns on each ship.

Governor Tonyn and Colonel Prevost also did not agree on a strategy.  Prevost wanted to pull all forces back to St. Augustine where they could fight a defensive battle from behind the city walls.  Tonyn wanted a more aggressive defense where forces would remain mobile and challenge the Americans for every inch of soil.

The Plan to Capture Florida

Back in Savannah, Georgia's patriot President Button Gwinnett was eager to invade East Florida and capture St. Augustine.  Remember, Gwinnett had wanted to be named a Continental general.  When Lachlan McIntosh beat him out for that job, Gwinnett had to settle for delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in Philadelphia, where he signed the Declaration of Independence.  After a few months, he returned to Georgia and was elected Speaker of the Assembly under the new state constitution.  In February, following the loss of Fort McIntosh, President Archibald Bulloch requested and received near dictatorial power to deal with the emergency of the invasion.  Two days later, he died under mysterious circumstances, leaving the controversial Gwinnett as the new dictator of Georgia.

Button Gwinnett
(from Wikimedia)
Gwinnett was eager to prove himself a leader who could bring military success.  He requested that American General Robert Howe in Charleston send more Continentals to Georgia to assist with the invasion.  General Howe thought Georgia needed thousands of soldiers just to defend its border, soldiers he could not spare.  At this same time, General Howe was already handling a fight between North and South Carolina, which both complained they did not have enough soldiers.  He was also under orders to send most of his soldiers north to support Washington’s army in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. So with all these demands for soldiers and facing only shortages, Howe was not about to deploy thousands of soldiers to attempt some crazy invasion of East Florida because some governor thought it was a good idea.

Despite not getting any additional soldiers, Governor Gwinnett remained undeterred.  He and the Council of Safety proposed an invasion with the few hundred men they had at their disposal.  In these desperate times with limited forces and the desire for military victory, you might think Gwinnett would put aside his personal feud with General McIntosh and work together to make the best battle plan they could.  But no, Gwinnett instead had McIntosh’s brother arrested on charges of treason about this time and tried to get General McIntosh removed from command.

At first, Gwinnett tried to raise enough militia to invade without the assistance of any Continentals under McIntosh’s command in Georgia.  But by late March, he realized he was not going to get the forces he needed.  Gwinnett held a council of war with the Continental officers, but did not invite McIntosh to attend.  Instead, the Continental's second in command, Colonel Samuel Elbert, would lead the Continental force.

General McIntosh, despite his personal issues, ordered his subordinates to cooperate with the governor if he requested their assistance.  At the same time though, he objected to a civilian stepping in to hold a council of war, not include the military commander, and issue orders to his subordinates.  But rather than fight this out by issuing contradictory orders, McIntosh went to Savanna.  There, he would take up his complaint with the Council of Safety.

The Georgia militia would also supplement the Continentals.  Gwinnett managed to raise a little over 100 volunteers commanded by Colonel John Baker.  The plan was for the Continentals to move down the coast in transport ships while the militia traveled overland.  The two groups would meet at a place called Sawpit Bluff, about fifty miles north of St. Augustine.

The Invasion

The two groups set off around May 1, planning to meet up twelve days later.  From the beginning, things did not go well.  Colonel Baker’s militia had trouble crossing rivers that were flooded thanks to spring rains.  They had barely made any progress into East Florida by May 4 when a group of Native warriors supporting the British attacked the militia camp.  Two militia officers were wounded in the fight and one Indian killed.  The warriors fled as the militia pursued them for about twelve miles.  When they could not catch up with them, they gave up the chase and returned to camp.  The angry militia mutilated the body of the dead Indian and left it for his friends to find.  Despite these delays, the militia made it to Sawpit bluff by the 12th, and awaited the Continentals.

Samuel Elbert (from Wikimedia)
Continental Colonel Elbert slowly made his way down the coast.  He did not reach the north end of Amelia Island, about 15 miles north of the rendezvous point, until the 18th. Elbert dispatched a team of twenty soldiers, commanded by Lieutenant Ward to round up all the inhabitants of the island.  The detachment had orders to capture any cattle or pigs that they could find to make salt meat for the under-provisioned army. Beyond that, they were ordered to protect civilian property and treat all prisoners, especially women and children with care.

While Ward was rounding up his prisoners, a group of loyalist resisters took a few shots at the soldiers.  Two soldiers were badly wounded and Lieutenant Ward shot dead.  When Colonel Elbert got the news, he ordered his soldiers to burn every house on the island and destroy all other property they could find.

With the Continentals distracted on Amelia Island, Colonel Baker’s militia sat around Sawpit Bluff wondering what happened to them.  For a few days they simply waited, not moving from the rendezvous point.

Meanwhile the British received word that the American invasion was underway.  Colonel Brown took a group of about 40 Rangers and Indians to make contact with the enemy.  Late on May 14, Brown’s loyalists sighted the enemy camp of the militia at Sawpit Bluff.  Brown dispatched some of his Indians for a night raid, with the goal of stealing the patriot horses.  The force made off with about 40 horses, although a sentinel did see the attackers and fire on them.

The next morning, Baker’s patriot militia found their horses tied up near a swamp about four miles from their camp.  This was an old Indian trick.  The horses were bait.  When the soldiers tried to retrieve them, they would walk into an ambush. Baker was aware of this and tried to avoid getting caught in a trap.  He kept his main force in plain view to distract the Indians while a small group sneaked in to untie the horses.  Once untied, a third group rushed in to drive the horses out of the area in a hurry.

The Indians chased after the men and horses, but gave up after a few miles.  They then set the woods on fire to avoid being pursued as they withdrew.  Several horses were killed.  The patriots suffered two wounded.  They managed to kill one or two Indians, which they again scalped, and mutilated their bodies.  The Indians returned to Brown’s main force.  Brown then moved his forces to meet up with a larger contingent, including British regulars.

Baker realized things were going bad for his patriot militia.  There was no word from Colonel Elbert and the Continentals.  The British now knew where Baker and his militia were camped and were no doubt planning another attack.  Rather than wait for the attack to come, Baker started to retreat north and further inland, following along creeks to find a place to ford and move back toward Georgia.

Thomas Creek

On May 16, Baker’s patriot militia made camp along Thomas Creek.  He was not aware that Colonel Brown’s British militia and Indian force had met up with Colonel Prevost’s larger force which now totaled between 200 and 250 regulars, loyalist militia, and Indians.  Brown and Prevost put together a plan which they executed the following morning.

British Ranger from Florida in Georgia
(from Jacksonville Historical Society)
As expected Baker’s militia broke camp early and continued their retreat, following Thomas Creek upstream.  Around 9 AM, they ran into an ambush led by Brown.  The Americans got within 50 yards before the enemy rose up and fired a devastating volley into their lines.  The startled patriots turned and fled, only to run into Prevost’s 100 regulars marching up behind them.  To add to the chaos Indian warriors began jumping out from the sides of the road to attack anyone who came too close.  The patriot militia panicked and fled into the swamps.  Someone took Colonel Baker’s horse and he fled on foot.  It was a total route.  The fighting only lasted about five minutes.  Three Americans were killed and nine wounded.  Between thirty and forty were taken prisoner.  The rest, who had scattered into the swamps evaded their pursuers.  Several of the wounded who fled died in the swamps over the next few days.  The British reported no casualties.

The Indians were angry at the patriots who had scalped and mutilated the bodies of their fellow warriors at the encounters a few days earlier.  After the fighting ended, the Indians killed between 15 and 24 of the prisoners, again accounts differ, leaving only 15 surviving prisoners.  This event is sometimes called the Thomas Creek Massacre.

Retreat

The scattered militia mostly made their way back to Georgia, across the Satilla river and back into patriot lines.  A few of them made there way to Amelia Island where they met up with Elbert and the Continentals.  The British forces, who had marched hard through several days of heat, were too tired to pursue them and allowed them to escape.

As the Continentals learned of the defeat at Thomas Creek, Elbert had to decide what to do next with his Continentnals.  As his men waited, two of Tonyn’s converted war ships, the Rebecca and Hawke encountered the 16 gun American ship supporting the Continentals on May 25.  The British almost took the ship, when a well placed shot took out the Rebecca’s topmast.  Both she and the Hawke, which had also sustained considerable damage, had to withdraw.

Following this, Elbert attempted to move his fleet inland up a river toward the British force.  They found that the flooded rivers had subsided and that that could not get their ships through the shallow water.  After a week of trying, Elbert’s forces were running out of food and facing more desertions.  He pulled back his small fleet to Georgia, but also deployed a land force to march overland back toward Georgia.  Their mission was to destroy any farms and to drive off any cattle so that the enemy could not benefit from them.  It was not until June 15 that the force finally returned to Savannah.

McIntosh - Gwinnett Duel

At the same time this whole campaign was taking place, General McIntosh and President Gwinnett were battling with each other in Savannah.  As I said, McIntosh had gone there to protest Gwinnett’s interference with the army.  There was supposed to be an election on May 8 to choose a new governor under Georgia’s new constitution.  The Council of Safety decided it would do nothing until after the elections.

John Adam Treutlen
(from New GA Enc.)
In those elections Gwinnett lost to another political opponent, John Adam Treutlen.  The wide margin indicated that voters were unhappy with the way he was running things.  Treutlen, a self-made man who had arrived in the colony as an indentured servant, took office immediately after the election.

With that over, the new Assembly took up McIntosh’s complaint.  The two sides argued about who did what and blamed the other for the delay in the expedition and its ultimate failure.  At one point, McIntosh called Gwinnett a “a Scoundrell and lying Rascal.

In the end, the Assembly decided that civilian control of the military was of paramount concern and that Gwinnett was within his authority as President at the time.  Although Gwinnett won that political battle he was out of office and bitter at the turn of events.

On the evening of May 15, Gwinnett sent McIntosh a note saying he knew McIntosh had called him a scoundrel and that he demanded satisfaction, in other words a duel.  McIntosh agreed to pistols at dawn the following morning.  Both men showed up in the morning at the appointed time and place.  They stepped off their distance, aimed their weapons, and both fired at the same time.  Both men were hit in the leg and fell to the ground.  They debated a second round of firing.  However, their seconds insisted both had acted honorably.  The men shook hands and left to get medical attention.

Lachlan McIntosh
(from Wikimedia)
McIntosh recovered from his leg wound.  Gwinnett suffered for three days before dying from his wound.  Thus he became the first signer of the Declaration of Independence to die, less than a year after signing,and at the hands of a fellow patriot.  Dueling, of course, was not legal even then and McIntosh was charged with murder.  He went to trial and was acquitted.  I haven’t seen transcripts of the trial, but the typical defense against murder while dueling was that it was self defense.  The other party was shooting at me and I shot back.  Because dueling was socially acceptable at the time, the defense usually worked.

After his acquittal, many feared that Gwinnett’s friends would do something to take revenge against McIntosh.  General Washington transferred him up north to get him away from Georgia.  McIntosh would get to spend the next winter in Valley Forge.  McIntosh’s brother, who had been forced to resign under Gwinnett’s harassment, even ended up becoming a loyalist and joining the enemy militia as a captain.  Following Gwinnett’s death and McIntosh’s removal from the state, the feud between factions supporting either Gwinnett or McIntosh continued for years, even after the war ended.   Beyond the personal, the two factions argued over civilian or military control of the Continental forces in the state.

Florida Improves its Defenses

The squabbling between civilian authorities and the military in East Florida did not reach the level of pistols at dawn like it did in Georgia, but it still was not good.  In April, British General William Howe granted Augustine Prevost the temporary rank of general while serving in America.

Augustine Prevost (from Wikimedia)
Governor Tonyn and General Prevost, however, could not agree on who to credit with the victory at Thomas Creek.  Prevost gave most of the credit to the Regulars, while Tonyn credited the militia and Indians.

Tonyn also requested that Prevost pay some of the mission expenses for the Indians out of military funds, something Prevost refused to do.  Tonyn also had to foot the bill for the militia, something he also resented.  Prevost wanted input on training and drilling the militia regiments.  But Tonyn countered that if Prevost wasn’t going to pay for them, he wasn’t going to get input on how they were maintained.

At least the navy recognized the vulnerability of East Florida.  Admiral Richard Howe deployed three frigates to St. Augustine.  This freed up Governor Tonyn to return the ships he had commandeered during the emergency

Conclusion

So for all the fuss, the invasion of Florida led to no real change.  The two sides still controlled the same territory.  The border fighting entered a lull of minor raids on cattle.  Not much would change for the next year.  In both Georgia and Florida, leaders spent more time fighting with each other than with the enemy., who was planning to sell out the Polish Confederation to Russia.  After the Confederation collapsed and Poland was partitioned among the European powers, Pulaski found himself on the run, dodging charges of attempted regicide.  Something the kings of most countries took rather seriously.  Finding his way to Franklin, Pulaski received a letter of recommendation and boarded a ship for America.

For the next nine or ten months, Franklin made little effort to push the French government into doing much more.  He and the other commissioners spent most of their time winning over the French people, seeing just how much they could get away with in shipping covert military items to America, and waiting for events to unfold in such a way as to make a true alliance between France and America possible.

- - -

Next Episode 139 Meigs Raid on Sag Harbor

Previous Episode 137 Lambert Wickes brings the war to Britain


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Further Reading

Websites

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).

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

Battle of Thomas Creek: http://www.jaxhistory.org/portfolio-items/battle-thomas-creek

Lynch, Wayne, “Button Gwinnett and Lachlan McIntosh Duel” Journal of the American Revolution, 2014: https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/09/button-gwinnett-and-the-mcintosh-duel

Video: Late Show with Stephen Colbert: Button! (rap with Lin-Manuel Miranda): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhFeQSBZUSk

Free eBooks
(from archive.org unless noted)

Clemens, William M. Button Gwinnett, Man of Mystery, Pompton Lakes, NJ: Self-published, 1921 (Google Books) .

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.

Cashin, Edward William Bartram And the American Revolution on the Southern Frontier, Univ. of South Carolina Press, 2007.

Drewien, D.J. Button Guinnett: 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.

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.

Sharp, Colin Gwinnett Button Gwinnett: Failed Merchant, Plantation Owner, Mountebank, Opportunist Politician and Founding Father, YouCaxton Publications, 2015.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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