Sunday, August 29, 2021

ARP215 The Dunkirk Pirate


In the spring of 1779 Gustavus Conyngham sailed into Philadelphia.  The ship captain had been away for years and was returning home after many successful raids and harrowing experiences. 

Gustavus Conyngham

Conyngham had been born in Ireland, but moved to Philadelphia with his family as a teenager in 1763.  His cousin had already established a successful shipping company.  Gus joined the family business and was soon commanding merchant ships in trade with the West Indies and Europe.  He purchased a home in Philadelphia, got married, and settled into the life of a merchant ship’s captain.

Gustavus Conyngham
Conyngham supported the patriot cause.  In late 1775, the Maryland Council of Safety contracted with Conyngham to sail to Europe and purchase gunpowder and other military supplies.  Conyngham sailed his ship, the Charming Peggy, to Dunkirk, France to purchase the needed items.  

British agents took notice of his purchases and notified French authorities.  The French, at this time, were obligated by treaty to prevent the colonies from buying any war materials, but also did not really want to live up to that treaty.  French officials inspected his ship as the British Ambassador demanded, but found nothing.  Conyngham had received advance notice, and had dumped his gunpowder into the harbor before the inspectors arrived.

Conyngham made his escape, but was still without the gunpowder.  He then sailed for the Netherlands, where he made another deal to purchase gunpowder.  This time, one of his own crew members informed authorities.  Officials seized the ship, put it under a prize crew, and arrested the captain and crew.

Conyngham, however, was not ready to go to prison.  His crew overpowered the prize crew aboard his ship and made a dash back to the Netherlands.  There, Conyngham made a quick deal to sell his ship before it could be confiscated.  He made a deal to sell it to the Dutch government, but ended up never getting the money.  Dutch officials simply kept his ship and never paid him.

So, by early 1776, Conyngham was still a free man, but was stuck in the Netherlands without a ship, supplies, or money. He spent a year stuck in Europe as the war in America heated up.  In early 1777, Conyngham received word that the American Commissioners in Paris were trying to purchase and outfit ships to harass British shipping.

Benjamin Franklin had arrived in France with pre-signed commissions from the Continental Congress.  He granted Conyngham a commission as a captain in the Continental Navy in March, 1777.  Franklin also put Conyngham in contact with William Hodge, a recently appointed  American agent in Dunkirk.  The men then outfitted a merchant ship into a converted warship which they named the Surprize.  

By May, Conyngham had assembled a crew and sailed the Surprize out into the English Channel and began seizing British merchant ships. The ten-gun ship was small, by naval standards.  But, living up to its name, it was a real surprise for British merchant ships in the English Channel. Conyngham was able to get in close and demand the surrender of ships unaccustomed to attack in these friendly waters..  The Surprize captured two ships and sailed back to Dunkirk.

The British of course, were apoplectic about this.  In early 1777, France and Britain were still at peace. The British ambassador to France lodged a formal protest with Vergennes.  France was permitting its harbors to be used by American pirates.  They had taken British ships that were engaged in lawful commerce.

France was treaty-obligated to prevent the use of their ports for anyone attacking British shipping.  Under pressure, French officials seized all three ships, returning the captured vessels to British authorities, and arrested the crew.  The British wanted Conyngham sent to London to be tried for piracy and hanged.  The British Ambassador, Lord Stormont, began referring to Conyngham as the “Dunkirk Pirate.”

Franklin was able to intervene and get Conyngham freed before the British could take him to England for trial. France continued to play it’s dangerous game of supporting American efforts as much as possible, while still avoiding war with Britain.  Impressed by Conyngham’s first voyage, Hodge was able to convert an even larger ship for Conyngham’s next voyage.  The new ship, dubbed the Revenge, had fourteen cannons and twenty-two swivel guns.  It was also extremely fast.

The Revenge at sea
The French government learned of the new ship but allowed it to leave on the promise that it would sail to America.  Everyone knew that was a lie, but it gave the government the cover it needed to release the ship.  Aboard his new ship, the Revenge, Conyngham then spent most of the next two years harassing British shipping all around England, Scotland and Ireland.  By some accounts, he captured or destroyed at least sixty ships, using Spain as a neutral port to sell his prizes and make necessary repairs.

In Britain, word of the “Dunkirk Pirate” spread as he became the most effective American raider in Europe.  His efforts, along with the three other Continental navy ships harassing British shipping in 1777, created a real problem.  British merchant ships could not get insurance, except at astronomical rates.  British merchants began shipping on foreign ships that they knew would not be subject to attack, as long as they sailed under a neutral flag.  British commercial shipping came almost to a standstill.  The British navy sent out ships in all directions with orders to capture the Dunkirk Pirate, but without success.

At Versailles, the British Ambassador threatened war.  Stormont accused French officials of tolerating the Revenge, allowing it to operate with its mostly French crew, as it was disrupting British shipping.  Unless French officials put a stop to it, Britain would go to war with France and begin seizing French ships at sea.  This was in the summer of 1777.  The British army from New York was launching its offensive against Philadelphia, and another army from Quebec was moving into New York.  

French officials saw a real possibility that the American rebellion might come to a quick end.  They did not want war with Britain if Britain was not distracted in America.  French officials began cracking down on the Americans.  At one point, Conyngham was being held in a French harbor pending arrest, but then somehow got permission to leave. Officials arrested the American agent, Hodge, and threw him in the Bastille. They also began cracking down on officials who had allowed Conyngham to leave port with his ships.

Conyngham’s crew of mostly European sailors had joined the ship’s crew for the money.  Many of them were would-be pirates who would have been happy to attack any ship from any country.  Conyngham had to keep his crew in line, manage the politics of neutral ports, where the British wanted him arrested, and fight the entire British Navy that was looking to hang him.  He managed to remain active, raising thousands of dollars in prize money for the patriot cause and disrupting British trade.

Conyngham continued to raid British shipping around Britain for the rest of the summer and fall.  He sailed north to the Baltic and also through the Irish Channel.  He even seized several ships right at the mouth of the Thames River.  At one point, he even disguised his ship and put into an English port for repairs.  Over the course of 18 months, he captured 27 ships and sank or burned another 33.

By 1778, France had gone to war with Britain.  But Conyngham’s difficulties with authorities did not end there.  He faced accusations that he had attacked neutral ships, including merchant ships from Sweden and Spain.  It appears Conyngham had taken the controversial position of seizing British property that was being carried by neutral ships.  This was in contravention of generally accepted norms of privateering.  Eventually, he found all European ports were closed to his ship.  No one wanted to be associated with the Dunkirk Pirate.

Return to America

Conyngham eventually sailed to the West Indies, thinking he could disrupt shipping there as well. By early 1779, Conyngham had been away from home for over three years. The American agent at Martinique, William Bingham, asked Conyngham to deliver a load of weapons to Philadelphia.  With that mission Conyngham finally had an opportunity to return home and see his family.

Conyngham returned to Philadelphia to what should have been a hero’s welcome.  He had captured more ships than any other privateer or captain in the Continental Navy.  He had completely disrupted shipping between Britain and the continent, and had provided prize money that left the American Commissioners in Paris with desperately needed funds.  

The Continental Congress, however, did not see it that way.  Several of his crew had returned to Philadelphia before him and had accused him of not paying promised wages to his crew.  More importantly though, Conyngham got caught up in Congress’ efforts to assault the reputation of Silas Deane.

Arthur Lee

Paris' American Commissioner Arthur Lee had reported that the Surprize and the Revenge were operating as privateer ships.  Lee further alleged that this was part of a larger scheme by Silas Deane to enrich himself at government expense.  Lee alleged that Deane had pocketed prize money and that Conyngham has possibly shared in that money.

The Chair of the Maritime Committee in Congress was Arthur Lee’s brother, Richard Henry Lee.  The committee called on Conyngham to give an account of himself.  The first thing he needed to do was establish that he was, in fact, a Continental Navy officer, as he alleged.  For that, he needed to produce his commission.

Unfortunately for Conyngham, French officials had seized his commission when they had arrested him to appease British officials before the two countries had gone to war.  Conyngham had had to slip out of France rather quickly and unofficially to avoid arrest and never got back his commission.

Conyngham also did not have any paperwork, or often even any first-hand knowledge about the sales of the prizes he had captured.  Typically, he sent his prizes to a port where they could be sold quickly and quietly before officials got wind of them and tried to seize them.  It did not make much sense to keep records of ships that were captured and sold.  That information could only be used against him later at a piracy trial if the British captured him.  Further, his goal was not to raise money.  It was to disrupt shipping.  The sales of the ships were just an added benefit, which he had left to others.

The committee seemed to accept Conyngham’s explanation about the disposition of the ships.  But without the proof of a commission, they concluded that he was a privateer, not a captain in the navy.  Since Benjamin Franklin had provided his commission, and he was still in Paris, there was no way to confirm Conyngham’s claim, at least not for many months.

Instead, Congress ordered Conyngham’s ship, the Revenge, seized as government property.  Since Congress could not raise a crew to make use of the ship, Congress (always desperate for cash) opted to sell the ship at auction.

The state of Pennsylvania tried to buy the ship for river defenses, but was outbid by a private bidder, a merchant named Gustavus Conyngham.  Yes, Captain Conyngham bought back his own ship.  If Congress would not recognize his commission, he could at least go back to work on his own terms against British shipping.

He received a letter of marque from Pennsylvania to protect commerce along the Delaware River.   But that was only a short term gig.  Once that ended for Conyngham, in the spring of 1779.  After that, he once again went out into the Atlantic in search of British prizes.

Capture

Conyngham very quickly came up against the British navy ship the Galatea in late April.  Although he attempted to escape, the Galatea was faster and managed to force his surrender.  The British crew captured the ship and put Captain Conyngham in irons.  The capture of the Dunkirk Pirate was a big deal for the British.

Because neither side was willing to recognize Conyngham as a naval officer at the time of his capture, and because his letter of marque had expired, the British treated Conyngham as a pirate.  The Galatea took him back to British-occupied New York, where he was held in a prison ship in pretty horrific conditions.

Mill Prison
He only remained in New York a short time before the British leadership shipped the famous Dunkirk Pirate back to England to face trial for treason and piracy.  For a time, he was held at Pendennis Castle in Falmouth, then moved to Mill Prison in Plymouth. For most of his stay his captors kept Conyngham in irons and held him under continuing horrific conditions. Conyngham lost 50 pounds and was in danger of starvation.

Conyngham knew that he was in serious danger of being hanged.  He made several attempts to escape from prison, including one where he dressed up like a visiting doctor and simply walked out the front gate with a group of visitors.  But the guards realized it just after he got out and recaptured him.

His captors did offer him a way out of his predicament.  If he agreed to join the British Navy, he could leave prison and return to sailing.  Conyngham, however, was a committed patriot.  He not only refused the offers, but also joined in a signed agreement with his fellow prisoners that none of them would enlist with the British in order to gain release from prison.

Meanwhile, back in America, Conyngham’s reputation was improving.  Benjamin Franklin, in Paris, had been able to get word to Congress that Conyngham was a legitimate navy captain.  Once that was established, the Continentals protested the treatment of this captured officer.  In retaliation for Conyngham’s treatment by the British, the Americans confined a captured British officer being held in Boston to conditions similar to those that Conyngham experienced.

The British, however, were undeterred. They still planned to try, and likely hang the Dunkirk Pirate.  Messing with British shipping was a serious offense, and examples had to be made.

Conyngham was not interested in sticking around to see if the Americans could convince the British otherwise. He and several prisoners were able to break into a prison store room and steal some digging tools.  The group managed to dig a tunnel under the main prison wall.  

On the night of November 3, the group made its escape.  The plan was for hundreds of prisoners to use the tunnel that night and make their escape.  However, after the first few dozen had gotten through, the scramble to get out turned into chaos. One boy got trampled and had his arm broken.  His screams alerted the guards, who shut down the tunnel and recaptured most of the escaping prisoners.

Conyngham, however, had been one of the first few out of the tunnel.  He managed to avoid capture. A national manhunt for the Dunkirk Pirate got underway. Despite this, Conyngham managed to make his way to London, where he had friends who provided him with shelter and money.  After a few weeks, he was able to get smuggled out of England aboard a ship bound for Rotterdam in the Netherlands. 

Joining with Jones

In 1779, the Netherlands was still a neutral party in the war.  It had treaties with Britain, but was tolerating the semi-covert use of its ports by the American Navy and some privateers.  When Conyngham reached the Netherlands, he was able to make contact with Commodore John Paul Jones.  Jones had landed at Texell, a small Dutch Island just off the northern coast of the Netherlands.  Jones had just captured the British ship Serapis in a recent battle, losing his own ship the Bonhomme Richard in the process.  That’s a whole separate story that I want to cover in a separate episode.

Suffice it to say that as soon as Jones had rehabbed his fleet, Conyngham joined with Jones’ fleet. The British were pressuring Dutch officials to turn over all of these American pirates to Britain.  The neutral Dutch were doing their best to avoid doing so, while still trying to avoid going to war with Britain.  The British also had a fleet just offshore, in case the Americans attempted to escape from port.

Despite the blockade, Jones and Conyngham managed to slip out of Texel at night on December 27, and evade their would-be captors.  Jones had given Conyngham command of a new frigate, the Alliance.  The squadron once again began wreaking havoc on shipping in the English Channel.

By this time though, Conyngham was eager to get home.  When the American fleet reached Spain, after a few weeks of raiding, Conyngham parted ways with Jones and, as a passenger, boarded another privateer ship, the Experiment, which was headed to America.

Recapture

Unfortunately, the British captured the Experiment at sea in March of 1780. They identified the Dunkirk Pirate and sent him back to Mill Prison in Plymouth.  There, once again, the authorities held Conyngham in chains and under close confinement.  However, they never did hold any trial.  It seems that this time they accepted his status as a prisoner of war. That said, he still was not accorded the honorable treatment usually granted to a captured officer.  

After about a year in prison, Conyngham was permitted to return to France as part of a prisoner exchange in the summer of 1781.  This is where his timeline gets a little sketchy.  Supposedly, the Commissioners gave Conyngham another ship, the Loyola, which he outfitted and prepared for another cruise against British shipping.

But before the cruise could get underway, Conyngham received word of a peace treaty that would end the war.  The treaty negotiations did not begin until the spring of 1782.  So, Conyngham may have been cooling his heels in France for a year after he left prison, before he had a new ship that was ready to go.

In any event, with news of the treaty, Conyngham decided not to launch another cruise against British shipping.  Instead, Conyngham boarded the Hannibal as a passenger and returned to Philadelphia.  There, he would return to his life as a merchant captain, and renew his fight for recognition of his service in the Continental Navy, this time for veteran’s benefits.

Next week, we return to the southern frontier for the battle of Chickamauga Creek.

- - -

Next  Episode 216 Chickamauga Creek


 Contact me via email at mtroy.history@gmail.com

 Follow the podcast on Twitter @AmRevPodcast

 Join the Facebook group, American Revolution   Podcast: https://www.facebook.com/groups/132651894048271

American Revolution Podcast Merch!

T-shirts, hoodies, mugs, pillows, totes, notebooks, wall art, and more.  Get your favorite American Revolution logo today.  Help support this podcast.  http://tee.pub/lic/AmRevPodcast


American Revolution Podcast is distributed 100% free of charge. If you can chip in to help defray my costs, I'd appreciate whatever you can give.  Make a one time donation through my PayPal account. You may also donate via Venmo (@Michael-Troy-20), Zelle, or popmoney (send to mtroy1@yahoo.com)


Click here to see my Patreon Page
You can support the American Revolution Podcast as a Patreon subscriber.  This is an option making monthly pledges.  Patreon support will give you access to Podcast extras and help make the podcast a sustainable project.

An alternative to Patreon is SubscribeStar.  For anyone who has problems with Patreon, you can get the same benefits by subscribing at SubscribeStar.

Help Support this podcast on "BuyMeACoffee.com"



Visit the American Revolution Podcast Bookshop.  Support local bookstores and this podcast!





Signup for the AmRev Podcast Mail List

* indicates required

Further Reading

Websites

Norton, Louis Arthur “Captain Gustavus Conyngham: America’s Successful Naval Captain - or Accidental Pirate?” Journal of the American Revolution, April 15, 2015. https://allthingsliberty.com/2015/04/captain-gustavus-conyngham-americas-accidental-pirate

Norton, Louis Arthur “Plight of the Seamen: Incarceration, Escape, or Secured Freedom” Journal of the American Revolution, Jan. 7, 2021. https://allthingsliberty.com/2021/01/plight-of-the-seamen-incarceration-escape-or-secured-freedom

Paton, Robert Pirates of the Revolution: https://www.historynet.com/pirates-of-the-revolution.htm

Conyngham, Gustavus. “Narrative of Captain Gustavus Conyngham, U. S. N., While in Command of the ‘Surprise’ and ‘Revenge’, 1777-1779.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 22, no. 4, 1898, pp. 479–488. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20085820

 Prelinger, Catherine M. “Benjamin Franklin and the American Prisoners of War in England during the American Revolution.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 2, 1975, pp. 261–294. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1921564

“From Benjamin Franklin to Gustavus Conyngham, 6 February 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-36-02-0377

“The American Commissioners: Three Covering Notes for Captured Mail, 10–11 May 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-24-02-0029

“The American Commissioners to the Committee for Foreign Affairs, 25 May 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-24-02-0052

“Gustavus Conyngham to the American Commissioners, 4 January 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-25-02-0334

“The Commissioners to Gustavus Conyngham, 19 April 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-06-02-0030

“To Benjamin Franklin from Gustavus Conyngham, 18 November 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-31-02-0065.

“Franklin: Certificate for Gustavus Conyngham, [7 August 1782],” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-37-02-0466

Free eBooks
(from archive.org unless noted)

Barnes, James With the flag in the Channel: The Adventures of Captain Gustavus Conyngham, New York : D. Appleton Company, 1902. 

Conyngham, Gustavus “Narrative of Captain Gustavus Conyngham, U. S. N., while in Command of the "Surprise" and "Revenge", 1777-1779The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 1909. 

Cooper, J. Fenimore History Of The Navy Of The United States Of America, Vol. I, London: Richard Bentley, 1839. https://archive.org/details/dli.granth.37530

Jones, Charles H. Captain Gustavus Conyngham; a Sketch of the Services he Rendered to the Cause of American Independence, Philadelphia: Sons of the Revolution, 1903. 

Neeser, Robert W. Letters and Papers Relating to the Cruises of Gustavus Conyngham, Naval History Society, 1915. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*

Bowen-Hassell, E. Gordon, Sea Raiders of the American Revolution: The Continental Navy in European Waters, University Press of the Pacific, 2004 

McGrath, Tim Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America's Revolution at Sea, Caliber, 2014. 

Willis, Sam The Struggle for Sea Power: A Naval History of the American Revolution, W.W. Norton & Co. 2016. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.






Sunday, August 22, 2021

ARP214 A Proposal to Arm Slaves


In the spring of 1779 the southern colonies were under threat.  Britain had deployed thousands of regulars to take back Georgia.  They invaded Savannah in December 1778 with relative ease, and after the Battle of Brier Creek that I discussed last week, seemed to have the colony back under control.  

The British force under General Augustine PrĂ©vost had already begun probing into South Carolina, with that being the obvious next step.  The British then hoped to build on those successes to take back North Carolina and possibly even Virginia.  British leaders believed that the southern colonies, largely settled by descendants of aristocratic families, would be most amenable to a return to British rule, and would be the most likely source of Tory militia armies to support the regulars.

South Carolina Vulnerable

Opposing the British was a small force of Continentals under the Command of General Benjamin Lincoln, who had taken up command at Purrysburg, South Carolina, just a few miles upriver from British-occupied Savannah.  Supplementing the Continental soldiers were thousands of militia from Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia, although many of the North Carolina regiments had disappeared after their defeat at Brier Creek.

The militia that had turned out to support Lincoln had proven disappointing.  They were not well trained or disciplined.  Their officers were unwilling to take orders from General Lincoln or other Continental officers.   South Carolina’s white population was not particularly large.  The white population in the state was probably between 70,000 and 80,000, giving an estimated white male fighting age population of perhaps 20,000. Of those, a fair percentage may have been loyalists who were more likely to join the British army than oppose them.  

South Carolina also had a slave population of nearly 100,000.  It was the only state in America where blacks outnumbered whites.  Much of the role of the South Carolina militia was to deter a slave rebellion and capture escaping slaves.  British leaders had already hatched plans to arm colonial slaves and offer them freedom in exchange for helping to defeat their former masters.  South Carolina leaders had to maintain control of the slave population at this vulnerable time.  Therefore, they simply could not let all the young white men of fighting age march off to fight with the Continentals.

Changing Views on Slavery

In early 1779, Congress gave tentative approval to raise and equip an army of several thousand southern slaves.  This was a big step that helps to show the evolution in thinking that had taken place over several years of war.  In 1775, when the Continental Army first developed out of the New England Army that sprouted up around Boston, many units, at that time, had small numbers of free black men integrated into their units.  

Slaves on Mt. Vernon
When General George Washington took command, he ordered that only white men be enlisted.  Congress also passed revolutions barring black men, or as they were called at the time “negroes” from enlistment.  Black men could be used as laborers, of course, but were not to carry guns. Almost immediately after issuing these rules, Washington and many members of Congress began to backtrack.  Black free men were permitted to reenlist.  Other new recruits were permitted to enlist quietly while leaders continued to debate the policy of whites only. 

Part of it may have been pushback from New England officers who had black soldiers in their units and believed them to be valuable assets.  More likely, it was a matter of desperation.  The Continental army could not recruit the numbers it needed.  Black recruits, it seemed, were better than no recruits.  The Continental Army did not have segregated units.  Black soldiers served alongside their white comrades in integrated units.  However, there were no black officers.  All black soldiers served under white leadership.

Over the course of years, General Washington and other leaders who held prejudiced views that black men could never fight with the same discipline and bravery as white men, saw those prejudices challenged as black soldiers served with distinction, fighting and dying as well as any other men.

Beyond the issue of free blacks, was the additional controversy of allowing slaves to enlist.  Even if leaders were beginning to overcome the prevailing racist notions that black people were inferior to white people in fighting ability, slaves as soldiers posed other concerns.  One was that slave owners might object to the emancipation of their slaves.  Another was that slaves might harbor an anger and resentment that would result in their deserting and fighting for the enemy if given the opportunity.  Another was simply that slaves were simply raised to be ignorant and servile, which would impact their fighting ability, even if free blacks made capable soldiers.  All of this is also assuming that slaves would be given their freedom for service. Otherwise, teaching a slave to use firearms and then sending him back to serving a family that he resented might end badly for the master.

Rhode Island Experiment

The first state to test these concerns on a large scale was Rhode Island.  In February of 1778, it passed the Slave Enlistment Act, which permitted slaves to enlist in the Continental Army.  Upon doing so, slaves would be immediately free.  Their masters would be paid reasonable compensation for the value of their loss.  Upon completing enlistment, the former slave would have the full rights of a free man.

Solder, 1st RI
The immediate purpose in doing so was to reconstitute the 1st Rhode Island Regiment of the Continental Army.  Colonel Christopher Greene, who had led the 1st Rhode Island at Fort Mercer in the fall of 1777 saw his regiment dissolving over that winter as enlistments expired. 

This was during the bleak winter at Valley Forge.  It’s also seen as the time that the pre-war idealism faded.  The idea that free citizenry would nobly volunteer to defend their lands in the militia when called, then return their farms after successfully deflecting any invasion had proven to provide only an unstable and inexperienced army.  Washington led many others in the view that citizen militias, and even short-term continental enlistments, simply would not get the job done against British regulars.  Washington wanted a professional army that would serve at least multi-year enlistments so that the soldiers would benefit from training and experience.

The problem with multi-year enlistments, especially for an army that was gaining a reputation for not properly feeding, clothing, and housing its soldiers, was that many men with other options were not willing to make that commitment.  Some hard-core patriots were, of course, willing - but not in the numbers the army needed.  Opening the ranks to black soldiers, including slaves, increased the available pool, and opened it up to men who might not have as many options in civilian life.  Slaves had a particular incentive to join if there was an offer of freedom after completing their enlistment.

So Rhode Island heavily recruited slaves and free blacks to fill the ranks of the First Rhode Island.  Until the end of 1777, the regiment had been a mix of black and white soldiers.  Following the recruitment drive in early 1778, the regiment was largely made up of black privates, with white officers and non-commissioned officers to lead them.  It became known as the “black regiment.”

Later that year, at the Battle of Rhode Island, the regiment acquitted itself well on Aquidneck Island, drawing praise from the commanding General John Sullivan.  It helped to convince even more Continental leaders that black soldiers could be effective fighters in battle.

John Laurens

One of the more conspicuous advocates of arming slaves was Colonel John Laurens.  As an aide to Washington, Laurens had the ear of the Commander.  Laurens also had the ear of the President of Congress, his father Henry Laurens.  Colonel Laurens had also developed a close friendship with Colonel Alexander Hamilton and General Lafayette.  The three young men were all in their early twenties, highly educated, and enthusiastic supporters of the cause of freedom.

John Laurens

Laurens, Hamilton, and Lafayette all seemed to be enthusiastic proponents for ending slavery. Some see this as hypocritical since Laurens came from a slave owning family.  His father Henry Laurens, not only owned slaves, but had made a fortune running the largest slave trading house in North America.

In 1771, when John was a teenager, his mother died. His father took the family to England and John spent several years in a Swiss boarding school.  When the war began, he was studying law in London.  His father, who had already returned to America, urged John to stay in London and continue his studies.  John stayed in England through 1776, where he married an English woman.  Despite his father’s wishes, he wanted to fight for the patriots.  By the spring of 1777, he sailed back to America and received a commission in the Continental Army.

Henry Laurens wanted to keep his son away from the dangers of combat and arranged for him to serve as an aide-de-camp to General Washington.  John, however, had no interest in spending the war behind a desk.  He was conspicuously active on the battlefield at Brandywine.  His friend Lafayette commented "It was not his fault that he was not killed or wounded; he did everything that was necessary to procure one or t'other." Laurens remained active in the field during the Philadelphia campaign, before being wounded at Germantown.

Laurens recuperated from his shoulder wound at Valley Forge.  He then fought at Monmouth, and later in 1778 fought a duel with General Charles Lee.

Henry Laurens

Laurens’ father Henry Laurens’ views on slavery were best described as “complicated.”  Biographers of the Laurens family, and even other people in letters from the time, noted that Henry Laurens appreciated the humanity of the people who he owned.  They note that he treated his slaves much better than many of his fellow South Carolina owners, not driving them as hard, or punishing them as brutally, and he had a reluctance to break up slave families whenever possible.

Some may argue that noting this lenient treatment is somehow an attempt to excuse or mitigate judgment against Laurens for having owned slaves.  I’m not pointing this out for any such reason and in fact leave it to others to judge the man.  I’m simply trying to point out that, despite being an owner of a large number of slaves, Laurens did feel conflicted about the institution and did have some feelings for those who labored for him.  He did not view Africans as animals or as somehow sub-humans who needed enslavement to fit into a civilized society. At the same time though, he continued to hold people in bondage and forced their continued labor for his own benefit.

If the father Henry Laurens felt conflicted between his life as a slave owner and his ideals about freedom and equality, his son John seemed less conflicted.  Having reached adulthood in Europe, where slavery was not a part of society, John seemed much more ready to find a way to end the institution.

Despite his views, Henry Laurens remained a large slave owner.  As early as 1776 he wrote to his son about the idea of manumitting his slaves.  The father and son discussed ways to transition from a slave-based economy to one based on the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence.  They were not ready for some radical scheme to end slavery instantly, nor were they willing to grant immediate manumission even to their own slaves.  But the men were thinking about how to transition society in that direction.

Plans to Raise Slave Army

By early 1779, John Laurens saw an opportunity both to aid the patriot cause, and also to further the goal of finding a way to end slavery.  Laurens had long proposed the idea of raising a regiment, or even several regiments, of slaves who would be offered freedom in exchange for military service.  He had even written to his father in early 1778, around the same time the First Rhode Island began recruiting slaves, asking if he could borrow against his future inheritance by being given 40 slaves.  These men would establish a company of soldiers which would serve as the core of a larger military force.  

At the time, Henry objected to the plan on several levels.  He assumed that his slaves would be too afraid to leave the plantation and leave their families behind.  They would also desert at the earliest opportunity, either out of fear of battle, or the desire to escape bondage.  He disagreed with his son that the slaves would rise to the occasion and win their freedom honorably by serving out their enlistments.  For the rest of the year, the idea simply remained an idea, with no attempts to implement it in the south.

In early 1779, after the British captured Savannah and threatened South Carolina, John Laurens obtained leave from Washington to return to South Carolina.  On his way south, Laurens stopped in Philadelphia to advocate for his idea to raise an army of South Carolina slaves.  This army would contest the British threat to South Carolina.  Owners would receive compensation.  Slaves would become free following the completion of their enlistment.

Given the threats against South Carolina at the time, Henry Laurens, and others in Congress, took the suggestion more seriously.  South Carolina President John Rutledge had sent Isaac Huger to Philadelphia to get Congress to help with a military force in the south.  

On January 9, 1779 Congress had commissioned Colonel Huger of the South Carolina militia to serve as a Continental brigadier.  That same day, the Congress also commissioned two North Carolina officers, Sumner and Hogun, as well as Mordecai Gist of Maryland.  The new brigadiers were part of an effort to raise the military force needed to protect the southern states.

William Henry Drayton

General Huger hoped to get Congress to send portions of the Continental Army and Navy to defend South Carolina in its hour of need.  Congress formed a committee, including Henry Laurens, who by this time was no longer President of Congress, but still a delegate, as well as Henry Drayton of South Carolina to work out a solution to save South Carolina.  Huger reported that raising an army of white militia members was difficult because so many had to remain at home to protect against a slave insurrection, or to protect against the fear that slaves would escape to the enemy and fight for the British.  Congress, of course, had no more Continental soldiers to spare.  General Washington still needed to guard against any actions from the British forces at New York, Newport, or Quebec.  There were native warriors running rampant in upstate New York and along the western frontier, and not enough soldiers to deal with all of those issues.  Redeploying existing Continental forces to the south simply was not an option.

The three South Carolinians Laurens, Draper, and Huger all agreed with John Laurens’ proposal to raise a slave army because it might be the only realistic option.  Putting the slaves under arms would reduce the risk of a domestic uprising.  It was the only plausible source of men.  The committee recommended the scheme to Congress in late March 1779.

Based on the committee’s proposal, Congress passed a resolution which read in part “That it be recommended to the states of South Carolina and Georgia, if they shall think the same expedient, to take measures immediately for raising three thousand able bodied negroes.”  This resolution was pretty tentative.  First, it was just a recommendation to the state governments.  The Continental Congress was not mandating anything.  It would be left up to the States to approve and enact this major policy change.  

Congress also left most of the details to those states, other than noting that the troops would be “commanded by white commissioned and non-commissioned officers.”  It did agree to compensate owners up to $1000 for each slave fit for duty and to guarantee freedom and $50 to each former slave who completed the enlistment.  The soldiers would not receive any pay during their enlistment, only food and clothing.

Laurens, and Colonel Hamilton began writing to other influential and sympathetic officials to get more support for the plan.  General Washington remained silent on the matter.

With Congress’ resolution Laurens traveled to Charleston to get the legislature on board.  An army of 3000 new recruits would more than double the patriot force with General Lincoln in South Carolina.

Southern Leaders Reject the Plan

That, however, is where the project ended.  The British already controlled Georgia, so there was no state legislature to vote on the resolution there.  South Carolina voted on the proposal in late May.  Both the House and Senate voted against it.  As one correspondent put it, the legislators “received it with horror by the planters, who figured to themselves horrible consequences.”  

Christopher Gadsden

I cannot find any specifics on the debate or even the numbers opposed.  But it seems that it was categorically rejected, at a time when South Carolina was approaching the greatest threat to its existence as an independent state.  A few months later, a similar vote was described as receiving only a dozen votes and “blown up, with contemptuous huzzas.”

Christopher Gadsden wrote “We are much disgusted here at Congress recommending us to arm our Slaves, it was received with great resentment, as a very dangerous and impolitic Step.”

For the elites who controlled South Carolina, the thought of giving guns and military training to 3000 of the 100,000 or so slaves, who outnumbered the white population, was only inviting disaster.  Those trained soldiers could later form the basis of a slave uprising, something the slave owners feared more than British rule.  The only way arming slaves would work would be as part of some larger emancipation program that would end slavery in South Carolina.  The views of Henry and John Laurens aside, the bulk of the South Carolina leadership was nowhere near ready to end slavery in the state.

In short, South Carolina would rather fail in its bid for independence than to give up the practice of slavery.  As Alexander Hamilton put it later, “Prejudice and private interests [were] antagonists too powerful for public spirit and public good.”

Proposals to arm slaves in South Carolina would come up several more times during the war.  Each time, the proposals met a similar fate.  For many Americans, the Revolution forced them to rethink their views on slavery.  That evolution of thought, however, did not take root in South Carolina.

Next Week: Naval hero Gustavus Conyngham escapes the British only to find himself in hot water with the Continental Congress.

- - -

Next  Episode 215 The Dunkirk Pirate 


 Contact me via email at mtroy.history@gmail.com

 Follow the podcast on Twitter @AmRevPodcast

 Join the Facebook group, American Revolution   Podcast: https://www.facebook.com/groups/132651894048271

American Revolution Podcast Merch!

T-shirts, hoodies, mugs, pillows, totes, notebooks, wall art, and more.  Get your favorite American Revolution logo today.  Help support this podcast.  http://tee.pub/lic/AmRevPodcast


American Revolution Podcast is distributed 100% free of charge. If you can chip in to help defray my costs, I'd appreciate whatever you can give.  Make a one time donation through my PayPal account. You may also donate via Venmo (@Michael-Troy-20), Zelle, or popmoney (send to mtroy1@yahoo.com)


Click here to see my Patreon Page
You can support the American Revolution Podcast as a Patreon subscriber.  This is an option making monthly pledges.  Patreon support will give you access to Podcast extras and help make the podcast a sustainable project.

An alternative to Patreon is SubscribeStar.  For anyone who has problems with Patreon, you can get the same benefits by subscribing at SubscribeStar.

Help Support this podcast on "BuyMeACoffee.com"



Visit the American Revolution Podcast Bookshop.  Support local bookstores and this podcast!





Signup for the AmRev Podcast Mail List

* indicates required

Further Reading

Websites

Farley, M. Foster. “The South Carolina Negro in the American Revolution, 1775-1783.” The South Carolina Historical Magazine, vol. 79, no. 2, 1978, pp. 75–86. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27567488

Kelly, Joseph P. “Henry Laurens: The Southern Man of Conscience in History.” The South Carolina Historical Magazine, vol. 107, no. 2, 2006, pp. 82–123. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27570804

Maslowski, Pete. “National Policy toward the Use of Black Troops in the Revolution.” The South Carolina Historical Magazine, vol. 73, no. 1, 1972, pp. 1–17. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27567096

Massey, Gregory D. “The Limits of Antislavery Thought in the Revolutionary Lower South: John Laurens and Henry Laurens.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 63, no. 3, 1997, pp. 495–530. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2211648

Slave Enlistment Act of 1778 (RI): https://www.sos.ri.gov/assets/downloads/documents/Black-Regiment.pdf

John Laurens, https://www.nps.gov/vafo/learn/historyculture/johnlaurens.htm

Journals of the Continental Congress: March 29, 1779: https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/journals-of-the-continental-congress-march-29-1779

John Laurens and Hamilton: https://www.ccpl.org/charleston-time-machine/john-laurens-and-hamilton-part-1

Laurens, Henry. “Correspondence between Hon. Henry Laurens and His Son, John, 1777-1780. (Continued).” The South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, vol. 6, no. 1, 1905, pp. 3–12. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27575086

Laurens, Henry. “Correspondence between Hon. Henry Laurens and His Son, John, 1777-1780. (Continued).” The South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, vol. 6, no. 2, 1905, pp. 47–52. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27575094

Free eBooks
(from archive.org unless noted)

Hartgrove, W. B. “The Negro Soldier in the American RevolutionThe Journal of Negro History, Vol. 1, April 1, 1916. 

Simms, William G. The Army correspondence of Colonel John Laurens in the years 1777-8, New York: Bradford Club, 1867. 

Wallace, David D. The Life of Henry Laurens, with a sketch of the life of Lieutenant-Colonel John Laurens, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1915. 

Wilson, Joseph T. The Black Phalanx: A History of the Negro Soldiers of the United States in the War of 1775-1812, 1861-'65, Hartford, CT: American Publishing Co. 1888. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*

Egerton Douglas R. Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America, Oxford Univ. Press, 2009. 

Geake, Robert From Slaves to Soldiers: The 1st Rhode Island Regiment in the American Revolution, Westholme, 2016. 

Gilbert, Alan Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence, Univ. of Chicago Press, 2012. 

Massey, Gregory D. John Laurens and the American Revolution, Univ. of S.C. Press, 2000. 

Van Buskirk, Judith L. Standing in Their Own Light: African American Patriots in the American Revolution, Univ. of Okla. Press, 2017. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.


Sunday, August 15, 2021

ARP213 Brier Creek


Last week we looked at some of the British efforts to expand on the capture of Savannah by sending an expedition to Port Royal Island, in South Carolina, and to set up a loyalist recruitment center in Augusta, Georgia.  The Port Royal expedition failed to secure the island, and the British only remained in Augusta for several weeks before withdrawing.

British At Augusta

The British under Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell left Augusta on February 14, 1779, the same day as the battle of Kettle Creek.  Campbell had already issued the orders to withdraw the day before, so the loss at Kettle Creek had nothing to do with his decision.  Rather, it had to do with the arrival of more patriot militia reinforcements at Purrysburg.  

Brier Creek, Georgia
General Benjamin Lincoln had set up command at Purrysburg.  His camp sat on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River, between the main British force at Savannah and Campbell’s outpost at Augusta.  The British feared that the Americans might cross the river to cut off and isolate the army at Augusta.

For several weeks, that was not a concern, because the Americans did not have enough men.  General Lincoln had about 350 Continental soldiers at Purrysburg, along with about 1000 militia from Georgia and South Carolina.  The bulk of the militia was from South Carolina and by all accounts was poorly organized.  Lincoln was concerned about having to use them in battle.  Also, many of the South Carolina militia refused to cross into Georgia.  As they had with Lincoln’s predecessor, General Robert Howe, the South Carolina militia officers refused to take orders from the Continental commander. Continental General William Moultrie, from South Carolina himself, wrote in one report that the South Carolina militia were “worse than nothing, as they absolutely refuse Gen. Lincoln’s orders.” 

The situation changed on January 29, when General Lincoln received the first of his requested reinforcements, more than 1100 North Carolina militia under the command of General John Ashe.  Lincoln ordered Ashe to join South Carolina General Andrew Williamson who had a smaller force of militia just across the Savannah River from Augusta.  It was after Ashe’s reinforcements appeared across the river from Augusta, that British Colonel Campbell decided to evacuate the city.

Andrew Williamson 

I mentioned Andrew Williamson back in Episode 191 when then-Colonel Williamson had commanded the South Carolina militia that participated in the effort with Continental General Robert Howe to invade British-controlled East Florida.  Williamson had refused to take orders from Howe, or even cooperate effectively with him, leading to the American loss at Alligator Bridge and the failure of the expedition.

Williamson was a Scottish immigrant who had settled on the western frontier of the South Carolina colony as a young man.  By 1760, he was a lieutenant in the South Carolina militia, and served in the campaign against the Cherokee that I discussed way back in Episode 15.  William established his plantation in the backcountry, a few miles from Fort Ninety-Six.  By the time the Revolution began, he was a militia major and a committed patriot.  He was elected to the provincial congress for the colony.  In 1775 he was a key officer in the suppression of loyalist organizing in the western part of South Carolina, in the fighting that I discussed back in Episode 77.  The following year, Williamson received promotion to colonel for the campaign to crush another Cherokee uprising that threatened the newly declared independent state of South Carolina (see Episode 102).

In 1778 South Carolina had promoted Williamson to brigadier general and sent him to fight with Continental General Howe in the expedition against Florida.  After the British captured Savannah, Williamson assembled his army and coordinated defensive efforts with General Lincoln.

John Ashe

Joining General Williamson in the effort to challenge British control of Augusta, was North Carolina Militia General John Ashe.

Ashe was the son of a wealthy lawyer who had immigrated to the Cape Fear region of North Carolina many decades before.  Ashe was born into a powerful and influential family within the colony.  His father served as Speaker of the colonial assembly and owned a large plantation, but died when John was still a child.  

John Ashe
As a young man, Ashe briefly attended Harvard College, although he did not graduate.  He established a plantation in North Carolina.  He served in the colonial assembly, and became Speaker for a few years, just as his father had done.  Ashe also served as an officer in the colonial militia.  

In the pre-war era, Ashe established a reputation as a committed patriot.  He served in the provincial congress for North Carolina, and sat on the committees of safety and correspondence.  He resigned his commission as a colonel of the royal colonial militia and took a position in the patriot militia at the same rank.

In 1775, Colonel Ashe led the patriot capture of Fort Johnson, which I discussed back in Episode 69.  He had raised the regiment at his own expense, promising his plantation as a personal guarantee of pay for his soldiers.  The following year, Ashe received appointment as brigadier general.  Ashe had to establish defenses at Cape Fear in 1776 when the British briefly threatened to land there, and also helped to crush the loyalists that ended with the battle at Moore’s Creek Bridge.

The next couple of years were relatively uneventful for North Carolina.  In late 1778, South Carolina promoted Ashe to be the first major general of militia in the State.  After the British captured Savannah a month later, and General Lincoln sent out a call for support, Governor Richard Caswell ordered Ashe to lead his militia army to assist General Lincoln.

When General Ashe arrived in Purrysburg with his army at the end of January, General Lincoln judged that his North Carolina militia was far better organized and disciplined than the South Carolina militia that had been his main reinforcement up until that time.  Lincoln ordered Ashe to join General Williamson up by Augusta.

Apparently Ashe was a bit miffed by these orders.  His men had just marched 400 miles and were lacking equipment.  Lincoln was ordering Ashe on another 120 mile march with little rest and few supplies.  Given that the South Carolina forces were better rested and supplied, it seemed rather unfair to give this assignment to his North Carolina army.  Even so, Ashe complied with the orders and spent the better part of the next two weeks marching to meet up with Williamson.

British Evacuation

Ashe’s North Carolina militia, along with some other soldiers who had joined them at Purrysburg, arrived just across the river from British-occupied Augusta on February 13.  When combined with General Williamson’s forces the total enemy force facing the British probably totaled about 2400 or 2500 men. British Colonel Campbell observed the combined militia army, which he guess was more than three times the size of his 1000 man garrison, and opted to evacuate the following morning.

The British tried to put their best face on the evacuation.  They characterized it as a raid which had resulted in the acquisition of supplies and the recruitment of several hundred loyalist militia.  But based on their hopes at the time they occupied Augusta, it had to be seen as a failure.  The British had hoped that thousands of loyalists would take up arms on behalf of the King and establish an army that would not only pacify all of the Georgia backcountry, but would provide the soldiers needed to invade South Carolina.  Instead, British authority would be limited to a small region around Savannah.

Colonel Campbell marched his regulars and militia back toward Savannah, marching for nearly two weeks before establishing a camp in Ebenezer, just over 20 miles north of Savannah and about 10 north of the main American force at Purrysburg, just across the river in South Carolina.  Along the way, he acquired the 270 men who had escaped from the battle of Kettle Creek that I discussed last week.  While the men were too few and too late to change anything strategically, Campbell formed them into the Royal Regiment of North Carolina and added them to his army.

After the evacuation of Augusta, General Williamson’s South Carolina militia immediately occupied the town and set about exacting punishments on any loyalists or loyalist property that belonged to men who backed Campbell while the British were in Augusta.  He made sure all loyalist outposts that had been established were eliminated, and that the locals who were still there were either arrested for collaboration, or swore an oath of loyalty to the patriot cause.

General Ashe followed orders to pursue Campbell’s retreating army. Ashe’s militia pursued, but not very aggressively.  Remember, the North Carolina militia had just marched four hundred miles to join with Lincoln, then marched over one hundred miles up to Augusta, and now were marching another hundred miles down the South Carolina bank of the Savannah River in pursuit of the British.  These were also militia, many of whom were not combat experienced.  Even General Ashe had not seen combat in over two years.

There is no record of combat harassing fire as both armies marched southward.  The North Carolina militia stopped at Brier Creek because the British had burned the main bridge over the creek.  The militia spent several days in camp while they rebuilt the bridge.

MacAlister’s Murder

Campbell had only suffered one death of a regular soldier during his occupation of Augusta.  But the death was one that greatly upset many British soldiers.

71st Light
Infantry officer
During this era, it was a common practice for officers to deploy a guard to ensure the protection of a home or family from looting or destruction.  A patriot officer who was being held prisoner in Savannah had requested that his home and family near Savannah receive such protection.  Colonel Campbell had deployed Private MacAlister of the 71 Regiment’s light infantry to ensure the protection of the home of this captured American officer.  American raiders found this soldier at the American home and killed him.

For the British this breach of protocol, murdering a soldier assigned to protect the home and family of an American officer, was a crime.  Campbell protested the killing to General Williamson.  In response, Williamson said that he would send the men to General Lincoln to determine whether punishment was appropriate.  Lincoln declined to take any action.  Some have speculated that Lincoln’s decision not to punish the murderers was out of fear that it might lead to much of the rest of the South Carolina militia deserting and going home.

MacAlister had apparently been a popular soldier in his regiment, and his murder did not go over well.  The cry “remember poor MacAlister” would be used in several later battles and skirmishes to encourage the regulars to kill the enemy without mercy.

Brier Creek

Once Colonel Campbell reached Ebenezer, he turned over command to Lieutenant Colonel Mark PrĂ©vost and headed back to Savannah on his own.  A few days later, he boarded a ship for London.  Campbell had been in American for three years, most of them as a prisoner of war.  His personal finances back in Britain had become a mess.  He also wanted to get married.

Before Campbell left, he had worked with Colonel PrĂ©vost to develop a plan of attack against the Americans at Brier Creek.  PrĂ©vost was the younger brother of General Augustine PrĂ©vost who was in overall command at Savannah.  He assumed command of the detachment at Ebenezer.  With the main American force under General Lincoln at Purrysburg, General Williamson’s militia in and around Augusta, and Ashe’s militia army at Brier Creek, the British were finding themselves increasingly hemmed in.  They relied on the backcountry to provide their army with food and supplies.  Cut off from that region, the British would have to rely on ships from Florida, which were probably not going to be numerous enough to keep the army fed.


The withdrawal from Augusta and the loss of the loyalist militia at Kettle Creek did nothing to encourage the locals to have faith that the British were in control of Georgia.  Most Georgians outside of Savannah had more to fear from patriot reprisals if they cooperated with the British in any way.

On March 1, the British sent a force of about 500 men to take a position about 3 miles south of the Americans as Brier Creek.  That night, PrĂ©vost took a larger force, plus five pieces of field artillery, to march around to the west out of sight and get north of the Americans at Brier Creek.

It took PrĂ©vost until the morning of March 3 to get his soldiers into position.  The Americans were watching the 500 enemy soldiers to their south, and were not aware that a larger force was descending on them from the north.  General Ashe apparently had received some reports, but assumed the enemies to the north were smaller raiding parties.

On the afternoon of March 3, Ashe received reports that the enemy was just minutes away from entering his camp.  A portion of his men had been deployed to the south to monitor the enemy force that was meant to distract him.  Ashe formed up the 900 or so men in his main camp to form a defensive line.  But again, these were relatively untrained and inexperienced militia.  They also had a wide variety of muskets, meaning that the deployment of ammunition was a source of confusion.

The British force under PrĂ©vost advanced on the American line.  The American center, which had the few Continental soldiers, supplemented by Georgia militia, advanced as well to close the gap between the two firing armies.  The North Carolina militia on both the right and left flanks did not advance, leading to large gaps in the American lines.  

PrĂ©vost saw these gaps, ordered his regulars to fix bayonets and charge.  Many of the North Carolina militia fled into the swamps without firing a shot.  The American center held for a  couple of volleys, but were soon overwhelmed and either surrendered or fled.  Most of the Continentals were killed or taken prisoner.

General Ashe fled after his militia, abandoning the field.  Hearing gunfire, about 200 American reinforcements returned to the camp from duty repairing a bridge.  Seeing the Americans being routed, they also fled the field without firing a shot.

The total number of American casualties is unknown.  The British reported killing at least 150 and capturing 227 prisoners.  Since most of the militia fled into the swamps, more may have drowned while trying to escape.  Of the 1700 men that General Ashe had under his command on the morning of March 3, only about 450 managed to make it back to the main American forces. Most likely, the vast majority of missing were militia who just continued running until they got back home in North Carolina. The British only reported five killed and eleven wounded.  

Aftermath

The British victory at Brier Creek ended any American hopes of recapturing Savannah and pushing the British back into Florida.  The American momentum, from the victory at Kettle Creek and recapturing Augusta, quickly reversed in favor of the British.

Just before the battle, General PrĂ©vost was worried about an American attack on Savannah and desperately struggling to build defenses around the town as quickly as possible.  After the American loss at Brier Creek, the British, once again, moved north.  Although they did not occupy Augusta again, they did move a force to within 40 miles of Augusta, once again giving the British better access to the Georgia backcountry.  The Americans in Augusta pulled back into South Carolina, once again ceding the state to British control.  General Lincoln again consolidated all of his forces around Purrysburg of fear that another isolated division could be subject to a British attack.

Colonel Campbell had been appointed governor of the royal colony of Georgia.  Colonel Mark PrĂ©vost served as lieutenant governor. When Campbell left for London within days of the battle of Brier Creek, Colonel PrĂ©vost became the chief executive of the royal government in Georgia. Working with his brother General PrĂ©vost as military commander, the two men attempted to restore order and colonial status to Georgia.  The men hoped to get more reinforcements to begin a new offensive into South Carolina. While they did not have the numbers to do that yet, British leaders declared that Georgia was the first State to return to British colonial control.

Even under British control, however, the British were unable to get many more Georgians to join their loyalist militia.  Rural Georgians saw what happened to the loyalists massacred at Kettle Creek and the British willingness to abandon them to the patriots when it was militarily convenient, as they had done by evacuating Augusta.  Locals could not be assured that there would not be another reversal that would put them in danger of retribution by the patriots.  As such, Georgia loyalists never enlisted in anywhere near the numbers that the British leaders had hoped.

General Ashe managed to return to Purrysburg with a few of his soldiers.  He would be court martialed for cowardice, but acquitted on that charge.  He was, however, found guilty of failing to establish adequate defenses for this camp at Brier Creek.  He continued to serve as commander of the South Carolina militia. Most of the militia saw their enlistments end within a month of the loss at Brier Creek.  They were in no mood to sign on for any extended stays, regardless of any promises of increased pay or other benefits. They had lost faith in their military commanders and simply wanted to go home.  General Ashe also returned to North Carolina, where he resumed his other primary duty as State Treasurer.  General Lincoln was left in command a much smaller army that was in no condition to go on the offensive.

Next week, Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens propose freeing slaves and arming them to serve in the Continental Army.

- - -

Next  Episode 214 Proposal to Arm Slaves 


 Contact me via email at mtroy.history@gmail.com

 Follow the podcast on Twitter @AmRevPodcast

 Join the Facebook group, American Revolution   Podcast: https://www.facebook.com/groups/132651894048271

American Revolution Podcast Merch!

T-shirts, hoodies, mugs, pillows, totes, notebooks, wall art, and more.  Get your favorite American Revolution logo today.  Help support this podcast.  http://tee.pub/lic/AmRevPodcast


American Revolution Podcast is distributed 100% free of charge. If you can chip in to help defray my costs, I'd appreciate whatever you can give.  Make a one time donation through my PayPal account. You may also donate via Venmo (@Michael-Troy-20), Zelle, or popmoney (send to mtroy1@yahoo.com)


Click here to see my Patreon Page
You can support the American Revolution Podcast as a Patreon subscriber.  This is an option making monthly pledges.  Patreon support will give you access to Podcast extras and help make the podcast a sustainable project.

An alternative to Patreon is SubscribeStar.  For anyone who has problems with Patreon, you can get the same benefits by subscribing at SubscribeStar.

Help Support this podcast on "BuyMeACoffee.com"



Visit the American Revolution Podcast Bookshop.  Support local bookstores and this podcast!





Signup for the AmRev Podcast Mail List

* indicates required

Further Reading

Websites

Battle of Briar Creek: https://revolutionarywar.us/year-1779/battle-briar-creek

Battle of Briar Creek: https://www.myrevolutionarywar.com/battles/790304-briar-creek

Henry, William An Unfortunate Affair: The Battle of Brier Creek and the Aftermath in Georgia, Georgia Southern University, 2021: https://digitalcommons.georgiasouthern.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1914&context=etd

General John Ashe: https://ashefamily.info/people/born-in-the-18th-century/major-general-john-ashe-1720-1781

Andrew Williamson: https://www.carolana.com/SC/Revolution/patriot_leaders_sc_andrew_williamson.html

Ashmore, Otis, and Charles H. Olmstead. “The Battles of Kettle Creek and Brier Creek” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 10, no. 2, 1926, pp. 85–125. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40575848

Heidler, David S. “The American Defeat at Briar Creek, 3 March 1779.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 66, no. 3, 1982, pp. 317–331. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40580932

Cox, William E. “Brigadier-General John Ashe’s Defeat in the Battle of Brier Creek.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 57, no. 2, 1973, pp. 295–302. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40579524

Searcy, Martha Condray. “1779: The First Year of the British Occupation of Georgia.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 67, no. 2, 1983, pp. 168–188. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40581049

Univ. of Georgia Charrette: Report on the Battle of Brier Creek (PDF): https://ced.uga.edu/pso/charrettes/images/FinalCharretteReport-WEB_BrierCreek2015_JMlewis08312016.pdf

Free eBooks
(from archive.org unless noted)

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.: 

Peck, John Mason Lives of Daniel Boone and Benjamin Lincoln, Boston : C.C. Little and J. Brown, 1847. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*

Campbell, Archibald Journal of an expedition against the rebels of Georgia in North America under the orders of Archibald Campbell, Esquire, Lieut. Colol. of His Majesty's 71st Regimt., 1778, Ashantilly Press, 1981. 

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 Ga Press, 1958. 

Hall, Leslie, Land and Allegiance in Revolutionary Georgia, Univ. of Ga Press, 2001.  

Martin, Scott Savannah 1779: The British Turn South, Osprey Publishing, 2017. 

Mattern, David B. Benjamin Lincoln and the American Revolution, Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1998: 

Piecuch, Jim Three Peoples, One King: Loyalists, Indians, and Slaves in the Revolutionary South, 1775-1782, Columbia: Univ. of South Carolina Press, 2008. 

Russell, David Lee. The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies. McFarland & Company, 2000. 

Wilson, David K. The Southern Strategy: Britain’s Conquest of South Carolina and Georgia 1775-1780, Univ. of S.C. Press, 2005. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.