In the last couple of episodes I covered the loss of a second southern army at Camden, where General Cornwallis easily crushed a larger force under General Horatio Gates. Following that loss, British forces focused on the last few patriot militia armies still causing trouble in South Carolina, pushing most of them further west, into or beyond the mountains.
The decisive British victory seemed to secure South Carolina for British rule, making it the second colony, after Georgia, to return to Crown authority by the fall of 1780.
Control of Augusta
British control, however, always seemed to prove far more fluid than officials would have liked. Recall that the British had recaptured Georgia in late 1778, when a relatively small force captured the town of Savannah. The British attempted to secure the entire colony by setting up an outpost in Augusta, but quickly determined that a force that far inland only made itself a tempting target for patriot militia attacks. British control over Georgia by the spring of 1779 was limited to the greater Savannah area.
Augusta was a frontier village, well inland, and farther up the Savannah River from the town of Savannah. It was one of the original five towns established in the 1730’s by James Oglethorpe when he first organized the Georgia Colony. He named the town after the Princess of Wales, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha. At the time, she was the daughter-in-law of King George II, and would soon become the mother of the future King George III.
Originally, the town of Augusta was well within Creek territory, and was established as a trading community with the local tribes.
During the war, Britain wanted to do whatever it could to reestablish control of the entire colony. The army returned Governor James Wright to Savannah, to return civilian control to the colony. The British army managed to mount a raid into South Carolina that nearly recaptured Charleston in 1779, then managed to survive a joint attack by Continental and French forces in that fall.
After fending off that attack, the British would not venture out of Savannah. Large numbers of patriot forces in the west, and just over the river in South Carolina made that too much of a risk. A patriot state government continued to meet in Augusta and claimed control of Georgia. In early 1780, the patriots proclaimed Augusta to be the seat of government for the colony. The relatively small British garrison at Savannah could only watch these events unfold from Savannah. The British could not risk spreading their forces too thinly to control more than Savannah, and left Augusta under patriot control.
Then came the British capture of Charleston in May of 1780. That changed everything. Suddenly, the threat of Continental attacks from South Carolina disappeared. British officials in Savannah decided it was time to retake Augusta and establish real control over the entire colony once again.
Thomas “Burnfoot” Brown
The task of subduing Augusta fell to Lieutenant Colonel Thomas “Burnfoot” Brown. I’ve mentioned Colonel Brown in a number of earlier episodes.
Brown was the son of a wealthy English merchant. His family could trace its ancestry back to minor nobility, but Brown’s branch of the family had lost that title to an older sibling generations earlier. As a young man in his twenties, Brown used his father’s money to recruit more than seventy indentured servants.
|British Map of George & South Carolina|
When the war broke out, in the summer of 1775, shortly after word arrived of the battles of Lexington and Concord, and less than a year after Brown’s arrival in Georgia, the local sons of liberty attempted to coerce him into joining the local patriot cause. Brown refused, saying he would never take up arms against his own country.
The mob seized brown and tortured him, trying to get him to pledge his support to the patriot cause. Various accounts say that his attackers partially scalped him, tarred and feathered him, and burned off the bottoms of his feet. Eventually, Brown succumbed to the torture and pledged his support.
As soon as he escaped his captors, Brown recanted his pledge and began organizing loyalists in the backcountry. He first fled to South Carolina, but after being pursued by patriots there, he moved further west, living among the Creek and Cherokee. Later, he made his way to St. Augustine where he worked with East Florida’s Governor Patrick Tonyn to establish a regiment of loyalist rangers.
By early 1776, Brown had a commission as a lieutenant colonel. He spent the next couple of years leading his rangers and Indian allies against the patriots in a series of border skirmishes between Georgia and East Florida. The border fighting proved relatively inconclusive, but prevented the patriots from capturing the much smaller colony of East Florida.
Brown joined with the larger force that captured Savannah at the end of 1778. His rangers then attempted to reclaim the area around Augusta, which included Brown’s home. The fighting included the battle of Briar Creek, which I covered in Episode 213. As I’ve already said, the fighting between patriots and loyalists in this region was pretty savage and merciless. Brown was a part of that. He showed his ability and bravery as a partisan fighter, wounded several times, but always avoiding capture.
In 1779, shortly after the capture of Savannah, Brown received a more formal commission as a lieutenant colonel of his provincial regiment, now called the King’s Rangers. Brown also received a commission that same year as Superintendent of Indians for the Creek and Cherokee tribes. His rangers fought in the defense of Savannah during the siege that took place in 1779.
When General Henry Clinton brought his larger army south with the intent of recapturing Charleston, South Carolina, he deployed part of his force, about 1400 soldiers under General James Paterson, to Savannah. Paterson’s orders were to secure Augusta. Before Paterson could begin his campaign, he received orders from Clinton to move north and assist with the attack on Charleston. Clinton was calling in all his available forces to ensure the success of his siege in South Carolina.
Paterson’s departure left only a relatively small garrison at Savannah, including Colonel Brown and his King’s Rangers, which was about the same number that had been unable to take Augusta for over a year.
But when Charleston fell in May of 1780, there was no longer any patriot threat from South Carolina that endangered a British expedition from Savannah against Augusta. Most of the patriot militia that had been guarding Augusta had been moved into South Carolina to move the fight there. It was estimated that probably less than 50 patriot militia had been left behind to defend Augusta.
General Clinton approved Colonel Brown’s desired offensive to retake Augusta. Brown left Savannah with his King’s rangers, and supplemented by other provincial units. His force totaled about 300 men. Brown moved slowly, reconnoitering carefully to avoid any ambushes.. He reached Augusta in early June, after about a week’s ride.
Brown met no resistance. The few unrepentant patriots had fled the region. Many local militia who had backed the patriots now offered their services to Brown’s loyalists, hoping to avoid punishment for their former treason. Brown did not take on these suspect soldiers, but he did offer the same terms that Clinton had offered the South Carolina militia. The men could turn in their weapons and return home on parole, on the promise that they never again take up arms against the crown. The British took possession of Augusta without a shot fired.
Securing the Backcountry
Brown was not content to sit in a small garrison town. He knew that securing the countryside was the key to a more permanent end of the rebellion. He deployed a company of King’s rangers to occupy Fort Rutledge, a small outpost that the South Carolina militia had built deeper into Cherokee land.
Brown gave instructions, not to occupy the fort, but to destroy it. He did not want to leave a defensive position that the enemy might reoccupy. At the same time, he wanted to assure his Cherokee allies that he would respect their land claims. Brown followed up on the destruction of Fort Rutledge by removing frontier families who had illegally squatted on Cherokee lands.
As the British army secured South Carolina over the summer of 1780, Augusta became the southwestern outpost in a line of outposts designed to cover the interior of both colonies. Augusta was about 50 miles south of the main outpost at Fort Ninety-Six in South Carolina.
Brown in Augusta worked with Colonel Nisbet Balfour at Fort Ninety-Six to get approval to build a defensible fort at Augusta. By late June, Clinton had departed for New York and left General Cornwallis as the commander of the southern theater. Balfour wrote to Cornwallis, asking for approval to build a fort at Augusta.
Cornwallis wrote back a few days later, denying the request. He allowed for the construction of field works to house the garrison, but no new permanent redoubts or earthworks at either Augusta or Ninety-Six. Cornwallis did not give any reason for his refusal. Part of it may have been the costs that would be incurred. Cornwallis was also trying to spread the perception at this time that the British had restored peace to the region and that the war was over. Law and order had returned. Building a fort would run against that narrative.
Cornwallis wrote to Georgia Governor Wright about this same time saying:
so long as we are in Possession of the whole Power and Force of South Carolina, the Province of Georgia has the most ample and Satisfactory Protection by maintaining a Post at Savannah and another at Augusta, nor can I think myself justified in incurring any further expence on the Army Accounts for the Protection of Georgia.
In other words, if South Carolina is secure, then Georgia has nothing to worry about. We arg going to focus our military resources on the front lines, not on some region that is already well behind where we expect the fighting to move.
Complying with orders, Brown did not build any major defenses, only a small stockade near the river, named Fort Grierson, named for a loyalist colonel from the region. This was really only a storehouse for supplies. It was not designed to be large enough to house the garrison or provide any real defense of Augusta.
Over the next couple of months, the British plan seemed to be working. Locals turned out to join up with the loyalist militia. Even former patriots began to accept British rule and comply with enlistment requests.
Brown proclaimed that he would keep the peace, and promised immediate hanging to any lawless elements who dared to disturb the king’s peace by attacking or raiding any plantations. Law and order, however, was easy to proclaim, but hard to enforce. Since Brown had disarmed many of the former patriots, many criminals began to proclaim themselves loyalists and attacked unarmed plantations in the king’s name. Brown noted that these men were cattle rustlers and horse thieves. They were criminals who would be prosecuted and hanged if caught, but catching them was not that easy. Highway robberies along the route between Savannah and Augusta became commonplace.
Governor Wright requested that Cornwallis send cavalry to run down these criminals, but Cornwallis took the perspective that he was still fighting a real war in South Carolina. Georgia would have to take care of its own law enforcement. Cornwallis had left only about 800 soldiers in all of Georgia. The majority of these were in Savannah. Most of the rest made up the garrison at Augusta. There were almost no regulars among them. Most, aside from Brown’s King’s Rangers, were provincials from New York, New Jersey, or Pennsylvania, supplemented by a few Hessian companies.
The military command at Augusta was placed under the larger military command at Fort Ninety-Six in South Carolina, meaning soldiers at Augusta could be recalled to fight in South Carolina as needed.
After a few weeks, Governor Wright grew concerned about the former rebels who were under parole in Georgia. He feared they might rise up again. Following the lead of Clinton in South Carolina, Wright tried to crack down on the parolees, issuing an order in July which denied former rebels the right to keep and bear arms, who hold any government office. They could be brought before a magistrate at any time to swear allegiance to the crown, and could be required to post bond for continued good behavior. Failure to comply could mean imprisonment or impressment into the British Navy.
Wright, however, saw that when officials in South Carolina tried to impose unacceptable conditions on parolees, it only motivated them to take up arms and begin fighting again. So Wright was hesitant to enforce his proclamation in the western parts of Georgia. He was still hoping that Cornwallis might send reinforcements to help him enforce these proclamations with muskets and bayonets.
Colonel Brown was not convinced that hesitating and simply hoping the quiet would continue was the best plan. He had about 300 men at Augusta, but there were around 500-600 parolees in the surrounding area. Some of these men had already taken up arms again under Elijah Clark, the Georgia patriot who was engaged in guerilla fighting in South Carolina. Absent any orders though, there was little Brown could do.
Instead, Brown focused on holding talks with Creek and Cherokee warriors. The natives could provide hundreds of warriors if needed. Brown convinced many of them that the British would respect native land claims, while the patriots clearly had not.
Siege of Augusta
In September, Brown was meeting with several war chiefs in Augusta when he received word that his garrison was under attack.
Colonel Elijah Clark had recruited a force of between five and six hundred partisans to retake the region. At about 9:00 AM on September 14, Brown launched a three-prong attack against the loyalist garrison at Augusta.
Brown first received word that an Indian camp just outside of town was under attack by the rebels. These were the families of Creek warriors with whom Brown had been trying to negotiate a military alliance.
Brown moved his Rangers, along with several field artillery pieces to relieve the attack. He also left a detachment at MacKay’s Trading post, where he feared the rebels might try to raid the supplies and gifts for the Indians.
By the time Brown’s Rangers reached the Indian encampment, the threat there had faded, but he learned that another rebel column had entered Augusta and were now threatening his rear.
Brown turned around his men and made it back to MacKay’s trading post, where the small detachment was fighting off a rebel attack. A combined relief force of Rangers and Creek warriors drove all the raiders. Since the trading post offered the best defensible ground, the loyalists and Creek dug in there, while the rebels returned to August to plunder the town.
Brown’s men found themselves under siege for three days. While the ground itself was defensible, the defenders found themselves without access to any water. They quickly became dehydrated and desperate. There are accounts of men drinking their own urine. The majority of the force consisted of 250 Creek warriors. Another 50 Cherokee managed to join the defenders during the siege by swimming across the Savannah River and slipping through the enemy lines.
Word reached Fort Ninety-six of the siege at Augusta, but since the fort was fifty miles away, it took nearly two days for the messages to reach them, and two more days for reinforcements to arrive. On September 18, four days after the attack began, reinforcements from Ninety-Six reached the besieged loyalists. Clark’s patriots saw the reinforcements on the other side of the Savannah River, and opted to retreat rather than take on the superior force.
During the retreat, Brown’s men attempted to march out and attack the retreating force. They manage to capture a few prisoners, one of whom they hanged immediately. But the defenders were so exhausted and dehydrated after three days and nights of fighting, that they could not really mount much of a pursuit.
The relief force managed to capture more of the retreating prisoners. Thirteen of those captured were found to be men who had broken their parole, and were hanged. Several prisoners that fell into the hands of the Cherokee were tortured to death.
The relief force was planning to return to Fort Ninety-Six when they learned that Clark’s patriots had stopped their flight only a few miles up river, and were planning another attack on Augusta as soon as the relief force left. Instead, the loyalists launched another offensive to capture Clark’s partisans. Rather than engage a superior force, many of whom were native warriors, the patriots continued to move up the Savannah River until they eventually fled into the mountains of western North Carolina, at which point the main loyalist force returned to Ninety-Six.
The reaction to the American raid on Augusta was swift and severe. Brown and his loyalists burned the plantations of any patriots in the area. They seized other personal property. The wives and children of patriots were driven from their lands and forced to join their men who were mostly by this time in western North Carolina. Loyalists burned over 100 farms they also arrested sixty-eight men who were accused of joining Clark. Most of these men claimed they had been forced to join and were released after taking an oath of allegiance. The remaining twenty-three were sent to Charleston to join the prisoners or war being held there.
Following the attack, Brown’s rangers, with the aid of slave labor, built proper fortifications to defend against any future attacks. The British held control of the region, but the return of the king’s peace and of law and order, remained elusive.
Next time, George Rogers Clark takes his Virginia regiments against Native villages in the Ohio Valley.
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WebsitesThomas Brown: https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/thomas-brown-1750-1825
Coleman, Kenneth. “Restored Colonial Georgia, 1779-1782.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 1, 1956, pp. 1–20. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40577650
Olson, Gary D. “Thomas Brown, Loyalist Partisan, and the Revolutionary War in Georgia, 1777-1782, Part I.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 54, no. 1, 1970, pp. 1–19. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40579039
Olson, Gary D. “Thomas Brown, Loyalist Partisan, and the Revolutionary War in Georgia 1777-1782, Part II.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 54, no. 2, 1970, pp. 183–208. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40579065
Robertson, Thomas Heard. “The Colonial Plan of Augusta.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 86, no. 4, 2002, pp. 511–43. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40584598
Robertson, Thomas Heard. “The Second British Occupation of Augusta, 1780-1781.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 58, no. 4, 1974, pp. 422–46. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40580051
Siege of Augusta https://revolutionarywar.us/year-1780/siege-of-augusta
Williams, Samuel C. “COLONEL ELIJAH CLARKE IN THE TENNESSEE COUNTRY.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 2, 1941, pp. 151–58. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40576770
Free eBooksJohnston, Elizabeth Lichtenstein, Recollections of a Georgia loyalist, Written in 1836, New York: M. F. Mansfield & Co. 1901.
(from archive.org unless noted)
Smith, George G. The Story of Georgia and the Georgia People, 1732 to 1860, Macon: GG Smith, 1900.
Books Worth BuyingCashin, Edward The King's Ranger: Thomas Brown and the American Revolution on the Southern Frontier, New York: Fordham University Press, 1999.
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Hall, Leslie, Land and Allegiance in Revolutionary Georgia, Univ. of Ga Press, 2001.
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.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.