January 10 1778, John Houstoun was elected as the new Governor of Georgia.
Born at Frederica, he was a lawyer in Savannah — only 27 years old when
elected governor. Expectations were high as one on the Council of Safety
stated, “…We have some reason to expect Good order and harmony will succeed
the Anarchy and Tyranny which has so long distracted this unhappy State…”
Instead Houstoun became one of Georgia’s greatest disappointments in the
The frontier between the Independent state of
British province of
was, for the first three years of
War, the scene of ongoing cattle raids by the Loyalist Florida
Rangers and allied Indians. Political and military leaders in Georgia believed
that East Florida's capital,
was vulnerable, and repeatedly promoted expeditions to capture it.
The first two failures did not dissuade Georgians from a third attempt upon
Florida in 1778.
The southernmost post in Georgia was Fort Howe (before the war known as Fort
on the banks of the
above Darien, and the northernmost Florida outpost was at
near Kings, also called Mills, Ferry on the St. Marys River, in present-day
Nassau County. East Florida Governor
had under his command a regiment of Florida Rangers led by Lieutenant Colonel
and five hundred British Regulars under the command of Brigadier General
Tonyn and Prevost squabbled over control of Brown's regiment, and disagreed on
how the province should be defended against the recent forays from Georgia.
Prevost was under orders to stay on the defensive, while Tonyn sought a more
vigorous defense. To that end Tonyn deployed Brown's force along the
St. Marys River,
which formed the border between Florida and Georgia. Brown and his men,
sometimes with support from
engaged in regular raids into coastal Georgia, harassing the defenders and
raiding plantations for cattle to supply some of the province's food needs.
In February 1778, Georgia's assembly authorized Governor
to organize a third expedition against East Florida. The expedition was
opposed by the Continental Army's Southern Department commander, Major General
who, like his counterpart Prevost, sought a more defensive posture. Plans
began to take shape in March taking on more urgency after Brown's Rangers
captured and burned Fort Howe in a surprise attack. After this occurred, the
Loyalists ranged freely throughout Georgia's backcountry, and began recruiting
in the upcountry of Georgia and the Carolinas. Their actions led Georgia's
leadership to conclude that a British invasion of the state was being planned,
and military preparations began to accelerate.
In addition to land forces, both sides had coastal naval forces to marshal.
Florida Governor Tonyn deployed several ships near Darien and in the
Saint Simons Island
from the mainland, seeking to neutralize the
in the Georgia arsenal. Commodore Oliver Bowen commanded the Continental
Georgia Navy, consisting of six Continental galleys which defended the
intercoastal waterways, several provincial sloops brought supplies, and a few
privateers screened the open sea.
General Howe reluctantly agreed to support the expedition, and in early April,
Georgia's 500 Continental troops, under Colonel Samuel Elbert began to move
south, occupying the site of the burned Fort Howe on April 14.
The next day, Elbert
learned that four British vessels were sailing in the St. Simons Sound; he
sailed with three Georgia Navy galleys and captured three British ships near
the ruins of Fort Frederica. Elbert returned to Fort Howe to wait
Howe and additional
troops. On May
10, they were joined by Howe with
detachment of 500 South Carolina Continentals and Artillery, and they
understood that General Andrew Williamson, leading 800 to 1,000 South Carolina
Militia, was en route to Fort Howe.
Frederica Naval Action
During the preparation for the Third Florida Expedition at Fort Howe, Elbert
learned on April 15 that four British vessels were sailing in the St. Simons
Sound, between St, Simons and Jekyll Islands.
Sailing from Darien with three row galleys and artillery in another vessel,
Elbert’s flotilla arrived near
on April 18. (The “fort” was ruins of a British fort commanded by General
James Oglethorpe, beginning in 1736 until 1748, when a peace treaty was signed
with the Spaniards.)
Colonel Elbert observed the attack preparations of the British, and at
daybreak on April 19, he initiated an attack against the British vessels as
anchored at the fort. Beginning at dawn on April 19, 1778, the Georgia Navy galleys: Lee, Washington, and Bulloch, attacked HM brigantine
Hinchinbrook, the armed sloop Rebecca, and another armed brig. The
British attempted to retaliate, but were out-gunned and out-maneuvered. As
they tried to gain an advantage by moving down river their ships grounded,
were abandoned, and captured. This remarkable victory, called the
Naval Action, boosted patriot morale and delayed by more than eight months the
British invasion of Georgia.
Florida Expedition was better equipped than the other two. Armaments of all
sorts were in better supply than they had been, and even Artillery was
available. Nevertheless, such amenities as tents, camp kettles, canteens and
medicines continued to be almost nonexistent. As the
days passed at Fort Howe, the weather grew hotter, heavy rains seriously
endangered their ammunition, provisions ran short, morale deteriorated
and there were frequent desertions, leading to at least eleven executions.
Governor John Houstoun had issued a proclamation calling on volunteers to meet
at a camp in Burke County, offering plunder that they may capture. On April
26, a force of 400 Georgia militia arrived at the camp, and General James
Screven was designated the military commandant of this contingent.
Governor Tonyn and General Prevost were aware of Howe’s progress, since
Brown’s Rangers and Indian forces continued to perform reconnaissance,
occasionally skirmishing with the Georgians and testing the security of their
camps. On one occasion, Brown was challenged by a picket, and followed by
horseman so closely that he was forced to drop his baggage, including his
coat, in order to escape into the swamp. The contents of the baggage revealed
that the Georgians had nearly captured Thomas Brown, himself. General Prevost
moved some of his Regulars forward to the Alligator Creek Bridge on the Nassau
River, placing most of them on the King’s Road, the main route to St.
Houstoun, who had no prior military experience, and his volunteer militia
finally reached General Howe’s troops on the St. Marys River in late June. At
this point the expedition almost broke down because General Howe and Governor
Houstoun could not agree on how to proceed. Houstoun wanted to march directly
toward St. Augustine, forcing a confrontation with the
Prevost’s Regulars posted fifteen miles away on the King’s Road.
Howe wanted to first
the East Florida Rangers and capture Fort Tonyn, ten miles downstream.
destruction of Fort Tonyn was one of the principal goals of Howe’s forces
invading East Florida. The fort, located in present-day Nassau County on the
south side of the St. Mary's River, about one mile east of Kings Ferry which
was also called Mills Ferry, had become a nuisance to Georgians because it was
a base for raids into that state by Brown's Florida Rangers as well as a haven
for fleeing Loyalists.
parties of Florida Rangers and Indians fired on the Patriot forces, but their
greatest enemy was sickness.
General Howe’s expedition force finally began crossing the Altamaha on May 28,
but on June 6, about 300 Continentals became so sick that they returned to
Darien. The only encouraging note was Howe’s announcement on June 1 that
France had publicly acknowledged the independence of the United States of
America. In celebration, thirteen cannon were fired, and an issue of grog was
served to all.
Howe’s force moved very slowly, crossing the Satilla on June 21 and reaching
the St. Marys River on June 26.
The “usual order of march” was Georgia Continentals in the lead followed by
detachments of militia. The South Carolina Continentals trailed, sometimes as
far back as the previous river crossing. No one was sure where Williamson and
the South Carolina Militia were, except they were far behind.
28, Howe’s Continentals finally began their march to Fort Tonyn. Their delay
had given Brown’s Rangers time to secure their equipment and burn the fort. On
June 28, Brown abandoned the fort and retreated into Cabbage Swamp, from which
they annoyed the Continentals as much as possible. The next day, June 29,
Howe’s force of over 400 men “captured” the fort and occupied it through July
Commodore Bowen’s Georgia galley had entered the Nassau River, and Continental
Colonel John White with ninety infantry and fourteen dragoons (light horsemen)
camped at Nassau Bluff near the mouth of the river. Prevost dispatched twenty
of his dragoons, and chased White’s men into the swamp. The British force
dined on the dinner that had been prepared for the Georgians, and then fell
back toward Alligator Creek
30, Brown’s Rangers and Indians left Cabbage Swamp and marched toward the
Nassau River and encamped about six miles north of Prevost’s forces.
The way south from Fort Tonyn on the King’s Road led to a bridge across
Alligator Creek, a Nassau River tributary about fourteen miles away, where
British General Prevost had placed detachments of the 16th and 60th Regiments
of Regulars and
South Carolina Royal Americans
led by Daniel McGirth. They had constructed a redoubt of logs and brush with a
wide moat to defend the
Alligator Creek Bridge over that tributary of the Nassau River.
In addition to Brown’s 200 Florida Rangers, these forces
included 200 South Carolina Royal Americans
and 500 British Regulars, all under the command of General Prevost's younger
Houstoun opted to attack the Regulars at Alligator Creek; but first he ordered
General Screven’s 100 mounted Georgia Militia to pursue Brown’s Rangers as
they retreated south from Fort Tonyn toward Alligator Creek.
Brown continued moving down the road toward the bridge, but was surprised and
overtaken by Screven's militia shortly before he got there. As a result,
Brown's men were chased directly into the established British position at the
There was some initial confusion, because neither Screven's nor Brown's forces
had conventional uniforms, so the British Regulars thought all of those
arriving were Brown's men. This changed quickly however, and a firefight broke
out. Prevost's Regulars quickly took up positions and began firing on
Screven's men, while some of Brown's men went around their flank.
Elijah Clarke led 100 mounted militia on an attack on the weakest British
flank, so Screven could advance on the British front. The British Regulars and
Rangers met Clarke’s forces whose
horses penetrated the abatis of logs and bushes with great difficulty but
found the moat too wide to leap. Clarke was shot through his thigh, and barely
escaped capture. With the failure of Clarke’s attack, Screven’s main reserve
force did not attack
and many narrowly escaped being trapped before Screven ordered the retreat. In
the pitched battle, men on both sides went down;
Georgians’ loss being thirteen killed and several wounded, while the British
suffered nine casualties.
Andrew Williamson’s South Carolina Militia finally crossed the Altamaha River
in July. Like Houston, Williamson refused to co-ordinate with General Howe.
The Militia and Continentals were encamped about eight miles apart on
opposites of the St. Marys River.
Governor Houston urged General Howe to again attack the British at Alligator
Creek on July 2. Howe promptly agreed on the condition that Houston supply the
Continentals with rice. The Continental forces were out of rice, since a
supply galley had failed to arrive. Houston replied that he did not have
sufficient provisions with his own camp for the next day’s rations. The
Patriot attack did not take place.
The Continental force had been reduced by disease and desertion to only 400
effective soldiers; the
hospital returns contained one-half of Howe’s command. By this time the
scarcity of forage had reduced the Continental’s horses to below the number
required to drag the artillery, ammunition, provisions and baggage.The
shortage of food and the ongoing command disagreements spelled the end of the
11, General Howe called a council of war for his Continental officers and they
resolved to retreat from the St. Marys River, starting July 14. The militia
forces of Houstoun and Williamson had no choice but to follow. Thomas Pickney
stated of the 1778 Florida Expedition, “…before we had taken possession of
Fort Tonyn, which the British abandoned at our approach, more than half of our
troops were in their graves or in the hospitals.”
expedition suffered from the same lack of coordination that doomed the
previous two assaults on the southern borderlands. General Howe's Continentals
managed to “capture” Fort Tonyn on the St. Marys River after it was burned and
abandoned by Brown’s Rangers, and Governor Houston’s Georgia Militia were
repulsed by Major Marc Prevost’s Regulars, Florida Rangers and South Carolina
Royal Americans at the Battle of Alligator Creek, which is also the called
Battle of Alligator Creek Bridge. With limited successes and significant
losses due to sickness, the Patriots returned to Savannah.
“SKIRMISH OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION”
June 30, 1778, a force
of 300 American Cavalry commanded by Colonel Elijah Clarke, participating in
General Robert Howe's invasion of Florida, attacked a column of British at
this place (Alligator Creek Bridge), but were unable to penetrate the nearby
entrenchments of 450 British Regulars and South Carolina Royalists under the
command of Major James Marc Prevost. In this skirmish, Colonel Clarke was
wounded and the Americans withdrew. The next day, the British retired in the
direction of the St. Johns River. Casualties: Americans 13 British 9”.
Erected by Jacksonville Chapter, Florida Society Sons of the American
Although not specifically located, the site
Battle of Alligator Creek is
believed to have occurred on the
north side of Callahan where U.S. Highway 301 joins with U.S. Highway 1. The
Historical Marker is located on the east side of U.S. Highway 1 in Callahan in
Nassau County, located approximately 20 miles northwest of Jacksonville.
Prepared by Bill Ramsaur, Marshes of Glynn Chapter, Georgia Society Sons of
the American Revolution, Revised 2/15/2014
Boatner, Mark M. Landmarks of the American Revolution.
PA: Stackpole Books, 1973)
Buker, George E. and Richard A.
Martin. “Governor Tonyn’s Brown-Water Navy: East Florida During The American
Revolution, 1775-1778,” The Florida Historical Quarterly, Volume 58,
Issue 1, (July 1979), pp 58-71.
Cashin, Edward J (1999). The King's Ranger: Thomas Brown and the American
Revolution on the Southern Frontier (Bronx, New York: Fordham University
Searcy, Mary. The Georgia–Florida Contest in the American Revolution,
1776–1778 (University, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1985)
Smith, Gordon Burns.
Morningstar’s of Liberty: The Revolutionary
War in Georgia 1775-1783, Volume One
(Milledgeville: Boyd Publishing, 2006)
Smith, Gordon Burns.
Morningstar’s of Liberty: The Revolutionary
War in Georgia 1775-1783, Volume Two- Georgia Continental Officers During
the Revolutionary War
Boyd Publishing, 2011)
Wood, Virginia Steele. “The Georgia Navy’s Dramatic
Victory of April 19, 1778” Georgia Historical Society Quarterly 90,
no 2 (2006) pp 165-195