We learn as young children in school about the American Revolution and the “fight for freedom” of the colonists in the 13 “original” colonies. But we learn very little about the 14th and 15th British colonies south of the St Lawrence River, colonies like Quebec to the north of that river which were acquired in 1763 and had largely Catholic populations when the British assumed control. In this week’s Florida History Podcast, we discuss the American Revolution in loyalist Florida.
British East Florida and West Florida opted to stay loyal to the crown during the American Revolution.
British took control of Florida in 1763 and during the second Spanish period which began in 1784 to take control of Florida.
The American Revolution
We’ve previously discussed why Florida as a British colony invited to the Continental Congress decided to remain loyal to the crown in London. Here is an excerpt from that article:
East and West Florida (The British split Florida into two administrative sections after assuming control of the region in 1763) declined even though Lt. Gov. John Moultrie’s three living brothers (who resided in South Carolina) all became officers in the Patriot Army. In fact Lt. Gov. Moultrie’s brother William handed the rebels perhaps its biggest victory before the Battle of Trenton during 1776, when he successfully defended Charleston, which was the largest city in the colonies south of Philadelphia.
The two Florida’s with its large Catholic population inherited from nearly 200 years of Spanish rule much like Quebec (Catholic because it was settled by the French), stayed loyal to the crown. The British had spent the previous decade trying to reconcile with Catholics in Ireland and in other parts of the empire, after over two centuries of animosity. Political Commentator and Historian Kevin Phillips in The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America studied and wrote about the religious origins of the three major civil wars in the English speaking world. The American Revolution as he demonstrates in his work fits this pattern. Catholics, who about two decades earlier had loathed anything British by-and-large stayed loyal to the crown, while Protestant denominations were split. But ultimately religion did play a role in many cases as to who fought for independence and who stayed loyal to King George III. In fact, during the Irish Rebellion of 1798 it is often forgotten many of the leaders of the uprising were protestants from Ulster who had been inspired by American Revolution and the anti-Catholic Church actions of the French Revolution. Many Catholics in Ireland in 1798 stayed loyal to British rule while some Protestants did not, something that seems inconceivable from where we sit today.
During the Revolutionary War invasions of Florida were authorized by the Continental Army’s commanders.
During the Revolution, Pensacola became an important military staging ground for the British and St Augustine became that and more. St Augustine was a strategic city whose population swelled thanks to fleeing loyalists from Georgia and South Carolina.
It also provided a security blanket for Britain’s more important colonies in the Caribbean from where sugar and rum among other products were exported to Britain. St Augustine was a key to protecting Britain’s Caribbean empire much as it had been a key for the Spanish for 200 hundred years to protect their Caribbean assets. St Augustine also provided a base for British attacks on the southern colonies. The city was on three different occasions the object of American desires, but each invasion of Florida was repulsed far north of St Augustine by the British.
While the American rebels made several failed attempts to capture St Augustine, raiding was a common occurrence along the Georgia-East Florida border at the St Mary’s River, leaving Northeast Florida in a constant state of partial war.
The Battle of Thomas Creek fought in 1777 repulsed the second of three attempts by the United States forces to capture British St Augustine. The battle fought in modern Nassau County was a clear British victory.
In 1778, British forces defeated an American combination of Militia and Cavalry at the Battle of Alligator Bridge in present day Nassau County. This engagement which was much larger than the one fought at Thomas Creek the previous year ended attempts by the Continental Army to capture East Florida.
The British in Florida successfully cultivated Indian allies and this was a big part of the being able to prevent any sort of successful penetration by rebel forces beyond what is now Nassau County.
In March 1781, the Spanish who had joined in the War of Independence on the side of the American colonists launched a siege against Pensacola. The British and their native American allies were defeated after two months and the entirety of West Florida fell into Spanish hands by the end of May 1781. However, East Florida continued to be secure and a militarized protector of the British possessions in the Caribbean which were facing potential French attack.
Florida as a whole was ceded back to the Spanish in 1783 as part of the Treaty of Paris ending the war, and formal control was handed over in 1784.