Florida on the 4th: Attempted American invasions of British East Florida

Writers note: This is part two of a three part series on TFS to commemorate the Fourth of July discussing Florida and the American Revolution.  As I continue research for my forthcoming book, Albion Florida, I am uncovering more interesting history of Florida in the Revolutionary War- a history that has been largely under-told through the years.

FIRST ATTEMPTED AMERICAN INVASION OF EAST FLORIDA

In August 1776, Major General Charles Lee who was the Continental Army’s Military Commander in the South authorized an invasion of East Florida. The previous year the Continental Army under General Richard Montgomery had invaded British-held Quebec, but Montgomery had been killed and Benedict Arnold led a retreat back into New York.

Lee’s forces were planning to march south from Savannah and eventually take boats to the coastal town of Darien. Not enough boats were commissioned to transport all the troops so many marched southward. Food was scarce and the marching became insufferable for many troops. Large numbers of desertions took place and the mission was eventually abandoned.

A few troops made it to the border with East Florida along the Kings Road, but could go no further in December 1776 due to a lack of food and supplies. 


One benefit of the campaign for the Continental Forces was the construction of Fort Rowe and Fort McIntosh which would protect the Kings Road, which ran from St Augustine into southern Georgia.

By Michael Rivera – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56587287

SECOND ATTEMPTED AMERICAN INVASION OF BRITISH EAST FLORIDA

East Florida Rangers

Thomas Brown, a loyalist Georgia Plantation owner, was taken prisoner and tortured by the Sons of Liberty in 1775 soon after the Whig takeover of the colony.  Brown suffered a fractured skull and lost two toes from the actions which included being tarred and feathered.

Instead of scaring Brown into submission, the rebels had created an enemy who would work to organize loyalist and Native American resistance to the American rebels for the duration of the war.

Brown set up a network of loyalist allies from East Florida to North Carolina and spent a year living among the Native Americans, winning their trust and more importantly forming an alliance that persisted through the war. Thus the East Florida Rangers, a division of the larger Kings Rangers, were formed.

In February 1777, Brown’s Rangers and his Native American allies began intense raiding of Patriot areas of Georgia. Brown’s success forced Georgia’s rebel leaders to contemplate an invasion of East Florida as retaliation.

From December 1776 until April 1777 southern loyalist Tories moved to St Augustine with weapons and food. This combined with the raiding activities of the East Florida Rangers prompted action in Georgia.

Georgia Governor Button Gwinnett was determined to gather a force to target St Augustine as early as February 1777, but several delays and internal squabbles led to

The Battle of Thomas Creek

In April 1777, East Florida Governor Patrick Tonyn was made aware that American rebels once again planned to invade Florida from the north. On May 10, American forces crossed the St Mary’s River and entered East Florida.

During the first two weeks of May, British forces including 400 regulars, Brown’s Rangers and Native American allies moved up the St Johns River and eventually camped close to where the Continental forces were. At this point Brown and his Creek allies detached from the main force, and on the night of May 15, 1777, raided the Continental camp and made off with about 15 horses.

On May 17, 1777, British forces attacked the American rebels who were camped on the banks of Thomas Creek, in what is now Nassau County. The rebels were ambushed, many fleeing at the first sight of British regulars.

On May 25, after regrouping on Amelia Island, the American forces withdrew to the other side of the St Mary’s River.

THIRD ATTEMPTED AMERICAN INVASION OF BRITISH EAST FLORIDA

After the defeat of the Continentals at Thomas Creek, the East Florida Rangers resumed raiding south Georgia and even advanced at one point to within a dozen or so miles of Savannah.The Rangers also successfully raided Augusta.

On January 29, 1778, American General Robert Howe formulated plans for yet another invasion of East Florida. However this time, he had hoped to not rely heavily on local militia and instead build the bulk of his force around regulars. This was not politically popular and Howe was forced to use the militia as well.

In March of 1778, Brown and his East Florida Rangers had routed the militia at Fort Barrington on the Altamaha River. The Rangers forced the surrender of the militia and took control of the fort.

Battle of Alligator Creek

In May, Howe set his forces south and crossed St Mary’s River on June 26. After some initial success including chasing Brown’s Rangers south, the Continental’s again ran into trouble.

On June 28, Howe sent James Screvin after Brown and the Rangers. Occupying Fort Tonyn the next day, the Americans seemed to be having more success this time around than the previous two efforts to invade East Florida.

Then the next morning on, June 30, 1778, Screvin’s forces were met by Brown’s Rangers and British regulars.

The American combination of Militia and Cavalry was no match for the British at The Battle of Alligator Creek 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 had close to 1,000 troops between regulars, militia and Native Americans, badly outnumbering the Rebels and leading to a hasty retreat. East Florida would not be threatened again during the war.

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