Happy July 4 weekend. You may not have learned in school about Florida’s vital role in the American Revolution, but for the next four days to celebrate the holiday weekend, we will discuss it. Florida stayed loyal to the British Crown during the war, something we will discuss in greater detail on Sunday.
In December 1775, Continental Army General George Washington was informed that the British had been stockpiling weaponry, ammunition and other materials in St Augustine. In January 1776 the Continental Congress authorized the southern colonies to attack St Augustine and capture it in order to safeguard the Patriot cause.
Additionally, capturing St Augustine would give the Continental Army control of the Castillo de Marcos and the ability to directly fight any invading British Army coming from the West Indies.
FIRST ATTEMPTED AMERICAN INVASION OF EAST FLORIDA
Continental Congress member John Rutledge of South Carolina was sent south in early 1776 to oversee the conquest of St Augustine and the formation of an American government in East Florida. However, Major General Charles Lee who was the Continental Army’s Military Commander in the South and put in charge of the an invasion of East Florida at the by General Washington hadn’t moved yet.
Lee wasn’t enthused by the idea and was recalled being replaced by General Robert Howe.
In August 1776, Lee returned and joined Howe for the invasion. 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. This would be the second foray of the Continental Army into British territory that had not joined the rebellion.
Lee’s forces numbering 2,500 were planning to march south from Savannah and eventually take boats to the coastal town of Darien, Georgia. 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 (which had been built by the British in the 1760’s), but could go no further in December 1776 due to a lack of food and supplies.
At this point the Continental Army had been losing 10-15 men a day while the Georgia Militia penetrated deeper almost to the St Johns River, therefore temporarily holding the territories between the St Johns and St Mary’s Rivers in East Florida. But raids back home in Georgia forced the militia to withdraw and the Continental Army retreated as well. With this the first invasion of Florida fizzled out.
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.
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 a duel with General Lachlan McIntosh in which Gwinnett was wounded and later died from his injuries.
These internal problems led delays and the elevation of Lt. Colonel Samuel Elbert to drive the American invasion. The Continental Army captured Amelia Island but then was confronted by the British.
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, 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.
In late 1778 and again in 1780, General Washington wanted to invade East Florida. The Culpher Spy Ring had obtained valuable information about St Augustine as a staging ground hub for British operations. Unfortunately for the Americans circumstances on other fronts aborted these invasions though plans were formulated, particularly in 1780 for a larger invasion with the hopes of capturing St Augustine.