First Florida Expedition

  • Time Period: August- December, 1776
  • Area: Georgia and Florida areas
  • Explanation: ??

Britain had gained control of Spanish Florida in 1763 as a direct result of the French and Indian War. Like southern Georgia, most of the development was contained to the coastal areas at the northern end of the peninsula, so Britain created East and West Florida as independent royal governments. Since both were so new, neither had a political infrastructure, only a royal governor and a few officials. Patrick Tonyn, royal governor of East Florida was generally viewed as a capable leader. The lack of political infrastructure and sparse population meant neither colony was interested in joining in the Revolution.

The capital of East Florida was St. Augustine. It was not only the seat of British power in the colony, but the home town of John Stuart, British agent to the Creek Indians. Stuart's power was significantly more widespread than Tonyn's, for the Creek Nation that he had befriended spread across more than 10,000 square miles. To the Savannah-area Georgians and the Whigs of South Carolina, Stuart in St. Augustine was as much the target of the invasion as was Tonyn's Florida Rangers. To the Whigs in South Georgia, it was really the Rangers who were the target of the expedition.

British East Florida had been increasing in population dramatically since the Whigs began to take power in Georgia in 1775. Unhappy Tories from throughout the Southeastern United States crossed the border, often seeking revenge on the Whigs who had taken their land by joining the Florida Rangers. Among the men who joined this group was Germyn Wright, brother of the former royal governor of Georgia James Wright.

Although these Rangers could be considered "loose-knit," they did have a command structure in place, and based on Tonyn's letters, took orders from the governor. Individual units, however, seemed to be almost guerilla in style. Any organized battle against such individualistic frontiersmen would be extremely difficult. They never really had to worry about the force headed south from Savannah. In addition to the Rangers there was a garrison of British regulars at St. Augustine perhaps totaling 500 men.

Preparations for the first of three Florida expeditions began in mid-August, 1776. It was a study in poor planning, poor preparation, and even worse execution, especially compared to the successful raids of Capt. William McIntosh earlier in August. The expedition also highlighted in the often raucous behavior between the Continental Army and the Georgia Militia.

Continental Commander Maj. Gen. Charles Lee, the English-born son of an Irishman, had served in the British Army. This gave his ideas merit, although he was generally viewed as "eccentric" by Georgia's Council of Safety. Lee viewed the Georgians with contempt, unable to organize even the basic needs of an army, although he held individual officers in high regard.

Heading south from Savannah, the troops made it almost intact to Sunbury. From here, however, they began to run into problems. First and foremost of the problems was transportation. Lee had requested boats so the troops could plow the waters of coastal Georgia down to Darien, but the Council of Safety did not acquire enough of them for all the troops, so many of the men marched south in September.

Two forts were built as protection during the march. Fort Howe, built on the banks of the Altamaha River on the site of Fort Barrington and Fort McIntosh, built on the banks of the Satilla River. Both protected the major north-south route of the day, The King's Road.

Disease, combined with hot weather, increased the number of desertions as the Continental Army and Georgia Militia moved in force towards Florida. Once the troops moved south of the Altamaha River food became scarce because many of the residents had packed up and headed north to safety. Then word reached the men that backcountry Georgia was under attack by the Chickamauga Cherokee, and the Creek Indians were moving to support the British garrison at St. Augustine. The attack by the Cherokee was the work of John Stuart, who inspired the Chickamaugas.

In spite of all these problems, a small group of the combined armies did reach the Florida border, only to be betrayed by Loyalists within their ranks. Capt. John Baker, who was in command of the detachment, was forced to retreat for lack of supplies and transportation. All troops, Continental and Militia, had returned to their respective bases of operations by December.

One of the legacies of the First Florida Expedition were the forts built by the troops. Included in these forts were Beard's Bluff, McIntosh and Howe, a defensive perimeter for the settlers.

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