Georgia, Mobilization in

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Georgia, Mobilization in

GEORGIA, MOBILIZATION IN. Georgia, a royal colony since 1752, was the youngest colony seeking independence. Parliament provided an annual subsidy to support civil government, few taxes were collected, and the crown supported territorial expansion. Government gave new settlers land at no cost until 1773 and at modest cost subsequently. Most white males could vote and middling men of property could hold office. The colony was sparsely populated and poor, except in the rice-producing low country, with about 30 percent of the white population living at the subsistence level. A small group of planter elites established rice and indigo plantations along the tidal rivers, and by the early 1770s the slave population almost matched that of the white. The belief that regular troops would arrive in the event of an Indian war was an important aspect of the colonists' relationship with Great Britain, for gunmen from surrounding Indian tribes outnumbered the militia nearly five to one.

Violence was a part of life in the frontier colony, and geography played a key role in its presence. The coast, cut by numerous rivers and inlets and protected by a chain of offshore islands, was impossible to defend against pirate vessels of any size. From South Carolina to the north came horse thieves and squatters who encroached upon Indian land. Settlers were isolated and vulnerable, for there were few roads and only a handful of towns, including the capital, Savannah, about 17 miles upriver from the coast, and Augusta, 140 miles away in the backcountry. British-held East Florida, to the south, was even more sparsely populated than Georgia.

The coming of the Revolutionary War heightened the violence already experienced by Georgia's inhabitants. East Florida remained a royal colony and its ships and mounted raiders plundered and harassed settlers. Creek Indians served as British auxiliaries, terrifying settlers and soldiers. Raiders and partisan bands crossed the Savannah River from South Carolina to plunder and kill. When British and American soldiers arrived, they took stores, crops, and livestock. Deserters from every army plundered. Georgia was a long way from Philadelphia and London, and once armed combat began, neither seats of power paid much attention to supplying men or matériel. Although Georgia at all times had a functioning civil government, it did not have the resources to defend itself adequately.

Rebel activity was slow to build in Georgia. During 1774 Indian attacks occurred in the backcountry, and settlers therefore objected to any revolutionary action, as British troops might be needed to protect them. Governor James Wright helped subdue the opposition movement. No delegates were sent to the first Continental Congress and the rebels' first Provincial Congress did not support the call for nonimportation measures. In May 1775, after news of the Battle of Lexington reached Charleston, rumor spread into Georgia that the British ministry might not only start a slave insurrection, but also arm the slaves and Indians. The white colonists' inherent fears of a race war and an Indian war galvanized the Revolutionary cause. Yet as rebels aggressively took military stores and formed a council of safety, some citizens pleaded for the preservation of public peace and for reconciliation. Wright had no military might to put down the rebel disturbances. Although his authority began to diminish when the council of safety took over the militia, he and other crown officials were not harassed.

Members of the second Provincial Congress established a firmer hold on Georgia. They sent delegates to the Second Continental Congress, lowered the voting requirement, and adopted the Association, a policy of nonimportation and nonexportation to Britain and the West Indies. These trade restrictions proved impossible to enforce due to the nature and length of the coastline and the number of citizens continuing to trade with East Florida. Initially, those who refused to sign the Association or to declare support for liberty were physically harassed, imprisoned, or ordered to leave the colony; over time the response was reduced to the collection of fines. When a convoy of British ships anchored off Tybee Island, rebels placed Wright and other crown officials under house arrest. They escaped down river to the ships in February 1776, expecting British control to be reestablished. Instead, the convoy sailed away after obtaining needed supplies during the Battle of the Rice Boats, taking Wright and the others along. With British authority removed, the unity that had existed among rebel conservatives and radicals came to an end.


The fabric of Georgia's society began to unravel due to the inexperienced civil leadership of the revolutionaries, limited financial resources, a poorly equipped and divided military, and shrinking manpower. Lack of authority prevented the government from driving out suspected Loyalists, despite the Expulsion Act of 1777. It also was unable to raise money through the confiscation of property belonging to absent Loyalists and those attainted for high treason in the Act of Attainder of 1778. The military could do little to prevent plunderers, outlaws, and pirates from stealing slaves and running off cattle and horses, ruining fields, and forcing settlers to abandon their holdings. The plantation system fell into disrepair, and agricultural routines became disrupted through the loss of both slaves and whites. With no cooperation existing between civil and military authorities, the general population remained apathetic regarding the war.

Georgia's rebel soldiers were ill equipped, rarely paid, plagued by illness, and generally ignored by the Continental Congress. The Georgia Continental Line, established in November 1775, eventually had four battalions, with a regiment of horse; steady loss of men continued until only six officers were left after the British captured Charleston in May 1780. The Georgia State Line contained two minuteman battalions, two legions, several independent companies, and other regular units, and they performed guard duty on the western frontier; but low bounties, insufficient equipment, and poor discipline limited their effectiveness. The Georgia navy consisted of five galleys, eight row galleys, and two sloops in 1776; it could do little to defend coastal waters. The militia, under the state constitution of 1777, consisted of one battalion in each county for every 250 able bodied men or an independent company; militiamen maintained patrols and outposts, but continuous duty was impossible during planting season, and men generally refused to leave their local area. Demoralized and worried about their homes and families, some soldiers deserted or refused to rejoin, while others sickened and died.

Georgia's soldiers could do little against the organized armed forces of East Florida. The Florida Rangers, led by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Brown, raided deep into Georgia, communicating with Loyalists wherever they went. Their primary function was to secure the border and feed the garrison at St. Augustine. The Rangers, with their Indian auxiliaries, drove massive herds of cattle and valuable horses from Georgia and accompanied British regular troops on plundering missions. Between 1776 and 1778, three ill-equipped expeditions, variously including Georgia's militia and navy, South Carolina militia, and Continental troops attempted to subdue East Florida; overall lack of organization and a divided command prevented any military success.

The second and third East Florida expeditions illustrate the high price the Georgia state government paid for its determination to have all military forces, including Continental forces, be subordinate to it. Although neither Governor Button Gwinnett nor Governor John Houstoun had military experience, the state gave them executive power in military matters during the second and third expeditions, respectively. Acrimony between Gwinnett and Continental General Lachlan McIntosh led to a duel; Gwinnett died and McIntosh was forced to leave the state. Their lack of respect for his authority led Houstoun to obtain General Robert Howe's removal as head of the Southern Department and Commodore Oliver Bowen's removal as head of the Georgia navy. The loss of experienced men and the continued factionalism and conflict among civil and military leaders eroded Georgia's defenses.

As Continental currency was scarce, soldiers were usually paid with state currency, which constantly depreciated. Neither soldiers, potential recruits, nor citizens wanted to accept it in exchange for goods and services. The already high cost of all manufactured items increased and horses became unobtainable. The military began to take what it needed without paying, which alienated citizens. Members of the Continental army staff felt their reputations as gentlemen would be destroyed through nonpayment of debt accrued by the army under their name, and valued officers resigned or threatened to resign if their men were not paid. By the summer of 1778 Continental currency arrived to provide back pay due the Georgia Continental troops, but no further money became available prior to the recapture of the state by the British, in December 1778.


An invasion force of approximately three thousand British troops captured Savannah on 29 December 1778, meeting a disorganized defense. Known rebels fled into the backcountry to reestablish civil government and re-group military units. Many civilians chose to cooperate with the British, and Loyalists who had fled rebel Georgia now began to return. From this time forward, no decisive military victory occurred to establish dominant control of Georgia and sway the wavering population, which, as a result, did not rise up to oppose either the British or the rebels.

Both British and rebel civil governments and their armed forces tried to establish authority in Georgia between January 1779 and June 1782. They needed settlers to farm, join the militia, and uphold government; without their support, famine and anarchy would destroy all civil claim to Georgia by either Britain or the United States. As they captured and recaptured territory and reestablished civil government in various parts of Georgia, both powers required oaths of allegiance from the population. This pledging of allegiance lost its binding power, particularly in the backcountry, where some of the settlers had been pressured to change their allegiance seven times between January 1779 and October 1780. The repetitive pattern of oath taking, oath breaking, and renewal of allegiance, coupled with the fact that neither power could protect them, eventually broke down the oath's symbolic power in the eyes of the settlers. By the end of the war, the loyalty oath had been transformed from a political tool wielded by authority into a tool manipulated by the settlers to remain on their land and possibly benefit from land bounties.

The British forces, under Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell, had hoped to live off the land and enjoy the support of an active Loyalist population, but they were disappointed. Unable to benefit from the food supplies in the backcountry, which the rebels held, or repair the dilapidated plantation system in a timely way, the British remained near the coast in order to receive supplies by ship and confiscate civilian supplies. Civilians could not prevent the military from taking what it wanted, and this created an environment of devastation and immense waste. During the spring of 1779 General Augustine Prevost, Campbell's replacement as head of Georgia military, led troops into South Carolina to obtain food. His indiscriminate plundering destroyed any hope of building Loyalist support in that state and provoked retaliatory raids on Georgia for the rest of the war.

Reoccupation brought a return of specie and the reopening of trade, which began to revive Georgia's economy. Upon Governor Wright's return in July, conflict between British civil and military authorities commenced over property, particularly slaves, thousands of whom had been brought back by Prevost from South Carolina. Many inhabitants in and around Savannah, including returning Loyalists, Patriot refugees, and those who had remained in Georgia all along, began to rebuild their former holdings or accrue additional property under reestablished legal processes. The government made an attempt to reorganize the monetary system. Wright's plan to furnish Loyalists with property from confiscated rebel estates and to aid refugees with income from land assets failed due to the continual destruction of the infrastructure by plunderers.

The British established Loyalist militia units among local inhabitants and refugees, but membership was fluid, with men deserting, serving irregularly, and switching allegiance as necessitated by events for the rest of the war. Loyalist provincial units were formed from regular troops, with only one of them known to be composed principally of Georgians. The regular British army in Georgia was systematically reduced in force after December 1778, and those troops remaining were composed primarily of Loyalists and Hessians. There were approximately 500 troops in Savannah and 240 troops in Augusta during 1780; a buildup to approximately 1,000 troops in Savannah and environs came during 1782.


All attempts by the Continental army to drive the British out of Georgia during 1779 failed despite the significant number of troops and militia from Georgia and South Carolina gathered by Continental General Benjamin Lincoln. While rebel militia defeated Loyalist forces at the Battle of Kettle Creek in February, British regular forces defeated rebel militia and Continental forces at Briar Creek in March. In April, Lincoln changed his plan to attack Savannah and the army returned to Charleston. During September and October, Continental troops and militia joined French troops under Admiral-General Count Estaing in the unsuccessful siege of Savannah. The town and its environs were heavily damaged, and intense plundering by French and rebel deserters further worsened conditions there. After the failed siege, the French sailed away, the Continental army returned to South Carolina, and the militia evaporated. The resident population of Georgia remained neutral, for none of these military actions had a significant outcome.

Factionalism crippled rebel civil and military authority in the backcountry during 1779. Four rebel civil governments had been established in Augusta, two of them simultaneously, and personal animosities divided the military command. The Continental Congress recognized the fourth government as constitutional and released to it long-awaited operating funds. Much of this money was apparently spent on extravagant salaries for government officials, while Georgia troops continued to rely on loans from South Carolina to meet military expenses. After the British captured the Continental army in Charleston during May 1780, the Georgia rebel government went into hiding. Until the reestablishment of rebel civil government in August 1781, settlers looked to Governor Wright for help.


Rebel militiamen captured at Charleston were quickly released on parole. The possibility now existed that the British might win the war, and many returned to Georgia to regain their property. In July 1780 Wright's reestablished civil government passed the Disqualifying Act, which limited known rebels from holding office but allowed them to live on their property. Parolees now had a chance to reestablish the financial security they had lost when the British reoccupied Georgia, if not earlier. At the same time, they were liable for their debts to Loyalists who had returned to Georgia after 1778, and those known for their depredations against Loyalists were vulnerable to retaliation. Yet others may have joined plundering or partisan bands in order to survive. While their presence generated concern because of their potential to arouse various elements of the population to rebellion or retaliation, Wright hoped to keep the parolees neutral.

Loyalist provincial units under Brown captured Augusta without resistance in June 1780. Later that month hundreds of the rebels paroled in Charleston returned to their homes in the backcountry. Hoping to prevent violence, Wright did not require that they declare their allegiance or surrender their weapons and sent no troops to keep the peace. Rebel Colonel Elijah Clarke rose up with a force of irregulars and pressured many to break their parole and join him in his unsuccessful attack on Augusta that September. British troops drove them out of Georgia, and the army's reprisals against the resident population polarized the backcountry. Those rebels interested in fighting in Georgia now formed partisan bands under local men and made or took what they needed to survive.

With the British civil and military authorities able to provide little protection, lawless bands from both political camps now joined other plunderers. In October 1780 Governor Wright had secured passage of a bill to call out and arm slaves during emergencies. He used slaves to construct new fortifications around Savannah from November to January 1781. By 1781 Wright was providing rice to those owners who could not feed their slaves, hoping to keep the latter alive and available. If unfed, they might run away to join one of the armed communities established by slaves in and around Savannah after the siege and now out of reach of civil authority.


As a result of British troop movements during the fall of 1780 that eventually led Lord Charles Cornwallis to Yorktown, General Nathanael Greene began to move his Continental troops slowly into the south. As a result, Georgia rebel militiamen fighting in other states returned to the backcountry. During the spring of 1781 they killed at least one hundred loyalists, both officials and settlers. Loyalists began to join rebel bands in order to protect themselves and their families. Sympathetic to the plight of the settlers, Wright did not blame those who changed their allegiance; instead, he blamed the British military for abandoning the Loyalist population. Rebel forces captured Augusta in June 1781 and ordered Loyalists out of the backcountry. The resulting exodus swelled the population of Savannah, which was fed and housed with parliamentary funds. Wright armed the male refugees, formed new militia units, and raised troops of horsemen while at the same time trying to locate food and maintain the infrastructure of the town.

In August 1781 Greene oversaw the reestablishment of Georgia's rebel government in Augusta. This government immediately offered generous land bounties to citizens who agreed to remain on their land and obey civil and military authority. It offered amnesty, the retention of their property, and land bounties to Loyalists who became soldiers. With settlers now peaceful in the backcountry, rebel forces moved towards Savannah. The state had no funds to pay soldiers and resorted to using confiscated Loyalist property, including slaves, to pay for goods and services.

Plundering, murder, and approaching famine also inhibited recruitment, for potential militiamen would not leave their families and farms unprotected and, as there was no longer any stored food supply, they hadtoplant or starve. In 1782 rebel Governor John Martin tried to stop the plundering, provide troops, and obtain supplies of powder and lead so men could shoot game. To make matters worse, both armies destroyed food and forage. Martin distributed food rations received from South Carolina via the military commissary, while Wright fed his people with the parliamentary stipend, employed slaves as pioneers to repair the defenses, and made room for more refugees.

In January 1782 Continental General Anthony Wayne came into Georgia with approximately five hundred soldiers. Most left when their enlistment period ended, and Wayne asked the rebel assembly to encourage desertion from Savannah. Despite a superior force, the British made no attempt to attack the modest rebel troops. News reached Savannah in June that General Alexander Leslie had been ordered to evacuate the troops, stunning the Loyalist population. Those who chose to leave had little time to prepare, for the British army departed Savannah on 11 July and spent three weeks staging the evacuation from Tybee Island. Savannah was turned over to Wayne in perfect shape.

The end of the British occupation forced many thousands of Loyalists and their slaves to evacuate. The state desperately needed settlers on the land to support a militia and to provide sufficient manpower to begin to rebuild the shattered agricultural system. While some Loyalists made the choice to leave, others had no choice, for their names appeared in the Confiscation and Banishment Act passed by the rebel government in May 1782. Wayne granted protection to Loyalist merchants who had valuable goods and provisions to sell and offered full American citizenship to those who joined the Georgia Continentals for two years or the duration of the war. It is impossible to determine the number of people, black and white, evacuated from Georgia in 1782, for many were not documented. Possibly between seven thousand and eight thousand slaves left at this time. The state government made every effort to retain or regain slaves, both in East Florida and in the Indian territory. Most evacuees went to East Florida, either by ship or overland, while other destinations included Jamaica, New York, Nova Scotia, and England. The evacuation of East Florida, due to its cession to Spain, began in 1784 and resulted in the return to the United States of possibly over five thousand whites and uncounted slaves, some resettling in Georgia.

Although the war essentially ended in the South in July 1782, plundering bands continued to threaten civil authority and inhibit rebuilding of the infrastructure. With only a limited number of reliable troops available, Martin and Governor Patrick Tonyn of East Florida agreed to cooperate to prevent crossborder raiding and plundering. The Georgia assembly took a more moderate stance regarding confiscated estates and the return of banished Loyalists. In part this was because the state needed to increase its population and also possibly because loyalty had been broadly viewed by both sides during the war. Georgia continued to be a sparsely populated and violent frontier long after the war, its civil government coping as best it could with the familiar problems of potential Indian war, financial difficulties, factionalism, and an unreliable militia.

SEE ALSO Augusta, Georgia (14-18 September 1780); Briar Creek, Georgia; Brown, Thomas; Campbell, Archibald; Clarke, Elijah; Georgia Expedition of Wayne; Gwinnett, Button; Houstoun, John; Kettle Creek, Georgia; Martin, John; Prevost, Augustine; Savannah, Georgia (29 December 1778); Wright, Sir James, Governor.


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