AUGUSTA, Ga (WJBF)- In July we celebrate the anniversary of our nation declaring its independence from Great Britain in 1776.
For 6 years, Patriots fought to hold on to that independence in famed battles like Bunker Hill and Saratoga. But, Augusta made significant contributions to the American Revolution too.
The land where St Paul’s Church now stands was the site of a fort that was the object of a tug of war between British Loyalists and American Patriots. Until 1778, most of the war was fought in the North, which may be what cost the British the war.
“When the Revolutionary War began in 1775, the British kind of ignored the south for the first several years,” said Steve Rauch.
Rauch is an historian who focuses on battles in the CSRA. He said that for years the British assumed the Loyalists had a strong foothold in the South and focused their efforts on the North.
“By 1778 they found they weren’t getting anywhere up North. They were at a stalemate. And so one of their solutions to that problem was perhaps to come to the South, find all those Loyalists that they assumed were here, and then re conquer the southern colonies and maybe, possibly, that would be all,” he explained.
But, what the British forces didn’t realize was that Southern Patriots were left alone for 4 years to organize, and they had run all the Loyalists out.
Historian, Dr. LeeAnn Caldwell, said that certain things defined Loyalists and Patriots in the back country and the revolution here was more like a civil war, with family and neighbors fighting each other.
“Those who were Loyalists, or American Tories, tended to be people that were a little more elite. They also tended to have connection to the trade with furs and skins with the Native American peoples around here,” said Dr. Caldwell. “People who were American Whigs, who called themselves Patriots, were farmers for the most part. Many of whom had moved into the area as the sections of land that the last royal governor had gotten from the Indians opened up new areas to farm.”
In May of 1780, the British successfully captured Charleston and sent troops across South Carolina and along the Savannah River.
Among them, Lieutenant Thomas Brown, a Loyalist driven out of Augusta by Patriots years before.
“And Thomas Brown became the Governor, or mayor, of Augusta under British control. And his main job was to reestablish relationships with the Indians for trade,” Rauch said.
A former land owner in the Appling area, Brown had an axe to grind with the Patriots in Augusta. Years before, he was confronted by a mob demanding he join their cause and he refused.
“He’s seized. He’s beaten. His skull is cracked. He’s scalped. And then they tie him to a tree and burn his feet. And so they guy is just physically abused,” said Rauch. “And then, after they do that, they bring him here to Augusta and they tar and feather him and put him in a cart and drive him up and down Broad Street.”
Another key player in both sieges of Augusta, was Elijah Clarke. Dr. Caldwell said he was a back country woods man, a typical Patriot.
“Augusta was the center of the back country in a lot of ways. It was the place that had commerce. So you could come to Augusta and buy things and you could come to Augusta and trade. And so people did. And so they felt it was important that Augusta be in the hands of the Patriots,” she explained.
Thomas Brown and his men, called the King’s Carolina Rangers, occupied Fort Augusta in June 1780, renaming it Fort Cornwallis.
Elijah Clarke began to build a militia of more than 400 men to attack brown and his troops.
On September 14, 1780 Clarke launched a surprise attack, splitting his men between a Creek Indian camp, the area near St. Paul’s church and nearby Fort Grierson.
Patriot general, Andrew Pickens placed troops between Augusta and Ninety-Six, South Carolina to cut off any aid to the Loyalists.
Clarke targeted the “Mackey Trading Post,” also known as the “White House” which housed Brown’s supplies.
“Clarke is determined to go there, first off, to capture all the stuff that’s there. They need supplies and there’s a lot of supplies there,” said Rauch.
He took control, but not for long as Brown and his men drove them out again.
For three days, the Patriots lay siege on the “White House” with Brown and his men trapped inside. They were running out of food and water, so Brown took drastic measures to keep them all alive.
“Thomas Brown has been shot through both legs. He’s been eating pumpkins for four days, drinking urine, because that’s the only water they had,” Rauch explained.
Loyalist lieutenant, John Harris Cruger finally reached Augusta to help Brown and his men.
“And they will break the siege. Elijah Clarke and his men will scatter back to Wilkes County and eventually become refugees in North Carolina,” said Rauch.
After winning the first battle, Brown is able to secure funding to build earthen fortifications around Fort Cornwallis to protect them for any future attacks.
“That’s going to com in handy when in the Spring of 1781, Nathanael Greene, who is now coming back from North Carolina, decides to conduct what I call his liberation campaign of the South. He comes into South Carolina and his goal is to attack all these British posts,” Rauch said.
Greene coordinated forces with Andrew Pickens, Elijah Clarke, Francis Marion and Thomas Sumpter until the middle of May, when all that was left was Ninety-Six and Augusta.
John Cruger was ordered to abandon post at Ninety-Six and join Thomas Brown to defend Augusta. That message never reached Cruger because Greene intercepted it. He went to Ninety-Six with his men. He sent Clarke, Pickens and Lieutenant Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, father of famed Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, to Augusta.
“I would say it’s about 1500 soldiers, which is a lo of soldiers for a battle. Thomas Brown is here with about 800 or so soldiers. So, this is a substantial battle when you look at just the numbers of people that participate,” said Rauch.
Lee sent his deputy to capture Fort Galphin, present day Silver Bluff, and he was successful.
The next day Lee, Pickens and Clarke focused on Fort Grierson, land owed by Loyalist James Grierson, located where 11th and Reynolds streets are today.
Grierson and his men were outmatched and attempted to escape- unsuccessfully. He was murdered upon surrender.
“He had been killed. Which infuriated the leader of the continental patriot cause. People like Nathanael Greene who said our own Patriots are worse than goths and vandals for doing this kind of thing,” explained Dr. Caldwell.
The Patriots turned their attention to Fort Cornwallis. It posed a problem because there was no way to position their cannon to lay waste to the loyalist troops inside. Lee suggested building a tower, called a Maham tower, for their cannon to be able to shoot into the fort.
“It takes time to build that tower and Thomas Brown knows they’re going to do that. And so Thomas Brown is going to attempt to stop that by every night, attacking out of the fort with his men to try to disrupt that operation. He’s not going to be successful of course.
After five days of attacks by Brown, the tower is completed and a six pound cannon hoisted up.
Brown could not win against the Patriots strategy and on the morning of June 4th, knew he had to surrender, but he would do it on his own terms.
“Thomas Brown asked for then to give him an extra day to surrender because he didn’t want to surrender on the king’s birthday. And they granted him that,” said Dr. Caldwell.
Brown surrendered to the Patriots on the morning of June 5th. He was taken to Savannah under heavy guard to avoid the fate of James Grierson.
“They very carefully guarded Thomas Brown out of Augusta, down to Savannah, because they did not want another, what they saw as really, a crude and unjustified death. You’re supposed to take prisoners of war, you’re not supposed to shoot them,” Dr. Caldwell explained.
Soon, he was relocated to St. Augustine, Florida, before moving to the Caribbean islands.
Many believe that over the years Brown was vilified by history
There is a legend that after the first siege of Augusta, while he recovered from his wounds at the “White House,” out of revenge he ordered 13 Patriot prisoners to be hung in the stairwell where he could watch them die.
Dr. Caldwell and Rauch agree that the story is only partially true. Revenge was not the motivation behind the hangings.
“After Charleston, many regiments had taken what’s called parole, and what that means is, you’re allowed to go home, as long as you promise not to fight again. They actually had a little piece of paper they had to carry with them,” Rauch explained. “And if you were captured fighting, and you had that pass, then you broke your parole. You are subject to immediate execution and everybody knew that.”
Rauch isn’t convinced Brown was even responsible for the hangings.
“But John Harris Cruger to me, again he’s from New York, he’s not from here. He’s mad about everything, because he’s in South Carolina in the summer and he’s not up in New York. And so if anything he’s the one that leads that retribution. But because people don’t know Cruger, people don’t know who that guy is, but they know Thomas Brown because he’s a local guy, Brown kind of ends up getting all that thrown on him,” he said.
The hanging of the 13 men spawned a beloved ghost story. People reported hearing thumps and groaning in the stairwell of what was thought to be the “White House” on Broad Street. Historians later discovered that building was actually the ” Ezekiel Harris House,” built after the war was over, and that the “White House” was likely destroyed during the Revolution.
“Let’s face it. The Ezekiel Harris House has a wonderful staircase outside that it looks like you could hang some people from. And for some reason, people love those kinds of stories. And so that got to be a big, almost selling point, of getting visitors to the house,” Dr. Caldwell said.
And that’s just PART of your Hometown History.
Photojournalist: Will Baker.