By autumn 1778 there was a buildup of British forces in East Florida. The people of Liberty County were aware of the increased action, and were acutely aware that the county most likely would soon be invaded. Political leaders in the county, heavily involved in the rebellion, devised routes of escape to avoid capture by the British should the invasion take place. Lyman Hall, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, moved with his family to Connecticut and remained there until the war in Georgia was over.
The British plan for a southern campaign was mapped by Lord George Germain in 1778 and called for the early capture of Savannah, Georgia. As a diversion to the main attack coming by sea from New York, the plan called for a drive from East Florida by British and support forces to capture Sunbury and Fort Morris.
Brigadier General Augustin Prevost was commander of all British forces in East Florida, and his headquarters was at Saint Augustine. He implemented his role in Lord Germain’s scenario by planning a two-pronged drive north to Liberty County, one by land and one by sea.
He assigned command of 100 regulars, 300 Loyalists, and a number of Creek Indians to his brother, Lieutenant Colonel J .M. (“Marc”) Prevost, for the overland attack. The sea attack force command was given to Lieutenant Colonel L.V. Fuser, with vessels transporting 500 regulars, battering cannons, light artillery, and mortars.
Lieutenant Colonel Prevost and his force entered Georgia on November 18, 1778, and began looting and destroying plantations as they advanced north. All able-bodied men they encountered were taken prisoners. By the time word of the advancing force reached Sunbury, the enemy was already inside of Liberty County.
Colonel John Baker hastily collected some Continental Army troops and advanced along the Fort Barrington Road. They met the British force in Bull Town Swamp and a skirmish ensued. The Continental Army troops were too few in number to slow the British advance. Colonel Baker was wounded in action. The Continental Army troops retreated to a position near the Riceboro bridge where they made another stand.
When this news reached Midway it so frightened some of the residents that they fled their homes and sought refuge in makeshift fortifications at the home of John Winn. Others went to what they considered more secure positions along the Ogeechee River. Still others took their families and hid them in the woods.
Colonel John White, Fourth Georgia Continental Battalion, arrived at the Meeting House from his camp at Sunbury with 100 troops and two artillery pieces. He hastily constructed a barricade across what today is U.S. Highway 17 just south of the Meeting House, hoping to slow the British advance long enough for reinforcements to arrive from Savannah, Georgia. He had already dispatched a message there telling of the situation.
Major William Baker, brother of Colonel Baker, was dispatched with horse militia to the North Newport River bridge to reinforce Continental Army troops already fighting there, and slow the British advance. They were unsuccessful in their attempt.
Colonel James Screven resigned his commission in the Continental Army in March 1778, was commissioned a brigadier general in the Georgia Militia in 1778, took part in the 1778 Florida expedition, and in November 1778 was in Liberty County. He and about 20 troops joined Colonel White at the Meeting House. It was decided to place an ambush and take up a defensive position about two miles south of the Meeting House, where the Savannah-Darien Road passed through a thickly wooded area. Daniel McGirth, a Loyalist with Lieutenant Colonel Prevost, was also familiar with the site. He and the British had already placed an ambush there for the American forces.
Brigadier General Screven, Major James Jackson , Colonel John White, Captain Celerine Brossard, a French officer of the Fourth Continental Battalion. Captain George Young, commander of the First Company, Georgia Continental Artillery, 100 Continental Army troops, and 20 mounted militia proceeded to the site of the ambush. They were surprised by 400 British regulars, Loyalists, and Creek Indians. Fierce but sporadic fighting commenced. It was Sunday morning, November 22, 1778. The action took place on Spencers Hill, name of the plantation owned by the grandfather of Samuel B. Spencer, who in time would be mayor of Atlanta, Georgia.
During a lull in the fighting, Brigadier General Screven, Colonel Baker, and a small party crossed a swamp to reconnoiter enemy positions. Colonel Baker supposedly spotted the British and cried out, “General, here they are!” The British forces opened fire, wounding Brigadier General Screven, and killing Judah Lewis and William D. Strother, formerly a lieutenant of the Second Georgia Continental Battalion, but who was at the Battle of Spencers Hill acting as a civilian volunteer, perhaps in a military capacity.
Brigadier General Screven was moved under a truce flag to the vestry house of the Meeting House, where he was treated by James Dunwody, a physician from Liberty County. He was then moved to the home of John Elliott Sr., which was shortly thereafter overrun by British forces. Lieutenant Colonel Prevost ordered his own physician to give Brigadier General Screven every attention. But he died on Tuesday, November 24. 1778. He was 34 years of age.
The American forces in Georgia would sorely miss Brigadier General Screven, because he was an excellent military commander who did much more in America’s fight for independence of England than is delineated in this history. It was he who stopped a pistol duel between Colonel John Baker and Major John Jones just when they were at the point of probably killing each other and depriving the American forces in Georgia of two good officers.
During this period of time, the horse of Lieutenant Colonel Prevost was shot from under him and both horse and rider fell. Major James Jackson , believing that Lieutenant Colonel Prevost had been killed and that success was near, gave a lusty victory yell. But it was premature, because Lieutenant Colonel Prevost shortly thereafter appeared on a fresh horse. and the British advance to the north continued. Colonel White and his troops by this time had retreated to a point several miles north of the Meeting House.
When British forces reached the Meeting House they burned it. This is hardly surprising because they knew the church had been used as a command post, supply depot, and rallying point.
With British forces in pursuit. Colonel White prepared a false letter supposedly written by Colonel Samuel Elbert at Savannah. Georgia. saying that a body of Continental Army cavalry had crossed the Ogeechee River and was preparing to encircle rear elements of the British force. The letter was dropped on the road. found by the British. and delivered to Lieutenant Colonel Prevost. He believed the letter and halted his advance six miles north of the Meeting House. He sent a scouting party to Sunbury to contact Lieutenant Colonel Fuser and his sea expedition. The party returned with information that they were nowhere to be found.
Lieutenant Colonel Prevost believed that he would shortly be surrounded by a superior Continental Army force. He realized that he could expect no help from Lieutenant Colonel Fuser and his force. He turned his troops around and started marching back to Florida. On their way. he and his troops burned still more homes. slave dwellings, and barns. and plundered plantations of valuables that could be transported.
Benjamin Baker was captured by British troops and taken to the headquarters of Lieutenant Colonel Prevost near the Meeting House. In Baker’s diary. here edited and shortened. Baker wrote. “When I reached Colonel Prevost he asked me where I was from. I told him of my camp and of my family hid in the woods. I also acquainted him with the number of white and black persons in the area.
“He asked me if I had any letters and I told him I did not. He then threw open my cloak and felt in my pockets and found I carried no papers. He seemed satisfied and did not order anyone else to search me.
“For several days there had been a hard frost at night. Colonel Prevost and his officers seemed touched by the fact that my family, especially my wife and child not six weeks old. were lying in the woods in such weather.
“Colonel Prevost told me that my family would have been safe and would not have been harmed in our own home. He said that he had spared every home where there were inhabitants and told me, for some reason, that I must wait for a while and then he would dismiss me.
“I waited until eleven in the morning when an officer came out of the colonel’s headquarters and told me to go inside. When I got inside, Colonel Prevost sat down with pen and paper, asked my Christian name, and wrote as follows: ‘Mr. Benjamin Baker has leave to go home and take care of his family and is not to be molested. he behaving peaceably. I.M. Prevost, commander of the Northwest Division.’
“They told me they required no oath of any man-that it was a weak thing to do-as they knew that such a compulsive oath was nothing. I was not asked in the least whether I would remain peaceful or not, nor was there any declaration at all required of me.
“I bowed and thanked Colonel Prevost and received the paper. He advised me to return home immediately and to keep within the limits of my own home, assuring me that in that case none of us would be molested.
“Having lost my horse, I bundled up as much as I could and hurried home. I arrived there just in time, because not long after I arrived home the homes of Peter Winn and Samuel Stevens, both near me, were set afire by British troops.”
Several local residents came to the home of Benjamin Baker on November 27, 1778, after a meeting at the site of the burned Meeting House. They told him that the church had been burned and that the enemy troops had departed. Other local residents visited Baker and informed him that the British troops had returned to Florida, and that the Ogeechee River camps were intact.
Colonel Baker went to visit Baker and reported that his and another gentleman’s hiding place was pointed out to British troops by two slaves, but that they managed to make their escape. They said the British took about 20 slaves with them when they departed Liberty County.
Samuel Stevens, Samuel Saltus, John Winn Jr., Thomas Baker. and Joseph Winn, on December 1, 1778, visited Baker. They told him that Thomas Crater had gone to visit Colonel John Baker and when he arrived noticed a large number of horses tied up outside. A slave, without speaking, motioned him away, signifying that the horses belonged to the British.
Continental Army troops on December 3, 1778, arrived in Liberty County and encamped on grounds of the burnedout Meeting House. In the meantime, some of the Liberty County families began arriving back home from locations along the Ogeechee River , where they fled when the British invaded the county.
Lieutenant Colonel Fuser and his sea expedition had no more success than did Lieutenant Colonel Prevost and his land force. His task force arrived at Stave Landing near Colonels Island in November 1778. The main force, with field pieces, marched to Sunbury, while the armed vessels sailed up the Midway River and took up positions in front of Fort Morris and in the back river opposite the town.
Fort Morris was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John Mclntosh. He had 127 troops, a small number of militia, and a few Sunbury citizens. They numbered less than 200 in all.
When the British land and sea forces were in place, Lieutenant Colonel Fuser dispatched a demand to Lieutenant Colonel McIntosh to surrender Fort Morris. The note said:
“Sir, you cannot be ignorant that four armies are in motion to reduce this Province. One is already under the guns of your fort, and may be joined, when I think it proper, by Colonel Prevost who is now at the Midway meeting house. The resistance you can, or intend to make, will only bring destruction upon this country. On the contrary, if you will deliver me the fort you command, you shall, as well as all of the inhabitants of this parish, remain in peaceable possession of your property. Your answer, which I expect in an hour’s time, will determine the fate of this country, whether it is to be laid in ashes, or remain as above proposed.
I am, Sir, Your most obedient, & etc. LV. Fuser, Colonel, 60th Regiment and Command of His Majesty’s Troops in Georgia, and on His Majesty’s Service.
P.S. Since this letter was closed, some of your people have been firing scattered shots about the line. I am to inform you, that if a stop is not put to such irregular proceedings, I shall burn a house for every shot fired.”
A prompt reply was made to the surrender demand:
“Sir, We acknowledge that we are not ignorant that your army is in motion to endeavor to reduce this State. We believe it entirely chimerican that Colonel Prevost is at the Meeting House. but should it be so, we are in no degree apprehensive of danger from a junction of his army with yours. We have no property compared with the object we contend for that we value a rush: – and would rather perish in vigorous defence than accept your proposals. We, Sir, are fighting the battles of America, and therefore disdain to remain neutral til its fate is determined. As to surrendering the fort, receive this laconic reply: come and take it. Major Lane, whom I send with this letter, is directed to satisfy you with respect to the irregular, loose firing mentioned on the back of your letter.
I have the honor, Sir, to be Your Obedient Servant, John Mclntosh, Colonel of the Continental Troops.”
The Georgia legislature, in acknowledgement of the conspicuous gallantry of Lieutenant Colonel McIntosh on this occasion, later presented him with a sword with the words COME AND TAKE IT engraved on it.
Major Lane informed Lieutenant Colonel Fuser that the irregular firing was to prevent British troops from entering and plundering Sunbury. He also informed him that Lieutenant Colonel McIntosh would put the torch to his end of town whenever Lieutenant Colonel Fuser fired his end of Sunbury, “and let the flames meet in mutual conflagration.” The “irregular firing” ceased at nightfall, the town was not burned, and both forces settled down for the night.
An eccentric friend of the British named Rory McIntosh was with them at Fort Morris. An anecdote about Rory McIntosh was later written by John Couper. Couper married Rebecca Maxwell of Liberty County and was residing there during the British invasion. He relocated on Saint Simons Island in 1796, and on April 16, 1842, told about Rory McIntosh in a letter he wrote.
“Early the next morning, when Rory had made rather free with ‘mountain dew,’ he insisted on sallying forth to summon the fort to surrender. His friends could not restrain him, so out he strutted, claymore in hand, followed by his faithful servant, Jim, and approached the fort, roaring out. ‘Surrender, you miscreants! How dare you presume to resist His Majesty’s arms?’
Colonel McIntosh knew him and seeing the situation, forbade any firing, threw open the gate, and said, ‘Walk in Mister Mclntosh, and take possession.’ Rory McIntosh replied, ‘No, I will not trust myself among such vermin; but I order you to surrender.’
“A rifle was fired, the ball from which grazed his face. He stumbled and fell backward, but immediately recovered and retreated, flourishing his sword. Several dropping shots followed. Jim called out, ‘Run, massa, de kill you.’ ‘Run, poor slave, run,’ says Rory. ‘Thou mayeth run, but I am of a race that never runs.’
“In raising from the ground, Jim stated to me, his master, first putting his hand to one cheek, looked at his bloody hand, and raising it to the other. perceived it to be also covered with blood. He backed safely into the lines.”
Lieutenant Colonel Fuser and his force never attacked Fort Morris. He sent scouts to contact Lieutenant Colonel Prevost and his land expedition. But they had already left Liberty County enroute to Florida. When the scouts returned with negative reports, he and his force sailed back to the Saint Marys River for a rendezvous with the forces of Lieutenant Colonel Prevost. The two groups then returned to Saint Augustine, Florida.
There was now an interval of uneasy quiet in Liberty County. Christmas 1778 came and went and still the British did not return. There was desolation, ruin , and misery all over Liberty County. The gathered crops had been burned by the British. Many people were starving and went elsewhere to survive.
Brigadier General Augustin Prevost and 2,000 British troops, in late December 1778, advanced on Sunbury by land and sea. They made their way easily through two American gallies and an armed sloop, and captured Sunbury on January 6, 1779. Taking advantage of a low tide to pass behind a marsh island opposite Fort Morris, Brigadier General Prevost and his troops landed above Sunbury on the morning of January 8, 1779. Armed with cannons, howitzers, and mortars, he demanded the unconditional surrender of Fort Morris.
Fort Morris was commanded by Major Joseph Lane, Third Georgia Continental Battalion. He had been ordered by his superiors to evacuate Sunbury following the fall of Savannah. The residents of Sunbury begged him and his troops to stay. He disobeyed the order and was later court-martialled for it. He now undertook to save Fort Morris.
He refused the unconditional surrender demand, and the British replied with a short but intense bombardment of the fort. After several exchanges of fire, Major Lane realized that he could not match the overwhelming British firepower. He parlied for a conditional surrender. His offer was refused.
Major Lane finally unconditionally surrendered Fort Morris to the British. Four Americans were killed and seven wounded during the bombardment. The British suffered one dead and three wounded.
Fort Morris was renamed Fort George by its conquerers in honor of King George III of England. Major Lane was taken prisoner, but was later paroled at Sunbury with other American officers captured by the British.
After the fall of Fort Morris, Brigadier General Prevost established a temporary headquarters in the home of Sarah Nichols Stewart at Tranquil Plantation near the North Newport River bridge. British troops branded “This was the home of a nest of rebels” on a board of the sitting room. The home survived the Revolutionary War.
Other defenses in Liberty County now collapsed. After Fort Howe (Fort Barrington) on the lower Altamaha River fell to British troops, the fort at Beards Bluff was abandoned by Continental Army troops in January 1779.
The governor of Georgia authorized a reorganization of the state militia, and the creation of volunteer troops of horse and three volunteer companies of artillery. The three artillery companies, each to have not more than 50 members, were to be individually attached to the First, Second, and Third Battalions of Foot Militia. Events now occurred, however, which brought about an end to the reorganization.
The 71st Regiment, called “Frasers Highlanders” because the unit was raised by Simon Fraser (1729-1777), was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell when it and other British forces captured Savannah, Georgia, on December 29, 1778. Major John Jones of Liberty County was fatally wounded during the final battle for the city.
With Liberty County, Fort Morris, Sunbury, and Savannah, Georgia, now in British hands, Lieutenant Colonel Campbell and his troops sailed up the Savannah River and took unprotected Augusta, Georgia, on January 31, 1779.