Looking back on the Isles' Revolutionary War contributions

·5 min read

May 15—Author's Note: Well, news happens, y'all. And the next thing you know the time allotted for writing a history column slips by. Not to worry. This rerun ended up in my second book, CoastTales: True Historic Stories From Georgia's Golden Ises. It recalls a famous Revolutionary War battle whose anniversary slipped by last week, along with a lesser-known stand for freedom that occurred right here. It is also a tip of the hat to Bill Ramsaur and the other gentlemen of the local Sons of the American Revolution chapter, who have dutifully blessed us with the stirring Patriots Day observance here in the Golden Isles for many years. Here's hoping that occasion returns to us next April, after having been canceled due to COVID-19 precautions these past two years.

From the onset of the Revolutionary War, the Brits were always whining about how the Americans did not fight fair.

The bellyaching began on Day One, April 19, 1775, at the Battle of Lexington and Concord. That is when colonial minutemen dressed in homespun garb hid behind trees and unloaded a withering fusillade upon the proper British ranks in their bright red coats, driving the world's most powerful army back to Boston with its tail between its legs.

And then there was that time a contingent of the British Navy found itself up a creek without a paddle, outgunned and outfoxed by a hardy bunch of patriots in rowboats.

The former began with the "shot heard 'round the world" up in Massachusetts and is certainly familiar to all who have read this deep into a column devoted to history. The latter encounter may not be so recognizable, but it unfolded right here on the shores of the Golden Isles, culminating with the Georgia State Navy capturing three amply-armed British sailing ships.

The Frederica Naval Action occurred in 1778 on the marsh side of St. Simons Island. It too took place on April 19. Lest we forget either historic event, the local Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution hold a Patriots Day ceremony on the Saturday closest to April 19 in the Pier Village area of St. Simons Island. Replete with historical interpreters dressed in ragtag militia outfits and Continental Army blue uniforms, our local Patriots Day observance honors both the valiant stand at Lexington and Concord as well as the local blow for freedom on the same date three years later.

Those dedicated DAR and SAR members have hosted Patriots Day for the past 14 years. It is a unique event for these parts, although Patriots Day has long been recognized as a state holiday in Massachusetts and Maine.

The cannon fire and musketry salutes on the green at Neptune Park are a perennial favorite of kids young and old during our ceremony. Gunpowder smoke and booming echoes float each year out toward the mouth of St. Simons Sound, from which the HMS Galatea retreated 240 years ago as the lone British ship to escape the Frederica Naval Action.

The British ships Hinchinbrook, Rebecca and Hatter were by then stuck in "Racoon Gut" on the Frederica River, abandoned by their crews under a barrage from those Georgia rowboats. Ok, rowboat is an understatement. But I could hardly resist the image.

These vessels were actually long galleys, made specifically for swift action under oar power in Coastal Georgia's fickle inland waters. The state's navy had four of these 70-foot galleys built in 1777, underwritten for Georgia shore protection by the fledgling Continental Congress.

The ships were pointed at bow and stern, 13 feet across at the beam and flat bottomed to affect a shallow draft. Two triangular sails could be raised in light winds, but mostly the galleys Lee, Washington, Bulloch and Congress were powered by patriot muscle pulling 22-foot-long oars along port and starboard. Each packed a heavy cannon on the bow, with smaller half-pound cannon and swivel guns along each side.

The British contingent in north Florida would not let the colonial bluster of this nearby naval presence go unanswered. Led by the Galatea, the brigantine Hinchinbrook, the sloop Rebecca and the brigantine Hatter set out to destroy Georgia's little fleet.

All four British ships were loaded for mayhem, heavily armed with 14- to 9- pound cannon and plenty of sailors and marines to man them.

But word of British intentions to destroy Georgia's new navy soon reached Col. Samuel Elbert, a Savannah merchant who rose to command both Georgia's Continental Army and Navy. Rather than chart a course for safe harbor, Elbert went on the attack.

After weeks of fruitless searching by the Brits, the Georgians found them. By the evening of April 18, HMS Galatea was anchored in the St. Simons Sound, with Hinchinbrook, Rebecca and Hatter stationed farther north on the Frederica River.

At daybreak the next morning, the Georgia galleys Washington, Lee and Bulloch went on the offensive, coming bow-first at the British sailing ships. In such tight waters, the British already were outmaneuvered. Lined up bow-to-stern of the oncoming galleys, the firepower on either side of the three British ships was rendered useless.

The marsh tides and breezes also would conspire on behalf of the patriots. There was no wind for the British sails and the inland tide was at its ebb, or low stage. The galleys anchored about a half mile away and opened up with a cannonade.

Seeking refuge, the Hinchinbrook inadvertently ran around in what the British called Raccoon Gut, quite possibly near what we know today as Dunbar Creek. Rebecca and Hatter followed suit. Actually, the British did have a paddle as it turns out. Under heavy fire, the crews loaded into the ships' rowboats and beat a hasty retreat to the Galatea on the St. Simons Sound.

The Georgia State Navy seized all three sailing ships. While not nearly so stirring as that patriotic stand for Independence three years earlier at Concord and Lexington, it was a proud day for Georgia's freedom fighters.

"I have the happiness to inform you, that about 10 o'clock this forenoon, the Brigantine Hitchenbrook, the Sloop Rebecca and (the Hatter), all struck the British Tyrant's colours, and surrendered to the American arms," Col. Elbert wrote to his superiors.

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