John Houstoun and the 1778 Expedition to East Florida


December 9, 2013
by Wayne Lynch Also by this Author


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John HoustounAt the time of the revolution, John Houstoun was one of four brothers from a prominent plantation owning family in Georgia.   Unlike Patrick and George, younger brothers John and James were both patriots from the late 1760s when they were educated in Charleston, South Carolina’s highly charged political atmosphere.  On his return to Georgia, John opened a law office in Savannah and started a close friendship with Dr. Noble Jones, a man of strong anti-British sentiment.  John prospered with a fine reputation as an attorney while building a plantation about 8 miles southeast of Savannah at White Bluff at the same time.  His clients included men such as Button Gwinnett, Edward Telfair, and Joseph Jones.[1]

In early July 1775, John Houstoun was one of five delegates selected to represent Georgia in the 2nd Continental Congress.  Among the last to arrive in Philadelphia, Houstoun made quite an impression on John Adams who called him, “a young gentleman by profession a lawyer, educated under a gentleman of eminence in South Carolina, he seems to be sensible and spirited, but rather inexperienced.”[2]

Houstoun’s spirited but inexperienced nature showed itself almost immediately as he jumped into an argument between Samuel Chase and fellow Georgian, Rev. John Joachim Zubly.  Houstoun spoke in a loud and heated manner that indicated willingness to do Chase immediate physical violence.  History doesn’t seem to clarify all the reasons but it appears that young Houstoun’s ‘spirited’ nature got him sent back to Savannah early in 1776 before having an opportunity to participate in the debate or sign the Declaration of Independence.

Though selected as a return delegate, Houstoun remained in Georgia as a member of the Committee of Safety and, once Archibald Bulloch was elected the state’s first President, he served on the executive council.  During its first two years, Georgia was a particularly unstable and crisis filled environment.  Loyalist raiders under Thomas Browne and Daniel M’Girth constantly plagued the state and, to make matters worse, a political dispute within the Whigs broke out between Gwinnett’s radicals and established conservatives.  In early 1777, President Bulloch died suddenly under suspicious circumstances some suggested as poisoning.  Button Gwinnett succeeded him but also died after being shot in a duel with Lachlan M’Intosh only three months later.  Gwinnett was replaced by Governor John Adam Treutlen (Governor instead of President in accordance with the colony’s new constitution) but he also died suddenly under circumstances considered suspicious, this time after only 9 months in office.  During all the upheaval, Georgia had launched two comically inept and completely unsuccessful expeditions against East Florida in an attempt to curtail continued raids and harassment from the British.   Charles Lee considered the Georgia politicians so amateurish that he “should not be surpris’d if they were to propose mounting a body of mermaids upon alligators.”[3]

Unhappy following the death of Treutlen the Assembly elected John Houstoun to succeed him as the new governor.  Houstoun led them into passing a series of Acts attainting the Tories with high Treason and confiscating their estates.  One act named almost 120 wealthy and powerful people including Sir James Wright, Thomas Brown, Rev Zubly, and the M’Girth brothers.[4]  The Act was passed on March 1, 1778 and, probably not coincidentally, a fire broke out in Savannah a few days later burning much of the town.  Citizens and soldiers worked together furiously to bring the fire under control but much of the town burned before their “surprising efforts and undaunted conduct” stopped the flames before they took the Court House.[5]

At that point, anti-loyalist sentiment reached a near fever pitch in Georgia and the Governor’s Board met on April 7 to discuss actions to be taken.  A large group of Loyalists from Carolina known as ‘Scopholytes’ in honor of their leader, militia Colonel Joseph Scoffel moved through Georgia on the way to East Florida.[6]  The junction of these ‘Scopholytes’ with Thomas Brown and the British gave Houstoun “great reason to apprehend some dangerous attempt is mediated against this state.”  While also requesting assistance from South Carolina, the board proceeded to call up all the state militia and hold a draft to fill out its two battalions of Continentals.[7]   With the “present state of alarm daily increasing” the board met again only 9 days later and gave Governor Houstoun an unprecedented grant of executive power to be “lodged in a single person with respect to military matters” since he was “impressed with a Sense of the Calamitous Situation of this State.”[8]  The stage was set for yet another hysterical attempt by the new government of Georgia to invade East Florida.

The Expedition

On receiving the requests from Houstoun, American General Robert Howe gathered the Georgia Continental battalions from the frontier and sent for another from South Carolina under Colonel Pinckney.  They marched south across the Altamaha River at Reid’s Bluff with forward patrols to the Saltilla River.  Unfortunately, the invasion plan also required militia regiments from Georgia that would be commanded by Governor Houstoun and from South Carolina under General Andrew Williamson.  Houstoun and the militia were several weeks late leaving Howe to sit idle and watch his men get sick and use up supplies in the swamps of south Georgia.[9]

Detail of a 1776 map showing East Florida. Source:
Detail of a 1776 map showing East Florida. Source:

When Houstoun finally arrived in late June with the militia he led them directly beyond St. Mary’s River to the British Fort Tonyn which was found abandoned.   Showing his inexperience in military matters, Houstoun pressed the militia forward another 12 miles to Alligator Creek where Colonel Brown and the Loyalists waited with a force estimated at 800 regulars and over 400 loyalists (including the Scopholites).  Not knowing what defensive works were in place, General James Screven of the Georgia militia sent Elijah Clarke and a mounted detachment in a flanking move designed to draw the enemy’s attention and thereby allowing a frontal assault by the main force.  Unfortunately, Clarke rode into a “well concerted Ambuscade by Major Prevost” who appeared ready to defend his positions.[10]  The British killed 1 man on the spot and wounded 7 others of whom 2 later died.  Colonel Clarke was among the wounded.

After the altercation at Alligator Creek, General Howe grew depressed and pessimistic.  Governor Houstoun refused to turn command of the militia over to the general and, to make matters of command even worse, Andrew Williamson arrived with his South Carolina militia force and also refused to relinquish command of his men.  The expedition now had more men than the British but Howe worried about how he could ever again “depend upon operations I have no right to guide, and men I have no right to command, I shall deem it then, as now I do, one of the most unfortunate accidents of my life.”[11]

The generals went into a stand-off that lasted for several days with Howe in command of the Continentals and  “Governor Houstoun declaring that he would not be commanded; Col. Williamson hinting that his men would not be satisfied to be under continental command; or indeed any other commander but his own; and Commodore Bowlan insisting that in the naval department, he is supreme; with this divided, this heterogeneous command, what can be done?”  In fact, Colonel Charles Cotesworth Pinckney lamented that, with the command difficulties and sickness breaking out among his men, “if we do not retreat soon, we shall not be able to retreat at all, and may crown this expedition with another Saratoga affair, in reverse.”[12]  Its hard to imagine how otherwise responsible men such as Houstoun, Williamson, and Howe allowed an argument over who gets to make command decisions stand in the way of success, but an expedition that everyone was previously confident in had turned into a shambles on a single skirmish and loss of less than half a dozen men.

General Howe gave up on the 11th and called his officers to a council of war.  He probably should have renamed the meeting a council on retreat since he obviously favored abandoning the expedition and put forth the officers’ options in such a way as to guarantee they would decide on retreat.  First, Howe had them declare the expedition’s major goal to be running the British out of Georgia and back to East Florida, which goal they “Resolved unanimously in the affirmative.”  He followed that with a conclusion that the British would now stay on their side of the St. John’s River.  Just how he could really guarantee such a thing without defeating the rather large force currently opposing his army is not clear but, once again, the matter was “Resolved unanimously.”  The officers went on to describe their force insufficient for attacking the British and unanimously resolved to retreat back to Savannah and their previous posts.   Howe even had them go so far as to vote on whether he could “with propriety, honour, and safety to himself, or consistent with the service relinquish command to the governor?”[13]

Faced with Howe’s decision to retreat, Governor Houstoun and General Williamson tried to plan a strike across the St. John’s River into East Florida “but this arrangement was fortunately abandoned, and their commands returned to Georgia and dispersed.”[14]  The 1778 summer expedition against East Florida had come to an inglorious end of internal squabbling between a young Governor with no concept of leaving tactical control to the military and a proud general refusing to acknowledge civilian control of his command.


[1] Edith Duncan Johnston, The Houstouns of Georgia, (Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1950), 194.

[2] Charles Francis Jenkins, Button Gwinnett, (New York, Doubleday Page & Company, 1926), 65.

[3] Lee to Armstrong, 17 August 1776, in Collections, NYHS, 1872, p. 246 and reprinted in part in:  Harvey Jackson, Lachlan McIntosh and the Politics of Revolutionary Georgia, (Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1979), 44.

[4] Allen D. Candler, The Revolutionary Records of the State of Georgia V1, (Atlanta, The Franklin-Turner Company, 1908), 324 – 347.

[5] Edith Duncan Johnston, The Houstouns of Georgia, (Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1950), 215.

[6] Moultrie provided only a brief reference to Scoffel, spelling the name Scophol and calling him “an illiterate, stupid, noisy, blockhead”.  William Moultrie, Memoirs of the American Revolution, V1, (New York, David Longworth, 1802), 203.

[7] Allen D. Candler, The Revolutionary Records of the State of Georgia V3, (Atlanta, The Franklin-Turner Company, 1908), 72.

[8] Allen D. Candler, The Revolutionary Records of the State of Georgia V3, (Atlanta, The Franklin-Turner Company, 1908), 74 – 76.

[9] Howe to Moultrie, 12 June 1778, reprinted in William Moultrie, Memoirs of the American Revolution, V1, (New York, David Longworth, 1802) 223.

[10] John Faucheraud Grimke’, Journal of the Campaign to the Southward, May 9 to July 14, 1778, reprinted in the South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, October 1911, 190.

[11] Howe to Moultrie, 5 July 1778, reprinted in William Moultrie, Memoirs of the American Revolution, V1, (New York, David Longworth, 1802), 227 – 229.

[12] Pinckney to Moultrie, 10 July 1778, reprinted in William Moultrie, Memoirs of the American Revolution vol 1, (New York, David Longworth, 1802), 230 – 231.

[13] Minutes from the Council of War at Fort Tonyn, 11 July 1778, reprinted in William Moultrie, Memoirs of the American Revolution vol 1, (New York, David Longworth, 1802), 232 – 236.

[14] Hugh McCall, History of Georgia v2, (Savannah, William T. Williams, 1816), 152.


  • This is a fascinating episode in the history of the Revolution, which demonstrates all too clearly many of the reasons why the war was anything but a cakewalk, even with Great Britain’s long and challenged supply chain, their lack of effective Crown leadership, and the widespread outrage against Parliament’s abuses of the Colonies.

    I am very eager to read your forthcoming book!

  • I really enjoyed this story about internal squabbling between political and military factions, but also liked it as a Floridian. I’ve been interested in the Revolutionary War aspects in this state that happened up in the Jacksonville area like this one. Great stuff!

  • Thanks to you both for making my very cold winter’s day. 🙂 John, if you like reading about internal squabbles, the Georgia group is definitely for you. They were quite a mess. I am just finishing off a chapter on the M’Intosh/Gwinnett feud. Quite a time in old south.

  • The revolution in Georgia and Florida is under researched and more important than many historians report. The conflict you describe between military and political leadership is very interesting and if a common factor in many revolutions. Thank you for sharing this under reported aspect of the revolution.

  • Realizing that we share some interests, I went back and read some of Wayne’s other articles.

    The Georgia governors – hoo boy! We should be pretty happy we didn’t end up with the fully politicized society they envisioned whereby any disagreement with them personally meant you were also an enemy to the state and had to be a Tory. No dissent was allowed no matter how active you happened to be in the Revolution. Together with the Georgia moderates, everyone in SC and NC – radical and moderate alike – thought the Georgia radicals who controlled state government were nuts. After Button Gwinnett and John Adam Treutlen, there was some hope among everyone else that John Houstoun would be better. He did not see every aspect of life and society as politicized the way Gwinnett and Treutlen had, but he was no less a disaster as governor.

    My favorite part is how, after this – the third failed expedition to Florida in as many years – Houstoun successfully blamed it all on Howe, and accused Howe of mismanagement for letting so many of his men get sick while Houstoun’s militia had no problems. What he doesn’t mention is that while the Continentals were sitting down near the Satilla waiting for Houstoun to struggle to recruit enough militia in Sunbury, Houstoun was actually diverting resources from the Continentals to his militia, who had yet to even march a mile. He diverted cattle and rice to the militia, took horses and wagons from the Continentals so their provisions were delayed, and diverted galleys that were convoying provision boats to the Continentals, ordering them to leave those boats and return north. This left the provision boats unprotected. And when Houstoun finally showed up at the Satilla, he only had a portion of the militia he claimed he’d be able to recruit. As the final insult, Georgia representatives in Congress and their allies used this failure to secure Howe’s removal from command.

    It’s not hard to see why so many people in the other colonies were constantly exasperated with Georgia. The Georgians did manage to outlast three successive Continental commanders, however, who threw up their hands in disgust with the state, so they were pretty good at least at ensuring their own political livelihood.

    1. I have been expecting it for about 10 years now but I did come up with a title recently. 🙂 I keep writing parts and chapters and then go a totally different direction and then change subjects and get interested in King’s Mountain when the focus was supposed to be Augusta and the Ceded Lands but I really enjoy reading and writing about the southern partisans as they rid the lands of the hated Tories but then it comes back to my base sympathy for the Loyalist position even though I just can’t understand why a bunch of folk from New Jersey and New York would set sail for a three year tour of the southern backcountry when they all know the fever runs rampant in that part of the state except of course in the winter time when things get downright pleasant and the better part of the evening is spent sipping bourbon with an old friend from down the lane, um, I think I you are starting to see the problem, my attention span lasts only about as long as this sentence. 🙂

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