James Screven – Ambushed!

Picture of Gen. James Screven from Quarterman.org, which credits the Midway Museum, Georgia.

Almost lost to history, but not quite, the memory of General James Screven lives on a monument in the middle of the Midway Cemetery and in a sketch available for viewing in the Midway Museum of Liberty County, Georgia.  At best, General Screven is a shadowy figure about whom little is known.  In fact, history doesn’t even show us how or when he became a general.  At least one account on the day of his death still lists him as Col. James Screven.  In either case, historian David Ramsay assured his readers that “few men were more esteemed or beloved for their virtues in private life.”[1]

About 30 years old when petitions came through Georgia in support of the Boston Patriots, James Screven signed on early in the revolution.  He served on the Georgia Committee of Safety in its early days but resigned in October 1776 in order to continue service in the military.  The radical party of Georgia felt very strongly that a man could not serve in both branches of government and was rabid for civilian control of the armed forces.  As a member of the party, it would not have suited Screven to continue on with the Committee of Safety.  Instead, he settled into his duties as Colonel of the 3rd Georgia Battalion of Continentals and local magistrate for the parish of St. Johns.

For the 1778 summer expedition against East Florida, Governor John Houstoun turned to Screven for leadership of the militia forces.  Screven had resigned his position with the Georgia Continentals and become Brigadier General of the Georgia Militia in March of that year.[2]  During the command crisis that dominated the expedition, Screven remained strictly loyal to the governor causing some measure of hard feelings with General Robert Howe of the Southern District of the Continental Army.  Howe and Houstoun were locked in a very bitter argument concerning Houstoun’s right to take personal command of the expedition.  Neither man gave way and the expedition ended with a whimper.

However, one of the few notable events during the summer expedition involved General Screven and his men at Alligator Creek.  While out reconnoitering, Screven led Lt. Colonel Elijah Clark and his men “into a well concerted ambuscade” that resulted in one man dead and several others wounded, including Clark.[3]  Historians have sometimes speculated that Elijah Clark’s famous personal feud with Thomas Brown began with his wounding at Alligator Creek.    While true that Clark’s enmity may have begun with the ambush, there is another very real possibility that involved another ambush and General James Screven.

Death of Screven

In November of the same year, the British began a two-pronged attack aimed at the reconquest of Georgia.  British Lt. Colonel Prevost would march north from East Florida and bring his army up the coastal islands toward a junction with Lt. Colonel Archibald Campbell who was leading an invasion of Savannah from the sea.  About 100 Georgia Continentals under Colonel John White moved to Midway in Liberty County to meet the threat from Prevost.  They built a light breastwork at the head of a causeway and waited.

General Screven arrived the following morning leading about 20 militia men.  Being familiar with the area, he knew of “an advantageous piece of ground, about a mile and a half south of Medway meeting-house, where the main road was skirted by a thick wood.”  As they approached the position, General Screven moved forward with his aide to “examine the ground.”[4]

Unfortunately for Screven, the British force included Thomas Brown whose rangers not only knew the country but were burning for revenge over the “murder of Captain Moore, and others, in cold blood.”[5]  They had arrived at the ground first and “General Scriven had advanced but a short distance, when he fell in with a party of the enemy.”[6] The general was felled by gunfire and lay wounded on the field.

Screven’s story may have ended with that event except that, “after he fell, several of the British came up and, upbraiding him for the manner in which Captain Moore of Browne’s Rangers had been killed, discharged their pieces at him.”[7]

Outraged at the treatment of Screven and other murderous events being reported, Colonel White wrote to Prevost, “I cannot avoid, on the present occasion, to complain of the equally ruinous and disgraceful warfare carried on by the troops under your command.”[8]  Not bothering to deny the bad behavior of his men Prevost simply explained that Brown’s rangers were irregulars with deep personal resentments and, even though he personally abhorred the “calamities of war you complain of,” the Patriot forces had given adequate precedent by their behavior during raids against Tories in East Florida.[9]

Along with the explanation, Lt. Colonel Prevost admitted to holding General Screven prisoner and even indicated that he was “likely to do well, from the report of the surgeons.”  Prevost said he was “really unhappy to hear from him (Screven) that one of the Rangers shot him after he was already disabled” and made arrangements to send the wounded general back to Colonel White.[10]

Unfortunately, Prevost’s optimistic response concerning Screven’s chances for recovery and his offer to return the wounded general came to nothing.  Two local doctors came to Screven’s aid and were “permitted to attend general Scriven; but on their arrival his wounds were found to be mortal, and that any exertions made by them would be adding a useless increase of pain, to what he already experienced, for the few hours he had to live.”[11]

General Screven’s death has become little more than a side note of history barely worthy of mention.  However, there is some evidence that to the Patriots at the time of the Revolution, the brutal shooting of Screven after he was already down may have been the cause of some significant escalation in the war in Georgia.  Thomas Brown and his rangers had come to town and they brought destruction to the “Medway meeting house, and almost every dwelling-house in the country.”[12]  Brown would later be given charge of the post at Augusta and the position of British Indian Agent to the Creek Indians. When he was later captured, public feelings against him ran so high that Andrew Pickens sent him away under guard to prevent Elijah Clark from allowing his men to murder Brown.

In his later years, Thomas Brown read David Ramsay’s history of South Carolina and saw the reference to his men having shot General Screven after he was wounded and on the ground helpless.  He tried to deny any wrongdoing by his men and whitewash the event with his own telling.  “The General (Screven) being grievously wounded, was treated with tenderness and humanity.  He had the character of a brave, worthy man.  I sincerely felt for his misfortune, and ordered him to be conveyed to our camp, where every attention was paid to him by Colonel Prevost, and every assistance given to him by our surgeons.”[13]  In light of Prevost’s admission at the time of the incident, Brown’s story holds very little weight.

In any event, regardless of whether Screven’s death served as a spark for resistance and retaliation in Georgia, or perhaps fueled Elijah Clark’s feud with Brown, we do know that James Screven was a Patriot who answered the call to revolution early and “few officers had done more for their country than this gallant citizen, who lost his life in consequence of the wounds received on this occasion.”[14]

[Featured image at top: Picture of Gen. James Screven from Quarterman.org, which credits the Midway Museum, Georgia.]

[1] David Ramsay, M. D., History of the Revolution in South Carolina, (Trenton: Isaac Collins, 1785), 2.

[2] John Faucheraud Grimké, “Journal of the Campaign to the Southward,” South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, Volume 12 No 4 (October 1911), 190 note.

[3] Grimké, “Journal of the Campaign to the Southward,”190.

[4] Hugh McCall, History of Georgia, Volume II, (Savannah: William T. Williams, 1816), 157.

[5] Prevost to White, 22 November 1778, reprinted in George White, Historical Collections of Georgia (Marietta, GA: White, 1854), 524.

[6] McCall, History of Georgia, Volume II, 157.

[7] Ramsay, History of the Revolution in South Carolina, 2.

[8] White to Prevost, 20 November 1778, reprinted in White, Historical Collections of Georgia, 524.

[9] Prevost to White, 22 November 1778, reprinted in White, Historical Collections of Georgia, 524.

[10] Prevost to White, 22 November 1778, reprinted in White, Historical Collections of Georgia, 524.

[11] McCall, History of Georgia, Volume II, 159.

[12] McCall, History of Georgia, Volume II, 160.

[13] Brown to Ramsay, 25 December 1786, reprinted in White, Historical Collections of Georgia, 616.

[14] Ramsay, History of the Revolution in South Carolina, 2.

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