Elijah Clarke and the Georgia Refugees Fight British Domination

The War Years (1775-1783)

September 15, 2014
by Wayne Lynch Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

With the fall of Charleston, British columns spread into the southern backcountry. All of Georgia was occupied and the state government simply melted into the frontier along with most of the Whig population. In late June the prominent militia leaders of the Ninety-Six district in South Carolina took parole along with most of their men. For Elijah Clarke and the backcountry men around Augusta, things were different. Their war had already become one that involved personal retributions and murder. Before the British even arrived in Augusta, beloved militia commander John Dooly was “killed in his own house…by the Tories”[1] leaving Lt. Colonel Clarke in command of the Wilkes County Militia.   Clarke felt betrayed by the paroles accepted by the South Carolinians and vowed to continue the fight. Many of his men felt the same way. Peter Strozier said, “he wished no other protection than his rifle”[2] and rode off with Clarke. One of the officers, David Madden, said, “We were known by the name of the Georgia Refugees” because “when we embodied under Colonel Clarke in June 1780 as refugees for refusing to take the oath of allegiance to the British Crown, there was no executive dept. in Georgia.”[3]

Clarke’s first move was to furlough the men for three weeks in order to secure their farms while he sent messengers across the backcountry in search of allies and information on the state of resistance. At this point the refugees remained disorganized and a different group of about 40 Georgians had the first major skirmish with the British. Having joined some North Carolina militia camped near Prince’s Fort, they skirmished with a Loyalist officer named James Dunlap of the Queen’s Rangers. The encounter went badly for Dunlap as the captain “unfortunately fell in with a party coming round from Georgia to join the rebels of North Carolina, who surprised his people, killed one, and took the rest prisoners.”[4]

Elijah Clarke arrived in South Carolina in early August and assumed command of the regiment. He probably had 140 men from Georgia and another 25 South Carolinians under Captain James McCall of the Long Canes District. The Refugees camped near Wofford’s Iron Works and skirmished with Loyalists under command of Alexander Innes. Not strong enough to assault Clarke’s positions, Innes tried to draw the Georgians into an open battle. He was unsuccessful and both armies withdrew while claiming victory even though “no great advantage had been obtained by either.”[5]

Glory at Musgrove’s Mill

Having already stared the British down, Clarke continued his harassment of Tory foraging parties until Innes decided enough was enough and led 350 men on a mission against the Refugees from Georgia. “Fortunately for Colonel Clarke, he had been joined by Colonels Williams, Branham, and Shelby, and this united force, all militia, raised his numbers to an equality” with the British. Clarke spread the men into a large semi-circle that drew Innes and the Loyalists inside where they were forced “to form in the open field, while his own men would be covered by the fence and the woods.” Seeing advantage, the Patriots closed in and caused confusion among the British who ended up fleeing “the field in the utmost disorder.” It was total defeat for Innes with 63 killed and 160 captured to only 4 dead and 9 wounded Patriots.[6]

As for Elijah, both he and son, John Clarke, were wounded in the action. “The colonel received 2 wounds with a sabre on the back of his neck and head; his stock buckle saved his life.   He was for a few minutes a prisoner with the enemy, in charge of 2 men, but taking advantage of his strength and activity, he knocked one of them down and the other fled. Colonel Clarke buried his dead and returned” to his camp at the iron works.[7]

News of the Patriot victory at Musgrove’s Mill flew “like lightning through the province” while, at least in Cornwallis’s opinion, news of Gates’s defeat at Camden and Sumter’s loss at Fish Dam Ford circulated “very slowly.”[8] This must have truly raised the British general’s frustration level since it had only been a few days previous that he first heard of Clarke and the action at Musgrove’s Mill. At that point, Cornwallis had written, “It is impossible there can be any enemy openly in arms near the frontier after the total rout of Gates and Sumpter.”[9] Cornwallis then let anger get the better of restraint and gave orders that provided the Loyalist commander at Augusta “sanction to any act of rigour you may think necessary” in dealing with the Georgia Refugees who had “never fairly submitted.”[10]

First Siege of Augusta

The infamous Loyalist, Thomas “Burntfoot” Brown who commanded at Augusta welcomed the new instructions from Cornwallis. He still had a number of scars related to having been Tarred and Feathered in the very same town back in the summer of 1775. But now, five years later, his Florida Rangers were known as the King’s Rangers and Brown was a Lt. Colonel in the American Establishment (Loyalist forces) as well as the British Indian agent to the Creeks. Taking General Cornwallis’s instructions to heart, Brown proceeded to remove “five victims” from the jail, “who all expired on the gibbet.”[11]

The hangings did not bring pacification. In fact, quite the contrary as Clarke reacted by returning to Georgia with a plan to raise 500 men while his partner, McCall, raised an equal 500 men from the Long Cane District over in South Carolina. The two believed their new reputations from the Musgrove’s Mill victory combined with Brown’s hangings would make great recruiting. Unfortunately, in spite of the glory, they fell a bit short. Clarke managed about 350 but McCall only showed up with 80 men from across the river. Not known as an educated man of restraint, Clarke decided it was “too late to relinquish a project which he so anxiously wished to accomplish” and pushed forward against Augusta.[12]

Without hesitation, the Refugees struck Augusta on the 14th of September with Clarke marching right down the center and McCall supporting him on the right. They took Brown completely by surprise and gained possession of the town and its two forts “without resistance.” Unfortunately, Brown and his second in command, James Grierson, managed to hole up in M’Kay’s trading post just outside Augusta above the River. “Several attempts were made to dislodge the enemy, by taking possession of some small out-houses to the eastward; but they failed, from the houses being too small and flanked by the Indians.”[13]   With no useful artillery available, Clarke abandoned attempts to overrun the trading post and settled in for a siege.

The British worked all night to fortify the trading post against attack and by morning it was a musket-proof structure that would require artillery to take. The post itself was too small for Brown’s men and the Indians took positions at the river bank some 80 yards from “White-House,” as the trading post was commonly called.   On the morning of the 15th “two pieces of artillery, six and four pounders, were brought up from Grierson’s Fort and placed in a position to bear upon the house.” Unfortunately for Clarke, his only man with knowledge of firing the cannon was “killed soon after the pieces were brought to bear upon the enemy.” While Clarke wasted the day, Brown was reinforced overnight by 50 Cherokee warriors.[14]

Clarke had an idea. Before daylight, the Refugees attacked the Indian position along the riverbank and drove them away thus depriving the British of water. Brown had not seen the problem coming and soon ran short of drinking water. Having been shot “through both thighs” early in the battle, Brown began to suffer “among the wounded, who were often heard calling for water and medical aid.” The siege carried on through the night of the 16th and into the next morning when Clarke sent Brown a demand for surrender, which was refused. Clarke sent a warning that “Brown would be held responsible for the consequences of his temerity” but Brown refused to budge.[15]

A problem developed for Clarke on the 18th. His overnight scouts reported a British relief column from South Carolina with 500 men. A glance around his own camp revealed that “weakness occasioned by the loss of men in the action and siege, and by the desertion of those who preferred Plunder to honor and interest of their country, compelled the Americans to raise the siege and retreat about Ten o’clock, having sustained a loss of about sixty killed and wounded.”[16]

Needing to retreat fast, Clarke was forced to leave 29 wounded men in Augusta to the mercy of Brown and the Loyalists. They were granted none. Brown had 12 men hung immediately on the porch of the trading post before turning the rest over to “the Indians to glut their vengeance for the loss they had sustained in the action and siege.” McCall’s Patriot account details how the Indians formed a circle and placed the prisoners in the “centre, and their eagerness to shed blood spared the victims from tedious torture; some were scalped before they sunk under the Indian weapons of war; others were thrown into fires and roasted to death.”[17]

The British accounts don’t seem to detail the prisoner deaths other than Cornwallis’s observation that, “the Indians pursued and scalped several of them.”[18] As to the hangings, James Grierson, who commanded in Augusta after the siege while Brown remained wounded at White-Hall, reported to Governor Wright that “many rebels have been killed, wounded & taken & one hanged.”[19] A month later, Wright acknowledged the other 12 hangings in a follow-up report hoping that the severe treatments “will have a very good effect.”[20]

The Exodus and Aftermath

Illustration depicting the death of British Major Patrick Ferguson at the Battle of Kings Mountain during the American Revolutionary War, October 7, 1780. Source: Anne S. K. Brown Collection at Brown University
Illustration depicting the death of British Major Patrick Ferguson at the Battle of Kings Mountain during the American Revolutionary War, October 7, 1780. Source: Anne S. K. Brown Collection at Brown University

After the retreat, Colonel Clarke dispersed his men to gather their families and then “assemble in Wilkes County ten miles from Petersburg and about 10 o’clock (the day after the orders were given) between 600 and 700 including women, children, and negroes assembled, we marched through the woods, we crossed the Savannah River a little distance below the Tugaloo river, and, having no time to collect provisions, living on acorns, haws, and crab apples” arrived in North Carolina but, “having heard that Ferguson lay near King’s Mountain, we continued our march seven more days through the mountains toward Nolichucky and Watauga, living, as before, upon such things as the forest afforded.”[21]

In response to Elijah Clarke’s attack on Augusta, Lord Cornwallis sent orders to Patrick Ferguson to pursue the Refugees and try to cut them off before they could cross the mountains. By the 3rd of October, Ferguson reported failure to Cornwallis. “By desire of Col Cruger I crossed upon Clark’s retreat, but miss’d him, and I am inform’d he went off at the head of Saluda, at a gap, out of my reach, with 200 men.”[22]

Meanwhile, back in Georgia, Brown and his second, Col. Grierson, were “doing everything possible to root out Rebellion” in the state. Grierson had “burnt & laid waste” to about 100 plantations and Governor Wright started proceedings to carry out the Disqualifying Law to its fullest extent against the Whig population or their property.[23] In addition to the executions, burnings, and confiscation of property, the British also grabbed hostages from the families of known patriots. They held these civilians for months under harsh conditions that ended in the death of several old men. One of the men was the father of Captain James Alexander. As will be seen in a future article, Captain Alexander would take a strong measure of revenge.

In October 1780 things looked bleak for Elijah Clarke and the Georgia Refugees. After their failed attack on Augusta, the regiment made its way into Watauga to be sheltered by their friends, the Overmountain Men of Watauga who were, at that very moment, organized and moving toward a date at King’s Mountain. The situation in Georgia looked grim for the Patriots and their families. For several weeks, “the country was searched, and those whose relations were engaged in the American Cause were arrested and crowded into prisons: others who were suspected of having intercourse with any of Clarke’s command were hanged without the forms of trial.”[24] Things could only get better.

[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: Portrait of Elijah Clarke by Rembrandt Peale. Source: University of Georgia]


[1] Joseph Collins, Pension Application R2179, transcribed by Will Graves, http://revwarapps.org/r2179.pdf .

[2] Margaret Strozier, Pension Application R10279, transcribed by Will Graves, http://revwarapps.org/r10279.pdf .

[3] David Madden, Pension Application S31835, transcribed by Will Graves, http://revwarapps.org/s31835.pdf. Madden served as a Lieutenant in the Georgia Refugees

[4] Nisbet Balfour to Charles, Earl Cornwallis, 17 July 1780, in Ian Saberton, The Cornwallis Papers (East Sussex, England: The Naval and Military Press Ltd, 2010), 1:251.

[5] Hugh McCall, History of Georgia, (Savannah, GA: Williams, 1816), 2:314.

[6] McCall, History of Georgia, 2:317.

[7] McCall, History of Georgia, 2:318.

[8] Cornwallis to John Harris Cruger, 31 August 1780, in Saberton, The Cornwallis Papers, 2:174.

[9] Cornwallis to Cruger, 24 August 1780, in Saberton, The Cornwallis Papers, 2:169.

[10] Cornwallis to Cruger, 31 August 1780, in Saberton, The Cornwallis Papers, 2:174.

[11] McCall, History of Georgia, 2:320.

[12] McCall, History of Georgia, 2:322.

[13] McCall, History of Georgia, 2:323.

[14] McCall, History of Georgia, 2:324.

[15] McCall, History of Georgia, 2:325.

[16] McCall, History of Georgia, 2:329.

[17] McCall, History of Georgia, 2:329.

[18] Cornwallis to Lord George Germain, 23 September 1780, in Saberton, The Cornwallis Papers, 2:40.

[19] James Wright to Germain, 22 September 1780, in Mary Bondurant Warren and Jack Moreland Jones, Georgia Governor and Council Journals 1780, (Athens, GA: Heritage Papers, 2009), 67.

[20] Wright to Germain, 27 October 1780, in Warren and Jones, Georgia Governor and Council Journals 1780, 68.

[21] David Thurmond, Pension Application S32010, transcribed by Will Graves, , http://revwarapps.org/s32010.pdf. Thurmond was among the first 38 men who followed Elijah Clarke out of Georgia in July 1780.

[22] Patrick Ferguson to Cornwallis, 3 October 1780, in Saberton, 2:163.

[23] Wright to Germain, 27 October 1780 , in Warren and Jones, Georgia Governor and Council Journals 1780, 68.

[24] McCall, History of Georgia, 2:330.


  • Jimmy Carter, our former president, has written Hornet’s Nest, a work of historical fiction on the Whig/Tory history of the Carolinas and Georgia. Much of what he has recorded is confirmed in this article.

  • Readers of this account might wish to compare Edward J. Cashin’s “The King’s Ranger: Thomas Brown and the American Revolution on the Southern Frontier” (New York: Fordham University Press, 1999), pp. 113-20. It appears that McCall ought to be used with more caution as a source.

    1. Yes, it is true that Hugh McCall frequently showed his bias in the work and also unfortunate that we aren’t blessed with a lot of primary source material for that time of the war. That said, I believe his History of Georgia stands up fairly well in most cases. Perhaps you might be more specific in what details you are having doubts about.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *