Smallpox raged across the backcountry in the late spring of 1781 and both of the Refugee commanders, Elijah Clarke and James McCall, caught the disease. Clarke was out of action for a month while McCall never returned at all, having died from the disease in March. During his time in bed, Colonel Clarke put plans in motion to retake Augusta and the Georgia backcountry. He dispersed the regiment “into parties of 10 to 12 men each, so as to spread themselves over the settlements, and appointed Dennis’s Mill on Little River, for the place of rendezvous. When these small parties entered the settlements where they had formerly resided, general devastation was presented for their view.” The Georgia Refugees reacted with “resentment. Mercy to a Loyalist who had been active in outrage, became inadmissible and retaliative carnage ensued.”
Second Siege of Augusta
The British commander at Augusta, Lt. Colonel Thomas Brown, tried to stop the uprising. He first sent a patrol of 25 regulars and 20 militia down the Savannah River to investigate interruptions in his supply lines. The Patriots, “attacked them, though superior in number to themselves, killed the officer and 15 of his men, and compelled the remainder to retreat precipitately to Augusta.” Having learned their lesson, the next time Brown tried to react with his Provincials, they deserted and “fled to the Indians” on the frontier.
Not one to give up easily, Brown stiffened even further and led a patrol against the Patriots at Wiggin’s Hill where he killed 7 and wounded another 11. In that raid, a guide named Wylly gave Brown false intelligence in an attempt to lead them into a trap. “Brown turned him over to the Indians, who ripped him open with their knives in his presence, and tortured him to death.” It was the only instance in which Brown actually admitted to having used his Indian allies to execute a prisoner.
Brown retaliated for the ambush by hanging at least 5 more men at Augusta but there was no stopping the Georgia Refugees. Always a loose outfit, their numbers now surged with all types of men who sensed victory over the Tories and came out to join the insurgency. A Colonel Dunn swept across the ceded lands above Augusta and murdered about 60 Loyalists. “Augusta was placed in a blockade until the middle of May.” Brown was now trapped inside his two forts outside Augusta.
Colonel Clarke returned to the field around the 15th of May. His presence helped bring some order to the chaos but did little to stop the retributions. When Brown tried to send a detachment of regulars and Indians out for forage, Clarke countered with the infamous Patrick “Paddy” Carr who “lay in a thicket, near Mrs. Bugg’s plantation and attacked them; and following the example which had just been set for them by the enemy, they spared the life of none who fell into their hands.”
In spite of Brown’s predicament in the forts, there was little Clarke and the Refugees could do against their defensive works. Clarke tried to rebuild an old four pounder “which had been thrown away by the British; believing it might be converted to use” but the lack of powder and ammunition rendered the piece virtually useless. As a result, the siege continued until the 23rd when Pickens and Lee arrived to reinforce the Refugees and help overwhelm the British in Augusta.
The story of the battle and taking of the forts is for another day, but is itself quite interesting and involved construction of a wooden tower that would allow riflemen to target men inside Fort Cornwallis. In what was probably their last fight as a regiment, Clarke and the Refugees withstood a furious sally by Brown to break free of the siege. Unable to get out, Brown finally surrendered and the 2nd Siege of Augusta ended along with the last British rule in the Georgia backcountry.
Murder of Grierson
With the surrender of Brown and his troops came the problem of securing prisoners that many of the Georgia Refugees found personally repugnant. As the overall commander with a very legitimate fear that Clarke’s men lacked discipline, Lt. Colonel Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee placed Brown and the other officers “under a strong guard of Continental troops.” Even with the guard’s presence, a young man named McKay, whose brother had been executed, “sought an opportunity of putting Brown to death. His attempt was stopped by the guards. However, another prisoner, the Loyalist militia commander James Grierson, was not so lucky.
James Grierson was a local Loyalist who had lived in the Augusta area for a number of years before the war. The British investigated Grierson early in 1780 and then commissioned him a Colonel of militia in the Georgia backcountry above Augusta. Very influential, he even advised Governor Wright on choices of magistrates for the area. Unfortunately, the war had been costly for Grierson; he lost his wife, daughter, son, and a brother who was “shot dead by rebels.”
Perhaps motivated in part by revenge over his prior tragedies or perhaps by the ordeal he endured with Thomas Brown, Grierson had been directly involved in the mass retributions and executions that ravaged the backcountry after the 1st Siege of Augusta. Among his specific acts had been the mistreatment of an old man named Alexander whose sons, Samuel and James, were both captains with the Georgia Refugees. Later, during the 2nd siege, “Browne and Grierson resorted to the inhuman expedient of bringing out on the platform a number of aged persons, the parents, relatives and friends of the besiegers, and thus interposing as a screen for his own men – a living screen. Among them was old Mr. Alexander, too far advanced in age to bear arms, or otherwise unite in hostilities.”
According to the later report by Andrew Pickens, on June 6, a man “rode up to the door of a room where Col. Grierson was confined, and without dismounting shot him so that he expired soon after.” The killer “instantly rode off” and escaped before he could be identified. Nineteenth century historians James McCall and Joseph Johnson both followed on along and reported the killer as “one of the Georgia riflemen” or “some one, at that time unknown.” On the other hand, was Pickens really being sincere in his report to Greene?
The British clearly did not think so. Governor Wright said that Grierson was “basely murdered in the very midst of Rebel troops; a sham pursuit was made for a few minutes after the murderer, but he was permitted to escape.” As to the identity of the shooter, Thomas Brown wrote a more detailed description of the events. A man “named James Alexander, entered the room where he [Grierson] was confined with his three children, shot him through the body, and returned unmolested by the sentinel posted at the door, or the main guard. He was afterward stripped and his clothes divided among the soldiers, who, having exercised upon his dead body all the rage of the most horrid brutality, threw it into a ditch without the fort.”
Unfortunately for the Americans, when looking into the record a bit further, it does appear that Brown may be correct as to just who shot Grierson. In his memoirs, Tarleton Brown (not to be confused with Loyalist Thomas Brown) said that it was Captain Alexander who shot “Grierson for his villainous conduct in the country.” Additionally, two pensioners from Georgia, James Young and George Hillen, both identified Grierson’s killer in their accounts. “The next day after the surrender of the Forts, Colonel Grierson was killed by a gun fired by on James Alexander as was reported at the time.”
As if killing Grierson weren’t enough, another shooter managed to wound an officer named Williams. At that point, Lee and Pickens decided to send Brown and the remaining officers to Greene who was engaged in a similar siege across the Savannah River at Ninety-Six.
After the fall of Augusta, the focus of military operations in Georgia moved downriver to Savannah. The Georgia Refugees sort of fell apart as civil government was restored. Most of the officers and men received promotions and official commissions in new state or militia regiments. Elijah Clarke became Brigadier General Clarke and continued to lead the backcountry Georgians along the frontier for a number of years. Not only did they war with the Indians but a great many Loyalists had gone to live beyond the frontier and rounding them up took much of Clarke’s time.
A Few Closing Thoughts
No official regiment known as the Georgia Refugees ever existed. When government in Georgia collapsed, these men simply refused to surrender and carried on as an insurgency. They played key roles in the victories at Musgrove’s Mill, Blackstock’s Plantation, Cowpens, and 2nd Augusta. Even their defeats at 1st Augusta and Long Cane are significant events that went a long way toward convincing the British to give up their attempt to maintain control of the southern colonies. While certainly no single regiment or militia commander can claim to have single-handedly saved the war, in my opinion at least, the Georgia Refugees fought as many battles and had a greater impact on defeating the southern strategy than any other single regiment in that theater of operations.
So, why are the Georgia Refugees almost completely unknown to history? The answer might be their lack of definition as a unit or possibly that Elijah Clarke is thought to have been illiterate and therefore left almost no record of their activities. The problem could also be the very nature of the southern campaigns. Such a messy place overall that few go to the trouble for a real understanding of events there. However, there may be yet another answer. Perhaps Elijah Clarke and the Refugees aren’t much written about because their exploits tended toward the dark side of things and many historians prefer a rosier view of the American Revolution. After all, how many want to imagine their personal heroes out hanging a few Tories or burning out whole families in a purge of anyone who dared voice political opposition to the Whigs? However, there is real truth found in the story of the Georgia and South Carolina backcountry. These states were not prevented from joining East Florida as British colonies simply by virtue of Nathaniel Greene’s nicely performed campaign of delay against Cornwallis. The men of the back country, the volunteer militia of the Refugees (and a few other regiments) won the war of hearts and minds in southern states. Unfortunately, they did it by utilizing brutal tactics of murder and intimidation that Americans would actually like to avoid knowing much about. The famous southern strategy employed by the British was based upon a belief that a majority of southerners would actually prefer to remain with the crown. Today we enjoy chuckling at how wrong they were and how the people of the backcountry rose up in defiance of that notion to send Cornwallis packing. But my research has never really proved the British wrong. Instead, I have tended more towards a view that the Whig population, even though surely a minority in 1775 and probably still short of majority in the summer of 1780, carried the revolutionary war in the south by several years of harsh oppression followed by a violent purge of the remaining Loyalists from 1781 to 1782.[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: Scarce regional map of Georgia, 1764, from Nicholas Bellin’s La Petit Atlas Maritime. View full size. Extends from Port Royal and Augusta in the North to Saint Augustin in the South. Shows a number of early roads, Fort More, Ft. Argyll, F. du Roi George, F. Diego, F Picolata, Ebenezer and Old Ebenezer, Savannah, Fort S. Georges, etc. The 1738 Georgia-Florida Boundary line is also shown. One of the earliest obtainable maps of the region. Source: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps, raremaps.com]
 Hugh McCall, History of Georgia (Savannah, GA: Williams, 1816), 2:362.  McCall, History of Georgia, 2:366.  McCall, History of Georgia, 2:366; see also, Thomas Brown to Dr. David Ramsay, 25 December 1786, in George White, Historical Collections of Georgia (New York: Pudney & Russell, 1854), 617. Brown admitted that he turned Willie over to an Indian Chief for execution but only says the man was tomahawked. Brown indicates this as the only Indian outrage committed by any Indians under his command. His claim is actually a bit suspect in light of the Patriot claims of regular outrages by the Indians along the GA frontier and also the incidents following the 1st Siege of Augusta. At that time, torture and killing of prisoners was not uncommon practice among Native Americans and there would seem to be little evidence that Thomas Brown was more successful than other commanders at stopping these practices.  McCall, History of Georgia, 2:366.  McCall, History of Georgia, 2:368.  Mary Bonderant Warren, Georgia Governor and Council Journals 1780 (Athens, GA: Heritage Papers, 2009), 26.  James Grierson, Grierson Family Bible, reprinted in Georgia Loyalist Claims,  Joseph Johnson, Traditions and Reminiscences, Chiefly of the American Revolution in the South (Charleston, SC: Walker & James, 1851), 359.  Andrew Pickens to Nathanael Greene, 7 June 1781, in Richard K. Showman, The Papers of General Nathanael Greene vol VIII, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 8:356.  McCall, History of Georgia, 2:374.  Johnson, Traditions and Reminiscences, 357.  James Wright to Shelburne, 28 February 1782, in Warren,Georgia Governor and Council Journals 1780, 145.  Brown to Ramsay, 25 December 1786, in White, Historical Collections of Georgia, 617.  James Young, Pension Application R11977, transcribed by Will Graves, http://revwarapps.org/r11977.pdf; see also, George Hillen, Pension Application S7006, transcribed by Will Graves, http://revwarapps.org/S7006.pdf, which says, “A comrade named James Alexander killed Grayson [Grierson].”  Pickens to Greene, 7 June 1781, in Showman, The Papers of General Nathaniel Greene, 8:356.