Crossing the Great Divide: The Battle at Van Creek, Georgia, February 11, 1779

The War Years (1775-1783)

February 9, 2017
by Robert Scott Davis Also by this Author


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Due to the work done by many people since 1976 in uncovering the lost history of the American Revolution, for the first time in more than two centuries the people who risked and sacrificed so much in that conflict are no longer just names but human beings. An excellent example of how far the historiography of that period has come is the Battle of Van Creek, near Elberton, Georgia. There the local militia fought a desperate battle on February 11, 1779 to try to stop other Americans from reaching the British army then at Augusta, Georgia.[1]

The Loyalists or Tories who supported the King’s cause may have numbered 600 or more men with horses and were commanded by a Col. James or John Boyd. They were opposed in crossing the Savannah River by some 100 militiamen from Georgia and South Carolina. By crossing in rafts at different places in the swampy river bottoms, Boyd’s regiment was able to flank and rout the Patriot forces, resulting in the capture of Capt. William Baskins and Capt. John Miller, and least fifteen other men. The remaining militia fled, leaving much of their equipment behind. They reportedly also had one man killed and fifteen men wounded. Boyd had won but he then detoured along the Georgia frontier rather than marching directly for Middleton’s ferry, likely their original intended point of rendezvous with the British army. Consequently, Boyd suffered defeat and death at the Battle of Kettle Creek three days later.

Van Creek was not a large or strategically important battle, even by the standards of the American Revolution. An anonymous American writer in 1780 noted of such fighting, however:

Most of these actions would in other wars be considered as skirmishes of little account, and scarcely worthy of a detailed narrative. But these small actions are as capable as any of displaying conduct. The operations of war being spread over the vast continent … it is by such skirmishes that the fate of America must be decided. They are therefore as important as battles in which a hundred thousand men are drawn up on each side.[2]

Early historian Hugh McCall (who may have been in the battle) wrote that some 100 of Boyd’s men used the confusion of the battle to slip away. Southern Loyalists by this time in the war were often desperate and cowered members of what historian Linda Colley described for all of America as a coalition of poly-ethnic minorities who only sought protection, not to risk their lives in any cause. Joseph Cartwright, a North Carolina Loyalist with Boyd, later testified that Aquila Hall of South Carolina made threats to force men to join in this campaign. At Kettle Creek, before the battle began, anyone wanting to leave could go.[3]

By contrast, the state militiamen under Joseph Pickens, Robert Anderson, William Baskins, James Little, John Miller, and others knew the odds were against them. Earlier in the day at McGowan’s blockhouse, South Carolina, they had prevented Boyd’s men from crossing at Cherokee ford. The men who escaped capture, death, or wounds at Van Creek would join Col. Andrew Pickens and Col. John Dooly to fight again at the Battle of Kettle Creek three days later. There 340 militia blindly attacked and defeated Boyd’s regiment of almost twice their number. Patriot Capt. James Little suffered such severe wounds that he was not expected to live and the Loyalists’ Colonel Boyd was mortally wounded. Even from the beginning, the Loyalists had been pursued including by North Carolinian militia who had pursued them all the way to Georgia.

Boyd’s following had prepared for three years for the arrival of a British army in Georgia but he raised no more than 800 men from the North and South Carolina backcountry, many of whom disappeared into the canebrakes and woods when fighting began. Only 270 of the men who set out with Boyd from near today’s Spartanburg, South Carolina on February 4 eventually reached the British army. That number was not worth expense of the invasion of Georgia. They represented the failure of a plan hatched in St. Augustine, London, and New York that was supposed to turn the war around for the King’s cause.

Much had changed from when the war began in 1775. The Loyalists in North and South Carolina who rose up in the thousands only to be defeated in battle were subsequently persecuted and hounded by their neighbors. Their situation had been made worse when British plans for an invasion of the South included the intent of arming Indians and slaves against the Patriots.[4]

The author in suit on the left at the dedication of the monument to the events at Cherokee Ford and Van Creek at Richard Russell State Park,
Elberton, Georgia. Click to enlarge.

Most of the frontier would support a cause that promised them self-determination as well as protection from bandits and Indians. Patriots used promise of promotion, propaganda, and persecutions to win over their neighbors. No one, not even the Loyalists, really wanted to return to the malicious indifference that the coastal-oriented individual colonial governments had shown them before the war. Historian Jack Greene wrote of the frontier’s desire for a hierarchical social structure, unrestricted commercialization, and the exploitation of slaves, Indians, and other minorities.[5]

Among the frontier people, however, were different classes and communities. Colonial governments had created townships that reserved the best lands in the backcountry to select ethnic or religious communities as a counterbalance to the growing and increasingly discontented native-born American frontiersmen. The British government only took its traditional role of protecting minorities including, according historian Robert Harvey, even Indians, property-less whites, and slaves.[6]

The ethic and sometimes pacifist (such as the Moravians and the Quakers) townships fought for, at the least, the right to stay out of the American Revolution. The ethnic communities included people who came from the northern lands of England, Germans, Highlanders, Lowland Scots, and Irish Protestants. Men particularly from the Raeburn Creek, South Carolina Baptist settlement and from Tryon County, North Carolina came together and marched under Boyd only to encounter violent opposition at Van Creek. They had hoped to reach friends in the Wrightsborough, Georgia, Quaker settlement who would guide them the rest of their way to Augusta and the King’s army. The subsequent Battle of Kettle Creek prevented that from happening for most of these men.

Many Patriot leaders also hailed from Europe but few, if any, Patriot communities consisted largely of European immigrants and their first generation of descendants. The men on both sides, however, were so near identical that the Loyalists wore red bands or crosses, or pine twigs, in their hats for identification as opposed to the white paper worn in the hats of the Patriots or Whigs. The combatants were sometimes friends, neighbors, and even family.[7]

Who were the soldiers who risked so much at Van Creek on February 11, 1779? These heroes all fought for America. Some risked their lives to cross the Savannah River and others to stop those men from reaching the British army, while some men used the opportunity to run away. Some Loyalists only sought British protection but there were militiamen who wanted nothing more than protect their property, the true “pursuit of happiness” for the futures of their families.

That these men who risked being killed at Van Creek shared dreams is shown by the fact that, after the war, some of the Patriots joined Loyalists in leaving the United States for Spanish Alabama and Florida. American expatriates would settle from the South Pacific to the Caribbean to Canada to Africa and England. Conversely, some of the Loyalists would stay to build, with their descendants and Patriot neighbors, the country we know today.

Van Creek battlefield, Cherokee ford, and McGowan’s blockhouse are now underwater, but a monument in Richard Russell State Park commemorates what happened on February 11, 1779. Kettle Creek battlefield, near Washington, Georgia is now a large and growing county park supported by the Kettle Creek Battlefield Association. None of these sites have received national status because the number of men and the casualties involved were not great. Van Creek should be noted, however, for it is in places like it that revolutions are won and lost.


[1] For the history of this campaign see “Loyalism and Patriotism: Community, Conspiracy, and Conflict on the Southern Frontier,” in Robert M. Calhoun, Timothy M. Barnes, and Robert S. Davis, Tory Insurgents: The Loyalist Perception and Other Essays (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2010), 229-83.

[2] Quotation from The Annual Register or a View of the History, Politics, and Literature for the Year 1781 (London, 1781), 83.

[3] Deposition of Joseph Cartwright, September 1, 1779, North Carolina Papers, 1 KK 108, Lyman C. Draper Collection, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison.

[4] Linda Colley, Captives (New York: Cape, 2002), 236; Thomas Pemberton, Historical Journal of the American War Exacted from the Publications of the Massachusetts Historical Society (Boston, 1795), 123-24.

[5] Jack P. Greene, “Independence, Improvement and Authority: Toward a Framework for Understanding the Histories of the Southern Backcountry during the Era of the American Revolution,” in Ronald Hoffman, Thad W. Tate, and Peter J. Albert, eds., An Uncivil War: The Southern Backcountry during the American Revolution (Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press, 1985), 17-20.

[6] Robert Harvey, “A Few Bloody Noses”: The Realities and Mythologies of the American Revolution (New York: Overlook Press, 2002), 6; Robert M. Weir, Colonial South Carolina: A History (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1983), 111-12, 208-9, Robert M. Weir, “The Last of American Freemen” Studies in the Political Culture of the Colonial and Revolutionary South (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1986), 118; Edward J. Cashin, Lachlan McGillivray, Indian Trader (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1992), 235.

[7]  Thomas Young, “Memoirs of Major Thomas Young,” South Carolina Magazine of Ancestral Research 4 (Summer 1976): 183; William Speer to John A. Speer, December 9, 1869, William Speer file, Kettle Creek Historic Site, Box 11 RCB-19864, Record Group 30-4-18, Georgia Archives, Morrow. The Speer letter is also published in Wade Edward Speer, William Speer (1747-1830) (1998) and on the Internet at Col. Samuel Elbert of the Georgia Continentals told his men to wear white paper in their hats as the enemy often wore red in their headgear. Gen. Augustin Prévost wrote that Loyalists identified themselves with either a red cross or pine twigs in their hats. Gordon B. Smith, Morningstars of Liberty (Milledgeville, GA: Boyd Publishing, 2004), 1:95; Prévost talk to the Creeks, March 13, 1779, Colonial Office Papers 5/80, folio 240, National Archives of the United Kingdom, London.


One thought on “Crossing the Great Divide: The Battle at Van Creek, Georgia, February 11, 1779

  • Great subject matter. This might also be a good moment to encourage folks to come out to Kettle Creek this weekend. Tours of the battlefield starting from noon to 3 on Friday and reenactment festivities in the park on Saturday. Washington, Georgia located northwest of Augusta. I understand the Friday battlefield tours will be guided by a very noted army historian from Fort Gordon, not positive but if it is the fellow I suspect, the tour should be a real treat. 🙂

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