On this day in 1779, American Patriots are defeated at Brier Creek. George Washington would later speak of the “unparalleled perseverence of the Armies of the United States, through almost every possible suffering and discouragement.” The American victory over Great Britain, he thought, “was little short of a standing Miracle.”
Stories such as these demonstrate why. Surely Washington knew that a ragtag coalition of American army and militiamen weren’t “supposed to” defeat Britain’s powerful, well-disciplined army and navy.
It certainly seemed that way on March 3, 1779, in Georgia.
That defeat at Brier Creek came soon after Americans’ decisive victory at Kettle Creek (see February 14 post). The Patriots had won there, despite being badly outnumbered. The British began making plans to withdraw to Savannah.
They thought that Brigadier General John Ashe was coming with as many as 11,000 men.
They’d heard wrong. Ashe had command of several militia and Continental units, but they totaled closer to 1,300 men. Perhaps worse, Ashe was not the best military leader. His greater experience was in the North Carolina assembly. He could speak Latin, Greek, and French, but he had no idea what to do with grumbling and mutiny within his own (untrained) ranks. And he apparently did not know what to do when many of the men wanted to leave on March 10, before their enlistments expired.
In short, the men under Ashe were not that numerous—and they were a bit of a mess.
When Ashe arrived at Brier Creek, the bridge there had been burned down. Ashe ordered his men to rest before rebuilding the bridge. In the meantime, the British had learned that Ashe’s contingent was less numerous than they’d initially suspected. They made their move.
Interestingly, on March 2, one of Ashe’s officers saw the British but did not report it back to Ashe. Instead, he and his men simply left.
Ashe was not respected by his men, to say the least.
When the British attacked on March 3, Ashe’s remaining forces were taken off guard. They made many mistakes as they organized to respond to the British attack. Within a matter of minutes, the militia were fleeing the scene. It was a rout.
The great story of the day can be found in a group of Patriots from Georgia, led by Samuel Elbert. He had about 80 men who stood their ground and fought. (Some estimates put the number of his men a little higher.)
“So fiercely did these Georgians fight,” a Georgia Historical Commission marker declares, “that the British had to bring up reserves. Asking no quarter, they fought until nearly every man was dead or wounded. . . . [T]he matchless bravery of the Georgians in the last stand gave solace and inspiration to an almost hopeless situation.”
As for Ashe, he escaped but was later found guilty in a court martial: He’d neglected command of his troops. (He was found innocent of personal cowardice, at least.)
The battle had unfortunate consequences. Georgia was conquered and restored to her status as a royal colony—but it was just a setback. Victory in our fight for independence was just around the corner.
Battle Of Brier Creek Memorial Marker (Georgia Historical Commission) (pictured HERE)
George Washington, Farewell Address to the Army (Nov. 2, 1783)
Joshua B. Howard, “Things Here Wear a Melancholy Appearance”: The American Defeat at Briar Creek (Georgia Historical Quarterly; 2004)
Letter from General William Moultrie to Col. Charles Pinckney (Feb. 27, 1779) (reprinted p. 269-70, HERE)
Otis Ashmore & Charles H. Olmstead, The Battles of Kettle Creek and Brier Creek (Georgia Historical Quarterly; June 1926)
Terry M. Mays, Historical Dictionary of the American Revolution (2d ed. 2009)
William Henry, An Unfortunate Affair: The Battle of Brier Creek and the Aftermath in Georgia (Georgia Southern University: Electronic Theses and Dissertations, 2012)