On this day in 1779, a group of American patriots holds off a contingent of British soldiers at the Burke County Jail in Georgia, despite being badly outnumbered.
By this point, the American Revolution had been raging for nearly four years, and the British were getting frustrated with their slow progress in the northern colonies. They decided to turn their attention to the South. A fair number of Loyalists lived there, and the British hoped to help these Loyalists regain control of the southern state governments. They’d establish a British base in the South and use it to crush the remaining rebellion in the North.
The strategy seemed to be working at first. The British won a victory in Savannah in late 1778. Their next target was Augusta.
Naturally, the Patriots weren’t going to roll over that easily. In mid-January, a group of them gathered at the Burke County Jail, just south of Augusta. They were planning their next move.
Unfortunately, the British heard of the meeting. A detachment of roughly 230 British soldiers was sent to deal with the 120 Patriots at the jail. (The British may also have wanted to free Loyalists being held there.) The British attacked on the morning of the 26th, potentially while the Americans were still sleeping. Amazingly, the Patriots still managed to hold the British off for a whole day. The British soldiers were forced to withdraw. They rejoined the main British army, which was on its way to attack Augusta.
The Battle of Burke County Jail was not exactly a victory. Perhaps it was a draw? The British still managed to capture Augusta a few days later, and the Patriots admittedly continued to struggle in the South for a while afterwards.
Indeed, the battle was a relatively small one in the grand scheme of things, but the small battles are worth remembering, too. In many ways, they demonstrate the essence of our fight for freedom.
We were the underdog in a war against an imposing British Army, yet our ancestors kept fighting, through thick and through thin. They fought in small skirmishes and in large battles. They fought when they were hungry. They fought when they were tired—or even if they were surprised out of sleep. They fought when they lacked supplies, and they fought as they battled diseases like smallpox. They continued for years on end.
They weren’t “supposed” to win, but they did. They were determined, they persevered, and they knew the value of freedom.
Here’s hoping that this generation doesn’t forget what our founding generation understood so well.
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Edward J. Cashin, The King's Ranger: Thomas Brown and the American Revolution on the Southern Frontier (1999)
Georgia: Comprising Sketches of Counties, Towns, Events, Institutions, and Persons Arranged in Cyclopedic Form (Allen Daniel Candler & Clement Anselm Evans eds., 1906)
Robert Scott Davis, Portraits of Southern Partisans: Likenesses of Thomas Brown and Elijah Clarke (Apr. 15, 2013)
Spencer Tucker, Almanac of American Military History (2012) (volume 1)
Terry M. Mays, Historical Dictionary of the American Revolution (2d ed. 2009)