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This Day in History: Elijah Clarke, semi-forgotten hero

On or around this day in 1799, Elijah Clarke passes away. He’s been called an “an effective successful guerilla commander” whose contributions “merit high recognition.”

He was a “steady, reliable, and, when necessary, deadly fighting leader,” historian Henry Lumpkin notes. Unfortunately, he’s been lost in the shadow of other well-known southern militia leaders such as the Swamp Fox.

Clarke fought and served as a militia officer in many battles that history buffs might recognize, including the Battles of Kettle Creek and Brier Creek, the Battles of Fishdam Ford and Blackstock’s, and the Battle of Camden.

He was wounded repeatedly in these battles. Naturally, the intrepid militiaman kept coming back to fight.

One notable event in Clarke’s career occurred toward the end of the war, when he led the so-called Georgia Refugees.

The British, you may recall, embarked on a campaign to defeat the colonists in the South following their failed Philadelphia and Saratoga campaigns in the North. At first, this effort was successful. The British captured Savannah at the end of 1778. The British commander boasted that he had “ripped one star and one stripe from the rebel flag.” Soon afterwards, the British won at Augusta, too.

In the wake of such victories, the British believed that they had crushed Georgia. They demanded that the rebels surrender. In return, the former rebels would be given leniency. Sadly, many militia took the offer.

Clarke felt betrayed. But he also refused to surrender and others followed his lead. They simply refused to give up.

One man later wrote in his pension application: “We were known by the name of the Georgia Refugees.” He noted that he had no “documentary evidence . . . to sustain his claims.” He and the men fighting with Clarke had “no commission during the last mentioned Term of Service for when we embodied under Colonel Clark in June 1780 as refugees for refusing to take the oath of allegiance to the British Crown.”

Little is written about the Georgia Refugees, but historian Wayne Lynch concludes that they “played key roles in the victories at Musgrove’s Mill, Blackstock’s Plantation, Cowpens, and 2nd Augusta. . . . 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 many forgotten heroes in our past! And yet, without their contributions, we may never have been free.

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