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Christmas 1778: Good for Florida But Bad for the United States

December 25, 2017 - 6:00am
Augustine Prevost and Robert Howe
Augustine Prevost and Robert Howe

The end of December 1778 proved an awful Christmas for the fledgling United States but a great Yuletide for Florida.

While East Florida was not, by any means, one of the focuses of attention during the Revolutionary War, the British and Americans battled for the region during the early stages of the war. East Florida, then a separate colony from West Florida, remained with the British during the American Revolution despite numerous attempts by the Americans to capture St. Augustine during the early stages of the war.

At the center of American efforts to seize St. Augustine was Robert Howe, a general and politician from North Carolina, who was active in the failed attempts to wrest East Florida from the British. Unlike many of the Founding Fathers, Howe is recognizably human. More than 200 years after his death, Howe’s wit, intelligence, womanizing, gambling, reckless spending and his sharp sense of humor offer a stark contrast with other Americans of his generation.

Howe was involved in three efforts to capture St. Augustine and failed miserably. In the summer of 1778, the American effort to take East Florida ended with major infighting between Continental officers led by Howe on one side and the Georgia militia and the Georgia state government on the other. After Howe got in a duel with South Carolina political leader Christopher Gadsden and his failures to capture Florida, the Continental Congress had enough and removed Howe from command of the Southern Department, replacing him with Benjamin Lincoln on Sept. 25, 1778. Howe’s chances of remaining in command weren’t helped as rumors of his womanizing started spreading and even made the rounds in Congress. Despite passionate letters to Henry Laurens, then serving as the president of Congress and generally an ally of his, Howe was ordered to wait for Lincoln to arrive and, afterward, head to New York to report to George Washington.

With their efforts going nowhere in the North, the British looked to hit the South and secure the Floridas and capture Georgia. During the fall of 1778, Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in North America, started assembling a force to capture Savannah, the capital of Georgia. Clinton sent Lt. Col. Archibald Campbell, a member of Parliament who was captured and exchanged earlier in the war, to Georgia with 3,000 men and orders to team up with forces based in St. Augustine under Gen. Augustine Prevost and his younger brother Mark, a major in the British army.

Still cooling his heels and waiting for Lincoln to arrive, Howe tried to rally American forces in the South. The British forces assembled around Tybee Island on Dec. 23 and the Georgia government didn’t give Howe command over the state forces until the night of Christmas Eve. With only 850 men, Howe tried to set up some defensive positions but, on December 29, the British snuck around the American army thanks to the help of a slave who knew a route through a swamp.

It was an utter disaster for the Americans. More than half of the American troops were captured while 83 soldiers, almost 10 percent of the force, were killed. Only seven British soldiers were killed. With their easy victory, the British started solidifying their position in Georgia. Crossing into South Carolina, Howe finally met Lincoln and handed command over to the new general. Lincoln proved even worse in command and would surrender Charleston to Clinton later in the war.

The officers involved in the battle went on to various careers. Howe demanded a court-martial to clear his name. The North Carolinian was in a bad spot as Georgia officials blamed Howe for losing while some of his fellow officers criticized him for trying to take on such a larger force in the first place. Regardless, Howe was cleared and he went on to hold a command in Washington’s army, helping crush mutinies and proving an important player in espionage activities. Howe left the army after the war and went back into politics, winning election to the North Carolina House of Commons in 1786 but dying of a fever later that year.

Things went better for Campbell. After brief service in Georgia, including being named governor of the conquered state, Campbell went home to get married. He would later serve as governor of Jamaica and helped ensure the West Indies were not threatened by French forces. After serving as governor of Madras in India, Campbell returned home where he died in 1791.

Augustine Prevost also served as governor of Georgia before asking Clinton to be removed from the position. Like Howe, he died in 1786. Prevost’s son George, who served under his father in the Revolution, would loom as a much larger threat to the new United States. commanding British forces in Canada during the War of 1812.

Mark Prevost also served briefly as governor of captured Georgia. He would die in Jamaica in 1781 due to wounds suffered in the war. Before the war, Mark Prevost served in New York and New Jersey before he courted and eventually married Theodosia Bartow. Shortly after Mark Prevost’s death, his widow became involved with a young American officer with political ambitions by the name of Aaron Burr. Despite being 10 years her junior, Burr was clearly infatuated with Theodosia and married her in 1782. She died in 1792.

While a clear disaster for the American side, the British capture of Savannah was a boon for Florida. Campbell’s victory over Howe ensured American forces would stop hitting Loyalists in East Florida. While the British would cede the Floridas to Spain in the Treaty of Paris that ended the war, the first battle of Savannah removed East Florida and St. Augustine from the military chessboard.

Reach Kevin Derby at Back in high school, Kevin first learned of the American efforts to invade British East Florida during the Revolution by reading a biography of Robert Howe written by Donald Lennon and Charlie Bennett, the longtime congressman who represented the First Coast. A copy of A Quest for Glory: Robert Howe and the American Revolution signed by Bennett holds a place of honor on Kevin's bookshelf.

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