As the nation celebrates the 240th anniversary of independence this Fourth of July weekend, Floridians can look back at the strange and almost entirely forgotten role their state played in the American Revolution.
A Spanish colony for almost 200 years, the English gained Florida at the Treaty of Paris in 1763, which ended the Seven Years War. People in the U.S. call it the French and Indian War.
Dividing the peninsula into East Florida and West Florida, the British attempted to develop plantations in their new holdings, but generally used the Floridas for military purposes. The strong military presence helped ensure that the Floridas would not join the 13 colonies to the north in rebelling against George III.
While East Florida and West Florida did not become the 14th and 15th states in the new nation, it was not from a lack of effort from the Americans. The rebellious Americans looked at the Floridas as a threat since the British could launch attacks into Georgia and South Carolina from the south. Colonists loyal to the British crown fled to the Floridas and helped form military units, like the East Florida Rangers, to fight against the American forces.
Major General Charles Lee, who commanded the American Department of the South, made plans to launch an invasion of St. Augustine in 1776 but, with British attacks on South Carolina and New York, the mission was canceled and Lee returned north to serve under George Washington.
Lee and other Continental officers were plagued by conflicting orders from Congress and the new state governments, and this tension undermined American efforts to invade East Florida. These problems even led to a duel in 1777 when Col. Lachlan McIntosh killed Georgia politician Button Gwinnett who had signed the Declaration of Independence.
Lee was replaced by Major General Robert Howe of North Carolina. Howe, a witty politician who was something of a womanizer, commanded two attempts to seize St. Augustine -- both of which ended in American defeats. But Howe was also bewildered by the same political problems that hindered Lee. And that led to his fighting a duel with South Carolina politician Christopher Gadsden in which neither man was severely harmed.
The first of Howe’s efforts ended miserably in May 1777. Just south of what is now Callahan in Nassau County: Brown and the East Florida Rangers defeated an American force led by Lt. Col. Samuel Elbert at the Battle of Thomas Creek. Another expedition against St. Augustine petered out in the summer of 1778 with the Americans running low on supplies and more political problems -- as state-appointed officers argued with Howe about who was actually in command. Removed from command by Congress, Howe went on to serve ably under Washington in New York.
The largest battle in Florida was at Pensacola, though it did not involve any units from the new nation's army. After joining the French and the Americans against the British in 1779, Spanish forces under Louisiana Gov. Bernardo de Galvez launched a siege against Pensacola from March 1781 until the British forces surrendered on May 9. When the war ended in 1783, with yet another Treaty of Paris, the Spanish took back the Floridas and held onto them until the Adams-Onis treaty in 1819 The treaty was ratified two years later.
While they did not play a leading part in the American Revolution, Florida and Floridians provided some dramatic moments. James Grant, who served as governor of East Florida from 1764 until 1771, played a crucial part in British successes in capturing New York, and would capture St. Lucia from the French later in the war. American prisoners were held in St. Augustine -- including Arthur Middleton and Edmund Rutledge, two South Carolinians who signed the Declaration of Independence.
One recent Florida politician with a keen interest in his state's role in the American Revolution was longtime U.S. Rep. Charles E. Bennett, D-Fla., who represented the First Coast in Congress from 1949 until retiring in 1993. Bennett wrote a number of books on the Revolution, including a book on battles as well as a biography of Howe with Donald Lennon.
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