Historical Tales: 2—American - Charles Morris

How Oglethorpe Saved Georgia from Spain

On the 5th day of July, in the year 1742, unwonted signs of activity might have been seen in the usually deserted St. Simon's harbor, on the coast of Georgia. Into that sequestered bay there sailed a powerful squadron of fifty-six well-armed war-vessels, one of them carrying twenty-four guns and two of them twenty guns each, while there was a large following of smaller vessels. A host of men in uniform crowded the decks of these vessels, and the gleam of arms gave lustre to the scene. It was a strong Spanish fleet, sent to wrest the province of Georgia from English hands, and mayhap to punish these intruders in the murderous way that the Spaniards had punished the French Huguenots two centuries before.

In all the time that had elapsed since the discovery of America, Spain had made only one settlement on the Atlantic coast of the United States, that of St. Augustine in Florida. But slow as they were in taking possession, they were not slow in making claims, for they looked, on Florida as extending to the Arctic zone. More than once had they tried to' drive the English out of Charleston, and now they were about to make a similar effort in Georgia. That colony had been settled, only ten years before, on land which Spain claimed as her own, and the English were not there long before hostilities began. In 1739 General Oglethorpe, the proprietor of Georgia, invaded Florida and laid siege to St. Augustine. He failed in this undertaking, and in 1742 the Spaniards prepared to take revenge, sending the strong fleet mentioned against their foes. It looked as if Georgia would be lost to England, for on these vessels were five thousand men, a force greater than all Georgia could raise.

Oglethorpe knew that the Spaniards were coming, and made hasty preparations to meet them. Troops of rangers were raised, the planters were armed, fortifications built, and a ship of twenty-two guns equipped. But with all his efforts his force was pitifully small as compared with the great Spanish equipment. Besides the ship named, there were some small armed vessels and a shore battery, with which the English for four hours kept up a weak contest with their foes. Then the fleet sailed past the defences and up the river before a strong breeze, and Oglethorpe was obliged to spike the guns and destroy the war-material at Fort St. Simon's and withdraw to the stronger post of Frederica, where he proposed to make his stand. Not long afterward the Spaniards landed their five thousand men four miles below Frederica. These marched down the island and occupied the deserted fort.

There may not seem to our readers much of interest in all this, but when it is learned that against the fifty-six ships and more than five thousand men of the Spaniards the utmost force that General Oglethorpe could muster consisted of two ships and six hundred and fifty-two men, including militia and Indians, and that with this handful of men he completely baffled his assailants, the case grows more interesting. It was largely an example of tactics against numbers, as will be seen on reading the story of how the Spaniards were put to the right about and forced to flee in utter dismay.

On the 7th of July some of the Georgia rangers discovered a small body of Spanish troops within a mile of Frederica. On learning of their approach, Oglethorpe did not wait for them to attack him in his not very powerful stronghold, but at once advanced with a party of Indians and rangers, and a company of Highlanders who were on parade. Ordering the regiment to follow, he hurried forward with this small detachment, proposing to attack the invaders while in the forest defiles and before they could deploy in the open plain near the fort.

So furious was his charge and so utter the surprise of the Spaniards that nearly their entire party, consisting of one hundred and twenty-five of their best woodsmen and forty-five Indians, were either killed, wounded, or made prisoners. The few fugitives were pursued for several miles through the forest to an open meadow or savannah. Here the general posted three platoons of the regiment and a company of Highland foot under cover of the wood, so that any Spaniards advancing through the meadow would have to pass under their fire. Then he hastened back to Frederica and mustered the remainder of his force.

Just as they were ready to march, severe firing was heard in the direction of the ambushed troops. Oglethorpe made all haste towards them and met two of the platoons in full retreat. They had been driven from their post by Don Antonia Barba at the head of three hundred grenadiers and infantry, who had pushed through the meadow under a drifting rain and charged into the wood with wild huzzas and rolling drums.

Spanish fort at St. Augustine


The affair looked very bad for the English. Forced back by a small advance-guard of the invaders, what would be their fate when the total Spanish army came upon them? Oglethorpe was told that the whole force had been routed, but on looking over the men before him he saw that one platoon and a company of rangers were missing. At the same time the sound of firing came from the woods at a distance, and he ordered the officers to rally their men and follow him.

Let us trace the doings of the missing men. Instead of following their retreating comrades, they had, under their officers, Lieutenants Sutherland and MacKay, made a skilful detour in the woods to the rear of the enemy, reaching a point where t(e road passed from the forest to the open marsh across a small semicircular cove. Here they formed an ambuscade in a thick grove of palmettos which nearly surrounded the narrow pass.

They had not been there long when the Spaniards returned in high glee from their pursuit. Reaching this open spot, well protected from assault as it appeared by the open morass on one side and the crescent-shaped hedge of palmettos and underwood on the other, they deemed themselves perfectly secure, stacking their arms and throwing themselves on the ground to rest after their late exertions.

The ambushed force had keenly watched their movements from their hiding-place, preserving utter silence as the foe entered the trap. At length Sutherland and MacKay raised the signal of attack, a Highland cap upon a sword, and in an instant a deadly fire was poured upon the unsuspecting enemy. Volley after volley succeeded, strewing the ground with the dead and dying. The Spaniards sprang to their feet in confusion and panic. Some of their officers attempted to reform their broken ranks, but in vain; all discipline was gone, orders were unheard, safety alone was sought. In a minute more, with a Highland shout, the platoon burst upon them with levelled bayonet and gleaming claymore, and they fled like panic-stricken deer; some to the marsh, where they mired and were captured; some along the defile, where they were cut down; some to the thicket, where they became entangled and lost. Their defeat was complete, only a few of them escaping to their camp. Barba, their leader, was mortally wounded; other officers and one hundred and sixty privates were killed; the prisoners numbered twenty. The feat of arms was as brilliant as it was successful, and Oglethorpe, who did not reach the scene of action till the victory was gained, promoted the two young officers on the spot as a reward for their valor and military skill. The scene of the action has ever since been known as the Bloody Marsh."

The enterprise of the Spaniards had so far been attended by misfortune, a fact which caused dissention among their leaders. Learning of this, Oglethorpe resolved to surprise them by a night attack. On the 12th he marched with five hundred men until within a mile of the Spanish quarters, and after nightfall went forward with a small party to reconnoitre. His purpose was to attack them, if all appeared favorable, but he was foiled by the treachery of a Frenchman in his ranks, who fired his musket and deserted to the enemy under cover of the darkness. Disconcerted by this unlucky circumstance, the general withdrew his reconnoitering party; reaching his men, he distributed the drummers about the wood to represent a large force, and ordered them to beat the grenadier's march. This they did for half an hour; then, all being still, they retreated to Frederica.

The defection of the Frenchman threw the general into a state of alarm. The fellow would undoubtedly tell the Spaniards how small a force opposed them, and advise them that, with their superior land and naval forces, they could easily surround and destroy the English. In this dilemma it occurred to him to try the effect of stratagem, and seek to discredit the traitor's story.

He wrote a letter in French, as if from a friend of the deserter, telling him that he had received the money, and advising him to make every effort to convince the Spanish commander that the English were very weak. He suggested to him to offer to pilot up their boats and galleys, and to bring them under the woods where he knew the hidden batteries were. If he succeeded in this, his pay would be doubled. If he could not do this, he was to use all his influence to keep them three days more at Fort St. Simon's. By that time the English would be reinforced by two thousand infantry and six men-of-war which had already sailed from Charleston. In a postscript he was cautioned on no account to mention that Admiral Vernon was about to make an attack on St. Augustine.

This letter was given to a Spanish prisoner, who was paid a sum of money on his promise that he would carry the letter privately and deliver it to the French deserter. The prisoner was then secretly set free, and made his way back to the Spanish camp. After being detained and questioned at the outposts he was taken before the general, Don Manuel de Mantiano. So far all had gone as Oglethorpe hoped. The fugitive was asked how he escaped and if he had any letters. When he denied having any he was searched and the decoy letter found on his person. It was not addressed to any one, but on promise of pardon he confessed that he had received money to deliver it to the Frenchman.

As it proved, the deserter had joined the English as a spy for the Spaniards. He earnestly protested that he was not false to his agreement; that he knew nothing of any hidden battery or of the other contents of the letter, and that he had received no money or had any correspondence with Oglethorpe. Some of the general's council believed him, and looked on the letter as an English trick. But the most of them believed him to be a double spy, and advised an immediate retreat. While the council was warmly debating on this subject word was brought them that three vessels had been seen off the bar. This settled the question in their minds. The fleet from Charleston was at hand; if they stayed longer they might be hemmed in by sea and land; they resolved to fly while the path to safety was still open. Their resolution was hastened by an advance of Oglethorpe's small naval force down the stream, and a successful attack on their fleet. Setting fire to the fort, they embarked so hastily that a part of their military stores were abandoned, and fled as if from an overwhelming force, Oglethorpe hastening their flight by pursuit with his few vessels.

Thus ended this affair, one of the most remarkable in its outcome of any in the military history of the United States. For fifteen days General Oglethorpe, with little over six hundred men and two armed vessels, had baffled the Spanish general with fifty-six ships and five thousand men, defeating him in every encounter in the field, and at length, by an ingenious stratagem, compelling him to retreat with the loss of several ships and much of his provisions, munitions, and artillery. In all our colonial history there is nothing to match this repulse of such a formidable force by a mere handful of men. It had the effect of saving Georgia, and perhaps Carolina, from falling into the hands of the Spanish. From that time forward Spain made no effort to invade the English colonies. The sole hostile action of the Spaniards of Florida was to inspire the Indians of that peninsula to make raids in Georgia, and this annoyance led in the end to the loss of Florida by Spain.