He later commanded a brigade under General George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia, and he was brevetted a brigadier general in November 1783. Both Elbert County and its seat, Elberton, are named in his honor.
Born in 1740 in Savannah, Elbert was the son of a Baptist minister, William Elbert, and his wife, Sarah. In 1754 young Elbert began to establish himself firmly as a successful merchant in Savannah, and by the mid-1760s he owned numerous tracts of land and possessed a number of enslaved laborers. In 1769 he wed Elizabeth Rae, the daughter of a prosperous planter and merchant; they had six children together. Elbert established a Masonic lodge in Savannah, Unity Lodge No. 465, in 1774, but it did not survive the Revolution. From about 1776 to 1786 he served as provincial grand master, making him head of the masonry craft for Georgia. In his later years Elbert was a member of Christ Church, the Anglican parish in Savannah.
Elbert organized and was commissioned captain of a grenadier company of Savannah’s First Regiment of militia in June 1772, and soon after he sailed for England to “perfect himself in the duties of military life.” Upon his return he applied himself to exercising his unit in proper military drill.
Politically, Elbert was a conservative Whig and a sympathizer to the colonial cause. In June 1775 he was elected to serve on Savannah’s Council of Safety, a body authorized to ensure the city’s security during the early days of the rebellion. In August, Elbert marched his company to Augusta to protect the town from an invasion of Loyalists when the local militia commander refused to deploy. In January 1776 Elbert assumed command of the militia in Georgia.
Upon the formation of the Continental Line in Georgia in February 1776, Elbert was commissioned a lieutenant colonel of the First Battalion. He was subsequently promoted to colonel and given command of a planned expedition against St. Augustine and East Florida, which ended unsuccessfully. Despite the failure, Elbert ultimately gained command of Continental Line forces in Georgia and spent much of 1778 attempting to improve the training of his forces, as well as defending Savannah and planning a third (unsuccessful) invasion of Florida.
Savannah fell to the British in December 1778. In March 1779 Elbert was wounded and taken prisoner by the British at the Battle of Briar Creek, Georgia. He remained a prisoner until his exchange after the fall of Charleston, South Carolina, in June 1781. Elbert then made his way to Washington’s encampment, where he was given command of the “grand deposit” of arms and military stores. From June through November he commanded a brigade at Yorktown. In 1782 Elbert returned to Georgia, and a year he later was brevetted as brigadier general of the Continental Line, though he was already a major general in the state’s militia.
He was elected as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1784 but declined to serve. He was then elected for a one-year term as governor in 1785. During his governorship Elbert oversaw the chartering of the University of Georgia. Later he served briefly as sheriff of Chatham County before dying at the age of forty-eight on November 1, 1788.