Commanding a regiment of loyalists known as the King’s Rangers, Thomas Brown took part in several important actions in Georgia during the Revolutionary War (1775-83). His career is a key to understanding the war on the southern frontier and an exciting story in itself.
Born in 1750 in Whitby on the North Sea coast of England, Brown was the son of a wealthy merchant and alum manufacturer. When he was twenty-four his father outfitted a ship for him and recruited more than seventy indentured servants in Yorkshire and the Orkney Islands for a voyage to Georgia. Young Brown and his servants established Brownsborough in St. Paul Parish, above Augusta, Georgia, in November 1774. Governor James Wright appointed him a magistrate in that region.
Brown’s arrival coincided with the increase of Revolutionary sentiment in Georgia. He strongly opposed the efforts of the Sons of Liberty to enforce the continental association against trade with Britain. As a result the “Liberty Boys” made an example of him, almost killing him. When he recovered Brown rallied Loyalists in the South Carolina upcountry but was advised by the royal governor, Sir William Campbell, to await the arrival of British troops. Under threat of arrest by the Revolutionary government of South Carolina, Brown fled to British East Florida. He unveiled his plan for the subjugation of Georgia and Carolina to Patrick Tonyn, the governor of Florida, and he volunteered to raise a regiment of rangers who would ride with the Indians against the people on the frontier, in conjunction with the invasion of British troops along the coast. Governor Tonyn became an ardent advocate of the plan, sometimes known as the “southern strategy.” Tonyn commissioned Brown as a lieutenant colonel of the Florida Rangers in June 1776.
Brown formed his regiment of rangers, recruited Indian allies, and began a campaign of harassment of the Georgia frontiers. In response Georgia staged three abortive invasions of Florida to secure the borderlands. When General Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in chief, adopted the southern strategy in 1778, he sent an army under Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell to land on the Georgia coast, march to Augusta, and there meet Indian allies. Brown’s rangers joined Campbell’s regulars in Savannah and marched to Augusta. On the way they attempted to rescue Loyalists in the Burke County jail; Brown was wounded in the effort.
The Indians were slow to arrive, and a contingent of Loyalists were caught by Georgia and South Carolina militia under Elijah Clarke, John Dooly, and Andrew Pickens and defeated in the Battle of Kettle Creek on February 14, 1779. The British retreated from Augusta, only to turn on the pursuing Americans in the Battle of Briar Creek, March 3, 1779. The British victory there permitted the restoration of royal government in Georgia and the return of Governor James Wright and his council.
During the French and American Siege of Savannah in October 1779 Brown and his rangers helped defend the city. Sir Henry Clinton dispatched more troops to Georgia and South Carolina and laid siege to Charleston. When that important city fell to the British on May 12, 1780, American opposition generally collapsed. Thomas Brown and his rangers, now styled the King’s Rangers, garrisoned Augusta. In 1779 Brown became superintendent of the Creek and Cherokee Indians and attempted to employ them against rebel resistance according to his original plan. In September 1780, however, Brown was surprised by a raid of approximately 600 Georgians under Clarke. In the course of a four-day battle Brown was again wounded but was relieved by British reinforcements from Ninety-Six, South Carolina. Either Brown or Lieutenant Colonel John Harris Cruger, who outranked him, ordered thirteen American prisoners hanged in accordance with Lord Cornwallis’s standing order regarding those who swore to lay down their arms and took them up again.
For better protection of Augusta, Brown constructed Fort Cornwallis on the grounds of St. Paul’s Church, dismantling the church in the process. He withstood a siege by continentals under Lieutenant Colonel Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, Georgians under Lieutenant Colonel Elijah Clarke, and South Carolinians under General Andrew Pickens. After two weeks of fierce fighting, during which Americans dug trenches near the fort and mounted a cannon on an improvised tower, Brown, together with his rangers and their Indian allies, surrendered on June 5, 1781.
Brown was taken under escort to Savannah and paroled. When he was exchanged for an American officer held by the British, he recruited another regiment of rangers and engaged in skirmishes outside Savannah with encircling American troops under General Anthony Wayne. After Savannah surrendered, in July 1782, Brown joined the thousands of refugees who went to British Florida, only to be forced to leave when that province was returned to Spain in the peace treaty of 1783. Some Loyalists migrated to Nova Scotia, but Brown and many of his rangers settled on Abaco Island in the Bahamas. Loyalists regarded Brown as a hero and elected him to the Bahamian legislature.
Seeking more productive land, Brown went to Grand Caicos and then to St. Vincent, in the eastern Caribbean, where he received a huge but controversial land grant to compensate him for his losses in America. Settlers who already occupied the land brought a lawsuit against Brown, and he was convicted of fraud. After serving a term in the King’s Bench prison, Brown returned to a reduced but substantial plantation on St. Vincent and became a prosperous sugar grower and exporter. He died in 1825 at the age of seventy-five.