English Victory in Georgia
The Battle of Bloody Marsh was a pivotal engagement that determined the fate of the English colony of Georgia.
The all but forgotten War of Jenkins’ Ear raged between England and Spain in 1739-1748 and was part of a larger conflict called the War of the Austrian Succession. The unusual name originated with an English sea captain and smuggler named Robert Jenkins. His ear was severed after Spanish authorities captured and boarded his ship off their coast. The incident, combined with a movement by Spain to end the sale of slaves by English sea captains in Spanish America, eventually led to the outbreak of war.
The English made the first move in North America. Gen. James Oglethorpe, the founder of modern Georgia, led forces south into Spanish Florida to attack the ancient city of St. Augustine. The 1740 campaign ended in disaster after the city’s famed Castillo de San Marcos proved too strong for the English to take. After a siege of more than one-month, Oglethorpe withdrew back to Georgia.
The outraged Spanish made plans to retaliate and spent the year of 1741 assembling the ships, troops, supplies and cannon needed for the conquest of Georgia. Gov. Manuel de Montiano led 4,500 soldiers and 50 ships north to St. Simons Island in early July 1742.
The Spanish landing on the English-occupied island took place on July 5, 1742. It was a homecoming of sorts for the Spanish, who had settled and claimed the island long more than one century before. It was now occupied by the English, who had built Fort Frederica and Fort St. Simons there.
Fort Frederica, the stronger of the two forts, stood on the protected western shore of the island where Oglethorpe had planted his main settlement. Fort St. Simons, meanwhile, protected the southern tip of St. Simons Island and the primary entrance to its harbor. It stood where the St. Simons Lighthouse can be seen today.
Montiano led his troops ashore near the latter post, which Oglethorpe evacuated ahead of the Spanish approach. The troops from St. Augustine then occupied the fort and used it as a base for the operations on the island.
The main attack came on July 7, 1742. Following a military road built by the English, Spanish troops advanced from Fort St. Simons to near Fort Frederica. Oglethorpe met and defeated them at the Battle of Gully Hole Creek very near Frederica. Montiano withdrew back down the island to gather reinforcements and prepare for a second assault. The English followed and a company of Independent Highlanders from the Scottish settlement of Darien and a detachment from the 42nd Regiment of Foot took up positions where the military road crossed a marsh.
The Battle of Bloody Marsh began when Montiano’s forces started north back up the island. They followed the road until they reached the point guarded by Oglethorpe’s men. The English general had gone up to Frederica to bring reinforcements down to the position he had selected.
Modern accounts often describe the battle as an ambush, claiming that the Highlanders and English infantrymen surprised Montiano’s army. Descriptions by participants, however, indicate that the Spanish attached their enemy with flags flying:
Although the Battle of Bloody Marsh is often described as an ambush, original accounts indicate that the Spanish forward with shouts and to the beat of drums:
…Whereupon the General [i.e. Oglethorpe] hearing platoons firing immediately made haste that way and met three of the platoons who in the smoak and drisling rain had retreated in disorder and the fire continuing he ordered them to rally their men and follow him….
The Highlanders from Darien stood firm despite the retreat of some of the English force and the Spanish were unable to advance against them. By the time Oglethorpe reached the battlefield with his rallied platoons, the fighting was over. Montiano’s force ran low on ammunition and was forced to retreat.
The Battle of Bloody Marsh was a sharp skirmish, but its story grew in the telling over the decades that followed. Folk tales grew up around the battle and story tellers described how the marsh ran red with the blood of dead Spanish soldiers. The Spanish actually lost seven men killed in the fight, a smaller number than had died in the Battle of Gully Hole Creek earlier on the same day.
The significance of the fight, however, was out of all proportion to its size. The stiff resistance by the Highlanders at Bloody Marsh forced Montiano to hesitate in his plans for an all out attack on Fort Frederica. Oglethorpe took advantage of this hesitation to leak false intelligence that he expected major reinforcements soon. Some English ships arrived a few days later and Montiano accepted that the reports circulating in his camp were true. He left St. Simons Island on July 15, 1742, eight days after the Battle of Bloody Marsh.
Neither adversary knew it at the time, but the Spanish would never again threaten to reclaim their lost territory in Georgia and the Carolinas. England was now in the ascendancy on the continent, a role that would be assumed four decades later by the United States of America.
The Bloody Marsh Battlefield is a unit of Fort Frederica National Monument and can be visited daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. The site is located at 11806 Demere Rd., St. Simons Island, Georgia.