"The blood of our heroes should be the creed of our political faith, the text of our civil instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust."
- Thomas Jefferson
He could have stayed in his native North Carolina and fought for American independence there - and he couldn't write his name. Yet not even the learned George Walton, Edward Telfair or William Few did more to defeat the British in the Georgia backcountry (Richmond, Columbia, and Wilkes counties today) than the illiterate, transplanted mountain man, Elijah Clarke.
We hear it often: "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." Elijah Clarke didn't need a slogan, and he didn't let battle wounds, exhaustion, smallpox or a dwindling supply of men and munitions deter him from pursuing the liberty that burned in his heart.
Like most newcomers to Georgia in the latter third of the 18th century, Clarke had come here to take advantage of newly available Indian land. But when he heard that the patriot flag had fallen in Savannah and the British were charging toward Augusta, he grabbed his rifle and sword, committed his loved ones to Providence, and left his Wilkes County home to join the opposition.
He didn't come alone. According to historian Lucian Lamar Knight, "Clarke rode day and night gathering his little band of patriots and training them to fight in the swamps and forests along the way." Persuasion, one of the marks of a good leader, was high on Clarke's list of defining traits. At least 100 other "Sons of Liberty" set their sights on Augusta behind Clarke.
The Revolutionary War, which began with "the shot heard 'round the world" in Massachusetts in April, 1775, didn't receive much more than sympathy and a few skirmishes from the southernmost colonies at the beginning. But with the unexpected arrival of the king's forces in Savannah shortly after Christmas, 1778, the unfortified city fell easily into enemy hands. The British then moved quickly upriver to Augusta, and took the stronghold of the backcountry with no casualties and almost without a fight. Clarke didn't get here in time - this time.
While en route to Augusta in January, 1779, Clarke and his men joined forces with two other militias at Kettle Creek (near Washington, Ga.) where they ambushed a much larger British force, killing the British commander and demoralizing his troops. Clarke's prowess at Kettle Creek, so soon after the fall of Augusta, provided just the impetus to keep freedom's dream alive in the backcountry for the remainder of the war.
Clarke continued on to Augusta with hopes of liberating the recently occupied city. But with the arrival of British reinforcements at the same time, his militia had to retreat for another day. Clarke, however, was far from idle. With evidence of British plunder throughout upper Richmond (now Columbia) and Wilkes counties, he was instrumental in relocating 400 terrified women and children to a secure valley beyond the North Georgia-Tennessee Mountains until the war was over.
Finally, in early June, 1781, now-Col. Clarke helped secure the surrender of British Fort Cornwallis (near St. Paul's Church), against the infamous (future) Columbia County Loyalist, Thomas Brown. The war would linger on in Savannah for another year, but the British would never again rule the Georgia backcountry.
"Elijah Clarke was the most colossal figure of the Revolutionary War period in Georgia," Knight continues, "an unlettered man of the frontier who possessed the rugged elements of strength... . The genius of command rose within him."
Following the war, our "unlettered man" is listed among those who "guided the affairs of business and politics in the state," and in 1801 Clarke County was named in his honor. A generation later his "learned" son John dropped what he considered the pretentious 'e' from the family surname, and became governor of Georgia.
Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to seabara at aol.com.
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