The 1740 Expedition Against St. Augustine

If Georgia owed its existence to any one man, there is no question that this man was James Oglethorpe.

While serving in Parliament, to which he was elected in 1722 at the relatively young age of 26, Oglethorpe became deeply troubled by the practice in England of imprisoning debtors and by the oppressions suffered in Europe by religious dissenters. In 1732 he persuaded Parliament to allow these people to settle in an area below South Carolina where they would be given land on which they could make a fresh start at working out their destinies. At the same time they would act as a buffer between the Spaniards in Florida and the English colonies to the north.

So intense was his desire to see the grand experiment succeed, Oglethorpe lead the first boatload of settlers over in 1733, picked out the site of Savannah, helped lay it out, and stayed on the scene ten years as political and military leader to help nurture the infant colony and defend it against all enemies. The hot, humid climate of the area constantly took its toll on the new arrivals. Indians were certainly a danger; however, Oglethorpe’s ability to win their favor minimized their threat to the colony. The Spanish to the south presented, by far, the greater danger to the colony’s survival. Spain had a colony along the Southeast coast long before the establishment of Georgia. They had founded St. Augustine in 1565 and had controlled the area for many years before a band of English settlers arrived in 1670 to settle Charles Town. The Spanish resented this intrusion into what they considered to be their territory and proceeded to harass the new town and the outlying settlements that were rapidly springing up around it along the Carolina coast.

Oglethorpe, in September, 1739, proposed to Lt. Governor Bull of South Carolina that the two colonies join forces to attack St. Augustine and drive the Spanish threat from the Southeast once and for all. A lengthy debate between the two over the proposed cost of the expedition and its leadership ensued, and an agreement was not reached until April, 1740.

On May 9, 1740, after several communiqués between Oglethorpe and Bull negotiating the strategy to be employed against St. Augustine, the expedition, though not yet up to planned provisions and men, got under way. According to an entry in Oglethorpe’s journal which was reproduced in "Colonial Records of South Carolina - The Journal of the Commons House of Assembly," he reported,

"On the 9th, General Oglethorpe passed into Florida, campt [camped] upon the Spanish side of the River St. John's and sent the Indians to reconnoitre the Country

"The expedition reached the south shore of Florida's St. John's River, the last water obstacle in its quest, then marched half way to St. Augustine before stopping for the night. Several cannon were abandoned in the soft sand along the way because of a lack of horses to pull them.

"The next day the invaders took Fort St. Diego, an outpost four hours march from St. Augustine. Another victory quickly followed with the capture of Moosa, a crude fort within shouting distance of the old town. Leaving about seventy men at Moosa, the expedition moved on toward St. Augustine to prepare an assault on the “castle,” Castillo de San Marcos, a formidable fort that had taken 23 years to build. A few days later a Spanish force of an estimated 500 men attacked Moosa in the pre-dawn hours of June 15, killing fifty or more of the surprised English. They took another twenty as prisoners while losing 132 themselves.

"A description of the attack, pieced together a year later by a committee of the South Carolina House from depositions of men who had participated in it, rivals the script of a John Wayne cavalry movie. According to the report a mixture of Georgia Rangers and Highlanders, South Carolina Rangers, and Indians were left to man Moosa and to keep nearby St. Augustine in a state of alarm as a diversionary measure. South Carolina's Colonel Palmer, commander of the Rangers of his province and the Indians, and who had two sons under his command, elected for him and his men to sleep outside the confines of the fort for safety's sake. Ignoring Palmer's advise to do likewise, the Georgia Rangers and Highlanders and their two captains slept inside:

"On the 15th, about one in the Morning some of the rangers, who had been out to burn a House close by the Town, but it being very dark could not find it, returned to Fort Moosa and reported that they had heard the Spanish Indians dancing the War Dance. Thereupon Col. Palmer said they must expect a Brush before Day; ordered them to lie down and take a Nap and that he would awake them at three or four o'Clock. Accordingly he did, and almost all the Rangers got up immediately and stood to Arms. Then the Colonel went into the Fort, roused them up, argued the Danger they were in and advised them to stand to Arms.

"But as usual, not regarding him, most of them lay down again. This put him into a great Passion, and coming out he said that they did not know what they trusted to, that the Spanish would surely attack them after the Indian Manner, and repeated that the General had sent them there for a Sacrifice. He stood some Time after in the gate-way talking to Jones On a sudden one of the advance Centinels called out that there was a Party of Men coming.

"Col. Palmer called out aloud, “Stand to your Arms! Not a man of you fire, but receive their first Fire; then half of you fire and fall back, making Room for the rest to come up, and we will kill them like Dogs “ Some of the Highlanders, then upon Guard in one of the Bastions, fired notwithstanding directly.

"The Enemy then poured in a large Volley. Upon which the Colonel said, “Are these the Men I have to trust to? I thought so before.” And betook himself to the Ditch, The Rangers, who were about twelve Yards without it, did the same; for the Colonel had before directed them in case of an Attack to do so, because they would be in as much Danger from the Fire of the Highlanders within the Fort as from the Enemy without.

Jones run into the Fort, and got all the Indians together in one Flanker, there being a great Hurry and Confusion amongst the Men, some being dressed and same undressed. He went into every Flanker three Times, yet could not find Capt. McIntosh, nor see any of the Soldiers; but found Capt McKay in one of them just got up in his Shirt with a small Sword and a Musket, whom he advised to support the Gate. But it was so well defended during the constant smart Fire on all Sides for a Quarter of an Hour from the two Flankers that commanded that Side and by Col. Palmer in the trench, who kept firing and encouraging the Men aloud, that they were repulsed twice."

"At length they came again Sword in Hand and entered the Gate, being led by an Officer whom Jones at his entrance shot. At the same Time another Party entered one of the Breaches; so that the Fort was at once full of Spaniards, it being about Half an Hour before day. McKay immediately jumped over into the Ditch with a small Sword in his Hand, and advised all to shift for themselves. Soon after McIntosh was carried out Prisoner. They continued within some Time at Clubwork, cutting and slashing as fast as they could, till the Spaniards being evidently, Masters, all that were able jumped over on all Sides into the Ditch, and made the best of their Way off through the Enemy that surrounded the Fort, amongst which Jones with six Indians jumping over was joined by Col. Palmer's two sons (the Captain and his Brother) and another of the Rangers who all together, firing as they marched and opening a Passage to themselves through the Enemy made their Escape, Capt. Palmer in particular killing a Spanish Indian by the Way who was just ready to knock down Jones.

"All this Time Col. Palmer maintained the Ditch where he was, though but with two of the Carolina by his Side. At length he Was shot by one within the Fort. Bleeding inwardly very much at the Mouth, he yet loaded his Gun, and when almost gone, reeling and panting, he still cried out as he fell, “Huzza my Lads! The Day's our own, I have been in many Battles and never lost one yet.” Thereupon those two Men, being the last, quitted the trench and escaped through the Enemy with many Wounds to the River Side opposite to Point Cartell, being about Mile and Half from the Fort.

"There almost all that had escaped, except a few that could swim over, remained at a Stand. The Spaniards, as it pleased God, did not pursue their Victory; but marched back to the Castle in great Triumph, shouting and firing in Sight of the Camps with the Prisoners and Colours that they had taken in the Fort . . ."

The great expectation of capturing or destroying Castillo de San Marcos faded rapidly from then until mid-July as the undertaking dissolved into a fiasco. Oglethorpe, succumbing to threats of mass desertion, pulled out and returned home.

Contributed by: J. G. (Jerry) Braddock Sr. Charleston, SC. Author of Wooden Ships - Iron Men .

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