Excerpt: 'The Hornet's Nest'

In "The Hornet's Nest," the first work of fiction by a President of the United States, Jimmy Carter writes about the American South and the War of Independence

Read an excerpt from "The Hornet's Nest."

Chapter 35: "The Hornet's Nest"


Ethan Pratt had seen the Quakers, Morrises, and many of his other neighbors swear allegiance to the crown, believing that the war was over and that the Declaration of Independence had been in vain. Along with a few other families along the more remote frontier, the Pratts still tried to avoid an alignment with either Whigs or Tories.

Knowing that Campbell had moved up the river with more than five hundred troops, the Georgia militia leaders had to face reality and made no attempt to defend Augusta. From his home in Wilkes County, however, Elijah Clarke assembled as many men as possible, using lists that had been carefully maintained by Aaron Hart. With about 180 men gathered, Clarke nodded to Dooly, who spoke first.

"Men, all the Continental troops have left for South Carolina, and we hear that General Howe has resigned in order to defend hisself against a court-martial. General Lincoln is in command of what troops warn't killed or captured, and has set up headquarters in Purysburg."

Someone shouted out, "Where in hell is Purysburg?"

Dooly replied, "It's across the river in South Carolina, about thirty miles above Savannah. He's put out a call for militia from the Carolinas and Virginia to join in keeping the British from moving north toward Charles Town."

"Why don't we join up with him?"

Elijah Clarke spoke for the first time. "Bullshit! We ain't ready to give up Georgia, and I sho' as hell won't put my men under another general that don't know his arse about fightin' in the woods."

There was a general murmur of agreement, and Dooly continued.

"We've got two things to do now. One is to convince all our neighbors that we're going to fight on, and not to give up to the British. The other is to divide up into small groups, guard every trail coming into the backcountry of Wilkes and Burke counties, and kill as many Redcoats as we can."

Elijah said, "What we need to do is carve out some territory here where we feel the most at home. All of us needs to study it and figure out how to guard every trail against any bugger that tries to come in without our permission, jest with one or two men."

Aaron Hart said, "You mean a sanctuary."

"I don't even know what that means. I'm talkin' about like bein' inside our own hornet's nest so anybody that messes with us will live -- or die -- to regret it."

The men were excited by the idea and began to look at some of the maps they had prepared and used for military training. Within a couple of hours they had identified an area big enough to include several separated forts with good trails connecting them, with maximum natural protection from impassable creeks, swamps, and hills. Just by felling a few trees, it would be easy to close any of the old trails they would not be needing. Elijah summarized these decisions and added, "This has got to be our special place, but there's two things to remember. We've got to let Redcoats, Thomas Brown and them other savages, and everybody else know, by God, that if they come in here ag'in us, they'll be dead men. There cain't be no exceptions. The other thing is that this is not just for hidin'. It's for attackin' as long as we're able to fight. Mine and Dooly's farms happens to be on the edge of this area, and my fort will be useful sometimes as a meetin' place. We'll be able to move out fast, to our own farms or toward Augusta or across the river to Carolina, and to come back -- sometimes in a hurry!"

It was inevitable that the protected area would be called the Hornet's Nest.

Georgia's leaders began rallying supporters in the backcountry region. Their first efforts were to convince as many settlers as possible that the revolution was not lost, and to use either promises or intimidation to secure their support. The militia commanders issued edicts in north Georgia that all property owners had to swear allegiance to the Continental government or lose their estates, and a few settlers began to reject their recent oaths of allegiance to the crown. This was not enough for Elijah Clarke and his most militant followers, who wanted to give a vivid warning to those who remained subservient to the British.

One of the defecting Whigs was a prominent landowner, Zachariah Timmerman, whom John Dooly had warned personally to renounce his oath of loyalty to the crown. He immediately went to Augusta and surrendered to Colonel Campbell. The British spread the word about Timmerman's wise action and placed him under the care of a corporal named MacAllister, a favorite of the colonel. Within a week, an American raiding party entered the compound, attacked MacAllister, killed, disemboweled, and decapitated him, and took Timmerman just outside the town, where he was hanged, with a note pinned to his chest that said, "Justice." This was a harsh reminder to doubtful Whigs, but MacAllister's name became a battle cry for the furious British troops.

General Prevost, now occupying Savannah and serving as acting governor, seemed to have little interest in Augusta. Knowing of Brown's intense interest in the area, however, he directed that the Florida Rangers refrain from any movements northward along the Savannah River, and Brown was forced to comply. This meant, in effect, that few if any Creeks or Cherokees were available to join the British in the region, despite the earlier arrangements that had been made with Emistisiguo and even John Stuart. All British efforts would now be focused on Charles Town. Deprived of any dependable assistance except for his own troops, it was clear that Colonel Campbell and his five hundred men would be hard-pressed to hold Augusta against a concerted attack from the west.

Colonel Clarke was eager to retake Augusta but realized that Georgia's combined militia were not adequate. He sent Aaron Hart with a request to General Lincoln for assistance. The predictable reply was that holding Charles Town was his preeminent goal, which would require all available troops when the time came for its defense. However, he recognized the tactical importance of Augusta as a staging area from which the British would surely move by land toward the South Carolina coast, and promised to send 1,200 troops from Charles Town toward the Georgia city, commanded by a general named John Ashe, from North Carolina. The general was inexperienced but politically influential in his home state, and eager to demonstrate his military effectiveness.

These plans had to be delayed when British Lieutenant Colonel John Boyd moved from Carolina into north Georgia with seven hundred men, reported his presence to Colonel Campbell, and began to terrorize Whig families in the area. The written intelligence report to General Lincoln stated: "Like plundering banditti, they appropriate every species of property to their own use, abuse the inhabitants, and wantonly butcher anyone who opposes their rapacious demands."

Lincoln sent orders to Clarke to rally all the Georgians possible, and sent South Carolina's Colonel Andrew Pickens to help the Georgians defend themselves against Boyd's predatory troops.

When Campbell ordered Boyd and his seven hundred men, many recruited from among local Tories, to concentrate on destroying the few remaining Georgia militia, the British forces camped at a farm on Kettle Creek to rest, slaughter some cattle, and graze their horses. It was a prosperous farm, with canebrakes and a swamp on two sides. Colonels Clarke, Dooly, and Pickens, with 350 men, found Boyd's campfires from the previous day and closed in to within a mile of the farm. Dooly was on the right flank and Elijah Clarke was on the left, each with 100 men, and Pickens was in the center with 150. At daybreak, the Americans launched a simultaneous attack. Boyd fell, mortally wounded, and the remaining British troops fled across the stream. Clarke forded the open creek under fire, and his horse was shot, falling on him. He narrowly escaped drowning but was able to join in mopping up the battlefield and in the subsequent celebrations.

Following the debacle in Savannah, Kettle Creek was one of the most startling victories of the war, and news of it swept through the colonies. The psychological impact was enormous, coming at a time when the general presumption had been that the British were invulnerable and the revolution in the south was doomed. Many Whigs renounced their oaths of allegiance to the crown and returned to their homes, and a greatly encouraged General Lincoln dispatched General Ashe on to Augusta and even began preparations to retake Savannah.

Most of Boyd's men went back home to North Carolina, but two hundred reached Augusta, where Campbell's regular troops treated them with contempt. One hundred British had been killed and seventy-five taken prisoner, five of whom were former Whigs whose names were known by Colonel Pickens. They were hanged as traitors. The Americans suffered nine killed and twenty-three wounded and captured, including a small man named Stephen Heard, who had been a large landowner and a prominent Whig politician in Savannah. When Colonel Campbell heard about the hangings at Kettle Creek, he decided to execute Heard as a public demonstration of British justice. Heard had a giant house slave called Mammy Kate, who learned that he was in Augusta and sentenced to be hanged. She filled a large basket with clothing and some pies and cakes as gifts for the British guards, entered the compound, and got permission to visit her master so that he could dress appropriately during his last hours of life. Wanting as much of a pageant as possible for the public execution, the British agreed. Mammy Kate went into the guardhouse, put Heard in the basket, arranged the pile of clothes under a blanket on his cot to resemble a sleeping man, placed the basket on her head, and carried him out of Augusta. Back home again, he set her free and gave her a home and a surrounding tract of land on his small plantation.

After a few days, General Ashe arrived across the river from Augusta with his large North Carolina army, and Colonel Campbell abandoned the town and moved down the river to Hudson's Ferry to join troops of the main British force. He was surprised to learn that they faced a dangerous situation. The British still held Savannah securely, but General Prevost had sent most of his men back to St. Augustine, and their upriver forces were now almost surrounded by General Lincoln's troops across the river in South Carolina and Ashe's army to the north.

Although welcomed to the region by the Georgia militiamen when they met briefly after his forces crossed the Savannah into Augusta, General Ashe quickly made it obvious that he resented any suggestions from Elijah Clarke and John Twiggs about how his troops should be deployed and used. Looking at rudimentary maps, Ashe's staff decided that an open meadow on high ground north of Briar Creek would offer them every advantage. Enemy troops would have to cross the creek to reach them from the south, the Savannah River provided protection from the east, and there were relatively flat fields and woods to the north and west that would provide access for supplies and give the Americans plenty of room for maneuvering.

When Colonel Clarke sent an offer of assistance, General Ashe replied flatly, "Tell Clarke that I'll take my position upriver from the British, which will prevent them moving back toward Augusta. I've studied the maps and am familiar with the area we'll be occupying, so I can handle any developments. The militia forces can come in to join me if they wish. I'll let them know when I decide to move south to take Campbell's army."

It was obvious that Ashe and his staff were supremely confident of their ability and wanted to have a direct confrontation with the despised British. His ambition was to equal or exceed what the militiamen had done at Kettle Creek.

In the meantime, Colonel Campbell learned that Thomas Brown was in the area and, without consulting General Prevost, sent for the Ranger commander. They discussed alignment of military forces, and Campbell asked for advice. It had been raining for several hours, and Brown replied, "Colonel, my men and I know this region well. There is a ford near Ashe's camp that I'm sure is well guarded, but it can't be used except when the water is low. If this rain sets in, the lower reaches of Briar Creek will be flooding. Give me a chance to assess the situation, and I'll be back with you tomorrow morning."

As soon as their meeting was over, Brown sent for Newota.

The heavy rains continued, and when Briar Creek began to rise, General Ashe was even more convinced that the British would not be likely to make any troop movements during the inclement weather, much less to cross the swollen stream.

Copyright 2003 by Jimmy Carter