Also known as the Battle of Yamacraw Fluff, the Battle of the Rice Boats occurred during the American Revolution on the Savannah River between the provinces of South Carolina and Georgia. Taking place on March 2-3, 1776, the battle pitted a small fleet of the British Royal Navy against the patriot militias from South Carolina and Georgia.
Tensions in the Thirteen Colonies due to British policies had reached combustible levels by April 1775 and were soon set ablaze in Lexington and Concord, resulting in the “shot heard round the world.” Patriots from the colony of Massachusetts now surrounded the city of Boston, placing the town under siege. The circle, however, was incomplete because the British still had access to supplies from the sea. The Battles of Lexington and Concord, coupled with the Battle of Bunker Hill, now spread the call for independence far and wide.
While all this was going on, further south in the Province of Georgia, tempers were relatively calm and attitudes basically neutral. During the summer of 1775 however, attitudes began to change. Georgia’s provincial congress was now populated with a number of radicals who began to strip power from Royal Governor James Wright. Seeking outside help, Wright attempted to send word to the Royal Navy, hoping to increase their presence near Savannah. His efforts proved fruitless, however, due to his message being intercepted by colonial patriots who replaced it with a message which stated additional support was unnecessary.
Under attack in Boston during December 1775, the British Army was in dire need of provisions. Attempting to gain these supplies, the British Navy was sent to Georgia to purchase rice and other rations. On January 12, 1776, three British ships dropped anchor off Tybee Island. By the 18th, the collection of British ships numbered four. Captain Andrew Barclay soon arrived on the HMS Scarborough, accompanied by three additional ships.
The presence of British men-of-war ships did not set well with the local colonists. After announcing the reason for the fleet’s arrival was to punish the local rebels, Governor Wright was quickly placed under house arrest by the Georgia Committee of Safety. He was given strict instructions to make no effort to contact the fleet and despite being under house arrest, was harassed by a number of the colonists. Fearing for his life, Wright managed to escape his captors on February 11th and quickly traveled to the plantation of a local Loyalist. From there, he was transported to HMS Scarborough. Wright’s departure temporarily ended British control of Georgia; however, he returned in 1779 and remained in office until 1782 when British troops withdrew for good in the closing days of the American Revolution.
Following the governor’s arrest, a number of colonists set fire to a collection of supply ships in an effort to prevent the British from gaining access to them. The British, however, managed to apprehend a large percentage of the ships prior to their destruction.
While all this was going on, Georgia’s provincial assembly came together and elected five individuals to represent the colony at the Second Continental Congress. The process of raising a regiment for the Continental Army was also underway.
On March 1st, four British warships sailed up the Savannah River towards Five-Fathom Hole. Hinchinbrook, commanded by Major James Grant, soon changed course to travel the Back River. While attempting to establish a position above the town, Hinchinbrook ran aground on the Back’s sandbank. Gunfire sent towards the ship from militiamen led by Joseph Habersham quickly cleared the ship’s decks; however Habersham’s attempts to take the ship failed. The ship then floated free on the next high tide and sailed away. The arrival of the British ships in Savannah prompted Georgia’s Committee of Safety to issue a call to defend the town and colonial ships. The following day, the alert reached South Carolina’s Committee of Safety.
On March 2nd, Grant’s men landed on Hutchinson Island in the late evening. Making their way across the island, the British troops captured a number of rice boats anchored near the island around 4:00 a.m. on March 3rd. Their stealth success was unknown to the town of Savannah until 9 a.m.
An alarm was soon raised, followed by Colonel McIntosh leading 300 militiamen to Yamacraw Bluff where they set up three 4-pound cannons. Lieutenant Daniel Roberts and Major Raymond Demeré II were then sent with a parley (conference) flag to one of the occupied ships where they were promptly arrested. A second parley group, larger in size, was sent to obtain release of the two captives. Captain Rogers, leader of the parley group, was insulted and in response, fired at someone on the ship. This resulted in the British firing back, wounding one individual and almost sinking the boat used by the parley group. Following that boat’s retreat, Colonel McIntosh opened fire with the cannons. The gun battle which ensured lasted for the next four hours.
The Committee of Safety now met to discuss the current situation and decided the supply ships should be burned. A militia company set fire to the Inverness and set it adrift. The blazing ship began to drift towards the British vessels, forcing those aboard to quickly abandon ship, creating mass confusion. The patriots wasted no time in taking advantage of the situation. Raking the British crews with musket fire and grape shot, they later took the crews prisoner. Two occupied British vessels managed to escape and sailed upstream. Three others were set ablaze and lit up the night. While all this was going on, an additional 500 militia arrived from South Carolina to aide the Georgia patriots.
The next morning, Colonel McIntosh sent another parley to Captain Barclay, with the group’s goal to achieve a prisoner exchange. Captain Barclay would not agree, so the Committee of Safety immediately ordered the arrest of all remaining members of Governor Wright’s council. This action had an immediate effect on Captain Barclay’s way of thinking, forcing him into an agreement with the prisoner exchange.
Even though the patriots put up a good fight, the British were successful in their efforts to obtain necessary provisions for their troops. Sailing a number of merchant ships down the Back River, they reached Tybee Island with approximately 1,600 barrels of rice, which were then loaded onto two waiting British transport ships. The remainder of the fleet remained anchored off Tybee Island as negotiations proceeded regarding the prisoner exchange.