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St. Marys, Georgia . . . where Napoleon planned to call home

Some of North America's oldest history is mixed with breath-taking beauty on St. Marys Sound.
Some of North America's oldest history is mixed with breath-taking beauty on St. Marys Sound.
© Photo from book, “The Lord of Cumberland” by Richard Thornton

Founded in 1787, the port of departure for Cumberland Island National Seashore has a surprising past, much of which has been left out of mainstream American history books. Blame it on a doctor from Maine.

Although founded in 1787, most of St. Marys historic buildings date from the early 1800s.
St. Marys Visitors Center

Located in the far southeastern corner of Georgia, St. Marys and surrounding Camden County remained an island of prosperity in a sea of malaise throughout the mega-recession that began in 2008. There were several factors that contributed to the community’s immunity to the economic collapse that still stagnates much of the Southeast. Two of the most important assets are St. Marys’ architectural charm and unique history. However, Camden County would probably still be an economic backwater (if the reader will excuse the pun) had not then Governor Jimmy Carter secretly negotiated two major federal facilities into the county, the U. S. Navy’s Kings Bay Submarine Base and the Cumberland Island National Seashore. Few people at that time knew that the two projects were directly interconnected.

The French connection

The story of Napoleon’s foisted plans are one of the many aspects of Southeast’s history, like the Medieval Irish colonists on the South Atlantic Coast, the existence of an advanced indigenous culture living on the sides of Georgia’s mountains or the true location of Fort Caroline, that one must learn from books published in Europe. [See links below.] Amateur historians, in the early days of the United States selectively edited what they wanted school children to know about North America’s past.

After Napoleon Bonaparte’s army was decisively defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in June of 1815 his political support in France quickly collapsed. Armies from several allied European nations invaded France. Napoleon and a small retinue of loyal officers fled to the French coast. Most of France’s ships of the line had been sunk or captured by the British Navy. Napoleon was forced to board a French privateer in attempt to escape Europe. His ultimate destination was St. Marys, Georgia. Captain Frederick L. Maitland, commander of the HMS Bellerophon, spotted at a distance, what appeared to be a small cargo vessel. The Bellerophon stopped the ship and after receiving instructions from the Admiralty, took Napoleon back to France. From there, he was sent to permanent exile on the island of Saint Helena.

European historians don’t know all the reasons for Napoleon seeking asylum in St. Marys and have largely ignored this incident because it seemed quixotic. They failed to appreciate the situation across the Atlantic in 1815.

The United States was still at war with Great Britain. Many of the most prominent families on the coast of Georgia and South Carolina were French Huguenots. Just across the St. Marys River to the south was Spanish East Florida. At the time, St. Marys was a major center of privateers and smugglers, many of whom were either French Huguenots or French Acadians. There was also a little known French colony along the St. Marys River, reaching inland all the way to the Okefenokee Swamp. Waycross, Georgia’s original name was Ville de Tebeaux. During the Napoleonic Wars, French warships covertly docked at St. Marys to resupply. A battle between French and British warships was fought in St. Mary Sound.

There is more to the story, however. In 1775, French soldier, Jean-Antoine Le Clerc de Milfort, immigrated to Philadelphia after killing a servant of King Louis XVI in a dual. Seeing the prospects of American independence “iffy,” he traveled southward to Georgia then walked over a hundred miles to the main towns of the Creek Confederacy. Milfort married a Creek woman and lived with the Creeks 20 years during the peak of their military and political power. During this period, the Creeks even had their own navy and national flag. Milfort eventually rose to the rank of Etvlwv Tvskemikko (commanding general) of the Creek Nation.

Milfort returned to France in 1795, after hearing of Napoleon’s rise to power. He offered his services to Napoleon and secretly submitted a plan to Prime Minister Talleyrand for using the powerful Creek army to seize Louisiana and Florida from Spain and Florida Française (Georgia and southern South Carolina) from the United States. At the time, Georgia’s boundaries extended all the way to the Mississippi River.

Talleyrand endorsed the plan. After reading it, Napoleon became intrigued with the creation of a new French empire in the Americas. However, non-stop wars in Europe soon drew his attention closer to home. Eventually, Napoleon decided that he needed money and the United States as an ally more than a vast wilderness in North America. Ownership of the Province of Louisiana was secretly transferred to France then France sold the territory to the United States.

Both Napoleon and Talleyrand knew the geography of the present day Southeastern United States, plus the names of French sympathizers and secret agents living in southeastern Georgia. His attempt to reach St. Marys was quite logical, if the secret chapters of American history are known.

St. Marys French connection goes back much further, however. In the French version of Fort Caroline’s history, in 1562, Captain Jean Ribeault named the northern tip of Amelia Island, FL on the south side of Saint Mary Sound, Cape François. He planted a stone monument, claiming the land for the King of France. For the next 200 years, the land from the St. Marys River to Charleston Bay would be claimed by France.

In 1564, Captain René de Laudonnière rounded Cape François then directed his fleet to enter an enormous deep water sound that he said, “was large enough to hold the entire French fleet.” He sailed a barque up a river then was quickly forced to stop at a point where the river became shallow. This location was probably just beyond present day St. Marys, GA.

A Spanish map, drawn in 1578, shows the largest Spanish town in La Florida to be San Mateo and located on the St. Marys River. Currently no description of this town has been found in the Spanish archives. However, French and Dutch maps in the early 1600s showed a Mission San Mateo, where St. Marys is located today and a Mission San Pedro about 12-20 miles upstream on the river. Again, no description of these missions has been found, to date, in the Spanish archives.

The United States Navy connection

It was the darkest days of the the American Revolution. A British fleet, stationed off the South Atlantic Coast, was ravaging coastal towns and plantations. Cargo ships could not get in or out of ports. Congress had very limited funds, but created the “Georgia Navy” to provide some protection. It consisted of four innovative gunboats, shaped like World War II landing craft. They were propelled by oars and a low sail. Having no keels, they could not venture far into the ocean, but could quickly dart in and out of the coastal marshes. They were armed with a single massive cannon at the bow, whose shots could sink any British ship. Like in modern amphibious warfare, the gunboats could land a company of soldiers directly on a beach then protect them with the cannon. Actually, an engine driven version of this concept would be well suited for modern military needs.

In what could have been a “Southern fried” version of Yorktown, a British army was camped out on the north bank of the St. Johns River in Florida, near its mouth. British ships could not supply or remove the army because the river was too shallow for conventional ships. Since their galleys could skim through the marshes, the officers of the Georgia Navy thought they could trap the entire British army with a combined amphibious and land-based assault. The officers were shocked to discover that their flat bottom boats could also not enter the river, even at high tide.

This campaign was a failure. However, the little flotilla redeemed itself later in the war. Although vastly outgunned and outnumbered, the Georgia Navy eventually sank or captured the entire British blockade fleet near St. Marys by maneuvering their gunboats behind British warships.

Afterward, Patriot Colonel Samuel Elbert wrote that he could have captured all of British Florida had the St. Johns been a little deeper. If Florida had been captured, St. Marys would probably be a major seaport today. St. Marys Sound and St. Andrews Sound 20 miles to the north, are two of the deepest ports on the North Atlantic Coast. In 1853, when the first railroad was built in Florida, it connected St. Marys Sound with the Gulf Coast of Florida. The St. Johns River would still be too shallow for sea craft until the late 1850s, when it was dredged by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

In the 1960s U.S. Naval Intelligence became increasingly concerned about security at its nuclear submarine bases. In particular, Warsaw Pact cargo ships carrying electronic eavesdropping equipment could legally sail very close to naval bases in Charleston, SC, Jacksonville, FL and San Diego, CA. When the Trident ballistic missile submarines were developed, it was obvious that a more secure and deeper port were needed for their home base.

Jimmy Carter was elected governor of Georgia in 1971. He was a former nuclear engineering officer in the US Navy’s strategic submarine fleet. The behind-the-scene events of this era are described in the 2011 book, The Lord of Cumberland. Carter played a direct role in the solution to the need for a more secure submarine base, but also helped preserve Cumberland Island for future generations.

There was a mothballed, World War II era, Army munitions loading port near St. Marys, known as Kings Bay. Although the Kings Bay estuary was protected from Soviet spy ships and hurricanes by Cumberland Island, there were deepwater channels leading to either St. Marys Sound or St. Andrews Sound. However, 21 mile long, virtually uninhabited, Cumberland Island was a problem. Enemy spies could easily plant themselves opposite the mouth of Kings Bay and monitor all submarine base activities.

The solution was putting Cumberland Island under federal ownership. It was to become part of the national park system, but only allow controlled, limited access by the general public. In 1971, while Naval CEC (SeaBee) and Intelligence officers surveyed the region in civilian clothes, top level administrators of the State Department of Parks and Historic Sites, such as Burt Weerts, made many trips to the coast to negotiate land sales. Very few state employees, outside of Carter’s office, knew of the simultaneous planning for the submarine base. The results turned out to be a win-win solution.

The doctor from Maine

In 1837, a young doctor named William Bacon Stephens moved from Maine to Savannah, GA. He apparently did not find medical practice to his liking, but soon befriended a recent transplant from Rhode Island, Israel K. Tefft. Teffit was a hardware store owner. In 1839, they founded the Georgia Historical Society. Stephens also began studying to be an Episcopal priest. In 1841, he began working on a history of Georgia. In 1847, it would become the first history of a state in the South. In 1848 Stephens moved permanently back north to become the vicar of an Episcopal church in Philadelphia.

Stephens’ book was immediately attacked by long time Georgia residents from throughout the state because of its inaccuracies relating to the state’s early colonial history and Native Americans. However the book received the endorsement of New England academicians and eventually became enshrined as factual.

Stephens portrayed the state’s settlement as a triumph of Anglo-Saxon superiority over a wilderness inhabited by savages, who had no connection to the thousands of ancient earthworks in the state. He minimized the activities of early French and Spanish explorers, pushing their colonies and missions down into Florida. It was Stephens, who first wrote that Fort Caroline was on the St. Johns River in Florida. This was done over the objection of old colonial families, who believed the Fort Caroline’s ruins were near Darien and that the Spanish had built many missions in Georgia.

In 1873, pioneer anthropologist, Charles C. Jones wrote “Antiquities of the Southern Indians,” to refute Stevens’ statements about Georgia’s Native American history. Jones also specifically mentioned archaeological proof that Spain’s colonial era occupation had reached northward into the mountains. However, Stephens was eventually enshrined by academia as a saint, while Jones’ book was largely forgotten until recent years. The rest is history.

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