Likely as not, “Bloody Marsh” was just a British expression condemning the oppressive South Georgia heat on the day of the battle that is linked in time with St. Simons Island.
The Battle of Bloody Marsh was a monumental conflagration to be sure, both locally famous and historically significant on a global scale. But most historians agree that in terms of blood shed this conflict hardly lives up to its name.
One thing is pretty certain, however. If you were a British soldier marching out in full woolen uniform from Fort Frederica to thwart the Spanish advance, it must have been “bloody sweltering” on July 7, 1742. Regardless, the real fighting on St. Simons Island went down earlier that day at a swampy hollow not far from the fort called Gully Hole Creek.
Together, however, these two Colonial Georgia showdowns resulted in a resounding victory for British sovereignty in the Americas. The battles ended all designs Spain held on expanding north of Florida in Colonial America. It was all part of a larger war waged between Spain and Britain, presumably over the loss of British sea merchant Robert Jenkins’ ear to an irate Spanish captain’s sword. The two nations would continue to clash at several compass points abroad, but the War of Jenkins Ear effectively ended in this region that day on St. Simons Island.
The island’s present day intrigues, from stressed sewer pipes to Pier Village parking, fairly pale in comparison. But reminders of that historic day nearly 275 years ago abound among us still. It begins at Fort Frederica National Monument, where the remains of the island’s original British settlement are lovingly maintained by park rangers and volunteers. We drive daily past relevant historic markers connected to the battles. There is one on Demere Road recognizing the old Military Road the Spanish used to march on Fort Frederica after landing on the island’s south end. Another historic marker, on Frederica Road near Christ Church, confirms where the Battle of Gully Hole Creek unfolded.
And then there is Bloody Marsh Battle Site, a small national monument tucked into the bend on Old Demere Road. Most historians agree there is no way of telling if this is where they fought the actual battle back then. But it does offer perhaps the island’s most tranquil view of the marsh. It also features a granite monument, which echoes British Gen. James Oglethorpe’s fighting words that day. Oglethorpe assures posterity, “We are resolved not to suffer defeat. Rather we will die like Leonidas and his Spartans ... “
Perhaps a little over-the-top in hindsight. But, of course, Oglethorpe could not have known that at the time. By the most scholarly of estimates, however, just seven of the roughly 2,000 Spanish troops who landed on St. Simons Island gave their last full measure in the scrap on Bloody Marsh.
But by then Oglethorpe had already demoralized the Spanish with a punishing blow at Gully Hole Creek, not far from the walls for Fort Frederica. It was there that Oglethorpe, some Scottish Highlander guerrillas and native volunteers met the initial Spanish advance of about 250 soldiers with a savage ambush. Oglethorpe’s hastily mustered band of warriors killed 12 and captured 10 of the enemy, prompting the Spanish to beat a hasty retreat back down that military road that got them there.
What happened later that day at the so-called “Bloody Marsh” was actually a heroic bluff on the part of Oglethorpe and his undermanned force, many historians agree. At its peak, Fort Frederica never held more than 1,000 troops.
But after the final salvos were fired at Bloody Marsh on that day, Spanish leader Manual de Montiano convinced himself that his numerically superior forces were vastly outnumbered. A Spanish prisoner was intentionally released from Fort Frederica, returning to his commanders with intimidating and overrated accounts of British manpower.
Scouting ships arriving at the fort from Charleston, S.C., several days later unintentionally sealed the ruse for Montiano. His troops sailed back to St. Augustine about a week later, never to campaign north of there again.
The lone British death that day resulted from heat stroke at Gully Hole Creek. It must have been bloody hot that day.
Of course, we have only scratched the surface about this epic moment. The Spanish had tried and failed at colonizing St. Simons Island and the rest of the coast nearly two centuries before Oglethorpe came along to found the Georgia Colony in 1732. Oglethorpe actually instigated the War of Jenkins Ear in the Georgia/Florida theater, launching an attack in 1740 on St. Augustine that ultimately failed.
And the Battle of Bloody Marsh is but one saga of the Golden Isles, a single thread in the rich historical tapestry bequeathed to us. The history of this place is palpable and accessible, anywhere and anytime. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” the writer William Faulkner once said.
I am of a mind to agree.
Have ideas for a future local history column? Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.