Col. John Dooly was Georgia’s first folk hero; a man who lost a brother in an Indian attack, then led Patriot forces to victory at the Battle of Kettle Creek, and finally died as a martyr to the American cause. When Georgia’s colonial government ceased to exist in 1775, John Dooly formed a vigilante Patriotic militia to defend Savannah from the British at the Battle of the Rice Boats. As a continental officer, he traveled to Virginia in 1777 to recruit men to fight in Georgia. He had to resign his commission after he illegally and irresponsibly held a Creek Indian peace delegation hostage in retaliation for his brother’s death at Creek hands. At one time, Dooly simultaneously was a member of the state’s ruling Executive Council, commander of the militia, and State’s Attorney. He was on the commission that laid out Washington as the county seat of Wilkes County and was their first sheriff. In June 1780, all of Georgia and South Carolina had been overrun by the British except for our upper backwoods, and Colonel Thomas Brown was ordered to subdue those proud Patriots. Brown, the commander of the Loyalist garrison occupying Augusta, sent William Manson, a successful Wrightsborough merchant, to convince them to capitulate. Manson found Dooly and offered his militia, the only organized resistance left in Georgia, surrender terms under British protection as prisoners of war on parole. Dooly, on a hillside near Washington, gave up his 300 men and 280 arms without a fight. Two-thirds of the men took their slips of paper and went home, but 100 men fled with Colonel Elijah Clark to South Carolina to fight another day. At that moment, Georgia became the only state to revert back to a British colony. Clark returned to Wilkes County to plan his attack to retake Augusta. He tried to persuade officers and enlisted men to violate their paroles and fight again, but no one would, they’d had enough. Clark assembled 400 brave men, although some had to be coerced, and retook Augusta on September 14, 1780. Four days later, Loyalist troops from Carolina arrived and drove Clark out. British Colonel John Cruger hanged 13 captured Patriots known to have received those paroles and sent another 13 to the Indians in Ninety Six to be tortured and burned alive. He then sent Loyalist militia and Indians to sweep across Wilkes County, burning 100 farms, barns, houses, forts and the court house. Clark escaped and led 600 men, women and children to Tennessee and returned to fight with ‘the Gamecock,’ General Thomas Sumter, until the war’s end.
Nothing in Dooly’s life was simple, not even his death. His first biographer wrote that Dooly’s murderer was a McCorkle of South Carolina. Another said Dooly was killed one night on his porch in full view of his family by a Capt. William Corker as revenge for his brother’s death by Dooly’s men during their June 1779 campaign in Burke County. Dooly was originally a merchant, surveyor and land speculator in South Carolina whose numerous court suits prompted death threats; did his murder stem from those? In 1774, Dooly settled his family on the ‘Savannah River Leesburg plantation’ in original Wilkes County in the newly opened Ceded Land of Georgia. Unfortunately, Thomas Lee owned the land, yet Dooly refused to give it up even after successful law suits were filed against him. It would almost seem reasonable had he been shot for that. As a colonel, Dooly had confiscated private property for his troops, and as state’s attorney had prosecuted several of his neighbors as Loyalists, and nine were condemned to die. Reprieves were eventually given to six of them, leaving three roaming around with just one thing on their mind: killing Dooly. Was he murdered because he was preparing to rejoin the militia, breaking his parole, because the British had ordered his Leesburg property, or Thomas Lee’s anyway, to be confiscated? Unfortunately, Dooly’s widow and children were ultimately evicted from the Leesburg property and lost their remaining property due to his enormous debts. To avoid his creditors, his family did not apply for the military bounty land for his service until after 1796. In 1821, Dooly County was named for him.
Lewis Smith lives in Thomson. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.