In the 2000 movie The Patriot, a glistening, ponytailed Mel Gibson tromps through the lowlands of the South in a heroic, roguish quest for Brits and loyalists, nearly single-handedly winning the American Revolution through his gallant guerrilla tactics. Though Gibson’s Benjamin Martin was a fictitious rendering, the inspiration for the dashing patriot came in part from a true hero: Georgia’s Elijah Clarke.
In 1773, with rumblings of revolution seeping into the new American consciousness, Clarke could hardly be described as a hero. At thirty-one, the frontiersman had yet to make much of his life. Born in Anson County, North Carolina, he had managed to move but remained illiterate and indigent, with hardly two pence to rub together.
But the Revolutionary War brought change for the country, and for Clarke. Though Clarke had earlier voiced loyalist opinions, he was quick to join the efforts of the revolution at their outset. He first enlisted with the Georgia militia, where he excelled as a soldier and patriot. He climbed the ranks quickly, becoming first a militia captain and then a lieutenant colonel of militia. In February of 1779, he led the charge at the Battle of Kettle Creek, a crucial patriot win. His new roles were not without misfortune, however. In the first three years of the war alone he sustained two bullet wounds and survived cases of small pox and the mumps. Clarke’s hardy, if plebeian, constitution helped him survive the most difficult hardships of war.
In 1780 Georgia was one of the first states to fall to British forces, disassembling their militia and leaving Clarke without a role. The gutsy soldier transitioned into a new post: guerrilla fighter.
Clarke led a throng of rebels into enemy territory, where they methodically and surreptitiously eliminated their opponents. Hiding in woods and behind trees, buried in tall grasses and sand dunes, the stealthy fighters had subtle but powerful effects on the loyalist forces. Though Clarke and his troops didn’t technically fight in any of the remaining major revolutionary battles, their efforts had considerable impact on their outcomes. Many historians claim that a number of patriot victories owe their success not to the militias but to Clarke’s guerrillas.
Clarke remained in good stead after the war, leaving behind the floundering frontiersman of yore. As a reward for his efforts as a guerrilla and military leader, the state of Georgia gifted Clarke an expansive plantation. He was also elected to the Georgia legislature, where he began a political legacy that lasted for generations (his descendants remained prominent figures in Georgia politics for nearly a century).
Not all Clarke’s post-war accomplishments, however, were so constructive. In 1794, frustrated with what he viewed as the ineffectual and sluggish efforts of the American government, Clarke began his personal campaign to remove the Creek Indians from their traditional territories in Georgia and instituted his own independent nation, the Trans-Oconee Republic. His efforts were soon shut down by the Georgia government, and Clarke died in December of 1799.
Despite his somewhat impaired decisions of later years, Clarke is still remembered fondly by history books for his valiant leadership during the Revolutionary War. He was rewarded personally with his own land, but his memory continues to be honored in the city of Athens and Clarke County, Georgia, named for the wily patriot.
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