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"The Third Battle of Savannah: An Archaeological Struggle for Identification, Preservation, and Interpretation"

"The Third Battle of Savannah: An Archaeological Struggle for Identification, Preservation, and Interpretation"
Rita Elliott, Laura Seifert
Coastal Heritage Society

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    Elliott Seifert Paper Elliott Seifert Paper Document Transcript

    • The Third Battle of Savannah:
      An Archaeological Struggle for Identification, Preservation, and Interpretation
      by Rita Folse Elliott and Laura E. Seifert
      The Society for Historic Archaeology Conference, January 2010, Amelia Island, Florida
      (Title Fig. 1) At dawn on October 9, 1779, a massive battle exploded across the landscape of fields and swamps surrounding the colonial city of Savannah. (Fig. 2) A polyglot of shouting in French, Polish, Haitian, African, Native American, Scottish, and Irish languages and dialects among the 8-12,000 multi-national troops filled the air. This discord was punctuated by the deafening roar of cannon and musket fire, creating a blinding curtain of smoke and haze. In less than an hour, approximately 800 troops were casualties in some of the fiercest fighting in the American Revolution. The overwhelming British victory left Britain in control of Savannah and resulted in a disproportionate loss of less than 50 British and 750 American allied casualties. This decisive allied Franco-American defeat reinvigorated Loyalists and allowed Great Britain easy access to Charleston, ultimately sweeping the southern theater of the American Revolution.
      Archaeological discovery of the 1779 Battle of Savannah occurred in 2005 (Fig. 3). In the summer of that year, Coastal Heritage Society (CHS) was well underway in landscaping a city block known as Battlefield Park, purported location of the Spring Hill Redoubt, the focal point of the battle. Archaeologists convinced administrators to halt landscaping for a three-week window of archaeological investigation.
      The CHS archaeological crew used backhoe stripping and during the third week of fieldwork discovered an intact section of two Revolutionary War fortification ditches, which contained palisade post stains and artifacts directly associated with the 1779 Battle. (Figure 4) This profile shows a cross-section of the bottom of one ditch, which measured approximately one meter deep. Note the black palisade post stain and the late 18th-early 19th century stratum above it, capped in turn by a thick post-1830s railroad lens of cinders, clinkers, and coal. The ditch would have been much deeper than one meter, but 19th century railroad activity that graded Spring Hill took away the upper portion of it. The two ditches contained only Revolutionary War period armament items. This included musket balls, a brass barrel strap from a Charleville pistol, and a lead patch-wrapped gunflint from a wall gun.
      This “one-last-chance” project not only resulted in the spectacular find of Spring Hill Redoubt, but demonstrated that Revolutionary War archaeological sites have survived in Savannah, even in heavily impacted areas such as this, where industrial railroad activity abounded. This modest project has bloomed into two National Park Service American Battlefield Protection Program (NPS ABPP) grants and opportunities for public education and site preservation.
      The first ABPP grant was awarded in 2007 and started with the collection of thousands of pages of primary documents and maps in five states. Of the 65 maps or copies of maps examined, we used 22 for Geographic Information System (GIS) purposes (Fig. 5). The goal of this research was to create GIS databases to discover the location of redoubts, defensive ditches, abatis, and other battle-related features on the modern landscape, and determine which ones fell in areas that were accessible greenspaces (Fig. 6) This task was easy in Savannah, which has dozens of greenspaces in her “squares” and parks, originating from her 1733 town plan.
      Using the GIS map overlays and historical documentation, we targeted eight areas of downtown Savannah to investigate in search of evidence of the 1779 battle (Fig. 7). These included Madison and Lafayette squares (in search of the two Central Redoubts); Emmet Park, along Bay Street; Colonial Park Cemetery (where defensive works lay prior to cemetery expansion); a revisit to Spring Hill Redoubt (for additional GPR, resulting in no new information); and Cuyler, Dixon and Myers parks (in search of French and American camps) (Fig. 8) We used a combination of field strategies including shovel testing, metal detector survey, GPR, and test unit excavation.
      The project was extremely successful, with the most impressive results in Madison Square (Fig. 9). We established the locations of Test Units 3 and 4 based on GIS and GPR data and discovered a defensive ditch almost two meters deep. The ditch was dug and defended by the British in September and October 1779 and filled in by the Americans in the Fall of 1782. (Fig. 10) The ditch would have been part of the West Central Redoubt, lying in what is now Madison Square. (Fig. 11) Arms artifacts from the ditch included lead balls, gunflints, and gun parts (Figure 12). Three of the four gunflints recovered from the project came from Test Units 3 and 4 (Fig. 13). Brick fragments and rubble in the ditch was part of the brick barracks razed by the British less than two weeks before the battle. (Figure 14) The dismantling of the barracks was completed on September 27 when the British, “…carried off the wood, leaving the lower part as a breastwork, to prevent it being fired from the enemy” (Kennedy 1974:85). The brick was used in the defenses around the Central Redoubts and was pushed into the British trenches by American forces following the British evacuation of the city in 1782. Based on the portions exposed and the stratigraphy, we estimate that the ditch originally measured more than 13 feet wide and over 5.5 feet deep.
      GIS information suggested that the East Central Redoubt might be located in what is now Lafayette Square (Figure 15). Metal detector survey here, as in Madison Square, was ineffective. GPR anomalies were located throughout the square. We excavated three, 2 x 1 m units here and were left with more questions than answers. Test Units 5, 6, and 7 were impacted by later trash pits and other disturbances, as visible in this profile drawing (Figure 16). All three units contained a large number of artifacts from the eighteenth century. Porcelains, creamware, salt-glazed stonewares, refined redwares, and other artifacts from that period were common. Handmade brick was abundant, including an in situ brick lens. Late 18th and early 19th century artifacts were also present. This area was not occupied by townspeople during the 1730s to 1770s. This strongly suggests that artifacts from this period were deposited here during the 1779 siege and ensuing battle. This debris may have been generated by soldiers living in the barracks prior to its razing or come from soldiers occupying the Central redoubts and the horseshoe battery nearby. Some of the trash may have been generated by civilians camping in the area. Primary documents record that during the siege it was safer to be in tents near the defensive works surrounding the city than in the houses and basements in town that were being bombarded by French and American forces.
      Emmett Park is on a high bluff overlooking the Savannah River (Figure 17). Fortifications known as forts Halifax, Charlotte, Savannah, Prevost, and Wayne were located near the eastern end of the bluff, as seen in this one example (Figure 18). In our shovel tests along the bluff, we found evidence a Native American shell midden visible here as a deeply buried stratum (Figure 19), and of possible Colonial fortifications as early as 1734 and throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. GPR, along with GIS and a metal detector survey, suggested potential locations for excavation. Test Unit 2, a 1 x 1 m square, was located directly within a large GPR anomaly measuring 10 m east-west by 3 m north-south (Figure 20). Excavation revealed a 1 m deep feature that may have been constructed as part of the river battery defending Savannah and associated with nearby Revolutionary War Fort Prevost (Figure 21). The feature, containing horizontal planking at its base and hand-wrought spikes, appears to be a large, wooden-floored trench. Mean Ceramic Dates based on statistically invalid sample sizes suggests an 1820-1875 date range when the feature was infilled. It was likely that the infilling was complete when the stone retaining wall for Factors’ Walk was constructed circa 1854-1869. It is unknown when the feature was created, but quite possibly during the 18th century fortification construction.
      Another target area examined Colonial Park Cemetery (Figure 22). Our GIS map overlays indicate that a British defensive ditch cut through what is now the southeastern quadrant of the cemetery. We conducted a GPR survey of this quadrant in an attempt to locate this feature (Figure 23). Not only did we discover evidence of numerous unmarked graves, but also two anomalies that appear to be associated with the defensive ditch. (Figure 24) This GPR plan view of that quadrant of the cemetery shows an anomaly in the northwestern corner and a linear anomaly to the east (Fig. 25). Both are trending northeast-southwest, as is the angle of the defensive ditches on the historic maps. Fortunately, a large portion of this anomaly was located outside the cemetery. We hope to target a section of this with test units during this year’s project in order to ground truth the anomaly.
      (Fig. 26) Archaeologists attempted but failed to located the French and American camps in Cuyler, Dixon, and Myers parks but found no evidence of Revolutionary War activity. These locations were the most tenuous based on the GIS data, since they were the farthest from the control points that were used to align the maps. (Figure 27). The camps will be targeted again this year.
      We will begin fieldwork on our 2009-2010 ABPP grant in the next few weeks. Our first goal is to identify the extent of the battlefield boundaries. With this information in hand, our next goals are preservation and interpretation. Because our preservation tools are limited, we are primarily relying on public support and stewardship to create solid protection for these sites and others (Figure 28).
      Archaeological sites face numerous challenges in Savannah. Despite Savannah’s excellent historic preservation record for standing structures, this protection does not extend to archaeological sites (Fig. 29). In spite of the recent economic recession, record growth, local development, and looting continue to be the primary threats to archaeological resources. Most of the battlefield is in the city’s “Target Area” of public and private sector redevelopment.
      Several unsuccessful attempts have been made by others to create a city archaeological protection ordinance over the past two decades. Apparently, archaeology is perceived by policy makers as irrelevant, expensive, time-consuming, and lacking community support. It simply has not been able to compete with the more pressing problems of a modern city. Perhaps the trick is to make the cost bearable and embraceable. Archaeology can pay, as well, in terms of economic benefits to the city through heritage tourism and emotional benefits to residents in terms of providing unique senses of place within each of the city’s distinctive neighborhoods (Figure 30). Ultimately, archaeology does cost money and someone has to pay the cost. Without a powerful groundswell of public support, politicians will continue to lack the political will and interest to apply Section-106-type protection to local sites.
      Our primary strategy for gaining that critical grassroots support is public education (Fig. 31). We will hold a series of public forums or “conversation dates” explaining our past finds and the significance of these sites, sharing new discoveries, and inviting the general public, preservationists, tourism officials, local residents, neighborhood associations, the business community, educators, and policy makers to share concerns and brainstorm ideas on new ways to tackle the issue of archaeological preservation in Savannah. These forums will be scheduled at the beginning, middle, and end of the project.
      (Figure 32) Interpretation in the field, which consists of banners, interpretive signage, artifacts, and conversations with the archaeologists, was successful with 3,000 visitors to our sites during Phase I. We will continue these interpretive and media efforts in Phase II, and will in addition, create elementary curriculum materials and a Facebook page (“Savannah Under Fire”) in hopes of appealing to as many audiences as possible and starting a dialog. A technical report and public lectures will cap the project. Last grant cycle, eight public lectures were delivered to a variety of audiences, both professional and public.
      (Fig. 33) The data we collect and synthesize from the two NPS grant projects and the resulting recommendations will be made available to preservation planners with the hope that National Register of Historic Places nominations or supplements will be written for the battlefield site and that interpretive signage, tours, and electronic-based interpretive tools will be designed and funded in the future.
      Ultimately, a local archaeological protection ordinance and a city archaeologist are needed in Savannah to support archaeological preservation. (Fig. 34) According to Savannah city law, any citizen may write legislation by petitioning the public. If the petition is successful, the bill must be placed on the next ballot for referendum. If the referendum passes, the petition becomes a law. This method was recently used to pass recycling legislation, which city officials had vetoed for years. Today, 50% of Savannah’s citizens participate in the recycling program.
      The main lesson we have learned is persistence and patience. After several failed attempts by others to locate the Spring Hill redoubt, our 2005 attempt was successful. We have learned always to ask for what we need, even if we expect no for an answer. Each stage of this project has required convincing others for funding or permission. We have been surprised at the number of yeses. We have learned to do our homework. (Figure 35). Negotiating bureaucracy can be very tricky, and having a tour guide or an ambassador helps. This can be anyone who supports archaeology, knows the players better, and has influence. Homework has also included learning who the obstacles are, and what the challenges to preservation are. The recycling legislation illustrates how grassroots public support is the key to change. We are determined to have forums that present real opportunities to engage the public and get real responses, resulting in stakeholders who are truly willing to pick up the archaeological preservation gauntlet.
      (Figure 36). Our project and the Third Battle of Savannah continue: identification, preservation, and interpretation. At each stage, we are attempting to build public support that will result in action and would love to hear about the successes and challenges others face. Thank you!