SAVANNAH, Ga. — Records kept by accountants and bureaucrats across the Atlantic Ocean give a glimpse into the conflict and suffering seen in colonial Georgia during the American Revolution.
A trio of researchers took a fall trip to England and Scotland and spent three weeks digging through government archives for any documents that might shed new light on Georgia’s role in the Revolutionary War. They came back with digital images of roughly 2,000 records from 1771 to 1783.
“There’s an awful lot of stuff, paperwork dealing with the business of war, the logistics of funding the war, correspondence between the big wigs,” said archaeologist Dan Elliott, the president of the Georgia-based LAMAR Institute, a nonprofit focused on archaeological and historical research in the Southeast.
Elliott and his team funded the research trip with $15,000 in grant money and donations in hopes of bringing back documents never seen by historians who study colonial Georgia. Others have previously combed British archives for Revolution-era records, and Elliott spent more than a week leading up to the excursion talking with historians about where he might break some new ground.
Some of the material his team brought home might sound mundane, like bookkeeping records. But they contain details that might help tell the story of Georgia during the war.
First there were records detailing plunder seized by Lt. Col. Archibald Campbell’s British troops when they captured Savannah after landing in December 1778. The crown rewarded Campbell for the spoils of war, but he dictated that the money be shared by his soldiers.
“He was basically trying to keep track of what ships they captured, how many cannons they captured. For all those things, King George gave him prize money,” Elliott said. “People would write in years after the war saying, ‘I was in the 71st regiment that captured Savannah and I haven’t gotten my money yet.’”
Other documents dealt with Georgia colonists who remained loyal to King George III seeking compensation after their lands were seized and businesses pillaged by rebel patriots. Those records containing financial requests will help historians tell the story of loyalists who otherwise have remained somewhat anonymous in accounts of the American Revolution, Elliott said.
He said the team now is going through about 5,000 digital photos taken of the various records to get a clearer picture of what information they contain and to prepare to make the documents available to the public. He said the institute plans to make images of the records available by the end of 2014.
Stan Deaton, the senior historian for the Georgia Historical Society, said documents kept by the British government on loyalist compensation claims often included details such as how many slaves the colonists owned or whether they took up arms against the patriots in defense of the crown.
He said those records remain a great untapped source of information about Revolution-era Georgia, which during the war became the only one of the 13 colonies that was returned to British rule.
“One of the reasons Georgia has had less written about it than other states is that so much was lost during that tumultuous period,” Deaton said. “Records were burned and things were thrown away.”
Other records found by Elliott’s team included hand-drawn maps pinpointing locations of roads and battle sites, as well as letters British Gen. Augustine Prevost wrote from Savannah to report back to England.
“We’re trying to give a historical context for the American Revolution in Georgia,” Elliott said. “Who won, who lost, and what were the political driving forces.”