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Archaeologists find relics at Georgia fort

Archaeologists have uncovered relics from a forgotten piece of American history — the fort where British and U.S. troops waged the final battle of the War of 1812.
/ Source: The Associated Press

On a narrow peninsula along Georgia's marshy coast, archaeologists have uncovered relics from a forgotten piece of American history — the fort where British and U.S. troops waged the final battle of the War of 1812.

Point Peter, where cannons once pointed from the city of St. Marys toward Cumberland Island, fell to British forces days after Gen. Andrew Jackson's victory in the Battle of New Orleans on Jan. 8, 1815.

The fort was burned down by British troops and its remains had been buried until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers required an archaeological survey by developers of Cumberland Harbour, a 1,014-acre waterfront subdivision being built on the site. Only a state historical marker, placed on the site in 1953, pointed out the fort's location.

"A few historians knew about this. But this event, which is really significant in the War of 1812, is mostly forgotten to the public," said Scott Butler, who led the excavation for the Atlanta archaeology firm Brockington and Associates. "We're trying to change that."

Six months of digging in Georgia's southeast corner turned up more than 67,000 artifacts from Point Peter's barracks, latrine and well.

Butler's team found an 1803 rifle missing only its barrel, musket balls, uniform buttons, pocket knives, bone dice used for gambling, spoons and forks as well as many shards of pottery.

Animal bones found in a buried trash pile indicate soldiers at Point Peter spiced up their diet of military rations by catching fish, rabbits, raccoons and possums.

"This is certainly nationally significant because of the events at St. Marys, but also because we know so little archaeologically about the War of 1812," said David Crass, Georgia's state archaeologist. "And it was such a different war from the American Revolution and the Civil War."

Built in 1796 at St. Marys, then the southernmost U.S. city on the eastern seaboard, Point Peter was armed with a battery of eight cannons at the tip of a 2-mile-long peninsula less than a mile wide. While defending the coast from invasion, the fort also trained American militiamen.

In the War of 1812, which actually lasted until 1815, America waged its last conflict against foreign invaders and settled any doubts about the fledgling nation's permanent independence from Great Britain.

Point Peter became a little-known footnote compared with battles at Chesapeake Bay and New Orleans, the torching of Washington and the bombardment of Baltimore that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star Spangled Banner."

Butler's team pieced together the history of Point Peter from documents scattered from Washington's National Archives to the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah and papers kept in St. Marys.

"It took a lot of digging for us to come up with these specifics," said Connie Huddleston, who is compiling the team's findings for an exhibit in St. Marys. "I think it was just overlooked because the Battle of New Orleans was so embedded in everyone's mind as the end of the war."

Two days after Jackson's victory at New Orleans, as many as 1,500 British troops landed on Cumberland Island off the Georgia coast on Jan. 10, 1815. Though the British had signed the Treaty of Ghent on Christmas Eve, officially ending the war, word had not yet spread to commanders in the U.S.

On Jan. 13, about 600 British troops attacked Point Peter, overwhelming its 130 soldiers. The British seized St. Marys, looted jewelry and fine China from its residents, and burned the fort. It was never used again as a military outpost.

"They burned all the buildings at Point Peter, they took the cannons," Butler said. "It was described by an American officer who came there in 1818 as a poor and dreary, miserable place."

Butler and his team wrapped up its excavation in December. After cleaning and cataloging artifacts in metro Atlanta, they hope to have the St. Marys exhibit ready for the Fourth of July.

New homes will soon cover much of Point Peter. But the developer, the Land Resource Companies of Atlanta, plans to include a memorial park as a reminder of the long-forgotten fort.