Along the Savannah River in Jasper County in early 1779, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln headquartered an American army that was about to become the center of the Revolutionary War.
In the small town of Purrysburg, just west of modern-day Hardeeville, Lincoln and his outmatched segment of the Continental Army squared off for months against a British military with its sights set on Charleston.
Although Lincoln’s army would lose the headquarters and Charleston, the campaign ultimately led to an American victory and the forming of the United States.
More than 230 years later, the Purrysburg area is mostly woods and farmland, dotted with a few homes — its crucial role in the birth of the country largely forgotten.
Now two small groups of historians, writers and archeologists from the Lamar Institute in Savannah and the S.C. Battleground Preservation Trust in Charleston are trying to change that before budding development in the area overruns the forgotten battlefields.
“Purrysburg has become, I think for most people, one of those lost towns of South Carolina,” trust president and historian Doug Bostick said. “In its day, it was infinitely important and a big center of activity. I think it really is a very compelling, but lost, war story.”
To revive the tale, Bostick, his team and a team led by longtime Lamar Institute archaeologists Dan and Rita Elliott are working to piece together the maps, letters, diaries and artifacts of the area.
“A lot of folks think the Revolution happened up in the Northeast, but so much of it took place down here, and we want to be able to retell that story to folks,” Rita Elliott said.
The Elliotts visited Purrysburg this week, and their six-member team of archaeologists will begin surveying the area next week. Over the next two months, the team also will use mapping, metal detection and ground-penetrating radar to identify any artifacts and possible excavation sites, Dan Elliott said.
Bostick’s team has been working in the area since September and has surveyed several battlefields from both the Revolutionary and Civil wars. Throughout the year they will compile more pictures, maps and data to turn into a report that will be distributed to libraries across the state and posted on a website the trust is developing.
Both teams’ work is among the first of its kind for the Purrysburg area. And it’s crucial it be complete before the fields and artifacts are lost to development, Bostick and the Dan Elliott said.
“We’re sitting in one of the greatest and largest history repositories in the country,” Bostick said. “Purrysburg was very significant during the Revolutionary War; (the Elliotts’) work will be groundbreaking.”
“There’s a real truism, and it’s true for all counties in South Carolina,” he added. “Once you develop this land, your opportunity to study these things is gone.”
Groups to present findings
Both the Lamar Institute in Savannah and the S.C. Battleground Preservation Trust in Charleston have studied scores of primary documents and will present some of their initial findings and project plans for Purrysburg at 1:30 p.m. Jan. 17 at the Bluffton library at 120 Palmetto Way.
In 2014, each team received separate grants from the National Park Service for their work. The park service’s American Battlefield Protection Program awarded about $75,000 to the trust to map Revolutionary and Civil war battlefields in Jasper and Charleston counties, and the institute received almost $88,000 to survey and excavate the Purrysburg area.