General History of Fort Morris and Sunbury
Prior to European contact, the Native Americans of Southeastern North America lived in widely scattered villages. Just as today, the villages were located at points that provided a good defensive position, abundant natural resources and access to trade with others. The high bluff of the Midway River met these requirements. The river provided an excellent deep-water anchorage; broad marsh and the high bluff served as a protective barrier and easy defense. Further, the area was within easy reach of the barrier island of St. Catherine's, providing additional area for food and game.
The Indian people of this region were called Guale. They were part of a larger cultural group that extended throughout the present-day area of Georgia, Alabama and northern Florida. They were members of one of the three tribal groups: Chickasaw, Cherokee and Creek and were part of the late Mississippian period of prehistoric inhabitants. From early records of Europeans as well as archaeological evidence and oral history, we know a little of their culture. Having huge, sparsely populated areas to inhabit, we know they lived in widely scattered villages that were ruled by a leader called a Mico. We know that this leader was chosen by inheritance through his mother's line. The Mico had complete power to decide issues of concern to the tribe and was given tribute by the people as payment for his responsibility.
The people's villages were built of wattle and daub huts with thatched roofs. The largest of these located in the center of the village was a meetinghouse for discussion and decision-making. The people farmed small acreages of corn, peas, squash, beans and other plants they might eat or use. They also gathered berries, fruit and nuts that were available seasonally. While the main staple of their diet was corn, they also hunted wild game and harvested the river and sea. Evidence of their large consumption of oysters, for example, can be found in the many coastal shell middens.
The earliest European contact was with the Spanish who arrived in the Caribbean in 1492. Their goals of "God, Gold and Glory" resulted in first, exploration north of Florida as far as the mountains of north Georgia and then, missions built along the Georgia coast on the barrier islands. Of course they claimed all the land they explored for Spain. But so did the French who later, had established at least one small settlement near the mouth of the St. Mary's river and a fortification at Paris Island, S.C. The third European claim to the land came from the English who had settled Jamestown in 1607. After establishing the Carolina colony and seeing it grow to prosperity with the cultivation of tobacco, rice and indigo, the British feared their rival, Spain, to the south.
In 1733 the Trustees, a group of Englishmen who had received a grant of land from the King of England, sent James Oglethorpe with a group of settlers to found the colony of Georgia. Landing on a high bluff of the Savannah River, the first settlement was laid out by Oglethorpe. To meet the goals of the Trustees other settlements were quickly located along the river as far as north as Augusta and along the coast as far south as Frederica. They were to serve as a barrier to Spanish movement toward Carolina.
Also, they were to serve as an opportunity for worthy men and women to create a new life. To this end, the trustees paid the way and provided supplies for a time to a number of the settlers. Finally, the Georgia colony was to hopefully become prosperous as had Virginia and Carolina. A number of plants were sent to the new colony in hopes of bringing prosperity. A special garden, the Trustee's Garden, was to be maintained for this transplanting and furnished settler's with grapevine cuttings and mulberry trees among other things. As the colony grew, land was also granted to those who deserved special reward for their services to the colony.
It was such a reward for service against the Spanish at Ft. Frederica that Captain Mark Carr was given a grant of 1000 acres on the Medway River. He and his son began successful cultivation attracting other settlers and merchants. On June 20, 1758 a town charter was drawn up for the town of Sunbury. It quickly grew to the second largest port in the Georgia colony and by 1764 had over 80 dwellings, several busy wharves and three stores. It served as the shipping center for Georgia frontiersmen and planters to markets in the Mediterranean, Europe and the Caribbean. Its natural deep water afforded it access by the largest ships of the day. By 1775 Sunbury was a significant economic asset of the Georgia colony.
By that time, however, Revolution was approaching. The population of what is now Liberty County was involved in a rapidly growing movement to separate from Great Britain early on. When the First Continental Congress had initiated a call for colonial response to British acts, St. John's Parish sent the largest group of delegates to the Savannah meeting of the Provincial Assembly. The Sons of Liberty had formed in Georgia and Governor Wright vigorously condemned their rebellious activities. He singled out Liberty County in particular, citing their connection to the Puritan New Englanders as the source of their rebellious nature. The Continental Congress had previously called for all colonists to abide by the Continental Association's resolution to boycott British goods and refuse to comply with British laws deemed illegal. Committees in each colony had been asked to monitor colonial compliance. Further, the Continental Association pledged to boycott trade with any colony, which refused to comply.
When Georgia's Provincial Congress failed to vote compliance with the Association's bidding, Liberty County decided to go it alone. Sending a request to the Charleston Committee of Correspondence, they asked to be exempted from a colonial boycott. Liberty County would honor the Association's resolutions even if it meant a break with the remainder of the Georgia colony. Charleston refused. St. John's Parish then dispatched Lyman Hall to report to the Philadelphia assembly to plead their case. Carrying a quantity of rice to the now-embattled New Englander's, Hall reported to the 2nd Continental Congress. Lyman Hall was recognized by them as the representative of St. John's Parish and participated in all activities of the Congress save voting as the sole Georgia delegate. Finally in September of 1775 a new provincial congress met for Georgia. Hall and two others, Button Gwinnett and George Walton, were officially named Georgia's delegates to the Continental Congress.
The Georgia delegation, then, included a Sunbury resident, Lyman Hall, and Button Gwinnett whose home was on St. Catherine's Island, along with George Walton. In July of 1776 they became the Georgia signers of the Declaration of Independence. Georgia was divided over the issue of independence with a sizeable Tory or Loyalist population, especially in the Tidewater region of Savannah. However, Sunbury and nearby Midway were heavily involved in the revolutionary movement attempting to take control of the revolution's direction in Georgia from the more timid rebels of the Savannah area.
Recognizing the strategic importance of Sunbury, the Continental Congress called for the building of a fortification upon the bluff south of the town to protect against British attack. To that end the revolutionary fort, which would eventually be named Fort Morris, was erected. It was to be an earthen fortification with cannon to repel attack by the British from sea and protect the town of Sunbury. Evidence indicates that the Fort was surrounded by a deep moat and earthworks and a palisade also surrounded the fort and town. How complete the structure was and what kind of building was within the fort is still a matter for historical inquiry. That some 200 troops garrisoned the Fort and that they were further reinforced by an additional 127 men is known. Throughout all of the Revolution Ft. Morris was occupied, first by Americans and later, British troops who renamed it Fort George. The British evacuated the site in 1782, and the war ended the following year.
Although a leader in the Revolution, the town of Sunbury and Ft. Morris failed to prosper after British occupation. Never recovering from the partial burning of the town by the British, Sunbury continued to decline throughout the Federalist era. By 1800 many families had relocated into the newly opened frontier of Georgia. During the War of 1812, the remaining residents again looked to Ft. Morris as a safeguard against the British. They called for a rebuilding of earthworks and the manning of the site by a company of artillery. The Ft. Morris site was renamed Fort Defiance. However, no action occurred. Similarly to its abandonment after the Revolution, the Fort was vacated in 1816 after the war's end.
The declining town and nearby plantations were slowly abandoned as well. The town suffered major damage in the Hurricane of 1824. A yellow fever epidemic, the shift of the county courthouse to Riceboro and the general economic decline of the region continued. In 1841 the Sunbury Post Office was closed with only a few scattered families still living in the area. Today, no trace remains of the town although the Sunbury Cemetery is maintained still. The earthworks of the Fort still stand, but all other evidence of the fortification is gone. The site was acquired by the state of Georgia and is the state's only Revolutionary Historic Site with remaining earthworks.
Fort Morris and the American Revolution
The importance of Sunbury to the colony of Georgia can be demonstrated by the order of the Continental Congress in 1776 to build a fort for its defense. It was to be made of earthworks and cannon to defend against a possible British naval attack. The historical record is confusing as to the exact location and structure of the fort. Reference is made to its shape, specific gun emplacements, and a pallisaded enclosure of both town and fort. A structure of some sort within the enclosure of the parade is referred to in the report of British siege which states that bombardment ". . . damaged a wing of the barracks where officer's messed." A structure is also shown within the walls of the fort in the Campbell map of 1780. Little physical evidence remains except the earthworks and deep entrenchments. Further study will be needed to be more exact in the fort's actual appearance.
The fort at Sunbury served as a base for three American expeditions against the British in East Florida headquartered at St. Augustine between 1776 and 1778. The objective of the operations was the destruction of a base for British attack in East Florida, but all three attempts by the Americans failed.
In the fall of 1778 the British launched an attack to retake their Georgia colony from the rebel forces from Florida. Lt. Col. Mark Prevost led an army from the Altamaha River towards Midway Meeting House and the town of Sunbury. He was to rendezvous with Lt. Col. L.V. Fuser who sailed north along the inland waterway.
American troops under the command of Colonel John White failed to stop Prevost's soldiers in a sharp fight at Midway. Col. White detached 127 troops under the command of Col. John McIntosh to Sunbury to reinforce the garrison of some 200 troops at the fort. Unfortunately for the British, bad weather delayed the arrival of the naval force under Fuser. Prevost, through clever deception by the Americans, feared his force was in danger of being cut off and defeated. Cautious, Prevost retreated after setting fire to Midway Meeting House, destroying a number of bridges and carrying off much property.
When Fuser's naval flotilla arrived, thinking Prevost in command of the land around the fort, Lt. Col. Fuser asked for the fort's surrender. Colonel McIntosh, now in active command of the fort, replied, "Come and take it." Fuser, learning of Prevost' retreat, decided to withdraw and returned with the flotilla to Florida. The fort, as yet unnamed, was from this point called Fort Morris in honor of the garrison's Commander of Artillery.
In December of 1778 a three thousand man British army captured Savannah. Realizing they could not hold Georgia, the American commander ordered the evacuation of Fort Morris. Major Joseph Lane, now in command of the fort, unfamiliar with the area asked for a guide to lead his garrison's removal. Delaying to comply with the order, in January of 1779 he found both Fort Morris and Sunbury surrounded by British troops. Demanding his surrender, the British responded to his refusal by firing the two mortars and the 8-inch howitzer they had brought. The bombardment was short, but heavy. Major Lane surrendered the fort.
After the capture and occupation of Fort Morris, the British renamed the fort Ft. George in honor of George III, King of England. The town of Sunbury became a prisoner of war camp run by the British for captured American officers. In late 1779 the British called for the dismantling of the fort, destruction of much of Sunbury and relocation of the British garrison to Savannah, now under siege by a combined American and French force. After the American defeat, however, the British remained in control of Georgia until 1782. At that time, following the defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, the British withdrew from Georgia.
In 1783 the Treaty of Paris was signed granting American independence. Sunbury was reclaimed by some of its former residents, but the town of Sunbury never recovered from the devastation of the war. Fort Morris was abandoned to fall into disrepair.
In 1815 when a second war broke out between the British and Americans, Sunbury was again seen as a possible target of British attack and invasion. Using the earlier Fort Morris' remains as a base, a new fort was authorized and money set aside for its construction. The new fort, named Fort Defiance, was partially constructed according to records, but never fully completed. When hostilities with the British ended in 1815, the fort had seen no action. By 1816 the fort was ordered abandoned by the American government. Sunbury continued to decline and while there was talk of the fort during the American Civil War, it was not used again.
Today, the site of Fort Morris and its remains are the only Revolutionary War site owned by the state of Georgia. It is under the protection of the Department of Natural Resources as a State Historic Site. A visitor's center and museum tell the story of this site for visitors.