Brian Mabelitini, an archaeologist from the University of South Carolina, has found traces of the log walls of Fort Hughes in Bainbridge, Georgia.
The remarkable discovery came more than 200 years after the U.S. Army evacuated the fort, which once stood at what is now the J.D. Chason Memorial Park. On hand to help with the project were Patrick Severts, archaeologist; Dale Cox, historian and author of the book Fort Scott, Fort Hughes & Camp Recovery; Rachael Conrad of Two Egg TV, as well as Clayton Penhallegon and Susan Weathersby Mann of the Decatur County Historical and Genealogical Society and archivist Sue Tindel of Jackson County, Florida.
Work started at 8:30 a.m. today (March 15) based on maps and other data assembled by Cox. The historian has long advocated for an archaeological project to find the actual remains of the fort. The archaeologists’ visit to Bainbridge was sponsored as a community service by Two Egg TV, a multi-platform history, travel and documentary channel that covers Georgia, Florida and Alabama. The station supports heritage tourism of the Lake Seminole area.
Patrick Severts, an archaeologist and expert in the use of metal detectors on archaeological projects, assisted and provided advice and expertise.
The first discovery of remains of the fort took place after 3 hours of work at around 11:30 a.m., when Mabelitini exposed a footing trench that had been dug during the construction of the log walls. Fort Hughes, like many other outposts of the Seminole War era, was built by digging trenches into which the ends of logs were placed to create an upright walls. Dirt from the trenches was then packed around the bases of the logs to solidify the walls and hold them in place.
The traces or post molds of the upright logs that once formed the walls were clearly visible. A surprise discovery, however, was charcoal and evidence of high heat in the stockade trench. Mabelitini suggested that the fort might have been burned by Native Americans after the soldiers of its garrison withdrew.
Fort Hughes was built in the fall of 1817 by troops from the 4th and 7th U.S. Infantry Regiments as they marched back from the Battle of Fowltown. That engagement was the first of the Seminole Wars and the soldiers had been surprised by the intensity of the fight given them by Neamathla and the outnumbered warriors of the Lower Creek village. Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle, who commanded U.S. forces in the battle, pulled his men back to Burges’s Bluff on the Flint River and directed them to build fortifications.
Arbuckle indicated that the fort – which he named after Aaron Hughes, a fifer killed in the battle – was square with log walls that measured 90-feet on each side. Strong log blockhouses – similar to the reconstructed one that stands today in Fort Gaines – were built on two diagonal corners to provide additional protection for the garrison.
The history of Fort Hughes was remarkably short. Arbuckle’s command of 300-men cut the necessary timber and built the fort on November 23-28, 1817. The column then crossed the river and returned to Fort Scott, which lay about 20 miles downstream. Capt. John N. McIntosh of the 4th U.S. Infantry, however, was left behind to garrison the new outpost with a small company of 40 men.
Fort Hughes became the scene of a fierce battle on December 15-18, 1817. An estimated 200-300 Seminole and Black Seminole warriors from Boleck’s Town on the Suwannee River tried to storm the fort in a surprise attack. Led by a Bahamian mercantile clerk named Peter Cook, the warriors failed to breach the walls and the battle turned into a siege. McIntosh and his men were so secure behind their walls, however, that Cook gave up the fight after three days and withdrew his force. No U.S. soldiers were seriously wounded in the fight and McIntosh was unsure of how many casualties his men might have inflicted on the Seminole force.
The severity of the attack alarmed officers at Fort Scott and Capt. Sanders Donoho was sent out with a large force to evacuate McIntosh and his men from Fort Hughes. This mission was accomplished on December 20, 1817. The fort had served as a U.S. military post for less than four weeks.
It is has long been thought – although without supporting evidence – that the fort was left standing when the soldiers withdrew and that it was still standing during the earliest days of the settlement of Bainbridge. Today’s findings, however, may challenge that belief. The charcoal and scorched earth found in the footing trench strongly suggests that the fort may have been burned. When or how this was done is not yet clear, but area Seminole, Miccosukee and Muscogee (Creek) warriors were infuriated by the U.S. attack on Fowltown and may have put the abandoned fort to the torch.
Early maps showed that Fort Hughes stood at the approximate site of J.D. Chason Memorial Park, but no one knew for sure if those maps were accurate. Cox and Mabelitini first discussed the possibility of an archaeological project in 2017. The short duration of the U.S. Army’s presence at the site left little hope that diagnostic artifacts could be found but the two decided to conduct a metal detector sweep of the park and then do some exploratory trenching to see if visible traces of the fort were still present.
Clayton Penhallegon of the Decatur County Historical and Genealogical Society and Rachael Conrad of Two Egg TV visited the park with Mabelitini and Cox in December 2017 to decide where to focus the search. Permission was then obtained from the City of Bainbridge for the work to take place.
As expected, very few artifacts from the U.S. Army’s occupation were found. Archaeologist Patrick Severts found a single piece of early 19th century musket shot and a small lump of molten lead. The exploratory trenching, however, revealed the trace of the fort wall.
The section was carefully photographed and measured before the trench was refilled to protect the fragile site. The goal of today’s project was to locate evidence that would pinpoint the precise location of the fort. Discussions will now take place about future work at the site and how best to learn more about Fort Hughes.
Two Egg TV will release a special program on the search for Fort Hughes on Sunday, March 18.
To learn more about the history of the fort until then, please consider Dale Cox’s book Fort Scott, Fort Hughes & Camp Recovery.
The site of Fort Hughes is located in J.D. Chason Memorial Park at the intersection of Donalson and Jackson Streets in Bainbridge, Georgia. In addition to centuries’ old live oak trees, the park features two cannon, historical markers and an interpretive area that tells the story of the 19th century stockade.
Visitors are welcome but please remember that the site is protected and metal detecting is not allowed. Use this map to find it: