Who’s Got Button’s Bones?

PrintPrintEmailEmail
“We have,” Savannah says, “and we can prove it.”

A crowd of 250 persons gathered in Savannah’s Colonial Cemetery one day in the autumn of 1964. To be exact, it was October 19—Victory Day, as il is called in Savannah, the anniversary of the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown. But those gathered in Colonial Cemetery had also come to commemorate another momentous occasion. They had met to unveil a fifteen-foot-high marble monument to the most controversial set of bones ever to beguile American historians. The bones were those of Button Gwinnett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the second “president,” or governor, of Georgia. At least, that’s what the sponsors of the unveiling believed. Others were not so sure.

Button Gwinnett lived a fast-moving and colorful life, but it was scarcely more fast-moving than the tempests he has stirred up almost two centuries after his death. Before the ceremony in Colonial Cemetery, Button’s bones had caused these altercations: the city of Savannah vs. the city of Augusta for the right to his remains; the discoverer of the purported remains and his supporters vs. the Smithsonian Institution and assorted skeptics; and an Atlanta savings and loan association vs. doubters of the authenticity of a portrait of Gwinnett. In the midst of all this, the active ghost of Gwinnett managed to wring a $5,000 appropriation from the Georgia legislature, plus another $5,000 from the city of Savannah and assorted patriotic organizations, to build for its bones a Greek Revival monument fit for a prince. Meanwhile, the bones spent five and a half cozy years in a Savannah guest room.

Button Gwinnett was well-known among autograph collectors and specialists in the history of the American Revolution long before the controversy about his bones projected him into the limelight. His signature is extremely rare, rarer than that of any other signer of the Declaration, except perhaps Thomas Lynch, Jr., of South Carolina. Some years ago a letter signed by Gwinnett brought $51,000 at auction, and the discovery of a possible Gwinnett signature in Aiken, South Carolina, in the summer of 1964, caused considerable excitement in that city. (That specimen, like many another “Button Gwinnett,” turned out to be spurious.)

“Maybe,” Augusta answers, “but they belong here.”

Born in Gloucestershire, England, in 1735, Gwinnett received his odd first name from Barbara Button, his mother’s cousin, who became his godmother. Young Gwinnett early formed the habit, as one historian put it, “of robbing Peter to pay Paul.” It was a loan he never repaid, in fact, that yielded the money to bring him to America. He settled in Savannah in the mid-seventeen-sixties, and in 1765 purchased St. Catherines Island, a tract of some thirty-six square miles off the coast of Georgia, south of Savannah. There he set himself up as a planter and lumberman. Gwinnett took an active interest in politics, becoming a justice of the peace and a member of the Georgia Colonial Assembly. It was probably through his friendship with Lyman Hall, the physician of a colony of New Englanders who had settled in Georgia, that Gwinnett decided to back the patriots’ side in the Revolution. He became an ardent Whig and was sent to Philadelphia as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1776. He strongly supported the Declaration of Independence and, to his lasting fame, signed it. Back in Savannah, he became speaker of the state assembly.

Gwinnett had military as well as political ambitions, and when command of Georgia’s troops went not to him but to a young general named Lachlan McIntosh, he was deeply embittered. Gwinnett vowed revenge, and he did not have long to wait for it. In February of 1777 Archibald Bulloch, first president of the state of Georgia, died suddenly, and Button Gwinnett was appointed by the assembly to succeed him as president and commander in chief of the army. Gwinnett promptly turned his attention to Lachlan McIntosh. He had McIntosh’s brother clapped into irons on a charge of trading with the British, a charge later dismissed by the Continental Congress. Then he had the General himself relieved of his command on the grounds that, if his brother was a traitor, it was more than likely that the General was, too. Cwinnelt and McIntosh were then requested to appear before the assembly to explain their conduct. On May 15, 1777, the assembly approved Gwinnett’s action, and the furious McIntosh called him “a scoundrel and a lying rascal.” Gwinnett promptly challenged McIntosh to a duel.

The two men met early the next morning in a meadow on the Sea Island Road on the outskirts ofSavannali. They faced offwith pistols at only four paces. Each was shot in the leg, but Gwinnett’s wound, in the left thigh, became gangrenous. He died three days later, at the age of forty-two. Lachlan McIntosh had to transfer to George Washington’s northern command to escape the wrath of Gwinnett partisans.