Monday Mystery: Augusta has two of Georgia's three Declaration signers; where's the third?

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Button Gwinnett, one of three Georgia signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Button Gwinnett, one of three Georgia signers of the Declaration of Independence.

You could say Augusta is missing a Button.

That would be Button Gwinnett, one of three Georgia signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Two signers – George Walton and Lyman Hall – now rest together beneath a monument on Greene Street in front of the Municipal Building. Augusta lacks only Gwinnett to complete the set.

It probably will never happen.

The late Gov. Zell Miller, a college history professor before his political career, called Gwinnett a "man of mystery and unanswered questions both in life and death."

There are answers we do know. Gwinnett was born in Gloustershire, England, in 1732, the year the Georgia colony was founded. He received his odd first name from a cousin, Barbara Button, who also gave him a financial legacy.

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He got a job with a tea merchant in Bristol, England, married the daughter of his boss and headed to the New World to find success, first in Charleston, then near Savannah. Gwinnett proved an adept trader in medicines and gold bars. His friendship with a neighbor – future Declaration signer Lyman Hall – drew him into politics and he went to the State Assembly, and was elected a delegate to the Continental Congress. In that role, he signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

Challenged to a duel

He also returned to Georgia where he was credited as the "father" of the state's first constitution, ratified in 1777. He hoped to become the state's first governor, but his political ambition was thwarted by rival Lachlan McIntosh.

The rivalry grew ugly. Gwinnett had McIntosh's younger brother jailed on charges of aiding the British; McIntosh called Gwinnett "a rotten-hearted lying scoundrel."

A duel was demanded.

They met at dawn on May 15, 1777, and both men would hit their target. Gwinnett's wound was the more serious, and he died a few days later – the first Declaration signer to pass away.

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Gwinnett's Declaration co-signers Walton and Hall insisted McIntosh be charged, he was, but later acquitted and would spend the winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge with the troops of George Washington.

Historian Charles C. Jones put the Gwinnett legacy this way: "Of his intelligence, force of character, ability to command success, courage, indomitable will, tenacity of purpose, patriotism, love of liberty and devotion to the cause of American freedom, he gave proof most abundant. But he was ambitious, covetous of power, strong in his prejudices, intolerant of opposition and violent in his hate."

Maybe that's why he was quickly forgotten.

Questions remain

In the 1840s, Andrew Miller, a respected Augusta attorney and state senator, engineered the collection of the remains of Walton and Hall from Richmond and Burke county graveyards and the construction of the Signers Monument dedicated on the Fourth of July in 1848.

It does not appear Augustans of that era gave much thought of heading to Savannah to retrieve Gwinnett, and Gov. Miller, later writing of the event, said it was because Gwinnett's grave location was then unknown.

It was thought to be in a Savannah cemetery, but others said Gwinnett was buried atop an old Indian mound near his home on St. Catherine's Island. Those bones, however, were washed out to sea during a hurricane and now his ghost is said to haunt the region.

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In the 1950s, a historian said he had found Gwinnett's unmarked grave near a Savannah church and its bones were sent to the Smithsonian.

A preliminary exam, however, suggested they had collected the remains of a Colonial-era woman, not a patriotic but argument-prone duelist.

The forensic expert was urged to reconsider, and upon further review, the story changed. They were the bones of a small man, it was determined, and they were reburied in Savannah beneath a marker to Gwinnett.

Augusta Mayor Millard Beckum wrote to the mayor of Savannah asking whether he'd surrender Button's bones, but the mayor of Savannah said no.

Perhaps they could just send us his ghost.

Bill Kirby has reported, photographed and commented on life in Augusta and Georgia for 45 years.

This article originally appeared on Augusta Chronicle: Button Gwinnett signed the Declaration, lost a duel and disappeared