In May 1782, the editors of the British-run Royal Gazette in Charleston, S.C., posted an almost idle boast.
“We insert with pleasure, what gives us every reason to believe,” the paper declared, “that neither American independence will be recognized, nor the friends of British Government in this country deserted, by the present Ministry of England.”
Just seven months later, with the Revolutionary War all but over, the British left Charleston.
“They evacuated Charleston, which was a huge port, and went in several different directions,” said Chuck Meide, the director of the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum. “One squadron went to England, one went to Halifax, one to Jamaica.”
But many of the vessels headed for St. Augustine, Fla. “We were getting swamped with people — our population exploded,” noted Meide. “We became the third or fourth largest city in all of the colonies.”
But on the way to St. Augustine, the vessels loaded with British loyalists confronted head-on a treacherous and well-known sandbar. At least 16 ships were wrecked as a result of the sandbar or for other reasons in December 1782.
One of those vessels was the Storm Wreck, currently being excavated offshore by archaeologists with the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program.
On a recent research visit to Britain’s National Archives, Meide found letters from the Colonial office and commander in chief’s office, ships’ logs, transport ship lists and other documents in an effort to piece together what happened to the Storm Wreck during the final chaotic weeks of 1782.
“We have four archaeologists working on site here, and they are like crime scene investigators, trying to go back and put a story together,” said Steve Higgins, a spokesman for the museum.
True to that spirit, Meide plowed through 230-year-old journals that revealed, among other things, the types of vessels taking part in the Charleston evacuation, where they went, and who was onboard.
“Altogether, it was a real find,” said Meide about his trip to England. He ended up recording over 1,000 pages collected from more than 100 documents chronicling the British evacuation not only of Charleston, but also of New York and Savannah, Ga.
From that research, Meide was able to determine that there was at the very least one troop of the famous British 71st Regiment of Foot onboard the Storm Wreck, as evidenced by a 71st regimental button recovered from the wreckage.
Preliminary research by the St. Augustine archaeologists also seemed to suggest that another vessel, known as the Sally, just might be the actual name of the vessel in the process of being excavated. That theory was later debunked.
Meide said that while the British National Archives documents, which may eventually be on exhibit at the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum, raise dozens of new questions, they also provide at least one firm answer.
“They show the important role that the Southeastern states played in the Revolutionary War,” he said, noting that the historic struggle for American independence in the public imagination is usually confined to action in the middle Atlantic and New England states. “What was going on off the coast of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida was no less important,” added Meide.