SYLVANIA, Ga. — More than two centuries after a daring British surprise attack routed American forces at Brier Creek, new efforts are underway to preserve one of Georgia's least explored Revolutionary War sites.
"This battlefield has all the components very rarely seen in preservation," said archaeologist Dan Battle, who has spent the past year assessing the Screven County historic site to determine what secrets it might still hold.
The Battle of Brier Creek unfolded March 3, 1779, when a British force of 1,500 men led by Col. Marc Prevost circled back on Gen. John Ashe's encamped Patriot army, which included about 1,700 soldiers.
The late afternoon attack was a complete surprise. About 150 Americans died, while hundreds of others were captured. The fleeing survivors left behind their arms, food and supplies.
The British victory was so decisive scholars believe it prolonged the American Revolution by a year, changing the course of U.S. history.
Today, much of the site lies within the 15,100-acre Tuckahoe Wildlife Management Area owned by the state of Georgia and managed for hunting and fishing - but not specifically for historic preservation. Portions of the battlefield and related camps sprawl onto private tracts. Although the area is marked by a bronze historical commission marker erected in 1956, little has been done in terms of formal archaeology.
Battle's company, Cypress Cultural Consultants, began evaluating the area last year with funding from a Transportation Enhancement Act matching grant obtained by the city of Sylvania.
Objectives of the cursory assessment include pinpointing certain battle features - and possibly graves of the soldiers who died there.
Although a final report isn't due until later this year, the results are encouraging.
Using technology known as LiDAR, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, three-dimensional maps were used to identify the defensive line hastily arranged by the Patriot forces. Further studies helped locate other key areas, which are remarkably intact.
"The American camp is still in good shape - not pilfered," Battle said. "We've also come across a site where the Patriots were manufacturing musket balls, which is unique in its own right."
Teams extracted about 600 items that were carefully preserved and recorded and will undergo curation and analysis at University of Georgia. "There are things from the camp, from the American lines - and we even know where the exchange of gunfire occurred," he said.
As historic battle sites go, Brier Creek's remoteness is part of its charm - and also its curse.
"The only thing that happened out there was the battle - then it got left alone," he said. "It's one of the best preserved sites in the country."
Its secluded setting, however, makes it vulnerable to tampering by relic looters, and possible degradation through land management programs, such as timber harvesting.
Lee Taylor, regional game management supervisor for Georgia's Wildlife Resources Division, said state officials are doing all they can to protect the resources at Tuckahoe, but will need a final report with hard data and recommendations.
"We are anticipating getting the final report from the surveyors by the end of the year, so Wildlife Resources Division and the Historical Preservation Division can develop a comprehensive management plan for the WMA," Taylor said. "To date we have received no information from the survey."
In the meantime, DNR keeps the area patrolled and under the watch of its officers, who will arrest anyone caught digging or looting. The area is also posted to warn against using metal detectors.
Maintenance at Tuckahoe, including road scraping, is conducted carefully and will not include any excavations deeper than past activities, Taylor said.
Any proposed logging activity will be screened by the Historic Preservation Division's Archaeology Section, he said. Currently, however, "no timber operations have been proposed for Tuckahoe WMA."
The ultimate objective, he said, will be to preserve the area's cultural resources while also making sure Tuckahoe remains available to the public for hunting and fishing - the purposes for which most of the site was purchased in 1989, using license fee revenues from Georgia's anglers and hunters.
"The Georgia DNR will continue to rigorously protect intact portions of the site and ensure the entire battlefield is managed appropriately," Taylor said.
One of the biggest mysteries of the Battle of Brier Creek involves where the American soldiers killed in battle were buried, and by whom.
Based on details from comparable battles of the Revolutionary War, the dead were likely moved into piles, near where they fell, and are probably in mass graves, Battle said.
As far as who buried them, one piece of the puzzle turned up in an unlikely place: the archival records of the Dallas (Texas) Historical Society.
It was there that references were found that the British Army's 71st Highlanders ordered Loyalists from nearby South Carolina to bury the casualties, starting the day after the battle. Other clues emerged from maps and regimental records identified in the New York Public Library.
Efforts to locate graves have included the use of "cadaver dogs" specially trained to detect the scent of human remains, even if those remains are centuries old. The surveys yielded positive hits, but further studies would be needed to confirm what lies beneath the surface soil.
Battle believes the presence of Patriot casualties should earn the site more attention in the future.
"Over 150 U.S. soldiers and militia are buried on the battlefield, not found or ever celebrated by America," he said, adding that George Washington is believed to have visited the area during his Southern tour and said prayers for the killed Americans.
"The forces at Brier Creek were a multinational force that included soldiers from almost every state of the 13," he said. "Many of Georgia's Continentals were actually recruited from Pennsylvania and Virginia."
Preliminary findings will likely recommend more detailed explorations in the future, but such projects are expensive - and tend to move slowly.
"That's why one of the most needed things at the site is a management plan," said Dan Elliott, president of The Lamar Institute, a non-profit group that works with universities and state and federal agencies to conduct archaeological research.
The findings so far indicate the battlefield was impacted by farming - in particular plowing - in the past, but is still relatively intact.
"In the bigger picture, things aren't too bad," Elliott said. "Plowing disturbs things, but even if some of the site was farmed over the centuries, it doesn't move things too far."
Many artifacts discovered by the teams were left "in situ," or in place, without being disturbed. Items were removed only from the shallow surface layer of disturbed soil, or "plow zone," he said, and deeper items that were identified and left alone were mapped for future reference.
Although the lead musket balls and decaying metal fragments buried in the sandy soil have little monetary value, they have a tremendous value in their ability to tell a compelling story if properly extracted, Battle said.
"It's really rare to be able to put things you find in the ground into a particular day and year," he said. "Usually, you're lucky if you can even get the right century. We have a chance, right here in this battlefield, to study that."