A Battlefield Reborn 

It is sacred ground.

The property that lies at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and the Louisville Road holds not one, but two historic sites.

One is a Revolutionary War battlefield, the other is a major railroad complex.

“There are two historic sites here, one on top of the other,” says Michael Jordan, director of marketing and development for the Coastal Heritage Society. “The railroad was built on top of the battlefield.”

Until recently, the area where the Spring Hill Redoubt once stood was covered with brush and weeds that made the site look forlorn and abandoned. Other than a crumbling monument, there was no indication that the Revolutionary War’s second bloodiest battle was fought there.

The Battle of Savannah was fought on Oct. 9, 1779 on the slope in front of the redoubt. American troops, aided by French and Haitians, clashed with the British troops that were defending Savannah.

The British won. Of the 7,000 soldiers who were involved, 850 were killed or wounded, including Count Casimir Pulaski and Sgt. William Jasper.

Haiti’s future king, Henri Christophe, fought in the battle.

As with other battlefields scattered throughout the country, the site soon was surrounded by urban growth. In 1833, the Central of Georgia Railway was chartered and in 1845 began building on the battlefield.

Over the years, a major railroad complex was developed and remained in operation for more than a century. It reached its peak in the early 1920s, when it was the largest employer in the area.

The complex was abandoned in 1963 when the Central of Georgia was purchased by the Southern Railway. In 1967, when the demolition of the site’s distinctive smokestack was announced, 10 Savannahians raised $20,000 to stop the project. About the same time, the Metropolitan Planning Commission began planning a battlefield park.

Savannah has a treasure in its battlefield site. Many Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields have been lost because the land where they stand has been developed.

But the city also has a treasure in its Central of Georgia Railway National Landmark District. The complex is the oldest and most complete antebellum railroad manufacturing and repair facility still in existence in the United States.

Thirteen of the original structures are still standing, including the Roundhouse and the operating turntable.

In 1997, the complex was designated the State Museum of Railroad History for the State of Georgia by the state legislature. It is one of 47 National Historic Landmarks in the state, and also has been designated a Save America’s Treasures site.

Some of the railroad buildings have been put to use. The train shed and passenger depot now houses the Savannah History Museum and Visitors Center, and the repair shops became the Roundhouse Railroad Museum.

The museum has permanent exhibits in seven of the 13 structures, which comprises one of the most extensive collections of rolling stock and machinery in the state. The collection includes steam engines, locomotives and belt-driven machinery.

However, over the years, as the railroad museum grew, the battlefield park remained just a dream. Negotiations went on for years as the city attempted to buy the 9.5-acre site from the Norfolk Southern Corp.

In October 2002, a purchase agreement was reached. In March 2003, voters approved $8 million in SPLOSTfunds to develop the battlefield park and in December, the sale of the land was finally completed.

The battlefield park is now moving full-steam ahead. A $164,921 Housing and Urban Development grant will be used to repair the roundhouse roof.

A grant from Save America’s Treasures will put a roof on the 88,000-foot Carpentry Shops building, which was acquired during the battlefield site purchase.

Just last month, the state allotted $6 million for the development of the battlefield park. City contract crews began “remediating” or cleaning the site, which is contaminated with lead and arsenic from the years of use by the railroad.

Today, the fence that surrounds the site is covered with black plastic. “They’re cleaning an L-shaped piece of land,”says Jordan.

City of Savannah Environmental Affairs Officer Bob Scanlon, who is overseeing the cleanup project, estimates that remediation will cost slightly more than $1 million. It is expected the project will be finished in four to five months.

Once the cleanup is completed, the Spring Hill Redoubt will be reconstructed at the site. The redoubt was an earthen fortification, used by the British to defend the site. “There were 14 of these earthen forts, or redoubts,”Jordan says.

The Coastal Heritage Society will operate Battlefield Park. The society already manages the Roundhouse Railroad Museum and the Savannah History Museum, as well as Old Fort Jackson.

Coastal Heritage Society Director Scott W. Smith says it is hoped that the Carpentry Shops can be turned into a youth educational facility with a history, industry and science museum.

“We also need to find a facility to house the remains of the CSS Georgia,”Smith says.

The CSS Georgia was an ironclad warship constructed during the Civil War. It was sunk in the Savannah River directly across from Old Fort Jackson, and the society is working to recover as much of the wreck as possible.

Because the railway site is a National Landmark HIstoric Site, there are restrictions as to how the buildings can be used. A youth educational facility not only would qualify under those restrictions, it is badly needed in the community, Smith says.

The society also hopes to create a replica of workers’ housing to show what life was like for the railroad workers. “We’re looking at areas where out-of-town workers were accommodated in bunk houses,” Smith says.

Smith says the battlefield has international significance. “There were three armies from nine countries,”he says. “The battlefield park will give us much insight into the 18th century, the formation of nations and democracy.”

Because so many nationalities are represented, Smith believes visitors will come from overseas to see where their ancestors fought for freedom. He says it is important that the experience is as meaningful to a visitor from Poland as it would be for a visitor from France, so each nation that participated will be given equal prominence.

The site also will be a stirring tribute to the men who fought and died in the battle, Smith says. “If they could come to this redoubt, they could look at it and say, ‘They have remembered us,’” he says.

The actual location of the original redoubt probably lies underneath the Louisville Road. But Smith says the reconstruction will be highly accurate.

Because the two historic sites are located in one place, the battlefield was searched extensively so railroad artifacts could be recovered before the cleanup began.

“Scores of SCAD students have been working there before the excavation,” Smith says. “So far, the only things that have been found are surface artifacts, as opposed to sub-surface artifacts.”

Once the cleanup is completed, Smith says a search for sub-surface artifacts will be conducted. “We’ll go down 18 feet,” he says. “That will actually be going back to the strata dating to the Revolutionary War.”

All artifacts that have been pulled from the site have been tagged, according to Steven Sheffield, assistant to the building curator and a graduate student at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Sheffield is completing his master’s thesis in historic preservation.

Atrailer was stationed at the site and the artifacts were pulled away to be placed safely into storage. In addition to machinery used at the site, there are architectural artifacts that have been recovered.

“That’s all that remains of the original hose house,”Sheffield says of a pile of timbers. “We tagged every piece we could find. The idea is to rebuild it.”

Fires were always a danger at the complex. “The Central of Georgia had its own firefighting crew,”Sheffield says. “There were hydrants all over the site. Even so, there were buildings that burned over the years.”

The roof of the hose house is basically intact. Another important find is part of the truss system that once supported the carpentry shop.

“It burned in the 1980s,”Sheffield says. “Apparently, the fire started after a group of homeless people who were staying there started a bonfire.”

The truss and the timbers that were recovered from the fire were put into a pile. Some of the lumber has been dated back to the 1850s, but the truss apparently dates to the 1920s, when the railroad complex was in its heyday.

Although some of the site’s buildings are gone, Sheffield knows what they looked like because of photographs taken in the 1970s to document all the structures at the site in case of loss.

There has been some talk of reconstructing the missing buildings, but not any time soon. “If it ever comes about, it’s years ahead,” Sheffield says.

One building that will be reconstructed is the Carpentry Shops, where the youth museum will be placed. The site, now overgrown, will be cleared and studied.

“The idea is to get rid of the undergrowth,”Sheffield says. “There’s probably a treasure trove of information there. Once the area is cleared, we can focus on getting the building replaced. SCAD students will do most of the masonry work and rebuilding of doors and windows. It’s really exciting to get started with the building.”

Even fence posts found at the railroad site are considered valuable. “There were two different types of fence along Boundary Street and the Louisville Road,” Sheffield says.

One type of post has a pyramidal shape. Having an actual piece of wood will assist in replicating the original fencing, Sheffield says.

Some of the pieces of equipment that have been recovered once belonged to the complex’s steam plant. Only about half the buildings were powered with electricity, Sheffield says.

“They had some buildings powered by steam,”he says. “There was a large system of shafts and pulleys.”

Pieces of a wooden cover have been found in the wheel pit. “The idea was to have the pit covered so no one would fall into it,” Sheffield says.

There also is an extensive collection of glass, including a piece of engraved glass that may have come from a train car or office door. There’s even a Dr. Pepper bottle that’s been dated to the early 1960s.

Having two separate, distinct historic sites in one place is a definite plus for Savannah.

“This fall, we’ll commemorate the 225th anniversary of the battle,” Sheffield says. “People who are interested in railroad history also can visit a Revolutionary War battlefield.”

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Linda Sickler

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Connect Today 10.23.2016

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