Augusta is Georgia’s second oldest and second largest city and is the seat of Richmond County. Nature helped determine the course of Augusta’s history. Situated at the fall line between the Piedmont and the Upper Coastal Plain, the focal point of natural trails, and the head of navigation of the Savannah River, the town was destined to become an important trading center. Abundant waterpower promoted the rise of industry.
Some 4,000 years ago nomadic hunters stopped at the islands in the shoals of the Savannah River, learned to fish and farm, and remained there for several hundred years. Stallings Island above Augusta has provided valuable artifacts of that culture. Still later, three large chiefdoms dominated the central Savannah River valley. Hernando de Soto’s adventurers found both banks of the river occupied by Uchee Indians in 1540. The first Carolinians encountered the Westo Indians on the left bank of the river in the 1670s. A wandering tribe called the Savannah Indians, armed by a group of Carolinians, drove out the Westos in the Westo War of 1680 and gave their name to the river. Other small bands, including the Appalachees, the Yuchis, and the Chickasaws settled near the fall line. In 1716 the Carolinians constructed Fort Moore to guard Savannah Town, a trading post on the present-day site of North Augusta, South Carolina. From there, Carolina traders carried goods to the distant Creeks and Choctaws.
When James Oglethorpe came to Georgia in 1733, he learned that the Creeks resented the unfair trading practices of the Carolinians. He obtained legislation requiring traders west of the Savannah River to secure a Georgia license and, on June 14, 1736, gave orders to lay out the town of Augusta after the forty-lot pattern he had used three years earlier for Savannah. The city was named for Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, the wife of Frederick, Prince of Wales. Carolina traders based in Savannah Town crossed the river and became Augustans. A fort and its garrison protected the town. When Oglethorpe arrived in the town in September 1739, after his visit to the Creek Nation, he declared it the key to the Indian country. By regulating the trade, he secured the allegiance of the western Indians. During the 1759-60 Cherokee War the Creeks and Chickasaws helped defend Augusta. In 1763 a congress of Indian nations met four colonial governors in Augusta, concluded the peace, and ceded land between the Savannah and Ogeechee rivers to Georgia.
By restricting settlement to the Appalachian Mountains, the royal proclamation of 1763 fostered migration into the 1763 cession. Friction soon developed between the new settlers and the Native Americans who followed the traditional trails to Augusta. To accommodate the influx of settlers, Governor James Wright negotiated a second land cession at Augusta in 1773. Creek Indian discontent, however, erupted in a series of raids on outlying settlements in 1773 and early 1774. The perception that the royal government favored the merchants and Indian traders rather than the settlers caused many in the backcountry to join the revolutionary movement.
George Walton, whose home at Meadow Garden still stands in Augusta, signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He and Lyman Hall, another of Georgia’s three signers, are buried beneath Signers’ Monument on Greene Street. During the American Revolution (1775-83) the seat of state government moved to Augusta in 1779. British troops occupied Augusta for two weeks in 1779 and from May 1780 to June 1781. Two important battles were fought in Augusta. Elijah Clarke’s failed attack upon Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Brown in September 1780 was a prelude to the American victory at Kings Mountain. Continentals under Lieutenant Colonel Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, and militia under Elijah Clarke and Andrew Pickens, besieged Thomas Brown at Fort Cornwallis in May 1781 and forced him to surrender after a two-week battle. A hastily reconvened Georgia legislature in Augusta gave American peace negotiators cause to argue for Georgia’s independence, even though Savannah remained in British hands for another year.
After shuttling between Augusta and Savannah, the state legislature convened in Augusta from 1785 to 1795 while a new capital was prepared at Louisville, on the Ogeechee River. A commission governed the town, laid out new streets, disposed of land, and in 1783 chartered a school, Richmond Academy. Classes did not begin until 1785, but Richmond Academy was the only school in operation in the state until after 1785, when the legislature authorized county academies and a state university.
Jesse Peters Galphin, one of the African American organizers of the pre-revolutionary Silver Bluff Baptist Church, led the congregation to Augusta after the Revolution and established Springfield Baptist Church. Silver Bluff–Springfield is regarded as the oldest African American congregation in the country.
Land speculation dominated politics while the legislature met in Augusta. Legislators were stockholders in land companies, to which they sold state land in the infamous Yazoo Fraud. Augusta town government, established in 1789, proved ineffective. The legislature granted a city charter in 1798. During the 1790s Augusta prospered as a tobacco market. After the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, cotton took precedence over tobacco as the chief staple of trade.
Augusta enjoyed prestige as the principal market of the expanding Georgia backcountry during the antebellum period. A number of handsome residences testify to the prosperity of the period. George Washington visited the city in 1791, James Monroe in 1819, the Marquis de Lafayette in 1825, Henry Clay in 1844, and Daniel Webster in 1847. Three Augustans—Freeman Walker, Nicholas Ware, and John P. King—served in the U.S. Senate. John Forsyth was secretary of state under U.S. presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. George W. Crawford was secretary of war in U.S. president Zachary Taylor’s administration.
Augusta’s prominence and prosperity were due partly to improvements in transportation. The first steamboat reached Augusta in 1816. Gazaway B. Lamar of Augusta built the first iron steamers for the Savannah-Augusta trade. Narrow “Petersburg” boats carried goods from the upper Savannah River towns through the rapids to Augusta. A German immigrant named Henry Schultz operated the first commercial wharfs at Augusta, constructed the first successful bridge, and laid out the town of Hamburg, South Carolina, opposite Augusta. The 136-mile railroad from Charleston to Hamburg was said to be the longest in the world when it was completed in 1833. Augusta and Athens entrepreneurs hired John Edgar Thomson to build the Georgia Railroad from Augusta to Atlanta and later connected it with the Carolina railroad. The construction of the Augusta Canal in 1845 provided industrial waterpower that would help make the South less dependent upon the North for manufactures.
Augustans made distinctively southern contributions in fields from science to religion. The Medical College of Georgia (later Georgia Health Sciences University), established in 1828, studied regional diseases and issued The Southern Medical and Surgical Journal. An influential agricultural journal, The Southern Cultivator, was published in Augusta. Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, an Augusta native, wrote a popular series of humorous sketches entitled Georgia Scenes (1835). The Southern Baptist Convention (1845) and the Southern Presbyterian Church (1861) were established in Augusta.
Civil War and Reconstruction
During the Civil War (1861-65) the railroad through Augusta connected the eastern and western sectors of the Confederacy. Wounded soldiers from both sectors filled the city’s hospitals, hotels, and churches. Because of the rail connections and the canal’s waterpower, Colonel George W. Rains constructed the Confederate Powder Works in Augusta. The tall chimney of the Powder Works stands today as a memorial to the Confederate dead. The city contributed more than 2,000 soldiers to the Confederacy. Several area residents gained prominence during the war, among them Generals James Longstreet, Lafayette McLaws, W.H.T. Walker, and “Fighting Joe” Wheeler.
General William T. Sherman, thinking that Augusta was more heavily defended than it actually was, avoided the city on his march to the sea. As a result the city’s factories and stores revived quickly after the end of the war in 1865. The enlargement of the canal in 1875 permitted the erection of huge new factories, giving employment to thousands. Some of the Chinese laborers who worked on the canal remained in Augusta to establish one of the oldest Chinese communities in the eastern United States.
Springfield Baptist Church was the focal point of Black activism during the Reconstruction era (1867-76). Delegates from across the state met there in 1866 and organized the Georgia Equal Rights Association, the forerunner of the Georgia Republican Party. Augustans Rufus Bullock, Benjamin Conley, and Foster Blodgett dominated the short-lived Republican state administration. In 1867 William J. White founded the Augusta Baptist Institute at Springfield Church. Twelve years later the school moved to Atlanta and later became Morehouse College. White was also instrumental in the establishment of Ware High School (1880), one of the first for Black youth. The closing of Ware by the Board of Education in 1897 prompted a suit that was taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a landmark decision (1899), the court permitted the separate treatment of Black students in education.
While Augusta women erected monuments to the Confederacy, Augusta men, like the orator Charles C. Jones Jr. and the poet Father Abram Ryan of St. Patrick’s Church, joined them in mourning the Lost Cause. At the same time, however, entrepreneurs like Patrick Walsh and Colonel Daniel B. Dyer were welcoming the advent of the New South of progress and industry. Populist voices were powerful in Augusta: Thomas E.Watson challenged the Augusta Democratic leadership for the Tenth Congressional District seat repeatedly during the 1890s. Defeated and embittered, Populists reentered the Democratic Party as a faction pledged to disenfranchisement of Black citizens and opposition to Catholics. Using the white primary, the faction emerged as the Cracker Party and controlled Augusta politics for most of the first half of the twentieth century.
Progress continued in Augusta during the early years of the century. Destructive floods in 1888, 1908, and 1912 provoked the city fathers to construct a massive levee along the Savannah River under the supervision of engineer Nisbet Wingfield. Augusta played a role in pioneering aviation history. The Wright Brothers opened a flying school in the city in 1911.
Augusta has served the military during most of its history. A federal arsenal operated in the city from 1819 until 1957, when the site became the campus of Augusta College (later Augusta State University). Camp McKenzie for white troops and Camp Dyer for Black troops were located in the city during the Spanish-American War (1898). In 1911 the U.S. Army Signal Corps used Augusta for its winter training base. After two seasons of floods and heavy rains the corps removed its planes to San Diego, California. During World War I (1917-18) 60,000 soldiers of the Pennsylvania Division were stationed at Camp Hancock, in the Hill neighborhood. A veterans hospital established during the war continues to operate. The city of Augusta purchased Camp Hancock field and opened the Daniel Field airport on the site in 1927.
In 1916 a disastrous fire destroyed 746 buildings, some of them Augusta’s finest residences. The city spent thousands of dollars advertising its remaining amenities during the 1920s and attracted many tourists but few businesses. The boll weevil undermined the region’s cotton industry, and a few years later the Great Depression settled upon the region and stifled business.
Sports offered an escape. There were bright spots even in the deepest years of the depression: the renowned golfer Bobby Jones headed a syndicate that purchased Berckmans Nursery and turned it into the Augusta National Golf Club, the course where the Masters Tournament was first held in 1934.
World War II (1941-45) changed Augusta. Camp Gordon became the peacetime Fort Gordon, home of the Signal Corps. The Veterans Hospital expanded. An Army Air Forces training field became Bush Field, the regional airport. The Clarks Hill Dam, authorized in 1944, provided cheap electricity for postwar industry.
A remarkable economic boom began in the 1950s as industries moved to the area to take advantage of the mild climate, cheap electricity, and nonunion labor. Construction of a mammoth hydrogen bomb plant on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River swelled Augusta’s population.
Several Augusta-area writers and musicians also came to prominence during the mid-twentieth century. Best-selling novels by Augusta authors F
In 1960 students from the predominantly Black Paine College successfully challenged segregation ordinances by sitting in the front of buses and at whites-only lunch counters. In 1964 Black plaintiffs filed suit to integrate schools. Little progress was made until a race riot erupted in May 1970. Finally, in 1972, a federal judge ordered the Richmond County Board of Education to bring about school integration by a massive busing program. The “magnet school” concept, in which a school specializes in a particular program of learning, has proven to be the most successful educational innovation for Augusta’s public schools.
During the 1950s and 1960s businesses abandoned downtown stores and moved to the outskirts. The city responded by launching a program of downtown revitalization. The most dramatic example is the Riverwalk development along the crest of the levee, which includes a convention center, a museum, shops, and other amenities, with a park along the riverfront. A coalition of private citizens under the name Augusta Tomorrow took the lead in constructing a park commemorating the history of Springfield Church and Springfield Village Park. The nationally known abstract sculptor Richard Hunt designed metallic works of heroic size for the park. Augusta Tomorrow worked with the city to clear a greenspace in the downtown district for a “commons” reminiscent of Oglethorpe’s original plan for Augusta. Citizens formed Historic Augusta, Inc., for the preservation of historic structures. The Augusta Canal Authority promotes the scenic, recreational, and educational uses of the old canal. In 1996 voters approved the consolidation of Augusta and Richmond County, making Augusta the second largest city in Georgia, with a population of 195,182 in 2000.
By the turn of the twenty-first century, a half-million people lived in the greater Augusta area. A large industrial base provides employment in the production of medical supplies, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, textiles, and golf carts. More than 25,000 people are employed in health care. Georgia Health Sciences University offers degrees in dentistry, allied health sciences, nursing, and medicine, and its telemedicine outreach serves patients all over the Southeast. The medical university also operates its own hospital and clinic; other area hospitals include St. Joseph, University, Doctors, and Eisenhower. Augusta Technical College provides workforce training, with especially strong programs in allied health sciences and emergency medical technology.
The U.S. Army Signal Center at Fort Gordon is the largest communications training center in the world. The Savannah River Site near Augusta employs more than 13,000 workers. The Westinghouse Savannah River Company manages the site for the U.S. Department of Energy. The plant manufactured nuclear weapons during the cold war; its present mission is the cleanup of radioactive material.
Augusta’s Masters Tournament attracts approximately 250,000 golf fans annually, bringing in approximately $36 million in city revenue. The city enjoys a rich array of cultural activities including ballet, opera, drama, choral societies, art galleries, and museums. The Georgia Arts Council rated the Augusta Symphony as the number one community orchestra in the state. The Augusta Museum of History and Historic Augusta won a Governor’s Award in the Humanities in 2001 and 2003, respectively, and the Morris Museum of Art houses a large collection of southern art.
The boyhood home of U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, who spent almost twelve years of his childhood (1858-70) in Augusta, has been preserved and restored. Other historic structures in Augusta include: Meadow Garden (ca. 1790), home of George Walton, signer of the Declaration of Independence; the 1797 Ezekiel Harris House; the Old Government House (1801); the original Medical College (1835), designed by Charles B. Cluskey; and the tall chimney of the Confederate Powder Works, the only permanent structure built by the Confederacy. Other popular attractions are the National Science Center’s Fort Discovery at the Riverwalk and the Augusta Gold and Gardens, home of the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame.