Hugh McCall is generally regarded as Georgia’s first historian, based on his two-volume History of Georgia.
The first volume was published in 1811, followed by the second in 1816. Details of his own life story remain elusive. Historian Otis Ashmore later noted the irony that McCall, “who with such commendable efforts rescued from oblivion many of the early traditions of our state, should himself have left scanty material for his own biographer.”
Hugh McCall was born in 1767 to Elizabeth and James McCall in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, the second of the couple’s eight children. Hugh’s older brother, Thomas, produced a detailed genealogy of the McCall family, which chronicles a typical Scots-Irish sojourn from Ireland to Pennsylvania to the Carolinas, beginning in the 1730s and continuing to the 1760s. His father, James, was born in Pennsylvania in 1741 and later moved to Mecklenburg County, where he was involved in the Regulator Movement against British taxation practices in the late 1760s. In 1771 or 1772 he moved the family to South Carolina, where he served as an officer in the Continental army during the Revolutionary War (1775-83), eventually rising to the rank of colonel. According to Thomas McCall, his father led troops in seventeen engagements with the British but died of both smallpox and a war wound in April 1781.
Nothing is known of Hugh McCall’s early years, nor is it known when he became a Georgian. He first entered the historical record in 1794, at age twenty-seven, when U.S. Army records list him as an ensign. He advanced through the ranks, becoming a captain in 1800 and a brevet major in 1812; he mustered out of service in 1815. His first recorded association with Savannah was in 1806, when he became the city jailor, a position he held until 1823.
It was likely McCall’s fascination with the military and political spheres that led him to undertake a history of Georgia, which he wrote while still engaged in both military and civic service. Entitled The History of Georgia: Containing Brief Sketches of the Most Remarkable Events up to the Present Day (1784), the first volume, published in Savannah in 1811, covers the political and diplomatic events leading up to the founding of the colony in 1732 and the arrival of the first colonists in 1733. The volume then proceeds as a year-by-year chronicle of the colony’s development through 1771. McCall’s second volume, published in 1816, also in Savannah, traces the course of the Revolutionary War as it played out in Georgia and concludes with a brief reference to the state’s constitutional convention of 1784.
McCall’s history is an impressive achievement for a number of reasons. The lack of any archival collection of documents or correspondence, on which most historians would rely in order to recreate a history on this scale, required McCall to gather informal and scattered source material, including oral interviews with a number of Revolutionary War veterans. These veterans would have been elderly and relying on decades-old memories by the time McCall talked to them. As a result, his narrative is marred by a number of inaccuracies and thus is not as reliable as later histories of eighteenth-century Georgia.
McCall was physically disabled and in poor health at the time he wrote his history. In 1909 the whole was reprinted as a single volume by an Atlanta publisher, who paid tribute to McCall in a new preface, noting:
McCall’s was the first of three state histories to be produced in Georgia during the nineteenth century. William Bacon Stevens completed the first volume of his state history in 1847 and the second in 1859, and Charles C. Jones Jr. completed his two volumes in 1883. Each history was titled The [or A] History of Georgia, each consisted of two volumes, and curiously, none of the three extended their coverage beyond the end of the eighteenth century. (Jones planned to write two more volumes but never completed them.)
Despite his disabilities, McCall was listed as a military storekeeper in both Savannah and Charleston, South Carolina, in 1821 and 1822. The accuracy of his service records is somewhat questionable, however, given that he was also said to be Savannah’s jailor during this period. He remained a bachelor throughout his life and died in Savannah in 1824. He is buried there in the Colonial Cemetery. In 1994 the Georgia Association of Historians paid homage to McCall by creating a Hugh McCall Award, which is given every third year to a historian “in recognition of scholarly attainment, excellence in teaching, and/or encouragement of the study of history.”