Skip to main content

Who’s Got Button’s Bones?

July 2024
13min read

A Grave Question for Georgians…

“We have,” Savannah says, “and we can prove it.”

A crowd of 250 persons gathered in Savannah’s Colonial Cemetery one day in the autumn of 1964. To be exact, it was October 19—Victory Day, as il is called in Savannah, the anniversary of the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown. But those gathered in Colonial Cemetery had also come to commemorate another momentous occasion. They had met to unveil a fifteen-foot-high marble monument to the most controversial set of bones ever to beguile American historians. The bones were those of Button Gwinnett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the second “president,” or governor, of Georgia. At least, that’s what the sponsors of the unveiling believed. Others were not so sure.

Button Gwinnett lived a fast-moving and colorful life, but it was scarcely more fast-moving than the tempests he has stirred up almost two centuries after his death. Before the ceremony in Colonial Cemetery, Button’s bones had caused these altercations: the city of Savannah vs. the city of Augusta for the right to his remains; the discoverer of the purported remains and his supporters vs. the Smithsonian Institution and assorted skeptics; and an Atlanta savings and loan association vs. doubters of the authenticity of a portrait of Gwinnett. In the midst of all this, the active ghost of Gwinnett managed to wring a $5,000 appropriation from the Georgia legislature, plus another $5,000 from the city of Savannah and assorted patriotic organizations, to build for its bones a Greek Revival monument fit for a prince. Meanwhile, the bones spent five and a half cozy years in a Savannah guest room.

Button Gwinnett was well-known among autograph collectors and specialists in the history of the American Revolution long before the controversy about his bones projected him into the limelight. His signature is extremely rare, rarer than that of any other signer of the Declaration, except perhaps Thomas Lynch, Jr., of South Carolina. Some years ago a letter signed by Gwinnett brought $51,000 at auction, and the discovery of a possible Gwinnett signature in Aiken, South Carolina, in the summer of 1964, caused considerable excitement in that city. (That specimen, like many another “Button Gwinnett,” turned out to be spurious.)

“Maybe,” Augusta answers, “but they belong here.”

Born in Gloucestershire, England, in 1735, Gwinnett received his odd first name from Barbara Button, his mother’s cousin, who became his godmother. Young Gwinnett early formed the habit, as one historian put it, “of robbing Peter to pay Paul.” It was a loan he never repaid, in fact, that yielded the money to bring him to America. He settled in Savannah in the mid-seventeen-sixties, and in 1765 purchased St. Catherines Island, a tract of some thirty-six square miles off the coast of Georgia, south of Savannah. There he set himself up as a planter and lumberman. Gwinnett took an active interest in politics, becoming a justice of the peace and a member of the Georgia Colonial Assembly. It was probably through his friendship with Lyman Hall, the physician of a colony of New Englanders who had settled in Georgia, that Gwinnett decided to back the patriots’ side in the Revolution. He became an ardent Whig and was sent to Philadelphia as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1776. He strongly supported the Declaration of Independence and, to his lasting fame, signed it. Back in Savannah, he became speaker of the state assembly.

Gwinnett had military as well as political ambitions, and when command of Georgia’s troops went not to him but to a young general named Lachlan McIntosh, he was deeply embittered. Gwinnett vowed revenge, and he did not have long to wait for it. In February of 1777 Archibald Bulloch, first president of the state of Georgia, died suddenly, and Button Gwinnett was appointed by the assembly to succeed him as president and commander in chief of the army. Gwinnett promptly turned his attention to Lachlan McIntosh. He had McIntosh’s brother clapped into irons on a charge of trading with the British, a charge later dismissed by the Continental Congress. Then he had the General himself relieved of his command on the grounds that, if his brother was a traitor, it was more than likely that the General was, too. Cwinnelt and McIntosh were then requested to appear before the assembly to explain their conduct. On May 15, 1777, the assembly approved Gwinnett’s action, and the furious McIntosh called him “a scoundrel and a lying rascal.” Gwinnett promptly challenged McIntosh to a duel.

The two men met early the next morning in a meadow on the Sea Island Road on the outskirts ofSavannali. They faced offwith pistols at only four paces. Each was shot in the leg, but Gwinnett’s wound, in the left thigh, became gangrenous. He died three days later, at the age of forty-two. Lachlan McIntosh had to transfer to George Washington’s northern command to escape the wrath of Gwinnett partisans.

A vain and overbearing man, Button Gwinnett would be thoroughly pleased by the attention and controversy he has attracted since his death. Amateur historians have tried for decades to locate his grave and to find an authentic likeness of him. The first important public controversy over Cwinnelt occurred in 1927, when the state of Georgia filed suit in New York Io recover Gwinnett’s will, which, the suit charged, had been stolen from the Georgia archives some fifteen years earlier. Georgia lost the suit, and the will, with its valuable signature, is now in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.

In 1957 a retired Savannah school principal began the sleuthing that was to keep Button Cwinnett and a number of live Georgians in the news for almost seven years. Arthur J. Funk, the principal, had been researching Gwinnett’s historv ever since 1943, when, walking through the National Archives building in Washington, he had stopped before a mural called The Declaration of Independence . Twenty-six signers of the document were pictured, but not Button Gwinnett. Funk asked why not, and was told that no one really knew what Gwinnett looked like. As a Savannahian, Funk was interested in Gwinnett, and he thought something should be done to give him a face.

Back in Savannah, Funk began poking around in Gwinnett memorabilia, reading every authentic document that he could lay his hands on. He found no authenticated portraits but, by 1957, he was ready to find the man himself. Funk went to the Chatham County courthouse in Savannah, and found there the original accounting of the executor of Button Cwinnett’s will. Among the items in the accounting was “…Sexton 49 [shillings] 6 [pence],” and there was also an entry for “erecting a monument for the deceased.” In 1777 the only sexton in Savannah was the one at Christ Church, which in 1895 transferred the title to its burying ground to the city: it had been renamed Colonial Cemetery. Funk rejected old talcs of burial on St. Catherines Island, since by the time of Gwinnett’s death, the British had chased patriot sympathizers off the island. He also discounted reports of burial at Sunbury, thirty miles south (“that would have meant a two-day trip with the body in hot weather”), and so he headed straight for Colonial Cemetery.

“I went to looking,” recalls Funk, “and I found him seven paces from Archibald Bulloch, the first president. I found a brown stub of stone, broken off at ground level. I got the park department’s permission, and I started pawing at that stub and poking it with a steel rod.” Removing the soil carefully from the sides of the stone, Funk was able to distinguish a few characters on one face. They included a G or C , a T , and the number 7, which to Funk could only mean Button Gwinnett and the year of his death, 1777. A New York archaeologist was in the Savannah area at the time, and he came to the cemetery for a look at the evidence. “Don’t hesitate at all,” he told Funk. “Open the casket to see if the leg is broken above the knee.” But Funk decided to let experts take over; he asked the Georgia Historical Commission for help. The commission sent archaeologist Lewis H. Larson, Jr., to excavate the grave site and examine the remains. Savannah, a historically minded city, waited eagerly for the results.

Larson found a poorly preserved skeleton of a person five feet six and a half inches tall. He also found “a small quantity of light-colored, hair-like material” beneath the skull and, “perhaps the most significant aspect,” a left femur that “exhibited an area of damaged bone in the area immediately above the intercodyloid line of the antero-lateral surface,” that is, above the knee. Funk was jubilant, but Dr. A. J. Waring, a Savannah physician and an authority on Indian archaeology, began downgrading the discovery. This was flimsy evidence, Waring said, wholly insufficient to establish the remains as those of Button Gwinnett. No doubt he was somewhat piqued by the thought that, after so many years of searching, Gwinnett could be found so easily.

With Funk’s concurrence, Waring sent the damaged femur to the Smithsonian Institution. Funk says that he was seeking an opinion only on whether the femur fracture could have been caused by a pistol ball. Instead, to his dismay, a report was received saying that the bone was almost certainly not that of Button Gwinnett. Smithsonian archaeologist Marshall T. Newman, who examined the femur, concluded that “neither the surface appearance of this crushed area nor the x-rays…show any indication of trauma during life” but indicated, rather, damage after burial. The report continued: “In all probability the femur belonged to an adult woman rather than a man.” It went on to state that because of its short length, the femur was that of a person five feet, four inches tall. This last opinion delighted Funk’s Savannah opponents, who pointed out that in John Sanderson’s Biography of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence , Gwinnett is described as being “about six feet tall.” “In summation,” wrote Newman bluntly, “it is highly unlikely, if not fully impossible, for this bone to be that of Button Gwinnett.”

Funk and his supporters reacted angrily. They pointed out that Newman had considered only one piece of their evidence; when they offered to let him examine the gravestone lettering and the plait of hair, he refused. They also marshalled evidence refuting his conclusions; for example, they declared that the source of Sanderson’s statement on height was Hugh M’Call, a Georgia historian who had made numerous errors on other facts pertaining to Gwinnett’s life. Finally, Funk passed the femur on to a Georgia ballistics expert, who declared that the wound had been caused before burial by a “device [that] was probably circular,” e.g. , a pistol ball.

By this time influential Savannahians were being drawn into the case. Faced with Newman’s adverse report of the femur and his refusal to examine any of the other evidence, Funk appealed to Mayor W. Lee Mingledorff for an impartial investigation. The Mayor turned the matter over to the Savannah-Chatham County Historic Site and Monument Commission, an official arm of the city government chartered by the Georgia legislature in 1949. On September 28, 1959, the Commission issued a thirty-four-page report examining all material submitted by Funk in attacking the Smithsonian opinion and adding some findings of its own. Gwinnett, it reasoned, was almost certainly a small man; for one thing, he was part Welsh, and the Welsh are usually small. Contemporary observers had probably exaggerated his height because, as a Georgia historian remarked recently, “to the people at that time all the signers must have seemed seven feet tall.” The plait of hair, the report noted, established a strong presumption that the remains were those of a man, since in the eighteenth century, men, not women, wore their hair in that fashion.

“The weight of evidence before us,” concluded the Commission, was sufficient to establish that (1) Colonial Cemeierv was “beyond a reasonable doubt” the site of Button’s grave, and (2) the remains unearthed by Funk were “probably” those of Gwinnett.

Funk rested his case, but his critics, notably Dr. Waring, remained vocal. The doctor had been at the graveside when the disputed remains were unearthed, and his immediate response had been negative. Said Waring: “That looks like a woman’s skeleton to me.” “There is not a scrap of positive evidence,” Waring once wrote to a newspaper, “that the disputed remains are Gwinnett’s.” Arthur Funk paid little heed to Waring’s charges. “Waring was forever and eternally saying something, but he never offered any evidence,” Funk says. “He would simply lip off in the paper all the time. I didn’t give a damn.” Funk insists there was no personal animosity between him and Waring (who has since passed away), but admits having given his antagonist a “verbal dressing down and maybe a bit of a push” on the street one day.

With Savannahians still haggling over the authenticity of the bones, the city of Augusta decided to enter the contest. Augusta has the remains of Georgia’s other signers of the Declaration, Lyman Hall and George Walton, entombed under the granite obelisk known as the Signers’ Monument. What could be more logical than to have all three signers resting there side by side? Augustans argue now that the inter-city squabble was created largely by an Augusta newspaper reporter, Edith Bell Love, who saw a chance to turn dry history into live controversy. Mrs. Love did write some imaginative slories about the Gwinnett case, but Augusta’s Mayor Millard Beckum also jumped into it with both feet. Politicians, after all, are as anxious for headlines as are reporters. Beckum, in April of 1960, suggested that Savannah turn Button’s bones over to Augusta so they could rest with those of Hall and Walton. Savannah’s Mayor Mingledorff retorted, in effect, “Forget it.” Dr. Waring, in a show of local solidarity, also rejected the request, and made the obvious rejoinder that Augusta should send its bones to Savannah. “After all,” he pointed out, “Savannah was the capital while Augusta was a wayside stop in the Indian nation on the way to the coast.” An Augusta lawyer retorted that the “wayside stop” at that time “had two thousand horses and was visited by 700 traders a year, and Savannah couldn’t boast anything like that.”

Mayor Beckum produced an old newspaper story indicating that a place had been reserved under the Signers’ Monument for Gwinnett, whose bones had not yet been discovered when it was erected in 1848. Spokesmen for Savannah countered by quoting the 1895 contract which transferred to the city title to the Christ Church cemetery; it states that the hallowed ground shall forever be preserved as a “final resting place of the dead now buried therein.” Removing Button’s bones, Savannahians said, would therefore be illegal. Mayor Beckum then took his case to the Georgia secretary of state, Ben Fortson. One of Fortson’s duties is to guard the state’s historical treasures, which Beckum believed included the remains of Button Gwinnett. Fortson bucked the problem to the attorney general of Georgia, Eugene Cook, who ruled that he had no authority to force Savannah to relinquish Gwinnett—or whoever it was that had been dislodged by Funk.

Arthur Funk, meanwhile, was getting himself elected to the state legislature. Some say he did it primarily to secure a public appropriation for a Savannah monument honoring Gwinnett. Men have gone to legislatures for less noble reasons, but Funk insists it just isn’t so. “I never even put the appropriation bill in the hopper,” he says testily, “nor did I vote for it. I couldn’t have cared less about a monument, and when they suggested my name be mentioned on it, I vetoed that quick as hell. Only one name belonged on any monument, I told ’em, and that was Button Gwinnett’s.” In any event, a bill providing $5,000 for a monument passed both houses, with Augusta’s own senator, the present governor of Georgia, Carl Sanders, among those voting for it. Senator Spence Grayson of Savannah took the opportunity to poke a little fun at his hometown colleague. Speaking in support of the monument bill, Grayson told the rules committee dryly, “I want to get those bones out of Arthur Funk’s living room.” “Grayson had better watch how he goes shooting his mouth off,” retorted Funk. “Button Gwinnett did it once too often, and look what happened to him.”

Funk did not have the bones in his living room. He had them in his guest room. When the remains were exhumed by archaeologist Larson on December 2, 1957, Funk became concerned about where they would rest during subsequent investigations. He placed them in a new, copper-lined oak coffin and put the coffin in the guest room of his home. He left it there for five and a half years. During that time, he says, no other guests shared the room. When he took a six-week European vacation, he transferred the coffin to a fireproof vault but reclaimed it as soon as he returned home. “It was talked about as a hush-hush thing,” Funk commented recently. “People said, ‘He’s got the bones in his garage, and he won’t let anybody see them.’ That was ridiculous. They were in the guest room, and nobody ever asked to see them.”

In 1958, Savannah’s Buttonites left their own probing long enough to challenge the authenticity of a portrait of Gwinnett that had turned up in Atlanta. Since no true likeness of Gwinnett was known to exist, this painting, signed “Jeremiah Theus” (a colonial portraitist), stimulated considerable interest. It was purchased by Atlanta’s Fulton Federal Savings and Loan Association from a New York gallery for $5,000. Fulton Federal thought it was making a fine community gesture, but the president of the Atlanta Art Institute had hardly had time to clear her throat and say “We are indeed grateful …” before Savannahians, zealous custodians of all things Gwinnettian, began calling the portrait a phony. They pointed out that there was no mention of a portrait in the detailed inventory of Button’s estate and that the work had been signed “Charleston S.C., 1769,” a time when the city was known as Charles Town and the initial S was not used as an abbreviation for South. Moreover, the Savannah partisans argued that the bank’s portrait had the signature on the back, whereas in an authoritative list of Theus portraits none was mentioned as having been signed on the back.

Fulton Federal, buttressed by the assurances of the experts it had hired, refused to back down. It gave away pamphlets which included a color reproduction of the painting and the assertion that this was “The only known portrait of Button Gwinnett.” And it defiantly hung the original in its lobby. It shows a tight-lipped, rather blank-faced man posing with his hand tucked, Napoleon style, into a green waistcoat.

The appropriations for Savannah’s Gwinnett monument ended Augusta’s hopes of adding his remains to its own little pantheon. Mayor Beckum took defeat like a trooper, but couldn’t resist pointing out that his city of course wouldn’t want the bones anyway unless they were indisputably those of Gwinnett. Just where Augusta would have put them, nobody knows: the plot beneath its three-grave Signers’ Monument is filled to capacity, for Lyman Hall’s wife lies beside her husband in the spot that was originally intended for Gwinnett. To make room for Button, Augustans would have had to uproot their obelisk and turn Mrs. Hall out into potter’s field, hardly the way to treat an old lady. Anyway, says Arthur Funk, “none of them belongs in Augusta. Gwinnett and Lyman Hall lived in Liberty County, and George Walton lived in Chatham County. Why Augusta, in Richmond County, gets all fussed up about their bones, I don’t know.”

By the time the crowd gathered in Colonial Cemetery that October day in 1964, the shouting and tumult had all but died. Savannah was satisfied that it had its man, and it wanted to commemorate him in a dignified manner. Lined up near the new monument were representatives of the Georgia chapters of the Sons of the Revolution, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Society of Colonial Wars, and the Colonial Dames of America, each with a flag. The crowd listened respectfully as Thomas H. Gignilliat, chairman of the Savannah-Chatham County Historic Site and Monument Commission, spoke of those who had made the ceremony possible. All bowed their heads as the Reverend Allie W. Frazier, Jr., of Christ Church, gave the invocation. There were chuckles as Dr. Joseph E. Fields of Joliet, Illinois, a leading collector of manuscripts, said, “We no longer need to ask, ‘Button, Button, who has the Button?’ Button has been found.” Those present then gazed with pride on the gleaming monument as Arthur Funk climaxed his triumph by unveiling a bronze tablet which read, in part, B UTTON G WINNETT … S IGNER OF THE D ECLARATION OF I NDEPENDENCE … W HOSE REMAINS, BURIED IN THIS CEMETERY, ARE BELIEVED TO LIE ENTOMBED HEREUNDER … Finally, Taps was sounded, a detail of R.O.T.C. cadets from Savannah High School fired three volleys into the air, and the crowd departed, leaving the dead of Colonial Cemetery—including Button Gwinnett—once more in peace.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.