By December of 1782, South Carolina’s remaining British Loyalists were huddled in Charleston, planning their escape.

Rebels controlled most of the state and would soon take its most important city. The only way out for the Loyalists was by ship.

That month, some 9,000 civilians and slaves loaded onto merchant ships and set out for the West Indies, Canada and Florida. Many of them would never make it.

On New Year’s Eve, 16 of those evacuating ships crashed trying to make their way into St. Augustine Harbor, and soon they were lost to history.

Until now.

This week, archaeologists with the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum found a button on a Florida shipwreck that may help identify it as one of those ships that left Charleston in the waning days of the Revolutionary War.

Chuck Meide, archaeology director at the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program, said divers found a button on the ship that appears to have the number “74” on it. That could identify it as a button of the uniform of a soldier in the British Army’s 74th Regiment, Campbell’s Highlanders.

That regiment helped evacuate Charleston more than two years after they took the city in the longest siege of the Revolution.

Meide said the button only reinforces the belief that they are excavating one of the lost Loyalist ships.

“It’s just like everything is really coming together, every piece we find,” Meide said.

The St. Augustine archaeologists found the shipwreck in 2009 using magnetometers and side-scan sonar. It’s in about 25 feet of water 1 to 2 miles off St. Augustine Beach, and 3 miles south of the old harbor entrance.

St. Augustine Harbor was, in those days, one of the hardest to sail into — a maze of shifting shoals and sandbar that claimed many ships, and many lives.

Meide has two accounts of a fleet of ships that was lost just outside the harbor in December 1782, one of which notes it was New Year’s Eve. The only ship identified by name was the Rattlesnake, an escort ship for the fleeing Loyalists.

Since they began digging in 2010, archaeologists have found cauldrons, flintlock pistols, a copper coin that may include the image of King George, and British cannons that date to the 1780s.

They found the ship’s bell, but it included no engraving.

Meide said that suggests it was a merchant ship with a frugal owner. Most bells carry their ship’s name.

Every one of these artifacts ties the wreck to the late 18th century, but the button found this week ties it directly to Charleston.

“So many people came here from Charleston and Savannah,” Meide said. “There were so many Loyalists flocking to it, it had the third-largest population of any city in the country for a while.”

Records on merchant ships from the day are rare, so the team is still researching the wreck, trying to find answers. They’ve got help on this end from archaeologists at the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology in Columbia.

“We thought that is something we could help support by connecting researchers here with them,” said James Spirek, the state underwater archaeologist. “It’s an intriguing story, and the mixture of military and civilian artifacts suggests a hasty evacuation.”

Charleston Revolutionary War scholar Carl Borick, assistant director of the Charleston Museum and author of “A Gallant Defense” and “Relieve Us of This Burthen,” said the people who left the city in December 1782 were the last Loyalists in South Carolina.

These people had retreated to Charleston from around the state when it was clear the Continental Army had forced the British army out. Their arrival put a strain on the British in Charleston. There was barely enough food for the soldiers, much less thousands of Loyalist refugees.

The people were evacuated over the course of 1782, and those souls headed for St. Augustine were the last to leave the city.

“It’s a forgotten part of history,” Borick said. “These people had lost their property and their family, and a lot of them would lose their lives in shipwrecks.”

Reach Brian Hicks at 843-937-5561.

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