Hugh McCall – Encyclopedia of New Georgia
Hugh McCall is generally considered Georgia’s first historian, based on his two volumes 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 effort rescued from oblivion many of our state’s earliest traditions, should himself have left little material to 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 through the 1760s. His father, James, was born in Pennsylvania in 1741 and later moved to Mecklenburg County, where he was involved in the regulators’ movement against British tax practices in the late 1760s. In 1771 or 1772 he moved family in South Carolina, where he served as an officer in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), eventually attaining the rank of colonel. According to Thomas McCall, his father led troops in seventeen battles with the British, but died of both smallpox and a battle wound in April 1781.
Nothing is known of Hugh McCall’s early years, or when he became a Georgian. He first entered the historical record in 1794, at the age of twenty-seven, when US Army records mention him as an ensign. He rose through the ranks, becoming a captain in 1800 and a brevet major in 1812; it was decommissioned in 1815. His first recorded association with Savannah was in 1806, when he became city jailer, a position he held until 1823.
It was probably 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 military and civic service. Entitled The History of Georgia: Containing Brief Sketches of the Most Remarkable Events Down 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 settlers in 1733. The volume then proceeds as a year-by-year chronicle of the development of the colony up to 1771. McCall’s second volume, published in 1816, also in Savannah, traces the course of the Revolutionary War as it was fought in Georgia and ends with a brief reference to the state constitutional convention of 1784.
McCall’s story is an impressive achievement for a number of reasons. The absence of any archival collection of documents or correspondence, on which most historians would rely to recreate a story on this scale, compelled McCall to collect informal and scattered sources, 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 spoke to them. As a result, his account is marred by a number of inaccuracies and is therefore not as reliable as later histories of 18th-century Georgia.
McCall was physically disabled and in poor health when he wrote his story. In 1909 the whole was reprinted in a single volume by an Atlanta publisher, who paid homage to McCall in a new preface, noting:
McCall’s was the first of three state histories to be produced in Georgia in the 19th 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] Georgia History, each consisted of two volumes, and curiously none of the three extended its coverage beyond the end of the 18th century. (Jones planned to write two more volumes but never finished 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, however, is somewhat questionable, given that he is said to have also served as Savannah’s jailer during this time. . He remained celibate all his life and died in Savannah in 1824. He is buried there in the Colonial Cemetery. In 1994, the Georgia Association of Historians honored McCall by establishing a Hugh McCall Award, which is given every three years to a historian “in recognition of academic achievement, teaching excellence, and/or encouraging the study of history”.