In late morning when traffic had slowed along one of Beaufort’s busy highways, Trace Sargent slid open one of the crates in the back of her red SUV and a yellow lab named Chance dropped to the ground and began searching for signs of the dead.
The 8-year-old specially trained K-9 worked up and down Trask Parkway, just outside the fence of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in an area where Americans landed a morale-boosting victory in the Revolutionary War. The dog paced a small section of ground between Shelter Church Road and the corner of the fence, near a storm drain, and then stopped.
“That was very clear; that’s how he works,” Sargent said. “I can tell you there’s human remains scent in this area — that’s all I can tell you.”
Sargent was working with archaeologists Daniel Battle and his wife, Daphne Owens, as part of an ongoing project to tell the story of the Battle of Port Royal Island, also known as the battle of Grays Hill. The dogs were searching for signs of soldiers’ graves.
In February 1779, a couple of months after the British captured Savannah and planned to expand their foothold near Beaufort, a Patriot force consisting mostly of militia turned back the British. The victory was notable for its participants and that it showed the volunteer militia could fight the trained professional British troops.
“It was unusual for the American militia to defeat British Regulars on an open field, and (General William) Moultrie was proud of his small command,” historians wrote in “The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina: Volume 1.”
A soldier later wrote about the battle, detailing the burial of British soldiers on the battlefield, Battle said. Two of the British officers killed were buried at St. Helena’s church cemetery, Battle said.
But he believes the privates remained buried on the battlefield, probably no more than 2 to 3 feet underground based on profiles of period graves. And it’s their remains the dogs hunted Tuesday.
Battle pointed out each spot where he believes three American cannons were placed, the artillery trained in anticipation of the British trying to cross a rickety wooden bridge to attack with bayonets.
The South Carolina troops were led by Moultrie, and among them were two men who signed the Declaration of Independence — Edward Rutledge and Thomas Heyward Jr.
The archaeologists and area educators hope the site can become a place where people can learn more about the area’s Revolutionary War history.
Gene Brugger, a teacher at Whale Branch Middle School who helps lead a school archeology club, visited the site Tuesday to watch the dogs work and said he couldn’t understand why more had not been done to teach the public what is there.
“We just don’t have enough of these places,” Battle said.
Battle is working with a National Park Service grant and plans to produce a final report in the coming months. The dogs were a starting point for possible further study of possible gravesites.
Sargent’s yellow lab, Chance, and black German shepherd, Draco, have worked on missing persons and homicide cases throughout the country. They previously had worked and alerted to graves on Revolutionary War sites in Georgia.
Specialized training helps them discern between human and animal remains. They see the activity not as a morbid exercise, but as a game to search for their ball or other toy, Sargent said.
“They tell us where something is and where something isn’t,” she explained to the group at one point Tuesday morning. “These dogs are investigators.”