Who is Matthew M. Payne and Why is Payne Hall Important?

Payne Hall during the Arsenal years. Photo courtesy of Michael Grenz.

by Baillie Conway

        When walking across the grounds of Augusta State University, people can see that the campus is composed of a varied assortment of buildings. There are the more modern and recently constructed Allgood Hall, University Hall, and Science Hall.  Then there are the more historic ones like the Benet House and Bellevue Hall. Situated among all of these is one building that has a unique history associated with it. The building, which can be found on the western side of campus facing the Jaguar Student Activities Center, is named Payne Hall. Payne Hall seems like just an ordinary administrative building today; however, the history of the building and Colonel Payne, their importance to the former Augusta Arsenal, and the building’s dedication demonstrate that this was not always the case.

            Payne Hall, or what was once known simply as Headquarters, was constructed in 1828 when the original Augusta Arsenal was moved from its former location along the banks of the Savannah River to its new home outside the Village of Summerville. Colonel Matthew Mountjoy Payne, who was the first commandant of the Arsenal, was instrumental in relocating it after an epidemic, referred to as either “swamp fever,” “black fever,” “plague,” or “yellow fever,”  killed most of his men stationed at the river base (Pfadenhauer 6). Although Payne had commanded the Augusta Arsenal since 1819, he was relieved of his position soon after the new Arsenal opened. His mishandling of funds and overspending led Brevet Colonel G. Bomford, to whom Payne reported, to issue an order that had “the effect to remove Payne from the ordinance service” and terminated his position at Augusta (Bomford Nov.). Throughout the years, though, the Headquarters building served multiple uses. It was originally a storehouse and later on housed officer quarters, but it also contained a dungeon where prisoners or disorderly soldiers were held. Headquarters played an important role during the Civil War and was thought, by some, to be part of the reason why Sherman bypassed Augusta on his infamous “March to the Sea.” The building continued to serve the needs of the Arsenal and eventually Augusta College. When the time came in 1973 to rename the building, which then housed administrative offices, the name Payne Hall was chosen to honor the first commander of the historic Arsenal.

In order to fully understand the history of Payne Hall, it is necessary to understand who Matthew Mountjoy Payne was and his association with the Arsenal. There is not a good deal of information available regarding Payne’s life before he joined the military. Nevertheless, it is known that Payne was born in Goochland County, Virginia, in 1787. Military records show that he enlisted in the United States Army in that same state on March 12, 1812 (Official Army Register 18). When Payne entered the Army, he was assigned to the 20th Infantry as a 1st Lieutenant. After serving for two years, Payne was promoted and made Captain of the same division (“Journal of the Executive Proceedings” 55). Four years later, in 1818, the command of an arsenal which was being assembled on the banks of the Savannah River in Augusta, Georgia, was given to Payne. When construction was complete in 1819, the Augusta Arsenal was “occupied by a detachment of thirty enlisted men, two lieutenants and a surgeon, all under the command of Captain M. M. Payne of the Corps of Artillery” (Pfadenhauer 6). In the fall of 1820, however, a severe fever made its way through the base, killing all but Captain Payne and one of the lieutenants. The fever struck Payne while he was away from the Arsenal visiting the Walker family at their Bellevue estate. The family helped nurse Payne back to health and he was able to recover. Payne noted that the healthy Bellevue land, with its gardens and fresh fruit, aided in his recovery and was a stark contrast to the swampy conditions his men had to endure by the river. Knowing that his arsenal needed to be moved to a better location, Payne penned a letter to Washington, D.C., asserting that “the Bellevue land was most suitable for a military garrison and that steps should be taken to procure the [seventy-two] acre tract of this land … for the relocation of the Augusta Arsenal” (Pfadenhauer 6). The Secretary of War agreed, and in May of 1826, an Act of Congress allowed the Bellevue land to be purchased.

With the request to buy the Bellevue estate approved, some of the original Arsenal buildings, including Headquarters, were dismantled. Much of the material was salvaged and used to reconstruct the buildings on the site of the new Augusta Arsenal. When Headquarters was being dismantled, every beam was numbered which allowed for the building to be reassembled in the same way at the new location. There are no official records which can be found confirming that the building was in fact reconstructed. Nonetheless, local architect Michael Grenz can prove that it was. Grenz, who has worked many years at a local architectural firm and has remodeled many of the buildings on the Augusta State campus, has seen the numbers written on the beams, which proves the fact that Headquarters was reconstructed on the site of the new Augusta Arsenal (Grenz).

When the new Augusta Arsenal opened, Payne seemed to be commanding it with complete control. Trouble started, though, in August of 1827 when Brevet Colonel Bomford sent a letter to Payne. In it, Bomford addressed the financial discrepancies found in the Arsenal’s account for the last quarter. In Bomford’s opinion, Payne had been unsuccessful in managing the funds for the Augusta Arsenal. Payne, however, attributed the problems to the lack of money being apportioned by Washington, D.C. to the Arsenal. In an October letter, Bomford mentioned the Arsenal’s lack of funds but pointed out that Payne should be more responsible with his account management. He noted that “to guard against a deficiency of funds in future, you should transmit with your accounts at the close of each quarter and estimate of the funds which are required for the succeeding quarter” (Bomford Oct.). Payne received a final letter in November in which Bomford informed him that, by order number fifty-four, he had been removed from the ordinance service and his position at Augusta had been terminated. Despite the fact that Payne was officially relieved of his command on December 31, 1827, his military career did not end there. In May of 1846, during the Mexican-American War, he fought in the Battle of Palo Alto and was wounded in the Battle of Resaca de la Palma. Payne continued to advance through the ranks of the military and was finally promoted to Colonel in 1856. He died in 1862 and was laid to rest in Virginia at the age of seventy-five.

Although Payne was removed from his commanding position at the Arsenal, his former Headquarters continued to make its mark in the history books. Even though the Headquarters building was utilized as a storehouse for the Arsenal, it did accommodate one special feature. Headquarters was unique because it housed a dungeon underneath its basement. When the building was located at the former site by the river, there were two dungeons (Wells). However, when the building was dismantled, only one was ever reconstructed. Since weapons were stored in Headquarters, the dungeon was left virtually unused during the

Gen. William T. Sherman. Photo courtesy of Michael Grenz.

early years of the Arsenal. It wasn’t until 1844 that the first account of its being put to use appears. When a young lieutenant stationed at the Arsenal had “imbibed too freely of spirituous liquors” and behaved in such a way that it brought “discredit upon the uniform of an officer of the United States Army,”  he was “incarcerated in the dungeon” (Wells). When the commanders in Washington, D.C. were informed about this lieutenant, they ordered Lieutenant William Tecumseh Sherman to report to the arsenal in Augusta. Sherman was ordered to “take such steps as may be necessary to have one Lieutenant … removed from imprisonment” (Wells).cially relieved of his command on December 31, 1827, his military career did not end there. In May of 1846, during the Mexican-American War, he fought in the Battle of Palo Alto and was wounded in the Battle of Resaca de la Palma. Payne continued to advance through the ranks of the military and was finally promoted to Colonel in 1856. He died in 1862 and was laid to rest in Virginia at the age of seventy-five.

When Sherman came to Augusta, though, he found the city to be quite charming and the people to be very welcoming. While dealing the the imprisonment situation, Sherman was also able to tour the city and socialize with its residents. Sherman’s appointment to Augusta spawned many friendships and a respect for the city itself. When he had handled the situation he was assigned to correct, Sherman’s time at Augusta was up and he left the city escorting the young lieutenant with him. Some believe that the fondness developed by Sherman for Augusta and its people, in particular, was part of the reason why he diverted his “March to the Sea” away from the city. Although Sherman gave his statistical and strategic reasons for  bypassing Augusta, many still continue to believe this reason today.

Payne Hall during the college years. Photo courtesy of Michael Grenz.

The Headquarters building continued to serve the Arsenal for another one hundred years. However, another major event involving the building doesn’t appear in the history books until 1970, when George A. Christenberry was named president of Augusta College. As soon as Christenberry became president, he focused his efforts acquiring donations and funds to help expand the campus. He then called for many buildings to be gutted and remodeled to fit the needs of the growing college. In 1973, one of Christenberry’s most lasting contributions to the College was made.  He felt that the time had come to rename the buildings on campus. Instead of using names such as “Academic I and Building 6,” Christenberry desired to formally name the buildings (Cashin and Callahan 141). He appointed a naming committee and requested that the “major arsenal buildings be named after the more important arsenal commandants and that the academic buildings be named in honor of deceased presidents of the college” (Cashin and Callahan 141). The committee felt that the first commander of the former Arsenal should be honored so they chose to name the former Headquarters and current administrative building Payne Hall, after Colonel Payne. The Georgia Board of Regents approved the committee’s list of new names, including Payne Hall, in December of 1974 and the building was officially dedicated nearly five months later on May 18. Payne Hall continued to serve the needs of  Augusta College and then, eventually, Augusta State University as well.

Payne Hall today. Photo by Baillie Conway.

            In conclusion, although Payne Hall may seem like just an ordinary building on campus, that is not the case. Payne Hall stands as tribute to the Arsenal’s first commander and as a memorial to the former Augusta Arsenal. The building honors the rich history that is associated with Augusta State and, in addition, also helps in preserving the legacy of Colonel Matthew Payne. Former President Christenberry, who realized that the College’s past needed to be preserved, was successful in renaming the buildings of the former Augusta College. Even though the building is no longer an arsenal headquarters and the dungeon is no longer used, it has been a part of the campus for over one hundred and fifty years and continues to serve the present needs of the growing campus while also preserving the history of August State University.


Bomford, Bvt. Colonel G. Letter to Major Matthew M. Payne. 11 Nov. 1827. MS. Reese Library  Special Collections, Augusta, Georgia

Bomford, Bvt. Colonel G. Letter to Major Matthew M. Payne. 13 Oct. 1827. MS. Reese Library Special Collections, Augusta, Georgia

Cashin, Edward J., and Helen Callahan. A History of Augusta College. Augusta: Augusta College  Press, 1976. Print.

Grenz, Michael. Personal interview. 1 Oct. 2012.

Pfadenhauer, Ruby Mabry McCrary. History of Augusta Arsenal. Augusta: Richmond County Historical Society, 1970. Print.

United States. Congress. Senate. Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the  United States of America. Vol. 3. Wasington: Duff Green, 1828. Google Books. Web. 12 September. 2012.

United States. Secretary of War. Senate. Official Army Register, for 1850. Washington: January 1, 1850. Google Books. Web. 12 September 2012.

Wells, William R., II. “Why Sherman By-Passed Augusta.” Aug.edu. Augusta State University Reese Library Special Collections, 2000. Web. 21 Sept. 2012.

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