Reverend William McWhir became headmaster of Sunbury Academy in 1791. He replaced Reverend Reuben Hitchcock, who remained at the school as a teacher. McWhir was a Presbyterian minister, a native of Ireland, graduated from Belfast College, and was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of Belfast. He emigrated to America in 1783, settled in Alexandria, Virginia, and for ten years was principal of the academy of which George Washington was a trustee, ad whose step-children he taught.He and his wife moved to Sunbury where he taught at the Sunbury Academy. He raised such high standards that the Academy became one of the best schools in Georgia. He married Mary Lapina Baker, widow of Colonel John Baker, and they had no children. William McWhir lived to the ripe age of 92 and was buried in the Sunbury Cemetery in . On his tombstone is inscribed, “His long and eventful life was devoted to the cause of Christianity and education, and his labors to promote these objects were eminently successful,”
The most famous institution of learning in Southern Georgia, for many years, was the Sunbury Academy. It was established by an act of the Legislature assented to the first of February, 1788. Abiel Holmes, James Dunwody, John Elliott, Gideon Dowse, and Peter Winn were nominated in the act as Commissioners. To them, or a majority of them, was authority given to sell at public sale, and upon previous notice of thirty days in one of the gazettes of the State, any confiscated property within the county of Liberty to the amount of £1,000. This sum, when realized, was to be by them expended in the construction of a building suitable for the purposes of the Academy. Each Commissioner was required to execute a bond, in favor of the Governor of Georgia, in the penalty of £1,000, conditioned for the faithful performance of the trust. In 1803 the number of Commissioners was increased to seven, but two years afterwards the Legislature directed a return to the original number, which was five.
As late as December 4th, 1811, the Legislature directed a grant and conveyance to the Commissioners of Sunbury Academy, for the sole use and benefit of that institution, of one-third of a tract of land adjoining Sunbury, known as the Distillery Tract; the same having been confiscated as the estate of Roger Kellsall, and being then the property of the State. The administration of the affairs of this academy during the long course of its valuable existence appears at all times to have been conducted by its trustees with prudence and skill. Certain it is that until the marked decadence of Sunbury this institution maintained an en-viable reputation, and attracted scholars in no inconsiderable numbers from various portions of the State, and even from States. The teacher whose name is for the longest period and most notably associated with the management of this Academy, and who did more than all others to establish a standard of scholarship and maintain rules of study and discipline unusual in that period and among these peoples, was the Reverend Dr. William McWhir. Great was the obligation conferred upon the youths of Southern Georgia, for certainly two generations, by this competent instructor and rigid disciplinarian. A native of Ireland, a graduate of Belfast College, and licensed to preach by the Presbytery of that city, he came to America in 1783 and settled in Alexandria, Virginia. There, for ten years he was the Principal of the Academy of which General Washington was a trustee. He was frequently a guest at Mount Vernon, enjoying the hospitality of that noted mansion. On one occasion while he was dining with the family, General Washington, as his custom was, asked the usual blessing. Mrs. Washington, somewhat surprised that Mr. McWhir had not been invited to do this, remarked to General Washington, “You forgot that we had a clergyman at table with us to-day.” “No, madam,” he replied, “I did not forget. I desire clergymen, as well as all others, to see that I am not a graceless man.”
About 1793 he removed to Sunbury where he became the Principal of the Academy and, for nearly thirty years, made it the leading institution of learning in this entire region. A thorough Greek, Latin, and English scholar, an uncompromising observer of prescribed regulations, and a firm believer in the virtue of the birch as freely applied in those days in the English and Irish schools in which he had received his training, he was a terror to all dolts and delinquents. To the studious and the ambitious, he always proved himself a generous instructor, full of suggestion and encouragement. The higher branches of mathematics were also taught; and, as a preparatory school, this institution, under his guidance, had no superior within the limits of the State. The average attendance was about seventy. Pupils were attracted not only from Liberty, but also from the adjacent counties of Chatham, Bryan, McIntosh, and Glynn. Some came from even greater distances. Two generations sat at the feet of this venerable preceptor. Fathers and sons in turn responded to his nod, and feared his frown. Although so impartial was he in the support of whatever was just and of good report, and so competent and thorough as a teacher, that for more than a quarter of a century his numerous pupils found in him, above all others, their mentor, guide, and helper in the thorny paths of knowledge. Strongly did he impress his character and influence upon the generations in which he lived, and his name and acts are even now well remembered. The evening of his days was spent, as inclination prompted, at the residences of his old scholars, by whom a cordial welcome was always extended. That welcome was recognized by him as peculiarly genuine and agreeable when accompanied by a generous supply of buttermilk and a good glass of wine. The latter might be dispensed with: a failure to provide the former was, in his eyes, an unpardonable breach of hospitality, and materially impaired the comfort of his sojourn, and the tranquility of the venerable guest.
Among the other teachers at this Academy may be mentioned Mr. James E. Morris, the Rev. Mr. Lewis, the Rev. Mr. Shannon, the Rev. Mr. Thomas Goulding, Uriah Wilcox, Rev. Mr. John Boggs, Captain William Hughes, Mr. C. G. Lee, Rev. A. T. Holmes, Rev. S. G. Hillyer, Major John Winn, Mr. W. T. Feay, and Mr. Oliver W. Stevens. The building–a large two story and a half double wooden house, about sixty feet square and located in King’s Square,–was pulled down and sold some time about the year 1842.
From the Hinesville, Ga., Gazette — The following, kindly furnished us by Colonel C.C. Jones, the distinguished historian, is interesting to many of the descendants of those who were school boys in 1807 at Old Sunbury:
Augusta, Ga., September 28 — Mr. Editor: It may interest you, and some of the readers of your valuable Gazette to see the accompanying catologue of the scholars of the Sunbury academy in 1807. It will be remembered that it was then a famous and flourishing institution of learning under the conduct of the Rev. Wm. McWhir, D.D. The catalogue is in manuscript, discolored by the stains of more than three quarters of a century. The town and academy live only in tradition, and of the pupils then present, all, I believe have passed into the realm of shadows.
Very Truly yours,
Charles C. Jones,
The Dead Towns of Georgia. Charles C. Jones, Jr., Morning News Steam Printing House, Savannah, Georgia, 1878, pages 214-216
SUNBURY ACADEMY STUDENT LIST: 1807
||James McIntosh, Jr.
||James McIntosh, Sr.