Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Civil War in the Hill Country, Part Four

In the midst of the Civil War, three generations of the Johnson family came together for a family photograph, outside Richmond, Virginia. The front was moving closer; shortly after the picture was taken, elders, women, and children of the family fled south, back to Georgia. Tom Johnson, the man standing toward the right side of the group, with a beard and hat and holding his wife's hand, stayed behind, to defend the city. He fell in battle a scant few days after the picture was taken, and his body made the journey south, by train. Stories are told of how Tom's wife (and mother of two young children) was returning home on that same train, in another car, and never knew. Only when she returned home did she receive the news. She, and her husband, are both buried in a small family cemetery beside the railroad tracks, a few miles south of Palmetto. Tom's brother, the seated gentleman on the far right in the picture, died before the war was over, in the only major battle fought in Florida, at Olustee. He, too, is buried in this small unkempt graveyard, where several stones are weathered almost smooth, and other graves are marked only by lumps of granite barely protruding from under the cover of oak leaves.

We took our time on this, our last Palmetto Civil War history stop in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. Wandering among the stones, we glimpsed other stories. The graveyard also holds the remains of Hannah Penn, who died in the late 1700s. She was a descendant of William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania; a branch of the family came south, to the Palmetto-Newnan area, eventually marrying into the Johnson family. A displaced Pennsylvanian myself, I paused togratefully recognize the others before me who have uprooted themselves from the Keystone State, to make a new home in the wilds of Georgia.

Civil War in the Hill Country, Part Three

Last Saturday afternoon, after a brief return to Rico Community Center following our morning at Pickett's Mill Battlefield, we visited Civil War sites closer to home. The photo above is, well, basically the heart of downtown Palmetto, Georgia. This was our second stop of the afternoon -- to be nonlinear for a change, I will give it top billing, which probably has not happened before, beyond a couple of local newspaper articles on the occasion of monument dedications, maybe. It is an odd bit of ground for a memorial, situated on a patch of grass next to the unoccupied former train station and the still-busy railroad tracks, bounded on the opposite side by Main Street. The markers here are varied and eclectic. A Daughters of the Confederacy white obelisk from the early 1900s commemorates local units in the "War Between the States"; a roadside sign (shown above) recognizes the Confederate Army of Tennessee, stationed here for a few days shortly after the fall of Atlanta in 1864; a random cannon of no clear vintage (but certainly newer than the Civil War) sits beyond the sign, aimed not-so-menacingly at cars stopped at the traffic light; beyond the cannon is the relocated grave of William Menafee, the man who provided the land where the town now stands (or rather, slumps). I find it fitting, somehow, that the one who gave land to the town got a small plot back, for his own personal and rather long-term use.

The above photograph is of the law office of Jim Barfield in Palmetto, formerly the Stagecoach Inn, circa 1831. Jim proudly notes on his website (http://www.jimbarfield.com/, the source of the lovely out-of-season photograph above) that his office is the oldest commercial building in the whole of Fulton County, though he has only owned it himself for a scant fifteen years. Jim very kindly invited me to allow our Sense of Place Workshop group to tour his office, for which I am very grateful. Our afternoon outing began with a stop here. We admired his fine antiques inside, including a beautiful piece of Creek pottery, shown below. For all that Menafee might have given up his land for the town, it was the Creek's land for far longer than it was his, until McIntosh signed a piece of paper selling the land to the United States -- the Treaty of Indian Springs.But all that was last month -- ancient history. This month is all about how Palmetto became contested terrain a second time, as the Union and Confederacy vied for victory. No major battles were fought here, but the former train station (the one before the one standing there now) was burned by McCook's Federal cavalry, who also tore up and burned the railroad tracks over a two-mile stretch in Palmetto in late June of 1864. Of course, the story of the sacking of the town and destruction of its rail line, connecting Atlanta with Columbus, is a tale told in the absence of evidence, since everywhere was "a scene of fire, of ruin, and devastation" (as quoted in Sherman's Horsemen by David Evans (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p. 227). So Keith pointed to the current railroad underpasses (the arches with crumbling white plaster) and remarked that the raiders had burned the previous wooden trestles that once stood there, along with the town's original buildings (now gone) and the original rail line (since replaced). All that remains is an anachronistic cannon, like some sort of lawn ornament, a roadside plaque, and local stories.

Back to Jim Barfield's law office. Lots of antiques, but nothing original to the mid-nineteenth century, besides the building itself, with its pine floors with incredibly wide floorboards, the kind that are very hard to come-by nowadays. Upstairs, most of the walls in the two rooms were never painted, and I have read that former occupants of the original tavern left their names on the wood, though I have never seen any. Downstairs, a swinging half-door with chipped gray paint once led to the Confederate post-office, operated out of the building during the war. Mostly what remains are stories. Supposedly, a very important meeting took place in the building, between General Hood and his staff and President Jefferson Davis, who also visited the town after the Battle of Atlanta. In that fateful meeting, which could well have happened there (it was, after all, one of the few available spaces when McCook got through with Palmetto's downtown) or could have happened in a military tent, or possibly elsewhere -- it was at that meeting that General Hood proposed to move north, to cut off Sherman's own rail lines supplying Atlanta. Jefferson Davis, gaunt and weary, approved. A grim miscalucation, to which Sherman responded by burning Atlanta and marching southeast, to the sea.

Leaving Jim Barfield's office, we paused along the brick walkway to notice the sunken stones that were once used by visitors to the stagecoach stop to mount and dismount from their coaches. Slowly, the stones are slipping away, subsiding into the ground. They are apt metaphors for Palmetto history -- so much is hidden, kept in attics or elder residents' memories, and slipping away. Or it is overlooked, intentionally forgotten, like accounts of horrible lynchings that occurred in Palmetto at the turn of the last century, decades after the war had ended -- but that, too, is another story, one difficult to tell.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Civil War in the Hill Country, Part Two

The sky was Confederate gray when we set out on the drive to Pickett's Mill State Historic Site, located on the road to Etowah, near Dallas, Georgia. Eleven of us carpooled from Rico Community Center to the battlefield, where we met up with Dr. Keith Bohannon. I had known that the site had been, until the 1970s, privately owned woods and fields (in fact, it was heavily logged in the 1960s). But I was unprepared for the discovery that not only are there no military monuments there, but there also aren't any roads. The closest to a road was an old track, right beside where we stood, above. That track had been there when the battle was fought, back on May 27th of 1864. In the photo above, the Ravine Overlook is a vantage point for viewing where most of the carnage occurred: the Federal troops occupied the ravine, while the Confederate forces fired down on them with rifles and cannon from this very place. The Confederates held the high ground, and won the battle, though the victory was short-lived; Atlanta fell a few months later.
Our path led along the old roadway, past red flags standing in patches like strange out-of-season flowers. We passed a couple of college students, surveying. Archaeology is ongoing there, particularly near where Pickett's Mill once stood. Archaeologists are hoping to locate the home of the farm family that owned the land, and operated the mill, back in 1864. Their fate is unknown, though it is assumed that they abandoned the area before the battle began. The mill itself was burned down after the battle. All that remains is the well, boarded over and fenced off, and a pair of large square stones on opposite banks of Pumpkinvine Creek. The stones were part of either the mill or, more likely, the mill dam. Such a tranquil place now, but it must have been horrible to be standing there during the battle, when Confederate forces held the high ground on the far side of the creek, pummelling the Federals below with cannon and rifle fire. I cannot imagine the horrors of that battle, or the Civil War in general. The only writer I have found that evokes what I suspect the experience was like is Ambrose Bierce, in short stories such as "Chickamauga". Bierce was present in this battle, too, and he wrote a short essay about the experience, though it did not inspire him to craft a story, the way the Battle of Chickamauga did.

The stream was so peaceful, flowing over boulders of gneiss, the weathered skin of Georgia's upper Piedmont. We admired the way the water splashed over pebbles, flowing through the valley where so much blood must have flowed from fallen soldiers. Later, Keith would explain to us how often it was not possible to tell whether a dead soldier belonged to the Union or the Confederacy; in death, all were brothers.

Our path continued along the stream a short distance, then up the ravine, following the route that Hazen's Brigade of Federal infantry had taken, all the while being fired at from the top of the ravine by dismounted Confederate cavalry. We walked along the edge of a field, which had been planted in wheat at the time of the battle. A terrible place to get caught in crossfire -- sometimes it is not so wonderful to be out standing in one's field.

Continuing upslope, we came to a place where a pair of low ridges with a narrow gully between could be seen under a blanket of oak leaves. Amazingly enough, these earthworks were dug hastily by the federal troops positioned there when the battle began. Over 140 years ago now, yet the land remembers. Could there be a finer monument to the fallen dead than these gentle furrows in the ground?

We made our way back to the visitor center, watching the ravine beside us get deeper and deeper, more and more narrow and rugged. Our band of eleven found the way tough going, and we were not lugging guns and packs. One of us found the uphill route too difficult, and the park service dispatched a small vehicle to pick her up and bring her back. Such a sorrowful place, haunted, in my imagining, by the bodies of so many hundreds dead. I was ready to go home.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Civil War in the Hill Country, Part One

Last Thursday, February 7th, Dr. Keith Bohannon, Professor of History at the University of West Georgia, gave participants an overview of the Civil War history of the region, including the events leading up to and following shortly after Sherman's Atlanta campaign. Amazing, to think that Confederate President Jefferson Davis actually visited Palmetto to speak to the troops! Even more astounding, to think that one of the major events toward the end of the Civil War, a meeting between General Hood, his staff, and Jefferson Davis, may have taken place in a building that we will tour during our outing this coming Saturday! It was that meeting that led to the fateful strategic decision on the part of the Confederacy that ultimately led to Sherman's March. (Or, in this case, Sherman's February?)