Article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Herald.
By BOB DUNCAN Special to The Daily Herald
Dorothy and I got off I-20 as soon as possible and headed toward Milledgeville, Ga.
The town, smack middle in the state, was the former state capitol until just after the Civil War when it was moved to the state’s rail center of Atlanta.
Milledgeville is an average-sized small town of about 18,000 souls. From the number of antebellum structures it reminded us of our own hometown. After an early check-in at our hotel, we started a small, unguided tour of the town. Having spent a summer in central Georgia during my youth, I thought that I knew the things to look for.
In the fall of 1864 Union General William Tecumseh Sherman had battered and blasted his way south from Chattanooga and had pushed the Confederates back to Atlanta.
Finally taking the city, he prepared for his next, and most audacious, maneuver. During the Civil War it was imperative for any army to have a secure line of supply and communications with his rear area.
If the supply of food, ammunition and medical supplies were ever blocked it would be the absolute doom of the army. This was why the railroads and the rivers were so important – they were the lifeline of an army.
And yet now Sherman determined to cut his own line of supply — all the way back to Chattanooga. He and 60,000 of his regulars were going to march to the sea. No one, not even his superiors, knew exactly where he was going when they cut the telegraph wires that led back to headquarters and to Washington. He also “fired” all the newspapermen in his camp and sent them back to Chattanooga with the baggage. He considered newspaper reporters nothing less that spies who delighted in sending back lies, half-truths and raw rumors to the folks back home.
As he left Atlanta he burned the entire city, and he and his ponderous army marched toward the southeast. His army contained huge wagon trains of ammunition and medical supplies, along with enormous herds of cattle taken from the people of North Georgia. He had studied the latest agricultural census of Georgia and he knew where, and in which counties, his men could find food. He encouraged them to “forage liberally,” and they did. They took every ham, sausage, chicken, egg, cow, hog, sheep and sack of corn or grain.
Anything they could not carry with them they either killed or burned. The progress of Sherman’s army across Georgia was plain for any to see from the long line of burning towns and farms. He said that he would make Georgia howl, and some are still howling today.
And then he and his army came to Milledgeville. Something happened, but no one knows what. He largely spared the town. He did not burn all of it, but only some buildings connected to military use.
Sure enough, Sherman’s men stole the town blind. Some of them poured molasses into the organ pipes of one of the local churches. Some of his officers took over the state capitol building and held a mock legislature repealing the state’s order of secession. They certainly left their marks, but they did not destroy the town as they had done in Atlanta. Why? Was it an old girl friend? A promise to a pre-war friend? Or was he just sick of the destruction he was creating?
We drove by the old state capitol and the original Governor’s mansion. We then found a restaurant. While we were eating I struck up a conversation with two young ladies who wore the uniform of the Georgia Military College – both a prep school and a junior college located there in Milledgeville. These two young ladies were African American and were both just beautiful. They had big, friendly smiles, and they and their Mom answered all our questions.
Maybe General Sherman encountered the ancestors of these charming young ladies, and could not bear to turn them out into the cold? Stranger things have happened.
Next week it’s on to Columbus.
Bob Duncan is director of the Maury County archives. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.