Sherman's march to the sea remains bitter history

Swath cut by Union troops a tourist attraction, and Southerners have come to terms with that

By Steve Stephens

MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. - When Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, a native of Lancaster, Ohio, visited central Georgia during the final year of the Civil War, he left smoldering factories, twisted train rails and much ill will toward the North.

He might also have won the war.

Today, visitors from Ohio will find a more hospitable greeting than Sherman did a century-and-a-half ago. Not that the South has forgotten. But 150 years and a few tourist dollars can assuage a lot of hard feelings.

The Georgia state tourism office this year designated a heritage trail marking Sherman's route from Atlanta to Savannah. The brochure laying out the March to the Sea lists important historic sites, museums and other places of interest along the way.

The route offers a look at a part of Georgia that most visitors, Northern or Southern, never see.

I made the road trip with a friend and colleague who, like me, is a Civil War buff. Besides the brochure, we had a state gazetteer that proved indispensable for finding our way around the roads less traveled, including some made of Georgia red dirt.

For history fans, I'd also recommend Southern Storm: Sherman's March to the Sea, by Noah Andre Trudeau. The book includes a compelling day-by-day account of the campaign.

The sites where Sherman set up headquarters each evening became our touchstone goals along the way.

We had limited time: In our two days, we would roll through territory that Sherman's army needed a month to cover.

Granted, our roads were in better shape, our bridges hadn't been burned by a retreating rebel army, and no enemy cavalry units were firing on us.

Our first stop was the lovely town square in Covington, about 35 miles southeast of Atlanta. There, on Nov. 18, 1864, Union troops marched through town, bands playing, doing little damage.

Covington stands in for the fictional town of Mystic Falls on the TV series The Vampire Diaries. So, when we met Jon Lewandowski enjoying an early fall day on the town square, the musician and former schoolteacher guessed that we, like most other tourists in the area, were there to visit sites featured on the CW show.

Lewandowski perked up when he heard we were following Sherman.

"He knew this area from before the war, you know," our new friend ventured. "I think he might have had a friend in town, and that's why he spared Covington and why we've still got all these great old houses. And that's why they love to film here."

Still, reminders of the war remain - even some underground, he said.

"I know a woman who once raked her yard and found a cigar box full of Minie balls," said Lewandowski, referring to a bullet used during the war.

From Mystic Falls - er, Covington - we followed the path of the Union's 14th Corps, through the tiny settlements of Newborn and Shady Dale to Eatonton, where troops destroyed a major factory and all the rail facilities.

Today, the town is perhaps better-known as the home of author Joel Chandler Harris, creator of Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit. The Uncle Remus Museum is not far from the center of town in relocated slave cabins. Eatonton also houses the Georgia Writers Museum.

Union troops notoriously "foraged" on the March to the Sea, eating crops and livestock and, in some cases, plundering other private property. We limited our foraging to what we could order at area restaurants.

Milledgeville proved a surprisingly appetizing restaurant town, perhaps because of the presence of Georgia College and State University, a public liberal-arts school, as well as Georgia Military College.

We found our best meal of the trip - and that includes offerings in Savannah - at Aubri Lane's, which offers traditional Southern cuisine with a contemporary twist.

When I read about the place, I assumed that it was located - Jeff Davis, forgive me - in a bowling alley. It's actually in a chicly refurbished old bank.

I enjoyed a fantastic roasted duck breast with sweet-potato hash and wilted greens. My friend raved about his boneless short ribs braised in red wine and served on a bed of cheese grits.

And we both went gaga over a dessert of traditional bread pudding served with bananas Foster sauce and a dollop of creamy vanilla ice cream.

Like Sherman, we used Milledgeville, Georgia's capital during the Civil War, as our headquarters for one night.

Sherman stayed in the magnificent Greek revival governor's mansion. The mansion, now owned by Georgia College, has been renovated as a museum. Our guide, Georgia College senior Alexia Lemaigre, noted that some wounds linger.

Lemaigre, whose mother's family is from Columbus, once had a Southern visitor spit on the floor of the mansion's family dining room after hearing that Sherman had spent the night in the room.

"It's a hate of tradition, passed through the generations," she said.

But fortunately, in 2014, such reactions are rare, she added.

Another important Milledgeville site is the old capitol, in which Union troops held a mock - and mocking - "session" of the Georgia legislature.

The capitol, an unusual Gothic structure that resembles an old fort, is now used by Georgia Military College for offices and , in the lower level, houses a history museum.