What Sherman Missed

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In November 1864 Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman began to strangle the life out of Georgia, the economic center of the Confederacy. He was determined to prove that the South was too weak to defend itself anv further, and he believed that if he destroyed Georgia, the Confederacy would crumble. His sixty thousand men moved slowly and deliberately from the charred remains of Atlanta to the Atlantic, methodically looting and torching everything in their path. Sherman wanted to shred the very fabric of Southern life, and his men left behind them a sixty-mile-wide path of destruction that was as much spiritual as it was physical and economical. Just before he began slashing through the state on his March to the Sea, he wrote, “If the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war and not popularity-seeking.” Georgia did indeed howl, and today, along the state’s Antebellum Trail, one can still hear the echo.

I was invited to attend the annual March Cherry Blossom Festival in Macon, Georgia, but instead of flying directly there, I began my trip in Athens, seventy miles to the northeast, and traveled a route called the Antebellum Trail. The trail got its start in 1984, when students at the University of Georgia suggested bringing together a string of seven small cities and towns to promote their common history; they are among the only communities that Sherman spared.

We began our tour in Athens, which was founded along with the University of Georgia and was named with great hopes after the original. It is a city of charming contradictions, with its grand pre-war school buildings, stately Greek Revival houses, and a seemingly endless supply of Doric columns just blocks from the downtown nightclubs where alternative rock bands like R.E.M. and the B-52s got their start. There are many things to see here, including the world’s only double-barreled cannon. Built during the Civil War, it was meant to simultaneously fire two cannonballs chained together, but the chain broke during a test firing, and the only things the cannon ever succeeded in destroying were a slave cabin and some livestock unlucky enough to be nearby.

A few years earlier, in 1860, Georgia had been a growing economic force. Slavery had faded in the South after the Revolutionary War as trade slowed and the economy shifted to small farms. But the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 had brought the institution back, and between 1820 and Georgia’s secession from the Union in 1861, the years of the cotton boom, the number of slaves in Georgia increased by more than 40 percent. During those years Georgia’s plantation owners and merchants grew rich. The towns of the Antebellum Trail reflect this prosperity. Surprisingly, given the South’s reputation for cherishing its history, historic preservation is relatively new to these parts. That is a shame, because many of the houses are filled with replicas or period pieces instead of the original furnishings. This doesn’t truly detract from the experience, though, since the most compelling things on the trail are the communities themselves.

This is especially true of Madison. I arrived after dark, and though I didn’t see much of the town, I got a sense of it the minute I walked into Burnett Place, a bed-and-breakfast that occupies a Federal-style house built around 1830. As I settled in for the night, I could hear the distant whistle of a freight train carried through town on a cool spring breeze. For the first time on the trail, I felt truly immersed in the Old South.

The next morning as I wandered the wide, sunny streets, I conducted an informal survey that revealed that every house in town has at least one rocking chair on its veranda. A brochure advertising Madison’s many charms urges visitors to “let your thoughts take a step back to the days of Gone With the Wind .” Indeed, the town itself evokes not just the movie but a movie set. The streets seem to ramble off into the distance, and railroad tracks run behind the town like a backstage.

Legend has it that Madison’s more than forty-five antebellum houses still stand because the U.S. senator Joshua Hill, an antisecessionist who resigned his seat rather than defy the wishes of his pro-secessionist constituents, rode out to meet Sherman and pleaded that his hometown be spared. Sherman took pity on Hill, and obliged, and Madison now calls itself “the town that Sherman refused to burn.”

Unfortunately, most of Madison’s homes are open to the public only during a week-long festival every April, but if you call ahead, Louise McHenry Hicky will give you a tour of the Stokes-McHenry House, one of the nicest in town. Mrs. Hicky has been restoring it for several years and is happy to share stories about it and the six generations of her family who have lived there since it was built in the 1820s.