What Sherman Missed

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I left the Stokes-McHenry House and went to the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center, housed in what was one of the first graded schools in the state. The Romanesque Revival building, from 1895, contains a number of permanent exhibits, including a reconstruction of the parlor of Boxwood, another of the town’s magnificent homes. Boxwood, built around 1856 by the local plantation owners Wilds and Nancy Kolb, provides excellent examples of two distinct styles of architecture: The front of the house is Italianate while the rear is Greek Revival. Why? According to Leonard Wallace, who runs Burnett Place, Wilds wanted a Greek Revival house, while his wife preferred something a bit more modern. In the spirit of compromise, they came to an agreement that would have made King Solomon proud: They split the exterior of the house in half.

Boxwood is one of the few houses in town where slave quarters still stand in the yard. Today these have been converted into guest cottages and garages, and they look far more benign than one would expect. Wallace pointed out that they were the residences of house slaves, who fared slightly better than their field counterparts, and since the slave quarters were close to their homes and visible from the street, the owners preferred that they look trim and neat. I had wondered if the trail might gloss over the uglier side of gracious antebellum living. As it turned out, it tends to overlook slavery altogether.

Slavery may be ignored for the most part, but the Civil War is not. At every town on the trail, we were reminded again and again of Sherman’s destructive force, which the residents speak of with the sort of bitterness usually reserved for more recent affronts. Nowhere was this more true than in Old Clinton. Madison’s broad, sunny streets stand in sharp contrast with Old Clinton’s tree-shrouded lanes. We were met at an antebellum cottage by a local Civil War re-enactor dressed in full Confederate uniform, who proceeded to explain how “Northern aggressors” had destroyed the town during the Civil War, and were it not for the distant hum of the highway, I might have been back in Clinton before it was old. Clinton boomed along with cotton, but after the railroad bypassed it, the town’s population dwindled, and General Sherman’s four-day occupation certainly did nothing to encourage new settlers. Clinton’s residents, mostly older men and young boys and, according to our guide, several free blacks and slaves, tried in vain to stop Sherman’s army and were badly beaten. The Union troops burned one-third of the town.

By the end of the century, Clinton was nearly a ghost town. I stood for a long time in the local cemetery, with its weathered Civil War-era headstones, many of which had fresh flowers and Confederate flags left by surviving family members. There are more than a dozen antebellum houses (most aren’t open to the public), but I found that this spot most truly conveyed the mood of Old Clinton: a sense of loss linked to the community’s past.

When we reached Milledgeville, I felt I was stepping out of shadows and back into sunlight. Milledgeville is a bright little city that takes great pride in the fact that it served as the fourth capital of Georgia, from 1803 to 1868. After the capital moved to Atlanta during Reconstruction, Milledgeville’s fortunes declined, but in one sense the decline proved beneficial: While more prosperous towns tore down old buildings to build new ones, Milledgeville retained much of its historic core.

The town is filled with antebellum architecture; Sherman destroyed only a few of the public buildings and let everything else stand. Among those open for tours my favorite was the Old Governor’s Mansion, built in the mid-1830s. A National Historic Landmark, it is considered one of the most perfect examples of Greek Revival architecture in America.

Milledgeville was also the home of Flannery O’Connor, who wrote dark and troubling stories about the South in the 1950s and early 1960s. I couldn’t help wondering how much her life in Milledgeville was reflected in her work. I asked a local tour guide what residents thought of “Miss Flannery,” and he said that although many resented her at the time for portraying Southerners as “a violent and tragic people,” she is remembered fondly today.

Macon, the last stop on the trail, turned out to be the perfect end point. Late in March the city celebrates its annual Cherry Blossom Festival, and the sight of 230,000 blooming Yoshino cherry trees is awe-inspiring. Although Macon has a great deal to offer in the way of museums, I was eager to spend most of my time outside. The air was sweet with the smell of spring, and the wind carried pinkish white petals that covered my hair and my clothing like confetti.

Much of the lively downtown was taken over by a craft fair that I strolled through on my way to the impressive Georgia Music Hall of Fame and the Tubman African American Museum. A series of galleries illustrated the history of blacks in and around Macon from slavery to the present day. Among the permanent displays is a local history gallery spotlighting black Maconites like Jefferson Long, the first African-American congressman from Georgia. The museum is small, but it provides a refreshing perspective on the region.

Macon offers a self-guided nighttime tour of its most architecturally important houses, which are theatrically lit to emphasize their unique designs. With the help of the Convention and Visitors Bureau’s free illustrated walking-tour guide, it is a lovely way to see the city.