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History Happened Here

What Sherman Missed

June 2024
6min read

The Old South has survived along Georgia’s Antebellum Trail, where the Civil War seems to have happened only yesterday

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.

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.

As I drove from Macon back to the airport in Atlanta, I watched the small towns gradually fade into modern suburbs and thought about the South I had just seen. On the Antebellum Trail people take immense pride in maintaining their links to the past, and history is taken very personally. As hard as he tried, Sherman failed, in the long run, to achieve his goal of destroying Georgia. The state may have howled, but it survived.

—Linda Barth TO PLAN A TRIP

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