Friday, November 6, 2009

Heritage tourism: Civil War trails being developed in Georgia

Steven Longcrier knows just about every twist and turn of Georgia’s highways.

He’s been on interstates. Two-lane arteries. Bridges spanning creeks, wire grass near the banks. Dirt roads.

As executive director of the non-profit Georgia Civil War Heritage Trails, Longcrier has logged more than 200,000 miles scouring city and country for Civil War sites and routes used by the armies.

At Ebenezer Creek in Effingham County, hundreds of freed slaves were left to angry Confederate soldiers during Gen. William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea in 1864. Many drowned; others were cut down. No sign tells the horrible story.

And in Emanuel County, a 10-mile stretch of the Old Savannah Road (which connected Savannah and Milledgeville) still rolls along in all its dirt-road glory. The scene is almost bereft of any power lines or structures.

“It takes you back to 1864,” says Longcrier. “This is the closest to what these [Union] guys saw.”

Working with federal, state and local government, CWHT will erect interpretive markers at these and about 400 other sites.

A few already are in place. One in downtown Atlanta recognizes Father Thomas O’Reilly, a Catholic priest who saved several churches from destruction. Another tells the story of the old Macon City Hall, where the state government operated after Atlanta fell.

CWHT is working to have three of six heritage trails in place by the war’s sesquicentennial: The Atlanta Campaign, the March to the Sea and Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ unsuccessful effort to avoid capture by the troops in blue.

Planners hope all the trails will be completed between 2011 and 2015.

The trails are meant to be driven. Smaller signs indicate that the road has Civil War significance.

“You will follow as much as you can the route the armies took,” says Longcrier, who lives in Evans, Ga.

The other trails are South Georgia (Andersonville prison), Wilson’s raid (cavalry) and Northeast Georgia (a divided region during the war).

Unlike existing signs, the well-researched interpretive markers will also tell the civilian side of the war, Longcrier says. “We will tell the local history.”

The state Department of Economic Development's regional tourism program will offer trail brochures and feature the drives on its Web site. Director Fay Tripp described heritage tourism as a "hot button" in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last year.

The department estimates that the first three of Georgia's trails could generate more than $62 million in hotel and meal receipts, plus create more than 800 jobs.

This month is the 145th anniversary of Sherman’s March to the Sea. Several events around the state are observing its military and civilian toll.

Longcrier will lead a bus tour Saturday (Nov. 7) sponsored by the Rockdale County Historical Society.

The tour will highlight movements by the left wing of Sherman’s foragers from Conyers to Madison. Stops include a church occupied by Union troops and the Burge plantation in Newton County, where Dolly Burge kept a diary detailing life during the war and the liberation of the plantation’s slaves.

Feelings on the Civil War to this day are complex.

Longcrier recalls that his late mother, who grew up in middle Georgia, was taught to hate Sherman.

Years later, she confided to her son.

“I don’t really hate Sherman. I don’t hate anybody.”

More information on the project.

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