I’ve always been a fan of getting off the beaten path or, more precisely, interstate highways.
Last Friday, I paid brief visits to two Civil War sites within a few miles of each other in South Georgia – the site of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ capture and Fitzgerald (left), where Union veterans flocked to form the “Colony City.”
A visit to both sites is affordable and can be accomplished in a few hours.
The Blue & Gray Museum in Fitzgerald is housed in an old railroad depot on North Johnston Street.
Director Al Strom, another staff member and a fine film gave us a wonderful overview of the town, which was settled in 1896 by a land company under the direction of Philander H. Fitzgerald, a former drummer boy in the Union army.
The idea was to draw thousands of Union veterans and their families to settle here, and live among the locals and Southern Civil War vets.
Fitzgerald worked with Georgia Gov. William J. Northen to build a town in what would become Ben Hill County.
“There was little strife among the new colonists, who proved their dedication to unity by naming an equal number of streets in the city proper for Union and Confederate notables,” according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia. “In one of the first public-works constructions in the United States, a mammoth four-story hotel was built; it was named the Lee-Grant Hotel, to honor the leaders of the opposing sides of the Civil War.”
The boom times lasted several years, with two railroads, 25 miles of streets and 250 businesses within the colony by June 1896. The city claims it was the first to offer free public schooling in Georgia and that it had a model form of government.
We briefly drove around the city, noting blue and gray patterns on a sidewalks and a water tower with the same motif. Some homes remain from the time, although the Lee-Grant Hotel is gone.
The Blue & Gray Museum features about 1,200 items, including photos of the town’s development, medals bestowed to soldiers of both sides, weapons, mementoes, a replica of a "Shacktown" tent a Northern family would live in before a home was built, and a good deal more.
Among the 300 or so Union veterans buried at Fitzgerald’s Evergreen Cemetery is John C. Buckley (below), who received the Medal of Honor for gallantry during the Siege of Vicksburg on May 22, 1863. The medal is displayed at the museum.
The museum hosts a Roll Call of the States, in which visitors from every state in the Union are photographed with their respective state flags.
Strom told me the city supports the museum and local first-graders visit. Otherwise, about 430 people a year come. I hope the Civil War sesquicentennial brings at least a few more.
We next drove to the farming community of Irwinville and the Jefferson Davis Historic Site.
The museum and site is has been operated by Irwin County since the budget-conscious state handed it over in June 2009.
A film provides the story of the capture of Jefferson Davis “as bit by bit the Confederate government was falling apart.”
Forced to flee the capital of Richmond, and with a $100,000 reward on his head, Davis still have hopes of traveling west to the Trans-Mississippi and hooking up with generals there to continue the cause. The movie calls Davis “optimistic but not realistic.”
He and his family rode through the Carolinas and into Georgia, where on May 10, 1865, Union troops nabbed him in Irwinville.
According to legend, Davis, who would spend two years in Fort Monroe, Va., but never faced charges, was wearing women’s clothing.
A popular song of the era was "Jeff in Petticoats," and the major tabloids featured artists' renderings of the fallen leader dressed in everything from a wig to a hoop skirt, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia.
The film goes to lengths to show that account was propaganda and a falsehood. Some accounts say he put on his wife’s overcoat in the confusion to help build a disguise.
A historic marker indicates the spot where Davis was arrested, and the park features the museum, nature trail and picnic facilities.
The museum includes Davis personal items, weapons, Civil War artifacts and a few regimental banners, including one belonging to Company H, the 50th Georgia (Colquitt Marksmen), which saw heavy action.
The site draws between 12,000 and 15,000 visitors a year, but is down a bit due to high gas prices. It has a special program June 4 that will feature re-enactors to mark Davis’ birthday.
The Jefferson Davis Memorial Site, 338 Jeff Davis Park Road, Fitzgerald, is open Wednesday-Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call 229-831-2335 for information. There is a small admission fee. The Blue & Gray Museum, 116 North Johnston Street, Fitzgerald, is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $3 for adults and $1 for students. Call 229-426-5069 for info.