Monday, January 14, 2013

'To hell with Sherman': Lecture links Georgia Tech campus, Civil War fortifications

Georgia Tech President G.P. “Bud” Peterson works by day in a building above where Confederate trenches once ran on the northern outskirts of Atlanta.

Georgia Tech photo
At night, he sleeps in the President’s House, not two miles due north, scene of the Federal siege line.

The distance between, in the summer of 1864, was a no man’s land – home to rifle pits and picket posts – that now is the heart of the Georgia Tech campus.

“There were people killed” between the main lines, said Charlie Crawford, a 1971 Tech mathematics alum and president of the Georgia Battlefields Association, a preservation group. Usually, one or two were killed at a time by potshots or stray rounds

“A record might read, ‘on the 21st we lost Private Jones to picket duty,’” said Crawford.

George Barnard photo of Ponder House (Library of Congress)
Modern view, looking east (Charlie Crawford)
For six weeks, Rebels held their line within sight of the Federals’ 20th Corps while elsewhere generals Joseph E. Johnston and John Bell John attempted to parry flanking movements initiated by their Union counterpart, William Tecumseh Sherman.

Crawford, who went on to an Air Force career and retired as a colonel, will detail what happened on Georgia Tech’s land at a Jan. 24 lecture on campus. He also will cover the importance of the Atlanta Campaign to the re-election campaign of President Abraham Lincoln.

His talk is being held in conjunction with “Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War,” a traveling exhibit on display at the campus through Feb. 6.

Georgia Tech photo
The Georgia Institute of Technology was founded in 1885, and it opened its doors to students in 1888. The research university, built to support the industrialization of the South during Reconstruction, has since garnered an international reputation.

Crawford’s reference points will include modern-day views of Confederate fortification scenes taken by Federal official photographer George Barnard shortly after the fall of Atlanta. Those photographs are part of the Library of Congress’ collection.

“It wasn’t anything but a smattering of houses,” Crawford said of it the land. It wasn’t even a suburb.” North Avenue, the main east-west thoroughfare on the south end of campus, did not exist.

While there are almost no traces left of what was hurriedly erected by soldiers, the Georgia Battlefields Association wants to impart history and encourage listeners to be preservation-minded. “We all come from somewhere,” said Crawford. “If you can tell the story in relatable terms…”

Case in point: Fans of the Yellow Jackets football team might be interested in knowing that the east-west Confederate line ran through what is now the south end of Bobby Dodd Stadium at Historic Grant Field, right next to the Downtown Connector.

The original defensive line, built July-October 1863, was closer to the city and downtown, with its apex near the current Fox Theatre. Atlanta was vulnerable.

Ponder House (Library of Congress)
“They (defenders) began to realize artillery fire was getting longer and had higher range,” said Crawford.

Slaves and other workers, in July 1864, furiously threw up more defenses, to the north and west of the old line, as Sherman’s troops closed in. “When the Confederates built the line they cut down almost all of the woods” that covered the current campus, according to Crawford. Lt. Gen. Alexander Stewart took command of the forces.

The Confederates used letters, X, Y and Z, to name their forts in the area. Fort Z was near the current administration building, known for the familiar Tech Tower. Fort Y rests below the campus student center or a nearby parking deck.

The Southern line also ran near what is now the landmark restaurant The Varsity, just east of campus.

The Federal lines generally ran across what is now the north end of the campus and private property. They held troops from the Northeast, including New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Barnard’s most-famous photo is of the shell-pocked Ponder House, which he referred to as the Potter House. It was owned by a wealthy land and slave owner and reportedly was used by Confederate infantry.

The residence, east of Tech’s Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts (Fort X), was an inviting target for Union artillerymen.

Archaeological map includes Confederate, Union lines
“The Ponder House got hit by shells a lot,” said Crawford. “Part of it was because it was a big white building. It was the most significant landmark for miles around.” The heavily damaged home was razed after the battle.

Although Confederates had attacked three times during the campaign, the Federal siege lines on the Tech property weren’t built with such an assault in mind.

“The assumption was they weren’t going to have to defend their trenches. They made them better each night,” Crawford said.

Sherman determined he would not attack the city’s prodigious fortifications head-on, realizing it would be a waste of manpower. He had already bloodied Hood at Peachtree Creek, the Battle of Atlanta and at Ezra Church.

Rather, Sherman concentrated on extending lines, cavalry raids and seizing railroads in his eventually successful effort to cut off Atlanta. Hood was forced to leave after Jonesboro, south of Atlanta, fell.

The weary Rebels left their defensive posts on the Tech campus when the army evacuated Atlanta on Sept. 1 and Sept. 2, 1864.

Eventually, the city grew north, enveloping the Tech campus. The world headquarters of Coca-Cola is a stone’s throw from where Confederate trenches, chevaux de fries and forts once stood.

Students and visitors alike must employ a vivid imagination when conjuring images of the campus during its Civil War days.

“Parking lots, decks and buildings tend to smooth stuff out,” said Crawford.  

The preservationist remembers his student days at Georgia Tech.

“It’s fascinating to think of walking to class every day and sitting (in class) on top of a trench.” 

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