Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Howls of protest: Women mill workers were forced north from Georgia

New Manchester Manufacturing Co.’s mill about 18 west of Atlanta was fed by the roiling waters of Sweetwater Creek and bales of cotton brought in by wagon.

The mill, at five stories, was the tallest building in North Georgia. Natural light filled the brick structure, and a massive 25-ton waterwheel powered the machinery that produced cotton yarns and material.

So it was no wonder that the Confederate government in 1861 contracted with the mill’s owners to produce muslin and osnaburg, a fabric lighter than canvas, for its army.

The deal sealed the factory’s fate.

Subsequently viewed as a military target, the mill within three years was torched by Union troops who made Georgia howl during Gen. William T. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign and subsequent March to the Sea.

Tuesday afternoon, I ventured to Sweetwater Creek State Park to enjoy its natural splendor and gaze at the ruins of the mill, which was built in 1849 and initially dubbed Sweetwater Factory.

The surrounding community – a store, post office, homes and a lumber mill – are long gone, making New Manchester a ghost town.

But if the ghosts are talking, they are likely the spirits of women who worked in the mill during the Civil War while their menfolk were at the front.

After the mill was torched by Union cavalry, nearly 100 New Manchester residents, mostly female workers and their children, were sent north by train, under protest, to spend the rest of the war. Many took an oath of allegiance to the United States.

They were called traitors or “operatives” for their efforts to supply the Confederate military.

The horror of the Civil War was not confined to the field of battle. It invaded cities, small towns and oft times the hearths and homes of innocent victims, leaving only destruction and despair in its wake,” writes author Mary Deborah Petite. “The little known story of the North Georgia mill workers is just one more heartbreaking example.”

Petite’s book, “The Women Will Howl,” tells of the forced relocation of workers at New Manchester and a much larger group of 500 people at mills in Roswell, a suburb just north of Atlanta.

One of those Roswell mill incidents involved a ruse featuring a French flag that I wrote about in a popular Picket article in October 2010.

On July 5, 1864, Brig. Gen. Kenner Garrard and his Union troopers were battling the home guard for a vital bridge at Roswell, but the Rebels set it afire. Garrard was surprised to see a most unexpected banner above the Ivy Woolen Mill at the river. It was a French national flag.

Garrard rode in to investigate and was met by mill workers claiming to be English or French citizens.

Theophile Roche, a journeyman weaver from Paris who claimed at least part ownership of the mill, had concocted the idea of flying the French flags to show the mill was not part of the Confederacy, therefore not subject to seizure or destruction.

Garrard walked into Ivy Woolen Mill on July 6 to discover bolts of cloth with the letters CSA woven in. He was shown records indicating the material would be used to make uniforms for Confederate troops.

Garrard ordered the mill burned and moved along the river to the Roswell Manufacturing Co., a larger complex that had nothing to do with the French flag incident but did make goods for the South. Federal forces set it afire, too. 

Meanwhile, back at Sweetwater Creek, troopers with the 1st and 11th Kentucky Cavalry occupied the town of New Manchester without firing a shot.

Brig. Gen. Garrard
A week later, on July 9, 1864, Northern troops burned the factory buildings and the company store to the ground.

Union troops rounded up 400 of the Ivy Woolen and Roswell mill workers (a contingent that included 87 men -- some soldiers, some deserters), and then added those who worked at the Sweetwater Creek mill, for a total of nearly 600 people. Five hundred were women and children.

From the Northern perspective, the workers were American citizens in open rebellion – a policy that outraged Southerners.

Sherman wrote to Garrard: “I repeat my orders that you arrest all people, male and female, connected with those factories, no matter what the clamor, and let them foot it, under guard, to Marietta, whence I will send them by cars to the North...The poor women will make a howl. Let them take along their children and clothing, providing they have the means of hauling, or you can spare them.”

The prisoners were marched to Marietta for shipment north. They were placed in the Georgia Military Institute while they awaited trains.

Georgia militia uniform
There would be no trials at which they could defend themselves.

The 600 were shipped out July 10 and 11, with stops in Chattanooga and Nashville. Many were sent to Ohio and Indiana after they arrived in Louisville, Ky., where they were initially imprisoned in a hospital. A few died of typhoid, measles and other diseases.

“First housed and fed in a Louisville refugee hospital, the women later took what menial jobs and living arrangements could be found. Those in Indiana struggled to survive, many settling near the river, where eventually mills provided employment,” the New Georgia Encyclopedia says. “Unless husbands had been transported with the women or had been imprisoned nearby, there was little probability of a return to Roswell, so the remaining women began to marry and bear children.”

Very few ever made it back to Georgia. Mills were reopened in Roswell, but not at New Manchester.

Of course, the captured white workers and residents of New Manchester were not alone in an absence of rights.

Slaves after all had made the bricks and cut the lumber for construction of the mills, and had performed much of the labor. A millrace (left), a channel into which water is funneled to the factory, was built by slaves at Sweetwater Creek.

The museum at Sweetwater Creek State Park includes exhibits about the mill and affected families, including Synthia Stewart, who was a young girl when the Yankees came to town. Her father served in the Confederate army.

Stewart, while in her 90s, described the privations the family suffered and the burning of the town.

One account is a story of hunger, with Lizzie being Synthia’s mother:

The next day there came a crowd of northern soldiers. Before they came through, Grandma said, “Well, Lizzie, let’s cook the children one more meal of victuals.” We had lots of chickens, but we had nothing else much though to go with them, so they cooked the chickens and fixed dinner. before we could get through, why, the yard was full of men, looked like. They just come on down, and we children walked to the door, and they said, “Well, we’re just in time.” They didn’t ask if they could or not, they just walked in and sat down at the table and ate up all the dinner we had cooked, so we didn’t have anything more left to cook another day.”

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