Thursday, November 20, 2014

It's complicated: Milledgeville, Georgia, commemorates debated March to the Sea

St. Stephen's in Milledgeville (Thomas Blenk)

The church organ that endured the indignity of having molasses syrup poured into its pipes by mischievous Yankee soldiers was replaced by a fellow from New York, no less.

The visual reminders reportedly left by Union horses stabled at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church? “There are not really hoof prints,” said parish administrator Carolyn H. Stone. “Plus, the whole place is carpeted.”

As for the picket fences and outhouses dismantled by the invaders as a firewood source during the chilly month of November 1864? They could be replaced.

Milledgeville, capital of Georgia during the Civil War, was able to survive the ordeals that accompanied three days of occupation by Federal troops during Sherman’s March to the Sea -- and eventually rebounded.

But those days of misery were not forgotten. Memories of privation during the war and the psychological impact of the march, disorder and scavenging have been passed down from generation to generation in the antebellum city in middle Georgia.

Sherman's March to the Sea (Library of Congress)

“They destroyed so much of the food and left people destitute with winter coming on,” said Amy J. Wright, executive director of Georgia’s Old Capital Museum. “There is nothing like being hungry.”

This Saturday, Milledgeville will have a day of activities, including tours, a marker dedication, symposium and re-enactments to commemorate Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s five-week march through a swath of Georgia. He arrived in Milledgeville 150 years ago to the day.

In recent years, scholars, historians and many ordinary Georgians have begun to widen the lens on Sherman’s march beyond the legend: Uncle Billy, the devil incarnate who mowed down buildings and homes in the land between Atlanta and Savannah.

A new sign erected in Atlanta labels some of the stories as “popular myth.” W. Todd Groce, president of the Georgia Historical Society, which sponsored the marker, told The New York Times that the movie “Gone with the Wind” is to blame for ongoing regional perceptions of the general and Union army.

Others point out that visitors can still take antebellum home tours.

Critics, though, are not happy.

Stephen Davis, author of “What the Yankees Did to Us: Sherman’s Bombardment and Wrecking of Atlanta,” told the newspaper that some are “bending over backward to give Sherman a whitewash that he does not deserve.”

Today, there are more voices being heard -- such as those of Northern soldiers and slaves that were set free -- and new discussions of the march’s military purpose and its aim of dispiriting Southern soldiers enough to force them to leave the front and return home.

Those voices will be heard when the Old Capital Museum in late February will put on a three-act play, “Dinner with Uncle Billy,” which originally was scheduled for this week’s commemoration. Teacher and author Mauriel Joslyn wrote the script, but a director was not in place in time.

“For many people born and grown up in the South, we have one perspective. Much of what Mauriel has interwoven is from perspectives of soldiers who served with Sherman,” said Wright.  “It is multifaceted. It is the opportunity to delve into multiple perspectives, not just the Southern view -- a more universal perspective, how the Union saw it and those who experienced it.”

Among the play characters drawn from diaries and historical accounts are Sherman, his officers, Milledgeville merchants, a young mother and slaves, “all presenting their perspective of what was first anticipated, what happened and (what they see) in retrospect.”

As part of the sesquicentennial, the Georgia Civil War Commission is sponsoring a free Civil War symposium from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday at the Georgia Military College Atrium in Milledgeville.

The wide-ranging lineup includes discussions of horses and mules in the Atlanta Campaign, hospitals, “The Civil War in Movies,” “Total Warfare on Southern Civilians” and black Confederate soldiers, a topic that has engendered much debate over how many actually served.

Georgia's Civil War capitol (Old Capital Museum)

John Culpepper, chairman of the commission, told the Picket the objective is to “tell it like it was.”

“Some of the stuff that is coming out is politically correct. War is brutal. Sherman said he would make Georgia howl and he made Georgia howl, militarily and civilian and so on,” said Culpepper. “As far as tactics and Union winning the war, it was the right thing to do. You still had many people who suffered because of that and they suffer every day. It was the beginning of the war on civilians and manufacturing.”

Joslyn said she is appalled by what she calls the downplaying by historians of actions against civilians.

I do take issue with the recent revisionist history trying to claim the destruction and purposeful hardships were exaggerated. I have found plenty of sources from Union soldiers as well as civilians that describe the same events.” 

Sifting through fact and fiction

An article in the Nov. 14 issue of The New York Times, on the eve of the anniversary of the beginning of Sherman’s march, captured the ongoing debate about the general’s aims and conduct.

The marker, placed at the Carter Center, reads:

On November 15, 1864, during the Civil War, U.S. forces under Gen. William T. Sherman set out from Atlanta on the March to the Sea, a military campaign designed to destroy the Confederacy’s ability to wage war and break the will of its people to resist. After destroying Atlanta’s industrial and business (but not residential) districts, Sherman’s 62,500 men marched over 250 miles, reaching Savannah in mid-December. Contrary to popular myth, Sherman’s troops primarily destroyed only property used for waging war – railroads, train depots, factories, cotton gins, and warehouses. Abandoning their supply base, they lived off the land, destroying food they could not consume. They also liberated thousands of enslaved African Americans in their path. Sherman’s “hard hand of war” demoralized Confederates, hastening the end of slavery and the reunification of the nation.

Sherman during occupation of Atlanta (Library of Congress)

The Georgia Historical Society’s Groce writes in The Times’ Disunion blog that Sherman’s “hard war” policy was sanctioned by President Abraham Lincoln and was considered a military necessity to hasten victory and damage Confederate morale.

“Sherman’s primary targets -- foodstuffs and industrial, government and military property -- were carefully chosen to create the desired effect, and never included mass killing of civilians, especially those law-abiding noncombatants who did not resist what Sherman described as the national authority,” Groce writes.

Only one person (who was inebriated) died in Milledgeville during Sherman’s march.

“It was a freak situation that we had an ice storm, said Matthew Davis, director of the Old Governor’s Mansion on the campus of Georgia College & State University. “This overseer of a local plantation did through snowballs and ice (at the troops) and he got shot for it.” 

Civilians and soldiers alike left behind journals, including that of Dolly Burge, who lived on a plantation near Covington, Ga., and witnessed one wing of Sherman’s army come through on Nov. 19, 1864.

Like demons they rush in! My yards are full. To my smoke-house, my dairy, pantry, kitchen, and cellar, like famished wolves they come, breaking locks and whatever is in their way. (Source: “The Diary of Dolly Lunte Burge”)

“Sherman’s goal was to destroy any means of continuing the war,” said Wright. “It was things like the arsenal, magazine, factories that were producing arms and uniforms.” The museum’s legislative chamber was where Georgians voted to secede in 1861 and Union soldiers held a mock assembly more than three years later to repeal that move.

“When I look back at my family 150 years ago …. they did not know where he was headed or his intentions,” said Wright, whose mother is from Baldwin County and her father a “reconstructed Yankee” from Pennsylvania. “There was not the opportunity to read objective reports. There was a sheer terror of anticipation … that if Sherman did not come across his farm there was expectation that some of his foragers would.”

Historian John Marszalek, author of "Sherman: A Soldier's Passion for Order," told the Associated Press recently that the general was more about “shock and awe” than anything else. Marszalek said he is approached by people after lectures and told an ancestor’s barn was burned by Federal troops, but the farm was nowhere near the army’s path.

Still, many private homes in central Georgia were ransacked and damaged by Sherman’s foragers, or “bummers,” as they came to be called, and a few were burned. Sherman and his officers turned a blind eye to many cases of wanton destruction, according to Wright.

Most of Milledgeville was spared, although a key bridge, the penitentiary, the arsenal and a powder magazine were destroyed. Union troops emptied the library of the capitol and threw the documents and books onto muddy ground.

“The horses trampled the books and documents,” said Wright. “Some were priceless. That was done out of orneriness.”

Another legend has been slow to die.

“There is a story that Sherman was a womanizer, that he had girlfriends in some of the towns,” said Stone, of St. Stephen’s. “Any town where one of his ladies lived had less damage than others. That is one reason (according to the story) we did not get burned.”

Sticky situation finally resolved

Lectern at St. Stephen's (Thomas Blenk)

Soldiers from the 107th New York Infantry Regiment occupied St. Stephen’s Episcopal and other Milledgeville churches during the brief occupation.

Besides the syrup incident, they burned some pews, ostensibly to keep warm. The church roof was damaged and windows were blown out when the magazine and arsenal were set to the torch.

The current stained glass window over the altar was a gift of Christ Church, Savannah “in appreciation for hospitality extended during the Civil War years.”

The sticky pipe organ was never quite right for decades after the war and worshipers made plans to replace it.

A boy told the church’s new rector that, “The Yankees poured molasses down the pipes when that doggone old Sherman was here.”

Hugh T. Harrington, in “Civil War Milledgeville: Tales from the Confederate Capital of Georgia,” tells the story of a young girl who helped bring about a new organ by writing a letter mentioning what the Yankees did and seeking a donation.

Nylic Bland, 11, owed her unusual first name to her father, Marshall, who worked for the New York Life Insurance Company. He used the company’s acronym for her name.

Nylic, whose mother was the church organist, wrote to George W. Perkins of New York in 1909. Perkins formerly was an executive with the insurance company and was currently a financier with J.P. Morgan and Company.

According to the book, “Little Nylic Bland received a telegram from George W. Perkins. ‘Buy the organ and send the bill to me.’ The church bought a new organ for $2,100 and Mr. Perkins, the Yankee, paid the bill.”

The replacement organ, too, is long gone, but the story is still told to visitors who drop by the church or come during tours put on by the Milledgeville Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Stone, the parish administrator, told the Picket that visitors also see the original pulpit and lectern.

The congregation has a food pantry and is well-known in the community for its volunteers in outreach.

While to forgive is divine, it’s now always been easy for Southerners to do the same for their Civil War transgressors, said Stone, adding with a touch of humor that she is careful about saying she was raised in Pennsylvania.

A host of activities, interpretation

An exhibit at Georgia's Old Capital Museum

Saturday’s events include tours and a re-enactment at Lockerly Aboretum, re-enactments at the Old Governor’s Mansion and two exhibits at the Old Capital Museum.

At the latter, one exhibit, “From Broom to Musket: Women of the South, 1861-1865,” chronicles the lives of eight women, six from the Milledgeville area, said Wright.

“The focus so long has been on the soldiers, both Northern and Southern…. Women and what they were doing has been a subject largely marginalized.”

Featured are depictions of a sharecropper’s wife, a teen, a woman who disguised herself as a soldier, a nurse, slave, plantation mistress, widow and spy.

A new exhibit, “Butternut to Gray,” depicts the life of a Confederate soldier through the art of W.L. Sheppard and Gilbert Gaul.

(Courtesy of Old Governor's Mansion)

At 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., re-enactors dressed as Union troops will raise the U.S. flag outside the Old Governor’s Mansion to coincide with Sherman occupying the home Nov. 23, 1864. The mansion, which underwent a $9.5 million restoration nearly 10 years ago, will be open for tours and re-enactors will patrol the building and issue passes.

Georgia Gov. Joseph E. Brown had the house stripped of nearly everything three days before Sherman arrived. He and many other townspeople evacuated.

“A letter said the governor was eating turnips and greens while furnishings were boxed and moved around him,” Davis told the Picket.

Sherman’s arrival in the mansion brought an irony: He set up his headquarters, including field equipment, in the room where Brown dined. “It is a nice synergy that they were in the same place,” said Davis.

Sherman was gone the next day, after a strategy council with his officers in the mansion. The mansion and capitol weren’t destroyed by Federal forces.

“There was no really reason to do that type of damage, or take that action,” said Davis. “He said he would destroy property if you would impede his march …”

The Georgia Civil War Heritage Trails is dedicating a new marker at 9 a.m. Saturday.

Executive director Steve Longcrier said the organization continues to install interpretive markers along the March to the Sea Heritage Trail. Others were recently placed in Conyers, Social Circle and Sandersville.

Three markers are planned or already installed in Milledgeville.

Our marker at the Old Governor's Mansion was installed several years ago and the one next to the main archway entrance at Georgia Military College will be installed later this week (Saturday).” It is entitled “State House Square.” In coming weeks, a third sign will interpret the old state penitentiary.

Longcrier distributes brochures about the March to the Sea and Atlanta Campaign to visitor centers across Georgia. “To date, the ratio of brochures requested and shipped to these centers is 52% Atlanta Campaign vs. 48% March to the Sea.  Both brochures are very popular.  We just shipped 900 more of each brochure to one location.”

“I believe the Atlanta Campaign Heritage Trail will always attract the most attention because that is where most of the battles were fought, where two major national parks are located, and because of its close proximity to metro Atlanta and Chattanooga.  But the March to the Sea Heritage Trail is a strong second because of the uniqueness of its Civil War era history.”

'It was brutal, a brutal conflict'

Georgia’s capital moved to Atlanta in 1868, leaving Milledgeville with a large void.

Today, Milledgeville continues to strongly promote antebellum and other historical tourism, including its place on the old frontier. But Wright also touts the city’s educational institutions, including Georgia College & State University and Central Georgia Technical College. And there are many state offices in the city.

She also mentioned efforts to redevelop the old Central State Hospital, which began as a mental health institution in 1837. The campus declined as such treatment was decentralized. It has 200 buildings on 2,000 acres.

This Saturday’s events will cast a spotlight on the past and what Sherman’s March to the Sea means today.

Sherman's foragers, as seen in S. Carolina (Library of Congress)

The Georgia Civil War Commission’s Culpepper questioned those who say the general didn’t focus on civilians: “How can you say he only attacked the Southern military complex and did not destroy houses. How long did he besiege Atlanta?”

Culpepper said he is aware there is debate over the march’s effects and legacy.

“The bottom line is we are one nation, and came together to make the greatest nation in the world. History is history. Put the facts out there. It was brutal, a brutal conflict. Don’t try to soft soap what happened: Just the facts.”

The Picket recently published a three-part series on Sherman’s March, asking historians and experts to weigh in on its legacy.

Charlie Crawford, president of the Georgia Battlefields Association, said: “Sherman can be criticized for not keeping better control over his troops and for sometimes turning a blind eye to their excesses, especially regarding theft; but his attitude is consistent with his belief that the war would end sooner if the people of the South lost the will to fight and wrote to their husbands, sons, and brothers in Virginia to come home.”

Davis, of the Old Governor’s Mansion, said it is the job of historians to look at what is myth and what is fact. He hopes visitors leave with questions that they can pursue.

“I somewhat agree with revisionists in that regard,” he said of the destruction. “If every building burned, would we have so many antebellum buildings in the state. No? There is a fog of war. (Sherman) couldn’t have been everywhere.”

It’s true that Sherman’s troops did unspeakable things, but that has to be tempered with the reality that “horrible things” occur during war, said the mansion director.

Regardless, the March to the Sea and the Civil War will continue to fascinate for years to come, said Davis.

“If the state of Georgia has a bogeyman, Sherman is that man.”


  1. What an interesting essay! We have spent the past two weeks tracing the route of Sherman's March, filming footage for a forthcoming independent documentary called Patrick & Me. Our subject, Anthony Cohen, is walking in his ancestor's footsteps in order to uncover his story. Patrick Sneed escaped slavery in Georgia via the Underground Railroad, only to return as a Union soldier on Sherman's March to the Sea. We have a Facebook page:, please check it out! Thanks for letting us post via your awesome blog!

  2. Those that wish to lessen what the Union Army did should try to explain the destruction of graves at Christ Church on Saint Simons and the burning of Darien.