Day 9: Ending the Trip Where It All Began

Today was a lazy day: a walk on the wide windswept beach of Sullivan’s Island, and a cruise around Charleston Harbor. The star of that show, of course, is Fort Sumter.

Built by the federal government after the War of 1812, South Carolina claimed it January 31, 1861 as tensions rose after Lincoln’s election. Governor Francis Pickens demanded that President James Buchanan surrender the fort because “I regard [federal] possession is not consistent with the dignity or safety of the State of South Carolina.”

When Buchanan and then Lincoln refused to surrender the fort, South Carolina blockaded it. When the fort’s supplies dwindled, Washington sent a ship to resupply it; the state then fired on both the ship and the fort. War was on—and Lincoln had maneuvered the South into starting it.

Exactly where I’d walked yesterday, the grandees of Charleston lined Battery Street to watch the bombardment.  The porches of the magnificent town homes I’d strolled by were the best seats in town.

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So what have we learned here? It will take many weeks for me to integrate my time here.

Some say history repeats itself. It’s more accurate to say it rhymes, it echoes, it twists and turns and revisits itself.

Charleston was a city of Revolutionary War patriots—Fort Sumter was named after one of its heroes—and less than a century later, became a city of traitors. Or patriots, depending on your point of view.

Were the North and South two countries at war, or were the Confederates merely criminals?

Lincoln was remarkably flexible on this point, depending on his political needs. For example, the Emancipation Proclamation would have been an illegal government seizure of legal property unless slaves were property that contributed to a foreign power’s war effort. Ironic, that: to free the slaves, Lincoln had to declare them property.

Since Charleston lacks mountains or quarries, Fort Sumter was built with seventy tons of New England granite. That must have been some government contract. It isn’t hard to imagine that people in both the North and South made a fortune on it. They lived in the same country—the country of money.

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Day 8: Charleston, SC: Ellis Island of African-American Slavery

Charleston is as “ancient” as a U.S. city can possibly be, and today I took a wonderful walking tour of this gorgeous city.

My incredibly knowledgeable tour guide could not stop talking, one story inevitably cascading into another. Everywhere we walked, the colonial, Revolutionary War, antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction era were entangled right in front of me. The hill the British army marched down from is the same the Union army marched down 87 years later.

My hotel is on King Street—the oldest street in town, named after King Charles II, who awarded the land grant here almost 400 years ago. Of course, I’m also near evocatively named Queen Street, Cannon Street, and Market Street.

Evidence of staggering plantation wealth (first indigo, then rice, then cotton) is everywhere in the city—from the homes to the street layout to the monuments.

Charleston is called the Holy City because of the number and diversity of its religious institutions. Unlike other 17th century “American” communities, there were no religious restrictions here (except people had to believe in “One God”). 

You’ll recall, for example, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was limited to Puritans. And utopian early Savannah explicitly excluded Catholics (and lawyers, but that’s another story).

Yet the plantation wealth and the religious freedom here had a darker side—the enslavement of African people. The more I learn about it, the worse it gets.

Charleston imported almost half of all slaves in the American colonies—the Ellis Island for Africans. When an occasional black was able to buy his freedom, his first step was to try to save money to purchase his wife—because he’d have rights over her as property, whereas as an enslaved woman, she’d have none. My guide described this as smart African couples gaming the slavery system; he was loudly disdainful about anyone claiming that this proved slavery wasn’t so bad.

The tiny shacks of free blacks were a huge contrast to the opulent homes of their former masters. I saw Boundary Street—south of which even free blacks couldn’t walk.

Ironically, it’s been renamed Calhoun Street, after States Rightist John C. Calhoun. Why is his statue so much taller than all the other local monuments? Apparently because people kept defacing it when it was at street level.

I saw the home in which Calhoun convened a committee in 1820 to articulate the Nullification policy, in which they said any state could ignore any federal laws they decided were unconstitutional—such as those limiting slavery. Later the house would be owned by Aaron Burr’s daughter.

I walked on opulent Legare Street. Named for the wealthy, mean-spirited cotton merchant living there, it’s pronounced “Luh-Gree”—which Harriet Beecher Stowe named her villainous slave-owner in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

On and on we walked—wealth and cruelty, history and more history, irony and more irony.

And off in the distance, sitting serenely in the harbor, if I squinted through the heavy sunlight, I could see Fort Sumter.

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Day 7: A Cultural Tourist Meets His Tribe

I had one more stop in Savannah: the Georgia Railroad Museum.

Train museums are repositories of great industrial beasts and fascinating human stories. The best ones not only collect stuff, they research, repair, and save our heritage from permanent destruction.

History, of course, is all connected. It isn’t sorted neatly into categories like transportation, health, the military, and recreation. For example, the bicycle radically changed women’s clothing. Air conditioning shifted the American population south and west, altering U.S. politics. Trains themselves led to the invention of time zones in 1883.

The Central of Georgia Railway began in the 1830s, led by William Washington Gordon,  whose statue I’d seen in Savannah. The company quickly grew and built a machine shop, foundry, upholstery shop, paint shop, and even a print shop. I saw that complex today—which is now focused on restoring and displaying old trains.

The Railway saw itself as a community institution, running a large hospital and using progressive labor policies. But legal maneuvering and hostile takeovers resulted in the railroad going bankrupt and reorganizing around the turn of the century, and again after WWII.

The whole enterprise was then bought for scrap, and the specially-made (by slaves) bricks called Savannah Grey started selling. When local people in the 1960s noticed the 150-year-old showpiece brick tower getting smaller and smaller they went to court, invoked a century-old clause in the corporate contract, and many years later got the railway buildings back, turning them into a museum—not just of trains, but of a way of life.

And that’s why historical preservation is important—they are a living textbook of various ways of life that are in the process of simply disappearing. Or already have.

I toured the machine shop, entered some of the cars being restored (including a Jim Crow car that separated Negroes from Whites), and was transported. I’ve heard that only heartless people don’t love dogs. Nah…but what kind of person doesn’t like trains?

My last stop in the train museum was the most poignant. As Sherman’s troops marched through Georgia in 1864 tearing up the railroads (so they couldn’t transport Confederate troops, food, or exports), they became quite efficient at it. They’d periodically pull up the wooden ties, build enormous fires with them, toss in a few rails, and when they were red-hot, twist the rails around trees so they could never be repaired. The result was called a Sherman Necktie.

I saw a real one today. It testified to war, and hate, and humans’ extraordinary power to both create and destroy.

Leaving the museum I headed northeast to Charleston. Crossing the Savannah River, a sign welcomed me to South Carolina’s Cultural Tourism Corridor.

That’s me, I thought—a Cultural Tourist. I had chosen this area for vacation (instead of, say, Palm Springs, Las Vegas or Orlando), had flown across the continent, and was spending my time and money right here examining the past.

And so were those strangers with whom I’d toured the railroad museum, and those other strangers whom I’d seen walking the paths of Kennesaw Mountain and those other strangers getting windblown at Fort Jackson.

I smiled, driving the hundred miles to the next rendezvous with my tribe. We’re meeting at Fort Sumter and a 200-year-old synagogue and Charleston’s City Hall. We’re keeping the past alive.

It’s a noble pursuit.

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Day 6: My Tour de Forts

Although Union General Sherman outnumbered Confederate General Hardee 7 to 1 (with troops that were better equipped, better led, and convinced of their destiny), it took Sherman 10 days of maneuvering to capture the city.

The reason is the ring of historic forts that encircle Savannah. I saw four of them today on a breathtaking tour with five military historians, researchers, and re-enactors. Although I was the ostensible reason for the gathering, I quickly became small fry tagging along. They avidly swapped details of weapons, uniforms, and events, and laughed at each others’ sophisticated jokes that I simply didn’t get.

I loved it.

We started at Fort Jackson, a Revolutionary War fort guarding the narrowest part of the Savannah River (now guarded by a Hyatt and Westin), some seven miles from the ocean. Anticipating a war with France or Britain, President Thomas Jefferson had ordered the earthen structure to be rebuilt with brick.

I stood on the high rampart feeling the two-century old cold, stiff wind coming off the river. It was hard to imagine the swampy air, thick with huge mosquitos and tiny gnats, that killed way more soldiers than enemy gunpowder. As important as this location was, it was considered an awful assignment.

Next we drove to Fort Boggs—or its remains. One of our party had arranged for the Savannah Country Club (established 1794) to let us onto their grounds. The place is normally closed on Mondays, so our little group (plus three excited Club VIPs) had the place to ourselves.

We found miles of earthworks that had been the star-shaped fort, protecting Savannah’s east. Boggs had a large number of huge cannons, and our historians eagerly compared old maps to determine the exact locations of the various weapons. The sharpest-eyed among us also found several pieces of period pottery as we walked from mound to mound. Better than a hole-in-one any day.Thanking our Club VIPs, we caravanned south to isolated Rose Dhu Island, now used as a 300-acre camp by the national Girl Scouts. Tramping almost an hour through brush, we saw miles of earthworks, rifle pits, connector trenches, and the heights on which cannons had guarded the Little Ogeechee River just a few miles from the Atlantic.

After a quick late lunch, we sped west to Fort McAllister, at which two of our historians had each worked. On the south bank of the meandering Ogeechee River, observed the very pragmatic architecture of the enormous earthen-walled fort, and walked underground to barracks, powder magazines, and other structures. We saw black cannons along with their wooden carriages, ramrods, and other equipment.

After arriving at the well-guarded city of Savannah, Sherman had decided that this would be the place he’d make contact with the U.S. Navy and its much-needed supplies. After getting his forces into place, Sherman watched from across the river as a depleted Confederate army surrendered. The exposed city would quickly fall in the coming week.

In earlier, far less heady days, these were the same Union troops Sherman had personally led—as a division commander at Shiloh, and as a corps commander at Vicksburg.

His triumph on this very spot, which I had anticipated through eight months of vacation planning and studying, had me feeling melancholy. In only two days I had developed a crush on Savannah, with its sad history just below its elegant surface.

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Day 5: “I Beg to Present to You the Gift of Savannah…”

It was painful to drag myself away from Dr. Bob and Milledgeville, but my longest drive beckoned. I had three hours of rural Georgia ahead of me—towns with names like Black Creek, Willie, and Social Circle, each with one or two hundred people. The rolling hills rolled by without gas stations, billboards, or anything else to mar (or enliven) the landscape.

I finally pulled into Savannah at dusk, and after checking into the Hyatt, I strolled the waterfront. A gigantic container ship from Hong Kong slid gracefully by. Then it was time to write, stretch, and sleep. 

The next day, I met Kelse, my guide for the day. He tried to stick to the civil war, but in a history-rich place like Savannah, it was impossible.

The story begins in 1732 when Georgia is founded by British philanthropist, member of Parliament, and social reformer James Oglethorpe. When he arrives with some 100 Europeans, he immediately becomes lifelong friends with local Creek Indian chieftain Tomochichi, who gives him land to build Savannah.

Oglethorpe divides the city’s land into open squares surrounded by houses, churches, and shops. This open-space-based-grid is unique in America, and gives Savannah a wonderful airy yet intimate feel.

I walked the town (population today less than 200,000), stopping in the various squares to admire the statues, greenery, and houses. Here was John Wesley, founder of Methodism. There was William Washington Gordon, who quit as Savannah’s mayor to start Georgia’s first railroad. And over there was the house in which Gordon’s granddaughter Juliette Gordon Lowe was born. Lowe later began the Girl Scouts.

The city’s location on the Savannah River destined it to be a merchant city. I saw the clever way warehouses were built below the river front street to ease loading and unloading cargo.  And I saw the gorgeous red brick Cotton Exchange Building, eventually the cotton trading center of the world, where world-wide prices and quality standards were set.
On December 10, 1864, Sherman arrived here with some 60,000 men. Ten thousand confederate soldiers had dug into fortified positions after flooding the area’s rice fields to limit his access into the city.

After a short battle at nearby Fort McAllister Sherman’s cavalry prevailed, and he was reinforced by the Union navy and artillery. Sherman offered surrender terms to Confederate General Hardee. Rather than fight or surrender, Hardee and his men escaped under cover of night.

The next morning Mayor Richard Arnold led a civic delegation offering the keys to the city if Sherman would protect Savannah’s people and property. Sherman accepted and occupied the city. I sat in front of the elegant house in which he lived and worked.

On December 21, Sherman telegraphed to President Lincoln, “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns [cannons] and plenty of ammunition, also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.”

As he had promised Grant and Lincoln, Sherman had indeed marched to the sea.

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Day 4: Milledgeville, Where Dead Men Tell Tales

At 7am on November 15, 1864, General William T. Sherman and 60,000 Union soldiers started their 300-mile march southeast through Georgia. According to Sherman’s memoirs,

“We rode out of Atlanta by the Decatur road, filled by the marching troops and wagons of the Fourteenth Corps; and reaching the hill, just outside of the old rebel works, we naturally paused to look back upon the scenes of our past battles…Behind us lay Atlanta, smoldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city.

A week later, Sherman arrived at the state capitol of Milledgeville.

And so after leaving Atlanta I spent a lovely evening and following day in this charming small town. After a tour of the gorgeous old Governor’s Mansion, I spent most of the day with Dr. Bob Wilson, professor emeritus and University Historian of Georgia College. He proved to be an extraordinarily knowledgeable, generous, and funny companion.

We drove out to Memory Hill Cemetery, where it seemed Bob knew each resident. I saw the graves of slaves, of Odd Fellows with actual three-link chains (the group’s symbol), and of patients in what had been the world’s largest “lunatic asylum.” I met glamorous outlaw Bill Miner, as well as relative newcomers like Senator Carl Vinson and writer Flannery O’Connor. And everywhere lay the dead sons, brothers, and fathers whose graves were marked by Confederate flags.  
One of the town’s most famous sons is Oliver Hardy, of Laurel & Hardy fame. Hardy interned at the local cinema as a boy, vowed to become an actor, and eventually became world-famous. My history professor turned into just another breathless fan when rapturously describing Hardy’s involvement with the town, and he insisted we look at the marker showing where Hardy had lived.

After lunch and visits to two former cotton plantations on the edge of town, the state capitol building was our next stop, an enormous faux-medieval building now owned by Georgia Military School. I looked at the three upper-floor windows, on whose other side is the room in which delegates enthusiastically declared Georgia’s secession from the Union on January 19, 1861.   

As Sherman’s soldiers had approached the town almost four war-weary years later, the Governor and state legislature left Milledgeville quite abruptly. Some of the arriving troops then held a mock legislative session in the capitol building, jokingly voting Georgia back into the Union.

On June 15, 1870 Georgia was the last Confederate state to rejoin the United States.

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Day Three: The Civil War Ends in Atlanta

The modern city of Atlanta has a fine history museum, with tens of thousands of civil war artifacts donated by world-famous collectors. I spent the morning there among the school children, retirees, and out-of-town descendants of soldiers who’d come to visit.

You could spend a whole day just admiring the museum’s collection of rifles, or medical kits, or personal letters, or any number of other things they have there.

I loved a large silk shawl on display featuring the portraits of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and generals such as Johnston and Hood. The textile was so fine it looked like photography.

And I was touched by a display of sheet music of then-current songs popular on both sides, such as When Johnny Comes Marching Home and The Vacant Chair.

Looking at a full-size wooden supply wagon, my companion Michael Hitt said it’s the single surviving example of its type. Its serial number shows it was used by the 20th Army Corps—the same corps in which his ancestral cousin Lt. Joseph Hitt served under General Hooker.

In fact, just two days before Pickett’s Mill (see Day One blogpost), the wagon served the army at the Battle of New Hope—the battle at which Lt. Hitt died, part of the 2nd Infantry, 66th Ohio.

That was chilling enough, but this wagon and I were just getting acquainted, and would meet again an hour later.

But now it was time to leave the museum for Vinings, a suburb 5.5 miles due west, across the Chattahoochee, the river that so many Atlantans hoped would protect them from Sherman’s army in 1864. While the river runs east-west below Roswell (see Day Two blogpost), it runs north-south between Vinings and Atlanta.

Parking in a corner of the Vinings campus of the prestigious Lovett School (K-12, tuition today some $30,000 per year), I saw the original line of earthworks built by Union soldiers to protect themselves while advancing toward Atlanta. I smelled the earth, gently touching it.

The same supply wagon I’d seen in the museum had been at this very earthworks 154 years ago.

The retreating Confederate army crossed the river east by pontoon bridge on July 6, destroying the bridge behind them. Two days later, the Union army crossed east on its own pontoon bridges.

Of course the supply wagon was part of that army.

Today there’s a modern bridge over the Chattahoochee at the spot where both armies required pontoons. Michael and I walked out onto its wooden pedestrian lane, looking at the wide river to our left and right. “That wagon was right here crossing below us,” said Michael quietly. It was chilling.
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After gratefully saying goodbye to Michael, I headed toward my car. I knew the rest of that summer’s story.

Sherman had decided that a frontal assault on Atlanta was pointless, so he headed south around the city. After a series of skirmishes, an army of 24,000 Confederates met Sherman and 70,000 Union soldiers 15 miles outside the city in the epic battle of Jonesborough on August 31.

It was a Union rout. And who was left to defend Atlanta’s northside? No one. Confederate commander John Bell Hood ordered the evacuation of Atlanta on September 1. The following day a Union captain—a captain!—entered and accepted the key to the city from Mayor James Calhoun.

Nine weeks later an invigorated country reelected Abraham Lincoln President. A week after that Sherman started his six-week March to the Sea, destroying Georgia’s food supply and the South’s will to continue fighting.

I was heading to Savannah myself, although I could get there in a matter of hours, not weeks. As I got into my car, I felt unexpectedly sad. Northern Georgia had opened its treasures to me, and for 72 hours I had lived the smell of gunpowder and the sound of marching. My three days were intensely exciting, and yet the suffering I documented seemed so profoundly pointless.

And brave Atlanta had lost its war.

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