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.
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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Day 2: Treachery at the Chattahoochee; Romance in Roswell

Today was a morning of treachery followed by an afternoon of romance, both in Roswell.

After battles at Pickett’s Mill and Kennesaw Mountain, Sherman’s armies continued to push south and east toward Atlanta. As the Confederates continued their orderly retreats (punctuated by delaying battles), the eyes of both armies focused on the Chattahoochee River. 

Up to 300 feet deep and 200 feet wide in some places, the Chattachoochee curves around Atlanta, forming a natural barrier on its north and west. There were a limited number of bridges crossing it, and the Confederates were blowing them up to stop Union armies from capturing Atlanta.

There was a bridge near the town of Roswell—site of a huge modern cotton mill, powered by a dam and water wheels. It processed cotton from plantations all over the area, manufacturing goods for export while cranking out war materiel such as fine uniforms for Confederate officers.

As Sherman’s armies marched nearer, Confederates destroyed the bridge, torching the cotton bales with which they’d swaddled it. Union soldiers on the other side of the river described the flaming scene as being bright as daylight.

With the last bridge gone, desperate Union soldiers found a place to wade across the river into Roswell. 

When they got to the mill they broke it into unusable pieces, joined in the task by gleeful Southern mill workers who resented the fat cats getting rich from their labor. As the stockholders hastily left town, they had actually assumed the workers would protect the plant.

The Federals then arrested all the workers (mostly women and children)—not as prisoners of war (which would acknowledge the Confederacy as a legitimate country), but as traitors—Americans aiding a treasonous rebellion.

These arrested people were sent on a variety of amazing refugee journeys west and north that ultimately would see some of them imprisoned, some marry Federal soldiers, some become Union hospital nurses, some dumped homeless on Northern streets, and some reunited with captured family members in the Confederate army.

My guide Michael Hitt, author of books and lectures on Roswell, gave me a three-hour non-stop private lecture as we walked to the Union river crossing, the abandoned mill, and related sites. We even saw places associated with the Cherokee and Creek Indians, residents of Northern Georgia before Andrew Jackson’s 1830 executive order banished them to Oklahoma via the infamous Trail of Tears.

Michael showed me a plaque with the quote from General Winfield Scott begging the Indians to leave so he wouldn’t have to destroy their nation. They did march into exile. At least a quarter of them died.

Roswell’s industrial capacity was crippled and its workers expelled. But Roswell didn’t die. It soon became important in ways no one had expected.

Back in 1839 one of Roswell’s first settlers (and an investor in the cotton mill) built his enormous, elegant Greek Revival house and named it Bulloch Hall. It quickly became a center of Roswell social life, and fourteen years later his youngest daughter married Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. A few years later they had a son named Theodore Jr., who became President in 1901. He visited his mother’s old home at Bulloch Hall in 1905, which by then had become a national treasure.

Although not technically open today, I was allowed in with Michael, who seemingly knew everything about the place. I was given a facsimile of a 1923 newspaper interview with an elderly woman who had been a bridesmaid at Roosevelt Senior’s wedding, right there in the house. The interview was by a then-new journalist named Margaret Mitchell, who later wrote Gone With the Wind.

It’s fitting, because Mitchell modeled trader Rhett Butler on James Stevens Bulloch, the settler (and international trader) who had built the house. She modeled Scarlett on his daughter Mittie, who later married Roosevelt Sr. The Bulloch house itself has been used in dozens of movies, and was the model for the film’s plantation home Tara.

Inside I saw a rail from Roosevelt’s private train, and above it the U.S. flag the train flew when it pulled into Roswell. I saw photos of Roosevelt flanked by the freed slaves who had served his mother.

Despite his heavy woolen Union army uniform Michael was still fresh enough to continue exploring the house and grounds. But heat and my fatigue rendered me unfit for additional duty, and we ended our tour in the late afternoon.

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Day 1: Trench Warfare in the Mountains

Eighty-eight years after its founding, America’s precarious future would be decided in the summer and fall of 1864, in the remote mountains of northern Georgia.

After three long years the people of the North had grown tired of the war, tired of the draft, tired of the inflation, tired of incessant debates about The Negro Question.

They desperately wanted the war to end, but the end was nowhere in sight. What was in sight was the upcoming presidential election of November 1864. If Abraham Lincoln won, the war would continue. If Northern war hero John McClelland won, he would sue for peace–and allow slavery to continue and even expand.

If the North didn’t win a tangible victory soon, Lincoln would lose.

Union General Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate General Robert E. Lee were wrestling to a stalemate in Virginia. The Union army had conquered most of Tennessee. So General William T. Sherman was instructed to win the war by capturing Atlanta–the South’s economic and railroad powerhouse that was feeding and equipping soldiers across the Confederacy.

Sherman had to go through those northern Georgia mountains. That’s what I did today, spending the morning at Pickett’s Mill State Battlefield and the afternoon at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield.

I saw the trenches dug by each side in 1864. I walked the wooden bridge over Little Pumpkin Vine Creek. I hiked the emergency road built by the Confederates to support their interior lines–which saved countless lives when their Right Flank cavalry was routed. I saw the hills and ravines that defined who would attack and who would defend, who would live and who would die.

So many soldiers died that their comrades had to step on their corpses to move forward. I stepped where those dead soldiers had lain.

My world-class guides brought the ground, trees, and rocks to life: one young research historian living full-time at the Pickett’s Mill site, and one retired researcher and author in full Union uniform, quoting soldiers’ letters, using their own words to describe their last hours the night before dying in battle.

We ended the day at Marietta National Cemetery, where the Union soldiers from Kennesaw Mountain are buried–each one lying next to the comrades with whom he had died.

The battle for Atlanta had just begun. Many more men would die.



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My Ten-Day “March” Through Georgia

In Atlanta, I’m told, you can get your steak cooked four ways: rare, medium, well-done, or Shermanized: burnt to a crisp.

If you remember your high school American History class, you may recall General William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea (see map). sherman

After capturing Atlanta in September 1864, he and 62,000 Union soldiers marched southeast on a five-week campaign, destroying Georgia’s war-making infrastructure and civilian economy while living off the land. He captured the Atlantic port city of Savannah on December 21 without firing a shot.

It was the turning point of the four-year Civil War, which ended less than five months later.

For ten days starting April 10, I’ll be following General Sherman. I’ll spend two days at the mountain battlefields south of the Tennessee border, and a day studying the (futile) Confederate fortifications around Atlanta. Moving southeast, I’ll spend a day in Milledgeville (Georgia’s capitol during the war), and then three days in Savannah visiting the old forts built to protect the harbor, as well as the state’s oldest synagogue and cemetary.

And just as Sherman did, I’ll then go north up the coast for three days in Charleston, South Carolina. I’ll end the trip where the Civil War started—touring Fort Sumter, as well as an antebellum cotton plantation.

Unlike Sherman, I’ll drive, stay in comfortable hotels, and have world-class historians for guides. And unlike Sherman, I’ll know what happened—which no one, of course, ever knows in advance.

Sure, I could vacation in Paris or Tokyo. But give me the 19th century and I’m transported. Do come along—you will be, too. Just click the “Follow!” button at the top of this page, to the right of General Sherman.

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Ending the U.K. Trip in Christchurch

My last day in England was spent in and around Oxford’s magnificent Christchurch College and Cathedral.

To whet my appetite, we started the day at the Ashmolean museum. The airy, multi-story building has a bit of everything, from a full-size Egyptian royal mummy and burial chamber almost 3,000 years old; to the ceremonial robe of Powhatan (father of Pocahontas), the powerful Virginia Indian chief who greeted the English when they first settled Jamestown in 1607; to the robes and sandals of T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”); to a case with gloves actually worn by, from left to right, Henry VIII, Queen Anne, and Queen Elizabeth I.

When I exclaimed that surely this case must be among the most treasured objects in the world, my guide unself-consciously replied “Oh, we have much cooler stuff than that in here.”

And so it was on to Christchurch, where the entire trip came together.

Notable Christchurch College alumni include William Penn; John Locke; John Wesley; King Edward VII; 13 British prime ministers, including William Gladstone, Robert Peel and Anthony Eden; Lewis Carroll; and the Winklevoss twins (co-founders of Facebook). But let’s start at the beginning.

Named after the Saxon patron saint of Oxford, St. Frideswide was established as a priory of Augustinians in 1122 under England’s Henry I.

Remember King Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries (and other vast church holdings)? In 1525 Henry’s ultimate fixer Cardinal Wolsey grabbed St. Frideswide’s and adjacent religious lands so that he could found a new Oxford college, modestly called Cardinal College. He even had Henry’s personal carpenter construct the ornate roof.

After Wolsey fell from power in 1530, King Henry VIII took over the new college, renaming it (again, modestly) King Henry’s College. The surviving portion of the old church became the chapel for the new college; after Henry broke from Rome and organized the Church of England, he renamed the college Christ Church, and grew the chapel into the area’s cathedral, also called Christ Church.

Its nave, choir, main tower and transepts are late Norman. It’s one of England’s smaller cathedrals, and if a huge stone building can be called cozy, this one is, especially when compared to the stupendous Canterbury Cathedral.

But the story doesn’t end there.

King Charles I made Oxford his military headquarters during English Civil War, and convened his Parliament in the Cathedral in 1645. Still later, when the Puritans stormed through southern England, they smashed as many of Christchurch Cathedral’s stained glass windows as they could reach. I saw the clear windows that replaced the vandalized ones—with the original small colored ones way on top, where Puritan rage couldn’t reach.

And in between Henry and Charles?

Back out on Broad Street, a yellow-brick X marks the place where Thomas Cranmer (legal architect of the Church of England) and other Reformation leaders were executed by the Catholic government of Queen Mary in 1556. A hundred yards away is a memorial to the martyrs erected by the post-Mary Protestant government.

The thing about history is that they’re always making
more of it.

Especially in England. Here’s graffiti near the Christchurch College dining hall–“only” 1.5 centuries old. It was a protest against Prime Minister Peel’s proposal to accept Catholics as full citizens.

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A Thousand Years of Oxford

Canterbury to London to Oxford by westbound trains, and here I am in another ancient English city.

The Saxons settled it due to its strategic location on the Thames (oxford=a place where oxen could ford the river). A century later those pesky Vikings burned Oxford, and kept raiding other parts of England, so in 1002 English King Aethelred ordered the killing of all Viking men in Oxford. The back-and-forth destruction continued until the Norman invasion of 1066.

I’m staying in an apartment about 3 minutes from the Thames, steps away from Folly Bridge. It’s named after the 13th-century philosopher-theologian-linguist Roger Bacon, who had a workshop nearby. Locals thought the genius scientist (and philosopher and statesman and jurist) a kook, and so called the bridge nearby “folly.”

I spent the day touring Oxford University, which involves touring the individual colleges. These semi-autonomous colleges were founded at various times starting in 1096; business really picked up when English students were banned from the University of Paris in 1167.


Each college includes a chapel, dining hall, student residence quads, and an enormous green area. Apparently each college spends a fortune keeping up their English gardens and lawns, and are quite competitive about it. In fact, it seems these colleges are competitive in every way possible—croquet, rowing, and of course drinking.

In New College (14th century), one side of the enormous lawn is bounded by what’s left of the original city wall. In Merton College, the chapel is an astonishing achievement of at least six different carved woods.


I also went to some of Oxford’s more famous buildings—the Bodleian library, the Ashmolean museum, the Museum of the History of Science. In the latter I saw astrolabes, Chinese perfume clocks (different incenses burn at different rates–it’s jasmine o’clock!), Einstein’s calculation of the size of the universe (on a chalkboard stolen by students when he was here in 1931), and a then-newfangled camera used by Lawrence of Arabia.


The streets and alleyways here are just a riot of medieval and Renaissance buildings, all Gothic arches, yellow sandstone and gargoyles with not-so-hidden meanings–all seasoned with the occasional 300-year-old pub.

Today students at Oxford are expected to work harder than their aristocratic ancestors, who mostly sat around and even had servants carry their books. They dress in modern- day clothes—except when taking their annual exams, when they’re expected to wear their robes. There are even periodic oral exams when mentors grill students in front of their peers. There are, blessedly, no recorded instances of complaints of micro-aggressions or lack of safe spaces. These are, after all, descendants of the people who kicked Viking butt.

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