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.