This is an interesting story out of Roswell, Georgia. Those of you well-versed in the history of William T. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign already know this story, but it is the commemorative aspect of it that I find interesting. Following the capture of the Roswell Manufacturing Company mills Sherman ordered its employees to be arrested for treason:
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 [railroad] cars, to the North. . . . Let them [the women] take along their children and clothing, providing they have a means of hauling or you can spare them.
The men, women, and children who were arrested eventually ended up in Louisville, Kentucky and a few even crossed into Indiana. While both northern and southern newspapers covered the event and even criticized Sherman’s handling of it the story was eventually forgotten only to be resurrected in 1988 by the Roswell Mills Camp No. 1547, Sons of the Confederate Veterans. This year’s commemoration will take place on April 26 and will feature Mary Deborah Petite, author of “The Women Will Howl,” which is a novel set in the mills. Click here for the New Georgia Encyclopedia’s entry for this incident.
It would be interesting to know a bit more about what exactly is being commemorated. As an aspect of Sherman’s “total war” policy it seems fairly mild. I could find no evidence of undue harm being imposed on the employees, beyond the fear and uncertainty that would have accompanied their displacement. This does, of course, fit into the tendency of highlighting the Union army as the principal threat to the peacefulness and sanctity of the southern home. No one will deny that Union armies contributed a great deal to the disorder that was experienced on the home front from the destruction of private property to the freeing of slaves. However, we’ve learned a great deal over the last decade about the extent to which acts of violence were committed between white southerners. Joe Glatthaar spends some time exploring in his latest book the ways in which the presence and movement of the Army of Northern Virginia disrupted the lives of those in its vicinity and how it often led to serious incidents of violence, destruction, and displacement. Historians that have addressed violence between white southerners include W. Todd Groce, Noel Fisher, Robert T. McKenzie, and Robert R. Mackey. As usual commemorative ceremonies work best when there is a sharp distinction between right and wrong; it feeds the emotions and may even work to satisfy some type of presentist concern that is at work within the act of commemoration.
While the commemorative event at Roswell addresses a historical moment during the war I wonder to what extent it feeds into an overly simplified picture of North v. South or Union v. Confederate. The emphasis on commemorating the effects of war on southern civilians is also unusual given the western world’s tendency over the course of the twentieth century to blur the distinction between what constitutes a legitimate military and civilian target. Within that context isn’t it reasonable to ask whether it is worth acknowledging at all?