Commemorating Displaced White Southerners in Georgia

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?

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6 comments… add one
  • HankC Apr 2, 2008 @ 21:10

    Elements of the Roswell story make it unique in the annals of the war.

    Later in 1864, Sherman evacuates the civilian population of Atlanta south to Hood’s lines.

    Ewing’s General Order 11, clears everyone of all political stripes from 3½ counties of western Missouri.

    During the Gettysburg and Antietam campaigns, Lee’s forces seize and send free blacks south into slavery.

    In these 3 cases, there are a number of principles, however shaky, at work. The Atlanta civilians are being moved out of harm’s way and their journey is a short 20 miles. Ewing forces *everyone* to leave the guerilla-plagued region but once out, they are free to go where they please (and become someone else’s problem). The Army of Northern Virginia is a political tool as well as a war machine and part of those politics is the enslavement of black men.

    The Roswell saga is a unique case where a targeted group of civilians are forcibly expatriated to deep within enemy territory. Sherman’s motives are unknown and unknowable. Few of his biographers mention it and his memoirs do not. In a similar situation at Meridian the year before, Sherman allows the workers in a tent factory to continue working for a while – then he burns the mill but allows the workers to leave.

  • Kevin Levin Apr 1, 2008 @ 18:13

    I probably will not have the time to read it so I hope you are able to post on the book once you finish reading it. My intention was not to question the history, but to provoke some thought in terms of how the southern home front is remembered. Most of the war took place in the South and the longer it continued the more likely significant numbers would be effected by it. That is the nature of war. That said, I still find it strange that our tendency is to simplify it in the ways outlined in the post.

  • Paul Taylor Apr 1, 2008 @ 17:59


    You are correct. The book contains plenty of primary sources, both published and manuscript. Dozens of period newspapers and government documents are also cited.


  • Kevin Levin Apr 1, 2008 @ 16:21

    Billy, — Thanks, but I don’t read Lew Rockwell since it is not serious history.

    Paul, — Thanks for chiming in on this one. I assume by “well-researched” you mean that specific sources are cited. When I read the news item I also thought it sounded extreme, but then again I only had the encyclopedia article for background and it didn’t say much of anything about their lives once they arrived in Kentucky and Indiana. It sounds like a fascinating story and one that I would like to know more about. Still, in the context of popular memory of Sherman and his time in Georgia this is much more mild compared with the silly allegations of mass executions and rape that continue to be bandied about.

  • Paul Taylor Apr 1, 2008 @ 15:57

    Hi Kevin,

    Just a quick fyi. I’m currently reading “The Women Will Howl” and will then review it for Civil War News. It is not a novel but rather the author’s well-researched account of what transpired at Roswell in July 1864. From what I’ve gathered so far, the author’s main focus is not that Sherman destroyed the mills and the town; that was fairly routine for Cump Sherman, but rather that he declared those women and children working in the factories to be traitors. They were marched under armed guard to Marietta and then shipped in train cars to the north where they were dumped and left to fend for themselves. Many of them never saw there homes again. The point is made that even by Sherman’s liberal standards, such action went well beyond the accepted norms.


  • Billy Yank Apr 1, 2008 @ 14:56

    Have you read Dilorenzo’s latest attack on real history?

    Making Saints of Monsters.


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