HOWLING GROUNDS AND SCORCHED EARTH: FOLLOWING SHERMAN’S MARCH THROUGH GEORGIA
Pt 1. Through Butts County to Macon
The old guy in the booth told us the mountain was closed. “You can drive around all y’ all want, but we’re down for the season.” In hiking shorts, at the gates to Stone Mountain on another one of our journeys out from Atlanta, George and I surrendered our plan to trek up the summit. Studying the brochure as we fled the place, I realized Stone Mountain sold itself as a commercial, Confederate version of Mt. Rushmore. Its massive carving of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis was the “largest bas-relief in the world.” The brochure proclaimed the mountain “sacred ground.”
Sacred to whom? Was I supposed to pay twenty bucks to admire the carvings of three enemies of American unity and universal liberty? The details got worse and worse. In season, the park featured skyrides, scenic trains, golf-course resorts, “the world’s largest laser light show,” and something called the Yogi Bear 4-D adventure. Konfederate Kitsch. “I can’t stand pay-to-play motorized amusements.” I wagged the brochure at George in disgust. “Jesus.”
“You’re swearing again.” He laughed. “Don’t you like fun?”
“I hate fun!” I cried. Later I learned historical facts about Stone Mountain that would curdle any amusement. When George Washington’s treaties with the mountain’s native, rightful owners failed, warfare began against the Creek Indians. The tribe lost the battle and their sacred mountain in 1821. A century later, the Ku Klux Klan got heavily involved, fundraising to build the Confederate monument. The racist terror group used Stone Mountain for annual rallies until 1981.
We explored back roads between Atlanta’s exurbs and our next destination just southward, Macon. Happily lost on twists and turns of side roads that followed the Ocmulgee River toward Macon, George and I stopped at the courthouse square of Jackson, county seat of Butts County. As soon as we parked the car and popped onto Main Street, contemptuous laugher howled past. A trio of young guys hooted from a pickup, pointing at us as we left our rental car. Yowls receding, they sped away from the town square. I checked for a gun rack on the old pickup, telling George we were going to be forced at gunpoint into some ditch and left for dead just because our rental car had Atlanta plates. “They think we’re city slickers, wearing shorts in the fall.”
“Or is it because I’m black and you’re white?”
As we waited to be dismembered, dragged to death hitched behind that pickup, it hit us. Compared to Stone Mountain, at least Jackson felt authentic, the winner in a thousand casting calls for Small Southern Town—the old courthouse, the Confederate monument, complete with heroic bronze soldier overlooking the shabby, struggling businesses ringing the square. Around the next corner, I expected to spot Cool Hand Luke lashed to a chain gang and a fat sheriff leashed to a bloodhound.
Wandering the square, we stopped to puzzle over a long list of rules. You couldn’t enter the courthouse with 1) electronic device,2) handbag 3) briefcase 3) hat 4) sunglasses 5) shorts 6) baggy pants or 7) untucked shirttails. It was like an archaic middle school dress code, including a ban on male earrings. George was amused at the petty prudery of it all. In full ACLU dudgeon, I was horrified at the breach of civil liberties. In our hike-less hiking clothes, we couldn’t explore the 19th Century Butts County courthouse and were reduced to circling the exterior, reading historical markers. As we studied them, the pickup shotgun trio made another pass, howling again.
One Civil War marker detailed Union troops invading Butts County during the 1864 March to the Sea, General Sherman’s arson scorching the earth between Atlanta and Savannah. Butts was only a few counties south of Atlanta and Jackson one of the first towns Sherman’s troops ravaged for supplies and “forage” while destroying mills, severing rail links, burning crops, and killing livestock.
When we asked about the strict courthouse rules at a Mexican place off the square, our chatty young Latino waiter became cautious. He wanted to know if we had local connections. After we made it clear that we were just strangers, and lost, he began to speak freely, mentioning the “backward” quality of towns around, including some we had just passed through: “Those little redneck burgs make Jackson look good, and Jackson isn’t so great.” He talked about Alabama’s recent immigration law and how it endangered natives as well as legal residents, casting every other fellow citizen as either spy or accomplice for even associating with undocumented people. He said Georgia had almost passed a similar law, and the close call made him feel alienated from his fellow Georgians. “It’s weird, how I’ve lived here all my life, and local whites still assume I don’t know about country music or where to get good grits. They’re astonished that I’m just a typical Southerner. It’s just not funny anymore. This town has a lot of darkness.”
The first entry in the 687 pages of Jackson’s official history described the town’s origin as “a place that was once howling grounds for two packs of wolves…frightful to early settlers due to the hideous howling.” Unlike Rome’s origin story, though, Jackson’s wolves never nurtured anything. “In 1826, Indians were scalping and skylarking wherever they liked.” Indian Springs staged another broken treaty with the Creek Indians, robbing the tribe of their ancestral claim to most of Georgia. Four decades later, “Butts County men answered the call to war, becoming the ‘Jeff Davis Rifles’ on July 9, 1861. Next came the Butts Invincibles.”
The Butts men turned out to be far from invincible. The brass-plate histories in the courthouse square told of their disastrous loss. “Patriotism” and “Love of Country” were ascribed to the young soldiers who took up arms against their birth nation. I howled in protest. George, absorbing the information, defended the right of the soldiers to fight for the “new country” of the Confederate States and implored me to understand “their point of view.” Meanwhile, the pickup trio made a third pass, though this time their jeering toned down. George waved at them. As if exhausted by their exertions of free-lance contempt, they simply waved back. After, George insisted their truck didn’t even have a rifle rack.
When we hit the back road to Macon, I pretended to empathize with the Confederate point of view to appease George, then gave up and declared that the entire Confederacy stunk. “The Lost Cause was contaminated from the start,” I told George, “by the weakness and premature nature of its intentions.” Think of a family house, I told him, only a few generations old. “It’s still being built and expanded, but half the children think it’s okay to betray their parents and abandon it. Abandon it, then attack it!” Wasn’t the Confederate secession from the young nation just an ill-formed whim, a bad idea that unleashed self-destruction?
The heat of my response surprised me. What inspired my impassioned “American House” metaphor? Since when was I, who avoided patriotism as much as amusement parks, the big defender of the Union’s unity? And now George, who went all Black Panther at the smallest challenge to the glory of Negritude, was suddenly taking the slave-masters’ side in the Civil War!
Not even a full day had passed on our journey out of Atlanta, and we were already gripped in the Civil War’s reach across the centuries. The sky closed over us, dark and roiling. As autumn leaves shredded, horizonal across the windshield, I felt trapped in that spooky scene in To Kill A Mockingbird when Scout heads home from a Halloween party, blind in her ham-hock costume to her attacker’s snatching hands.
The storm chased us the short distance to Macon, but George and I were determined to explore the city despite the pouring rain and falling dark. Armed with a damp map of Macon’s Historic Buildings, we prowled the hilltop north of downtown, dutifully locating Italianate and Queen Anne addresses, some the best samples of antebellum houses left in the South. We ended the day standing in the rain before a hilltop mansion’s historical marker, which declared that Sherman’s earth-scorching had marched his forces and torches down the Ocmulgee River in November 1864, halting across the river from the town. Only flood-stage waters prevented Sherman from setting fire to Macon. Though the city was spared from Union’s arson, Macon suffered under long occupation. This mansion, the Woodruff House, had served as a Union headquarters during the last months of the Civil War.
I tried to wrap my wet head around it: occupation. Right here. American military men occupied private American property, their incendiary trail still ablaze from Atlanta to Macon to forecast their ruthlessness. They’d kicked fellow American families out of their houses and turned parlors into war strategy centers. Finally, sympathy for the Confederate predicament slid into me like cold rain at nightfall.
* * * *
Under the next morning’s bright sun, George and I peered across the Ocmulgee River into central Macon, trying to fix our sights on Cannonball House, where the only Union shot fired into Rebel Macon had landed “with a thud.” We stood atop the Great Temple Mound and regarded the flat, swampy horizon of the Macon Plateau. With a rocket launcher, we could’ve easily fired on sitting-duck Macon.
Great Temple Mound was the centerpiece of Ocmulgee National Monument. The green-velvet expanse of archeological sites on the east bank of the Ocmulgee dated back 17,000 years, a flabbergasting number for North American “Paleo-Indian” human settlement (especially for those whose hemispheric history starts in 1492). As late as 1540, Spanish explorer DeSoto found thriving palisades and villages, the last phase of the ancient Mississippian culture in Ocmulgee. A violent narrative scorched itself upon millennia of civilized occupation in 1864, when the site was the bivouac for Sherman’s forces. Exploring the paths around the Temple Mound, we never knew if an earthwork was a mound-builder remnant or Civil War redoubt. Soldiers used the mounds for war preparations, even cutting a trench through the Grand Temple, just another battleground in that nasty squabble over slavery that ripped apart the American house.