When planning a big production like the Burning of Atlanta, you have to rehearse before the premiere. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, he of "War is hell" fame, therefore used a classic theatrical device: the out-of-town tryout.
So, in the hot, dusty July of 1864, the Civil War came to Roswell. Specifically, to the Roswell Mills. Water-powered, tucked in a ravine along Vickery Creek just east of the town square, the 400-employee firm did a thriving trade weaving "Confederate gray" cloth.
The very success of this enterprise put it high on the Federal hit list. As the Yankee juggernaut zigzagged south toward Atlanta, repeatedly outflanking Rebel defenders, bluecoats had the Roswell Mills directly in their gunsights.
Beleaguered Confederates, concerned about the impending siege of Atlanta, already had pulled back from Roswell when Union cavalry rode into town. Sherman's forces found it largely populated by women, elderly men and children, most of whom worked at the mill. But not for long.
The story goes that at this juncture, Theophile Roche, a French-born weaver, tried un solution diplomatique. In treatying with the Yankees, he raised the flag of la belle France and, in a gesture of Gallic chutzpah, proclaimed the neutrality of the company and its employees.
Perhaps it was bad temper in time of war, or the C[onfederate] S[tates] of A[merica] logo seen on mill-made goods. Maybe it's just because Americans have always been irritated by high-falutin' Frenchmen. But Billy Yank wasn't buying. The Roswell Mills were about to have a fire sale.
Not that Sherman himself was blundering around Vickery Creek with a can of lighter fluid. That task was left to the local cavalry commander, Gen. Kenner Garrard.
"There were fine factories here," he reported to Sherman from Roswell on July 6. "I had the building burnt, all were burnt."
His commander wrote back the next day: "Their utter destruction is right," Sherman declared, "and meets my entire approval."
There would be more to come.
A King's legacy
As the mills went up in flames, smoke from the fire rose up the ravine near Founders Cemetery and the grave of Roswell King who, with his son Barrington, had founded the settlement which bears his name, as well as the Roswell Mills.
King was a banker who came up from the Georgia coast in the early 1830s after America's first gold rush turned North Georgia (and a luckless, soon-to-be-evicted Cherokee Nation) into Boomtown, U.S.A.
Local historian Caroline Matheny Dillman, author of Days Gone By in Alpharetta and Roswell, notes what happened next. "On route north, King happened by the confluence of Vickery Creek and the Chattahoochee River," she said. "He saw not only the beauty of the spot, but also its potential."
King and his sons returned to the area to construct a dam and textile mill. Until that time, most Southern cotton was sent to mills up North for production into clothing and other consumer goods. The Kings decided to make that profit themselves.
Roswell King's slaves built much of the original mill in the late 1830s. More coastal gentry -- and their human charges -- were to arrive thereafter.
"Originally, some of Roswell's founding families just planned to be there as a summer retreat, to get away from the malaria and mosquitoes," Dillman notes. "But they liked it so much, they wanted to get in on King's venture."
They were a new class of people to the area, the kind of aristocrats who'd have a piano toted all the way up from the coast, along with furniture imported from Europe. They had money, they had slaves and they were accustomed to living well. Several of their handsome homes, most in private hands, still stand near old town Roswell.
When the Kings needed help, they hired local whites eking out a bare living on rocky farmsteads in the countryside -- the "yeomanry" in olde English terms -- to live and work in the mill village. These ex-farmers and their descendants were the kind of people still at the mill when Sherman's men hit town.
The Roswell women
After Federal raiders reduced the Roswell textile enterprise to smoking ruins, its former hands, most of them female, were not left to find new pursuits. Instead, Sherman issued a draconian edict: "I have ordered General Garrard to arrest for treason all (mill) owners and employees," he wrote to headquarters in Washington.
To Garrard himself, Sherman was more explicit: "Arrest all people, male and female connected with these factories, no matter what the clamor, and let them foot it, under guard, to Marietta, then I will send them by (railroad) cars to the North."
Whereupon hundreds of female mill hands, as well as children whose fathers were off fighting the war, made a harsh nine-day trek by rail to the Ohio River, thence across by boat into Kentucky and Indiana. Several died along the way. Most made a new life up North. A few came back South after the war, including Adeline Bagley Buice.
Pregnant at the time Sherman's men arrived in Roswell, her husband fighting with the Confederate army, she was a mill seamstress who made her way to Chicago after the deportations. Five years later, she returned, on foot, to Roswell with her daughter, only to find that her husband, also back but believing her dead, had remarried.
Buice's woeful history is documented, and her Forsyth County grave is tended by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. But the majority of mill women were never heard from again. The mystery of their fate persists to this day, although researchers still labor to locate descendants.
Sherman on the couch
Why was Sherman so particularly vindictive in the Roswell Mills case?
"Had the usual attitudes prevailed, the destruction of the industrial complex would have ended the matter," observes Webb Garrison, former associate dean of Emory University, in his book Atlanta and the War. "That it did not was due to the temperament and inclination of the man."
The persona of that man, Sherman, had been sharply etched in childhood by the death of his father and separation from his mother. The dual Freudian calamities bred what one Sherman biographer has termed a "passion for order" and a fierce hatred for disunity -- the kind wrought on the American Union, the American family, by secession.
Strange to relate, Sherman had strong and emotional ties to the South. Before the war, he served as superintendent of the Louisiana Military Seminary. He counted as personal friends P.G.T. Beauregard and Braxton Bragg, both of whom would lead Confederate armies, and wept as he took his leave of the cadets.
What's more, Sherman was pro-slavery, or at least not terribly troubled about the South's "peculiar institution." Preserving the Union set him against the region for which he professed so much affection.
But, as the songwriter said, you always hurt the one you love.
An evolving strategy
As Southern states left the Union, Sherman, predicting "civil war, anarchy and ruin," went back North. Throughout the secession winter of 1860-61, and after South Carolina's attack on Fort Sumter that April, he despaired of Federal resolve.
"You politicians have got things in a hell of a fix," he grumbled to his brother John, U.S. senator from their native Ohio. "And you may get them out as best you can."
By late 1861 Sherman, now an Army general, was said to be on the verge of a breakdown. Successive Federal losses had severely unnerved him. "Our government is destroyed," he lamented. "And no human power can restore it."
Sherman called for hundreds of thousands of additional troops to suppress the rebellion, this at a time when cocksure Yankees were still confidently predicting swift Confederate defeat. Northern newspapers declared Sherman insane, and he was temporarily relieved of command.
But as the Union cause saw bloody reality and dug in for the long haul, Sherman's foresight -- plus his skill at soldiering -- saw him back in command. He prosecuted the war to the utmost, believing that Southern civilian morale, as well as Confederate military strength, had to be broken if the war was ever to end.
"We are not only fighting hostile armies," he wrote, "but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hand of war ... The entire South, man, woman and child, is against us, armed and determined."
In the summer of 1864, Union forces were stalemated on several fronts, so Sherman's natural impatience was exacerbated further by the time his forces neared Atlanta. The fighting had been particularly hard at Kennesaw Mountain, where 3,000 Federal casualties (versus 800 Confederate) dissuaded him from further frontal assaults.
In view of all that, the "total war" tactics he practiced in Georgia were entirely in keeping with his Hobbesian ideas about armed conflict. The more nasty and brutish the struggle, the shorter the war.
So Sherman's men burned houses, reduced grand pianos to kindling and stripped Southern mansions of their Old World finery. His troops were "a power, and I intended to utilize it ... to humble [Southerners'] pride, to follow them to their inmost recesses, and to make them fear and dread us."
When Union troops captured Atlanta in September 1864 and Mayor James M. Calhoun asked for Federal leniency in dealing with the conquered city, Sherman's response was blunt. "You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will," he told Calhoun. "War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it."
This message was followed by Sherman's orders to burn Atlanta's war-related industries -- he always denied ordering the entire city's destruction -- and expel its inhabitants. It was the latter move which Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood said, "transcends, in studious and ingenious cruelty, all acts ever brought to my attention in the dark history of war."
Harsh words, but Hood shouldn't have been surprised. Sherman had already done the same, two months earlier, in a little place called Roswell.
What to See
The Roswell Mills were rebuilt after the Civil War, and operated in one form or another until 1975. Fires and time have taken their toll, but ruins of the original mill site, including walls built by slave stonemasons, can be seen from several vantage points in Vickery Creek Park. The park is off Sloan Street, near Roswell Square. A staircase walkway with several landings leads you down to the site.
Across from the park entrance is Founders Cemetery, where a time-weathered obelisk marks the grave of Roswell King (1765-1844).
Also on Sloan Street are "The Old Bricks" antebellum apartments -- among the first apartments built in America, circa 1840 -- used by mill workers. The apartments served as a Union hospital in 1864.
Nearby is a monument recently dedicated to the Roswell mill women. Its base is topped by a shattered column, "symbolic of lives torn apart under tragic circumstances."
For more information, contact the Historic Roswell Visitors Center at 770-640-3253, or check their website at www.cvb.roswell.ga.us.
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