Down the roads of Covington
This is the first in a series of columns in partnership with Georgia Perimeter College professors concerning the Civil War and its local ties to Newton County some 150 years after the war that divided America.
Stories are some of the most important ways that we convey memories. When the event is unusual and affects many, we put our thoughts in diaries and dispatches to distant readers. Years later, people look at these artifacts to learn more. The writer studies the style of these texts, the historian identifies the social forces behind the memories and the geographer looks at the locations where the events took place.
Historic markers and memories tell us part of the story: how Union troops rattled Social Circle and wrecked its train depot, how Garrard’s cavalry got to the Confederate hospital at Oxford in July 1864. But these were warm-ups for the main event. On November 18, 1864, William Tecumseh Sherman rode down present-day Routes 278 and 142, then dusty paths, as he led his troops from Atlanta to Savannah.
Covington residents found themselves right in the path of the March to the Sea. Thousands of soldiers came through the city and the county. Not just a few thousand, tens of thousands. It was a big event played out on horseback, down unpaved roads, through rural pastures.
“Sherman’s path of chaos through Georgia was not predicted by his early life as a newly-minted West Point graduate. He knew the South, as a young officer,” says Dr. Rob Alderson, associate professor of history at Newton County’s Georgia Perimeter College campus. “He had lived in South Carolina, Louisiana and had been to Georgia. Now, with Atlanta behind him and still smoldering, a new kind of warfare taken directly to civilians would emerge as he left the streets of Covington and ventured into nearby farms and fields.”
The general’s visit did not go unnoticed. Reporters from far-away newspapers sent dispatches on it, Sherman himself mentioned Covington in his memoirs and his soldiers described the city in letters to their families. Without today’s rapid roadways, the march stopped about every 15-40 miles. So, on the night of November 18, the massive left wing of the Union army camped four miles east of Covington.
“The historic marker is in a field to the right of State Route 278 east, where Route 142 begins,” said Dr. George Lonberger, GPC assistant professor of geography. “The general talked to an elderly African-American, who may have worked at the Harris farm there.” It is noteworthy that Sherman remembered his conversation with the elderly man and put it in memoirs.
It’s also known that his troops camped both at the Graves home called Mt. Pleasant and on grounds of present-day Georgia Perimeter College.
What does Sherman’s March to the Sea mean to us today? This fall, GPC students will consider what the March to the Sea means in the 21st century in a special assignment that will involve research, gathering oral histories and writing essays. Is it still relevant? What can we learn from it?
Did your ancestors meet Sherman’s troops, like the elderly man Sherman remembered? Did your great-great-grandfather serve in the state militia? Our students would like to interview today’s descendants about these memories. Contact me at this address: email@example.com to help our project.
In future columns, we will update our readers on our work. As we continue to research the story of the March to the Sea, we will uncover new sources and have a new awareness of the event as it unfolded in the Covington of 150 years ago and as it is recalled in the Covington of today.