MACON, Ga. (AP) — As the shells began falling on Fort Sumter 150 years ago Tuesday, middle Georgia was poised to play some pivotal roles.
Before the Civil War ended, Union troops had poured through Milledgeville, then the state capitol, and stabled their horses inside. A brief but bloody battle was fought just outside Macon. Macon itself became home to critical factories, hospitals and a prisoner-of-war camp built before Andersonville. And when Confederate President Jefferson Davis was captured, he was brought first to Macon.
Bill Elliott, who leads Macon's Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee, said the Civil War must be remembered.
"It's over, and there's no way to celebrate such a horrendous event," Elliott said. "The only thing to do is observe it and commemorate it."
Elliott said important parts of the Civil War remain visible in middle Georgia, and other parts have long been built over. He points to other things long lost to time.
"There are parts of Georgia out on (Interstate) 16 that look desolate. You ride forever and ever and still don't see much. The path that Sherman marched is still desolate. There were hundreds and hundreds of plantations along that route," Elliott said.
The Civil War's 150th anniversary may renew old arguments about the causes of the conflict, including slavery, states' rights, economics and a host of other factors.
Steve Longcrier, executive director of Georgia Civil War Heritage Trails, said it's hard to understate the importance of the conflict.
Perhaps 630,000 Americans died, many wracked by diseases far from battlefields.
"There were more Americans killed in the Civil War than World War I, World War II and Vietnam, all put together," he said. With a United States population roughly one-tenth of today's count, that would be like 6 million Americans dying in the next four years.
And the war at times was particularly cruel. In the Battle of Griswoldville, during Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's March to the Sea, some 3,700 old men and boys left Macon in an effort to defend Augusta. When they got to Griswoldville in Twiggs County, they found Union soldiers and discovered they outnumbered the Union troops 2 to 1. The Confederates attacked.
"It was not a contest," said Longcrier. "From the Confederate side, it was a slaughter."
The inexperienced Confederates took on combat-hardened Union veterans who had repeating rifles, which could fire seven shots without reloading. Wrote Union Col. Charles Wills later, "Old gray haired men and weakly looking men and little boys, not over 15 years old, lay dead or writhing in pain. I pity those boys." Some 51 Confederates were killed and 472 wounded. Union losses were 13 dead and 79 wounded, according to a Macon Telegraph and News history published in 1990.
Judy Smith of Jones County, the parliamentarian for United Daughters of the Confederacy Sidney Lanier Chapter 25, said Monday one of her Jackson County relatives knew his newborn son for about three weeks before he left for war, never to return home. Another died of scurvy. Sidney Lanier, Macon's most famous poet, ultimately died of the tuberculosis he contracted in a prisoners camp.
Macon's Camp Oglethorpe, located near Brosnan Yard off Seventh Street, hosted Union officers and enlisted men. When it grew too large, the infamous Andersonville prison was opened.
Elliott, who is also the president of Georgia Civil War Heritage Trails, said Macon and Milledgeville are unusual because they still have much of their heritage remaining. He points to an artillery site on Vineville Avenue and an earthen fort at Riverside Cemetery that helped guard against gunboats on the Ocmulgee River.
On a raid that came before the March to the Sea, Union Gen. George Stoneman hoped to free the Union prisoners at Camp Oglethorpe, and became a prisoner after Confederate soldiers near Fort Hawkins rained shells on his troops near the Ocmulgee National Monument.
Stoneman fired some of his own shells into Macon, notably hitting what became known as the Cannonball House, then fled and was captured.
While the March to the Sea largely bypassed Macon, Sherman himself slept in the Old Governor's Mansion in Milledgeville. An armory was blown up, knocking the roof off a nearby church, where Union soldiers reportedly stabled their horses and poured molasses into St. Stephen's Episcopal Church organ.
And Macon itself took more and more casualties into its hospitals. After the state government fled Milledgeville, Macon's City Hall became its home, and the state Supreme Court held session there.
Macon also hosted a "stock shop" that built rifle stocks for Richmond rifles and other important businesses. Middle Georgia's millionaires invested heavily in the war and lost it all, Elliott said.
But not everything led to destruction. Jefferson Franklin Long became Georgia's first black man elected to Congress, coming from the Republican Party of Georgia with deep roots in Macon.
Elliott said those roots can be seen in middle Georgia.
"The thing about Macon is a lot of these places are still here," he said. "There's nothing in Atlanta to show Sherman ever visited."