Local News

May 10, 2014

Years in the making

Civil War trail marker unveiled in Tunnel Hill

When most people look out from the historic Tunnel Hill depot this time of year, they see a rolling green field flanked by a line of trees that blocks a view of the Clisby Austin House where Union Gen. William T. Sherman briefly set up headquarters in the 1860s.

When Steve Longcrier looks out from the same vantage point, he sees Union and Confederate troops clashing on wet grounds, their clothes damp and musty, their hands and faces weather-beaten from the trials of war.

Longcrier, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Georgia Civil War Heritage Trails, saw more than 11 years of work come to fruition as organizers unveiled a new historical marker at the Tunnel Hill Heritage Center on Saturday.

“Your presence here today truly honors all of those who wore either blue or gray 150 years ago today,” Longcrier told attendees. “Whitfield County gets it. They understand the importance of heritage tourism.”

The marker is part of a larger project Longcrier spearheaded to denote 82 locations in Georgia along a route historians refer to as that of the Atlanta Campaign. The campaign was a battle-marked effort by Union forces to gain control of the South’s military-industrial stronghold in Atlanta during the War Between the States of 1861-1865.

Dozens of people gathered to commemorate the occasion on Saturday as organizers unveiled the 30th of the 82 markers. The unveiling was part of a nearly $1 million project for Georgia Civil War Heritage Trails to mark historic locations, including the Atlanta Campaign Heritage Trail that stretches from Walker County to Jonesboro.

The trail follows the path Sherman took during the campaign for Atlanta, an economic and military supply hub of the Civil War South. The trail is still in the process of being marked and promoted. Four more sites in Whitfield County — Dug Gap, the Hamilton House, Mill Creek Gap and the Confederate section of West Hill Cemetery — will get similar markers over the next several weeks, Longcrier said.

Whitfield County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Babb has helped work on the Atlanta Campaign trails project nearly since the beginning. The commission served as the government agency needed to coordinate the project for the nonprofit organization and the rest of the state, Longcrier said.

James “Jim” Ogden III, historian for Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, spoke at the dedication about the importance of Tunnel Hill and surrounding areas during the war. Here, at Sherman’s headquarters, he said, the Union leader “thumped the table and said ‘I’ve got (Confederate commander) Joe Johnston dead,’ when he had received the message that his trusted subordinate, (Union leader) James Birdseye McPherson, had indeed gotten astride the railroad at Resaca, Ga.

“But it is also here on this May day where Sherman learned later that morning as he began to make plans to exploit what he thought was the advantage gained for him yesterday,” Ogden said. “It was also here between 9:30 and 10 where Sherman received a new message. Sherman learned that McPherson was not across the Western Atlantic Railroad at Resaca as originally planned, and Sherman would have to now make other arrangements — and the campaign will have to continue a lot longer. And of course it would indeed.”

This weekend marks the 150th anniversary of those events and this year also marks the 75th anniversary of the world premiere of “Gone With the Wind.” The epic Margaret Mitchell novel, in part, presents a historically consistent account of Johnston’s efforts to defend Atlanta as retreat after retreat forces him closer to the city that finally falls into Sherman’s hands. Confederate defenders were able to fend off Union forces who wanted control of the railroad tunnel at Tunnel Hill, a point that was considered a gateway to Atlanta, but they ultimately lost the fight for Atlanta and, two years later, the overall bid for Southern independence.

“The importance of this region, the location of the Confederate army guarding this passage, and also this ever-growing miltiary industrial complex, resulted in that directive to William Tecumseh Sherman that brings him here, a directive of April 4, from Ulysses S. Grant, ‘You I propose to move against Johnston’s army, to break it up, and to get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources,’” Ogden said.

“And here at Tunnel Hill on May the 7th, 1864, this Atlanta Campaign began. And over the coming weeks and months, particularly after the failure of Sherman’s original hope for making a short campaign, a short work, of Johnston’s army by cutting the railroad at Resaca, he will have to move his forces from here ... southward through Snake Creek Gap and to that engagement at Resaca itself, and then with the Confederates slipping away from Resaca, the two armies will continue confronting one another ever further southward into Georgia, in what one participant would describe later as ‘the red clay minuet.’”

Ogden said men on both sides of the war characterized the next few months for the non-stop nature of the fighting. Modern military tacticians today would call it “continuous operations, as opposed to what had typified the war to this point, short bursts of activity, each capped by an individual battle,” he said.

“One Tennesseean participting in the fighting would write, ‘We have undergone much exposure, fatigue and hardships for the last 50 days. We have been under fire of the enemy 49 out of 51 days.’

Longcrier said Georgia’s Department of Transportation was exceptionally helpful in getting the trails project underway. He praised Roger Williams, now on the transportation board and a former state senator, for helping with that effort. Whitfield County resident Kathryn Sellers was president of the board of trustees and advisory board for the nonprofit from 2001 to 2006. Local historian Marvin Sowder wrote the text that is on the historical marker in Tunnel Hill. A historian and former head football coach and athletic director for the University of Georgia, Vince Dooley, also spoke at the dedication, saying war and football are similar in that the fate of both is sometimes a “matter of inches.”

“There are parts of the war that we get inspired from,” Dooley said.

Ogden said the trail system has a lasting purpose.

“This campaign becomes one of the most important in this struggle within our nation, now a century-and-a-half ago,” Ogden said. “Learning how we don’t want to solve debates over the direction and fate of representative government in our country in that fashion again ... that is what the Atlanta Campaign Heritage Trail that we dedicate today will allow us to do and help future generations of us to do as well — to understand these events that did so much to shape our country that swept across this very ground 150 years ago.”

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