Local News

May 31, 2014

Civil War anniversary: The Clisby Austin House: ‘I’ve Got Joe Johnston Dead!’

One hundred fifty years ago this beautiful brick home, the Clisby Austin House and its idyllic setting, rose to stardom.  In this home, for a brief moment, rested the fate of Georgia, the Confederacy and ultimately, the nation.  

From May 7-12, 1864, it became the headquarters of one of the most respected (or, depending on perspective, despised) commanders of the Civil War: Union Maj. Gen. William Sherman. While here, he directed strikes against Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston’s Army of Tennessee around Dalton and developed plans for his Atlanta Campaign, the drive that would lead to the fall of Atlanta.

This distinctive history would be enough to make any home legendary. But there is more to the history of the Clisby Austin House — even before Sherman arrived.

The house, and the community of Tunnel Hill, owed their origin and prosperity to the 1,500-foot tunnel dug through Chetoogeta Mountain for the state-owned Western & Atlantic Railroad.  Previously, passengers and freight had been portaged over the mountain. After its completion in 1850, commerce flowed smoothly from the Western Frontier to the new rail hub of Atlanta and on to the Atlantic Coast.

The town sprang up on the tunnel’s western end, and Clisby Austin, a Methodist minister from Tennessee, was among its new settlers. He bought 320 acres, and built a hotel, church and store. For his large family he constructed this lovely home with walls four bricks thick and hand-hewn lumber joists. He named it “Meadowlawn.”

When war began in 1861 railroads became essential to the supply of troops and equipment. Control of the tunnel was deemed critical by both sides, resulting in several military engagements. In April 1862 the hijacked locomotive the General raced through, pursued by Confederates aboard the Texas — an incident that became famous as the “Great Locomotive Chase.” Soon thereafter Austin (interestingly, a pro-Union slaveholder) suddenly and mysteriously sold his home and properties and moved back to Tennessee.

In September 1863, Confederate Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood, wounded in the Battle of Chickamauga, was brought to the home to recuperate after the field amputation of his leg. The severed limb was brought along so it could be buried with him if he died. When he recovered, his leg was interred on the property.

The following spring Sherman was appointed overall commander of the three Union armies located in Chattanooga: the Armies of the Tennessee, Cumberland and Ohio, commanded by Maj. Gens. James McPherson, George Thomas and John Schofield, respectively.  Sherman’s orders were “to move against Johnston’s army, break it up, and get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources.”

After their loss in Chattanooga, the Confederate Army of Tennessee had retreated to Dalton, where they welcomed a new commander, Joe Johnston, and spent the winter rebuilding and restoring their fighting force. The key to Johnston’s defense was Rocky Face Ridge, a narrow chain of hills running north to south, four miles west of Dalton. Rising to 800 feet, the ridge was passable by three gaps, the northernmost being Mill Creek Gap (locally known as “Buzzard Roost”), through which ran both the railroad and the main wagon road (now U.S. Highway 41).  

Sherman began his Atlanta Campaign by seizing the valuable rail tunnel and establishing the Clisby Austin home as his headquarters. On May 7 he declared, “We are in possession of Tunnel Hill, with little or no resistance.… The tunnel is not injured.”

Sherman’s preliminary plan to avoid a major engagement at Dalton was confirmed on May 8 when, from atop Blue Mountain, he observed Johnston’s strong defensive positions on Rocky Face Ridge. Of Buzzard Roost Gap, which he dubbed “the terrible door of death,” he wrote: “We could plainly see the enemy in this gorge and behind it, and Mill Creek which formed the gorge, flowing into Dalton, had been dammed up, making a sort of irregular lake, filling the road, thereby obstructing it, and the enemy batteries crowned the cliffs on either side.  The position was very strong…. I had no intention to attack the position seriously in front.”   

Instead of attacking Johnston directly, Sherman outflanked him.  While the bulk of his army under Thomas and Schofield diverted Johnston’s attention in Dalton, a segment under McPherson secretly moved from Lee and Gordon’s  Mill, across Taylor’s Ridge, and through Snake Creek Gap (the southernmost gap in Rocky Face Ridge). The force emerged near Resaca, about 15 miles south of Dalton, poised to destroy Johnston’s railroad supply line to Atlanta and compelling him to evacuate Dalton to protect it.

On May 8-9 Federal forces fought on the precipices of Rocky Face, keeping Johnston's army busy. Finally, during supper at the Austin house on May 9, Sherman received word that McPherson’s soldiers were near Resaca and pressing forward. Elated, Sherman banged on the table so emphatically that dishes rattled and shouted, “I’ve got Joe Johnston dead!” He departed the Austin home and Tunnel Hill on May 12, heading for Resaca.

Sherman had expected McPherson to sweep unopposed into Resaca, but this part of his plan went awry.  A few days earlier Confederate reinforcements had arrived by train. Though small in number, they made a show of force and held McPherson off while Johnston’s army hurried south to defend Resaca. By the time Sherman attacked on May 14, the Confederates were well entrenched. “Well, Mac,” Sherman would later tell McPherson, “you have missed the opportunity of your life.”

In the end, however, Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign was successful. Atlanta fell to Union control in September, boosting Northern morale and virtually assuring President Abraham Lincoln’s re-election in November. By December Sherman had concluded his devastating March to the Sea and presented Savannah to Lincoln as a Christmas present. The war would soon be over, and with it, the South’s dream of independence.

The tunnel continued in active use until 1928, when an adjacent tunnel was completed to accommodate heavier rail traffic and larger cars. It is still in use today by the Western & Atlantic’s successor, CSX Transportation.  The original tunnel suffered years of neglect, and was threatened with destruction. Finally, in 1992, a restoration project was initiated, and in 2000, the tunnel’s 150th anniversary, it was reopened. Today it is paved and well-lit for pedestrian visitors.

Austin never returned to Tunnel Hill; he died in Tennessee in 1883. The historic home changed hands several times, and was eventually purchased by the Kenneth Holcomb family of Tunnel Hill who used it as a private residence.  In 2011 they donated the home and surrounding property to Whitfield County.  It is managed today by the Tunnel Hill Historical Foundation.

This article is part of a series of stories about Dalton and life in Dalton during the Civil War. The stories run on Sunday and are provided by the Dalton 150th Civil War Commission. To find out more about the committee, go to dalton 150th.com. If you have material that you would like to contribute for a future article contact Robert Jenkins at (706) 259-4626 or robert.jenkins@robertdjenkins.com.

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