March 29, 2014

The most crucial period of the Civil War

New park preserves history of the Atlanta Campaign

Charles Oliver

— In 1864, Union forces planned five major campaigns against the Confederacy, ranging from New Orleans to Georgia to Virginia. They hoped to crush the South before the fall elections, said author and historian Richard McMurry.

Four of those five campaigns ended badly for the North, in stalemates or outright defeat.

“That left the campaign here in Georgia,” McMurry said Saturday, at the dedication of the Mill Creek Gap Civil War Battlefield Park in Rocky Face.

“What happened in 1864 in Georgia, and here in Northwest Georgia in particular, is arguably the most crucial period of the war,” he said.

McMurry noted that after three years of war, the North was weary of conflict. Without a major victory, President Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, would likely not be re-elected, and a Democratic president would almost certainly seek peace with the Confederacy.

“That would have changed not only American history, but it would have affected the entire world into the 20th century, having two weak nations here in North America,” he said.

Union Gen. William T. Sherman provided the victory Lincoln needed when he captured Atlanta in early September.

But Sherman’s campaign started here in Whitfield County, and it could have ended here, too, McMurry said.

“This was really the only significant geographic obstacle to Sherman,” McMurry said of the Confederate fortifications along Rocky Face Ridge, some of which are preserved in the new park.

Sherman looked at the fortifications and saw his men getting chewed to pieces if they tried to take Dalton. But instead of trying to meet the Confederates head on, he sent out scouts who discovered Snake Creek Gap west of the city. In May 1864, he sent an army through that gap to Resaca to try to outflank the Confederate army and cut off the railroad supplying it. Realizing his predicament, Confederate commander Gen. Joseph Johnston abandoned Dalton and his best chance to stop Sherman.

McMurry praised the creation of the new park and the efforts to preserve the Civil War fortifications. He said that touring is one of the best ways to learn history.

“Just walk up that ridge and see how formidable it was, see what Sherman was facing, and you’ll get a better feel for what he was thinking,” he said.

The seeds for the park began about three years ago when county residents Bob Jenkins, Bill Blackman, Kathryn Sellers, Kevin McAuliff, Paul Belk, Jim Burran and Greg Cockburn formed Save the Dalton Battlefields.

“Our goal is to identify and acquire historically significant sites and turn it over to the appropriate agencies such as Whitfield County or the city of Dalton,” Jenkins said Saturday.

Cockburn approached the state about deeding the property, which is the site of Georgia State Patrol Post 5, over to the county.

Jenkins said the site of the GSP barracks was originally a “pocket park” built in the 1930s by the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA), a Great Depression-era program to put unemployed people to work on public projects.

The state agreed to turn over everything except the barracks, garage and upper parking lot at the site.

Whitfield County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Babb praised the group’s efforts.

“I grew up in Cobb County, which also had a number of Civil War sites. But over the years, many of those sites have been bulldozed over to make room for new development,” he said.

Babb said the preservation of historic sites is a “quality of life issue” as well as an “economic issue.” He said that Civil War tourism could be an important part of the county’s economic.

Bret Huske, executive director of the Dalton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that having a park in such a prominent place could help attract people interested in Civil War history.

“Obviously, the big battlefields are going to get much of the attention,” he said. “But there’s more to the story than those big battles, and some of that story took place here in Whitfield County. Every little piece that we can put together helps tell that story and makes us a more attractive place to people wanting to learn more about it.”