March 18, 2013

Dalton once a hospital haven

Misty Watson

— Some people think history needs to stay in the past, and others want to make money off it, but Steve Watkins doesn’t agree with either of those.

“It’s not worth money to me,” Watkins said about some of the Civil War artifacts he has found in Tunnel Hill. “It’s worth preserving the history. Some people think it should stay in the ground, but not me. I want it out.”

Watkins began working 15 years ago on uncovering and preserving artifacts, such as belt buckles, buttons from uniforms and other items. He uses a metal detector to discover his finds, which he shared with members of the Whitfield-Murray Historical Society on Sunday. Marvin Sowder, member of the historical society and the Dalton 150th Civil War Commission, spoke about military hospitals in Whitfield County during the war.

Dalton became a hub for medical care during the war and became a major health care site as the battlefronts came nearer. Homes, churches, hotels and other public buildings became military hospitals as the population fled south.

Watkins had uncovered a Confederate belt buckle with a bullet hole in it where a hospital once stood during the Civil War and believes he has the item traced back to a spy for the Union.

“It kind of aggravated me for a minute,” he said.

Three of his belt buckles are from Confederate soldiers and were found near the site of hospitals in Tunnel Hill. He also has a half of a Union belt buckle from one of the sites.

“All the Confederate belt buckles were intact, but the Union buckles were cut in two,” he said. “I never found the other half. I don’t know if it was intentional because he was Union or if it was accidental or what.”

One of Watkins’ favorite pieces is a candle holder from near a hospital site. He said it’s not worth much money, but knowing a wounded soldier may have held it at some point “gives me chills.”

Watkins showed several buttons from uniforms that had been burned. During a smallpox outbreak in the winter of 1862, soldiers burned their uniforms to prevent the disease from spreading.

Sowder said a “Pest House” was established in the Five Springs area, which is south of Dalton, to quarantine people affected with the disease.

During the height of the outbreak, a local physician, B.B. Brown, wrote a letter to Ga. Gov. Joseph E. Brown “requesting that he ‘send vaccine matter to Dalton as there was none to be hand in the county,’” Sowder said. “‘There is smallpox in Georgia and our people are greatly alarmed for fear of the spread of the disease...’ Some would not recover, but many did, and returned to their regiments.”

“Anyone who may have been exposed had to stay in a house of prevention during an incubation time to determine if you could go back to public without presenting a threat,” Sowder said.

By March 1863, the smallpox threat was over.