Local News

March 8, 2014

Civil War anniversary: A visit to the Dalton front

In 1892, Mary Ann Harris Gay of Decatur published “Life in Dixie During the War.” It was acclaimed as an extraordinary personal account of a Southern woman’s struggles during the Civil War. One captivating story described her visit to the Dalton front in April 1864.

During the winter of 1863-64, Gen. Joseph Johnston’s Confederate Army of Tennessee was encamped in and around Dalton. One of the thousands of soldiers in the area was 27-year-old Lt. Thomas (Thomie) Stokes, Co. I, 10th Texas Infantry, of Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne’s Division.

Originally enlisting in Texas in 1861, Stokes had been captured in Arkansas early in 1863, sent to  Camp Chase Prison in Ohio, exchanged, then temporarily assigned to other units in the Trans-Mississippi Department. Stokes remained displaced until March 4, 1864, when he was reunited with his unit in Dalton.

Stokes’ half-sister Mary Ann Harris Gay was a woman of great conviction and determination. She was a strong supporter of the Southern cause, even regretted she could not fight in the Confederate Army. Instead, she raised money to feed destitute mothers and children, provided information for Confederate forces, supplied warm clothing to soldiers and offered support in countless other ways.

In April 1864 she resolved to go to Dalton to visit Thomie, to whom she was devoted.

 “This trip,” she declared, “was taken for the purpose of carrying provisions and articles of clothing to my brother and his comrades in General Joseph E. Johnston’s command. In vain had our mother tried to send appetizing baskets of food to her son, whose soldier rations consisted of salty bacon and hard tack; some disaster, real or imaginary, always occurred to prevent them from reaching their destination.”

Mary planned to transport the provisions personally. “Jugs were filled with good sorghum syrup, and baskets with bread, pies, cakes … and sacks of potatoes, onions and peppers.” She would travel the Georgia Railroad from Decatur to Atlanta, then the Western & Atlantic to Dalton. Round-trip rail fare was $16.

The Decatur Depot was always a favorite source of war news, and when Gay departed April 23 for “the front,” she was the center of attention. “Every mother,” she explained, “who had a darling son in that branch of the army hoped that he would be the first to greet me on my arrival there, and give me a message for her.”

In Atlanta she boarded the cars for Dalton. “I … soon found myself on familiar terms with all on board; for were we not friends and kindred bound to each other by the closest ties? Every age and condition of Southern life was represented in that long train of living, anxious freight. … The great bond connecting them rendered every other consideration subordinate, and the rich and poor, the educated and ignorant, met and mingled.”

In Dalton, Gay was met by an old friend whose wife would provide room and board for $20 for her three-night stay. Thomie was notified of her arrival, but was on duty. “A soldier’s time is not his own,” she observed, “even in seasons of tranquility.”

When finally they met, their reunion was warm, joyful, and memorable. The two passed long hours exchanging news of family and friends. They continued their visit over a fine meal of squab pie, fresh butter, buttermilk, cornbread, and baked apples. She shared news of his wife and son, and of their mother’s failing health. They discussed his younger sister’s “quaint and innocent peculiarities” and his older sister’s ability to “paddle her own canoe.” At day’s end, they said their fervent goodbyes and gentle blessings, not knowing when, or if, they would meet again.

Stokes fought at Resaca in May, Kennesaw in June, and Atlanta in July-August. Following the fall of Atlanta, the 10th Texas was assigned to Brig. Gen. Hiram Granbury’s Texas Brigade, Maj. Gen. Cleburne’s Division, Gen. John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee.

Mary saw Thomie once more, in September, just southwest of Atlanta. This time, as they said their goodbyes, she sensed he knew his days were numbered. Shortly thereafter, Hood’s army moved into Tennessee.

On Nov. 30, 1864, near Franklin, Hood ordered numerous frontal assaults against strongly fortified Union positions. Sometimes called “Pickett’s Charge of the West,” the attacks resulted in the slaughter of more than 6,000 Confederates. Among the dead were Gens. Granbury and Cleburne and Lt. Stokes.

Mary would grieve for her brother all her life. After his death, and that of her ailing mother, she cared for Thomie’s widow and son and her half-sister. Her book of memoirs, “Life in Dixie,” paid tribute to all soldiers, but was written for Thomie’s son, that he might appreciate the father he never knew.

Mary Gay died in 1918, shortly before her 90th birthday, and was buried in Decatur. She is remembered today for her courage, energy, and conviction. But she is also remembered for her detailed personal stories, her vivid descriptions, and her perceptive insights into the sentiments, passions, and emotions of ordinary citizens during the war. One was her brief glimpse of Dalton.

For her accomplishments Gay was named in 1997 a Georgia Woman of Achievement.

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 dalton150th.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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