Over the years since the War Between the States, Augusta, Ga., has displayed both satisfaction and anxiety about its role during the conflict.
Pride for having been an important Confederate munitions and hospital center is tempered by Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s decision to bypass rather than attack the city near the end of the war — causing qualms in Augustans’ minds about their city’s importance to the war effort.
In 1860, Augusta, on the fall line of the Savannah River, was the second most populous city in Georgia. The more than 12,000 residents included a sizable number of slaves and free blacks, as well as illiterate Irishmen and skilled German immigrants.
On the whole, Augusta was moderate politically; and, in the 1860 presidential election, the two Unionist candidates, Stephen Douglas and John Bell, received five times more votes than the secessionist candidate John Breckenridge. Yet, as in other Deep South states, the despised Republican Abraham Lincoln, viewed as an abolitionist, was not even on the Georgia ballot.
The city was home to Georgia’s largest manufacturing center — clustered mainly on the Augusta Canal adjacent to the river — which produced ordnance, munitions and other war-related material. The main facilities were the Arsenal, the Powder Works, and the Cotton Factory — one of the leading textile manufacturers in the South.
Confederate Col. George Washington Rains turned the Arsenal into a facility to produce ammunition, small arms and field artillery. To resolve a shortage of gunpowder for the Rebel forces, Rains designed and built the Powder Works into a 2-mile long complex and turned out nearly 3 million pounds of high-quality gunpowder during the course of the war.
While never the scene of actual combat, Augusta was a major rail center that served as a throughway for Confederates moving from one point to another. In September 1863, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s troops traveled from Virginia via Augusta to reinforce the outnumbered Rebels who were facing Union Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans’ army at Chickamauga, Ga.
As the war intensified and casualties mounted, Augusta became a principal hospital center, given that the Medical College of Georgia and a number of drug establishments were located there. Prominent residents, including Rev. Dr. Joseph R. Wilson — a Presbyterian minister and father of future president Woodrow Wilson — raised funds for the care of sick and wounded Georgia soldiers.
In the latter part of 1863, as the Union armies drove further into Southern territory, refugees began streaming into Augusta, seeking safe haven. They came up from Louisiana and down from Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee. Planters sent their slaves from coastal areas for safekeeping, to prevent their capture.
When Sherman made his famous March to the Sea through Georgia in late 1864, Augustans feared they were targeted for attack — but the Union general had other ideas. While his army feinted toward Macon and Augusta, they passed through unimpeded to Savannah; and, later, as Sherman headed north through South Carolina, he bypassed Augusta and Charleston while on his way to capture the capital at Columbia.
Augustans have long since wondered why Sherman considered Savannah and Columbia more important. Local folklore grew up around this issue, including a zany, yet persistent, story that Sherman had a girlfriend when he was stationed at the Augusta Arsenal as a young officer in 1844, and he spared the city because of his affection for her.
When the editor of the Augusta Chronicle later wrote to Sherman asking why he had not attacked the city, he replied from his home in New York that it was because the enemy had large concentrations of troops there. Old myths die hard, however, and local writer Edward J. Cashin, with tongue in cheek, penned “General Sherman’s Girl Friend & Other Stories about Augusta.”
During my trip to Augusta in early 2004, representatives of the Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau, Historic Augusta Inc., Augusta Museum of History and Reese Library at Augusta State University guided my information-gathering efforts.
Learn more from “Confederate City: Augusta, Georgia, 1860-1865” by Florence Fleming Corley; and, for guidance about traveling to Augusta, contact the Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau, at (706) 823-6600.
Next up will be San Antonio, Texas, to learn about the Civil War in the “Trans-Mississippi” region.
Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War: A Political, Military and Social Perspective,” signed copies of which are available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and at Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point