Felt History at Griswoldville
Felt History at Griswoldville – Commentary by Steve Scroggins, 5/05/10
At our annual Old Clinton War Days event, two local battles are re-enacted each year (Sunshine Church and Griswoldville). These events always bring my mind to the desire to see what life was like, what landmarks looked like, to know the people of the area, in 1864 in those places...Macon, Clinton, Griswoldville. As the large crowds at Old Clinton testify each year, the events re-enacted remain part of our "'felt' history" as author Robert Penn Warren put it. Watching the yankee soldiers (even with their strangely southern accents and badly worn boots) plunder the Clinton and Griswoldville homes and demand the location of the family jewelry and silver from the women and children -- it puts real faces in our minds for the reports we've read in cold hard print. I was reminded of the crimes and cruelty documented in Walter Brian Cisco's book, WAR CRIMES Against Southern Civilians and writers like Thomas DiLorenzo.
At this year's 4th Brigade Lee-Jackson Banquet in Sandersville, I was the lucky winner of a door prize, a book by Ronald S. Coddington entitled "Faces of the Confederacy: An Album of Southern Soldiers and Their Stories." The book's format is to present Cartes de Visit, a popular photograph format of the era, along with a brief story of each soldier shown in the photo. The faces and names and their stories really brings home the fact that over 620,000 such soldiers (on both sides) lost their lives in the War and two to three times as many were maimed and horribly wounded. And this is not to mention the suffering inflicted on civilians, black and white, by the blue-clad invaders and looters. One in five Southern men of military age did not survive the war. And for those who did survive, the war remained a significant event in their lives they could scarcely forget. Each and every one of those people have a story, they had a mother and a family.
As the politically correct sniping and smears of April 2010 make clear, the war's causes and meaning remain a passionate topic for many Americans. Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia was pilloried and unfairly demonized in the media across the country for his proclamation acknowledging Confederate History Month in Virginia, the state with the most battle sites.
"Somewhere in their bones," wrote Robert Penn Warren, most Americans have a storehouse of "lessons" drawn from the War. Exactly what those lessons should be, and who should determine them, has been the most hotly contested question in American historical memory.
I think all honest Americans would agree with Warren's statement: "When one is happy in forgetfulness, facts get forgotten." But we often disagree on what should or should not be forgotten. The "heritage deniers" want us to focus only on slavery as the cause and contention of the war to the exclusion of all other facets and the realities of the historical record. As William Dean Howells once put it, "What the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending." Trying to put a "happy ending" on this tragic and unnecessary war is not morally just or historically just. Everyone is glad that slavery ended, but war was not necessary to end it. No other country in the world required war to abolish slavery; America certainly didn't either.
In my commentary entitled, Poisoning History - Guilt-tripping to Utopia, we explored the long history of the culture war in America, and the efforts of revisionists to re-write our history to suit their leftist agenda...and the efforts of those who still resist them.
We must all do our part to document and remember the truth.
My enjoyment of deer hunting in Jones County Georgia led me to notice the Griswoldville site in my youth. I was told of a deer processor (Quincy's Deer Processing) in rural Wilkinson County just off GA Hwy 57. As I travelled the route between our old hunting club in Jones County to Quincy's, I noticed historical markers alongside Henderson Road near the intersection with Griswoldville Road at a railroad crossing. There are at least eight other markers within five miles of these which give an overview of the struggle that took place in this area about ten miles east of Macon.
The State of Georgia maintains the battlefield site as a state park, but virtually nothing remains of the town of Griswoldville. It was burned and destroyed by Sherman's raiders. When the state guards and militias arrived from Athens, Augusta and Macon on the morning of November 22, 1864, they saw columns of smoke rising into the cold air. Expecting a Confederate cavalry counter-attack (from Wheeler's cavalry with whom they had skirmished the day before), the yankee troopers had left the burning ruins of Griswoldville and dug in about a mile away on high ground known as Duncan's Ridge.
Wayne Dobson wrote an overview of the Battle of Griswoldville. It's a tragic story, and one he tells with an effort to be objective. The image of 500 to 700 wounded and dying old men and young boys --- struck down as they charged Sherman's entrenched troopers armed with Spencer repeating rifles --- they suffered and died defending their homes and families against an invader. That image, the sights, sounds and smells, cannot be made pretty, but we can appreciate the courage of their act and the human emotions they surely endured before, during and after for the lucky. The graves of the men who died at Griswoldville are all over central Georgia...and in the communities from which the militias originated. Coddington's book tells the story of a young man from Houston County (Elko) who died of typhoid on November 19th, 1864 -- just days before his 19th birthday and just days before the Battle of Griswoldville.
Private James D. Means contracted the disease serving as a guard of the federal POWs at Camp Oglethorpe in Macon (where many guards were stricken), or else he would have been on duty with other members of Company A, Fifth Georgia Reserve Infantry, who, along with other units, were put under the Command of Gen. Pleasant J. Phillips, and sent out to Griswoldville to meet the invaders. I feel this history because I joined other members of Camp 1399 back in 2005 to clear and restore the cemetery where Private Means is buried in Elko, Georgia. Means' physician father could not save young James. We know that disease killed more men than bullets in this horrible war. I will write more on Private Means in the near future.
Professor John Shelton Reed of North Carolina once wrote, "Every time I look at Atlanta, I see what a quarter of a million Confederate soldiers died to prevent." Reed, of course, is talking about the yankee-like pursuit of the dollar at the expense of everything else -- the abandonment of the agrarian southern way of life in favor of the noisy New South. As we recall from history, or from Gone With the Wind, Atlanta was mostly destroyed by fire as Sherman prepared to continue his scorched earth "March to the Sea". He determined not to get bogged down by besieging the larger cities (like Macon, Augusta) where soldiers were prepared to resist, but rather to run quickly over the smaller towns and villages where armed resistance would be the lightest. His objective was to feed his army on stolen goods and to destroy or steal anything in his path that the Confederates might value or use. He promised to "make Georgia howl" and he did.
We feel the history of old towns like Macon, Madison, Eatonton and Savannah where much of the old architecture survived destruction -- that old charm remains beautiful to the eye.
But we also feel the history of what never came to be in places like Griswoldville, the Sunshine Church and Clinton, places virtually wiped off the map either by Sherman's torch or by the economic destruction that followed. The ashes are gone and the ruins are mostly hidden or paved over.
But many of the gravestones remain... along with our memories and our "felt" history. We feel the history of the families that never were, cut down in advance. We feel the history of the surviving family members, forever altered by the loss of their loved ones. My own great great grandfather was one of seven Theus brothers to enlist in Company C of the 59th Georgia. Only three survived. I've read of families where five brothers enlisted and none survived. Despite the efforts of those who want to destroy the historic record and twist its meaning, we can hold onto the truth as long as we're determined to do so.
Editor's Note: Wayne Dobson and small group of reenactors hold a living history and battlefield memorial each year at Griswoldville state park on the Saturday nearest November 22nd (it was Nov. 21 in 2009). Attend it and you'll be glad you did. Email Wayne or check the Camp 1399 website news-ticker for details.
LINKS & RESOURCES:
Story posted online at georgiaheritagecouncil.org/site2/commentary/scroggins-griswoldville050410.phtml
Griswoldville Battlefield - Georgia State Park (map)
Historical Markers - Griswoldville
WAR CRIMES Against Southern Civilians, By Walter Brian Cisco (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 2007)
Griswoldville, by William Harris Bragg (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1999)
It's Not What You Know - The Battle to Conrol How You Feel About History, by Gordon A. Thompson (Metter, GA: Thompson Publishing, 2004)
Malice Toward All, Charity Toward None: The Foundations of the American State by Thomas DiLorenzo
Map to Griswoldville Battlefield