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July 27, 2008: Atlanta Journal-Constitution


They had no choice. When Union soldiers swept through, the freed slaves fell in behind. The former servants and field hands needed to eat, and they feared the Confederate cavalry trailing the Northerners.

Then they came to Ebenezer Creek, soldier and freedman alike. A Union general with the unlikely name of Jefferson C. Davis ordered his troops to build a pontoon bridge so the army could advance toward Savannah. Men, mules and material trundled across the Effingham County creek. Before the former slaves could follow, Davis ordered the bridge taken apart. Hundreds of people stood on the bank, watching the army leave.

United Press International
Union Gen. William Sherman completed a 250-mile march through Georgia to the sea, which will be commemorated with heritage trails marked to show the army's parallel push to the coast.

Some jumped in the creek and drowned. Others were at its banks when mounted Confederate soldiers arrived. With sword and gun, the frustrated cavalrymen took their anger out on the unarmed people. Hundreds died in what became known as the betrayal at Ebenezer Creek.

It is but a footnote in Sherman's March to the Sea, one event among hundreds that took place in Georgia during the Civil War. There isn't even a sign at the creek to remind people of the carnage — but one is coming.

The marker, which should be erected next year, is one of scores that will commemorate events that took place in Georgia during the Civil War. They will make up the Georgia Civil War Heritage Trails, a $4.3 million program highlighting places where the war unfolded in Georgia's cities, towns and forests. Six trails, reaching across the state, will showcase about 400 spots — battlefields and hospital sites, places where armies stopped to spend the night and more.

Drive, not walk

The trails are not pedestrian walkways; they stretch for hundreds of miles, and are designed to be driven. Some signs have already been erected on three of the routes, and more will be marked next year. Planners hope all the trails will be completed between 2011-15, the Civil War's sesquicentennial.

Most people don't realize that Georgia is second only to Virginia in the number of events that took place in the 1861-65 conflict, said Steven Longcrier, executive director of the nonprofit Georgia Civil War Heritage Trails Inc., which is overseeing the project. They only think of a trek to the sea, he said.

"I guess you can thank a guy named Sherman for that," said the Augusta resident, a Civil War enthusiast who has spent several years cataloging sites across the state.

Union Gen. William T. Sherman gets his due. March to the Sea Heritage Trail will showcase the progress of the general who vowed to "make Georgia howl." It will be a 250-mile journey taking visitors along parallel paths of the army's push to the coast.

Other heritage trails are:

The Atlanta Campaign. It will follow the Union and Confederate armies' route from northwest Georgia to Atlanta. It should open first, followed by March to the Sea.

Jefferson Davis. This trail showcases the president of the Confederacy, not the Union general, and will trace his path as Davis tried to escape Union forces. Planners want this trail to open next year.

Wilson's Raid. It showcases cavalry assaults from Alabama into Georgia led by Union Maj. Gen. James Wilson.

Northeast Georgia. It will focus on the mountain region's divided loyalties between Union and Confederate causes.

South Georgia. The prison at Andersonville, about 15 miles north of Americus, will be a feature, as well as sites highlighting agriculture's importance to the Confederates.

Don't expect to whisk down interstates from one site to the next, said Alex Wiley of MACTEC Inc. A national engineering firm whose headquarters is Alpharetta, the company is working with the heritage group to survey tracts and offer construction advice. It's also coordinating plans with the state Department of Transportation, which has rights-of-way authority.

"As I like to say, Sherman didn't take I-75 to Atlanta," said Wiley.

Nor will people who track the sites. In some areas, motorists will follow dirt roads that the long-ago armies traveled. The trails, said Longcrier, "kind of wind all around."

Longcrier would know. Since the heritage organization's founding in 1999, Longcrier has logged more than 200,000 miles on two vehicles, visiting sites across the state. When the first vehicle gave out last year, he bought a second car; it has 30,000 miles so far.

People won't mind the circuitous routes, said Fay Tripp, director of the state Department of Economic Development's regional tourism program, which will offer trail brochures and feature the drives on its Web site. She called heritage tourism a "hot button."

Profitable, too. The department estimates that the first three of Georgia's trails could generate more than $62 million in hotel and meal receipts, plus create more than 800 jobs.

Potential visitors, she said, should run the gamut: retirees, school groups, people researching their ancestry. "They're going to stay in hotels, they're going to eat in restaurants," Tripp said. "Some of them ... may visit and never leave."

Some may like what they find in out-of-the-way places like Sandersville, population 6,144. It's the site of the Brown House, now the home of the Washington County town's history museum. On Nov. 26, 1864, a bewhiskered, prickly Union officer took a nap on the home's fainting couch. That night, he dined with reluctant hostess Mariah Brown and her children. The next day, Sherman pushed onward.

"We hope people will come down and visit," said Mayor Jimmy Andrews. "We're very interested in tourism down here."

Lesser-known events

In 2004, Sandersville put up $5,000 for two heritage markers in town. The participating towns and municipalities have contributed an average $2,500 in matching funds, said Longcrier. In all, they've contributed more than $300,000. The state and private donors have given a comparable amount.

The cash will help pay for directional signs, plus the markers themselves, which will look precisely like those used by the National Park Service. The signs will show up in likely places — 11 in and around Atlanta will showcase the Battle of Atlanta, for example. Yet others will showcase lesser-known occurrences. For example, Irwinville, where Union forces captured President Davis, is going to get a marker, too.

As will a creek, where hundreds of people faced a hard choice: death by water, or sword.

Return to: 2008 Feature Stories