As early as the 1820s state visionaries thought of building a railway through Newton County, as part of a longer train connecting Covington to Chattanooga. It was the existence of those rail lines that lead Sherman’s troops into our area, as they came into North Georgia from Tennessee during the summer of 1864.
The objective was to stop messages between Atlanta and Augusta, as well as block supplies and reinforcements from the Eastern Confederacy, as the roadside marker called “Garrard’s Cavalry Raid: Newton County” explains. It also mentions that railway bridges over the Yellow and Alcovy Rivers were destroyed, as were the train depots in Covington and Social Circle.
An informative page on the Newton County Convention & Visitor’s Bureau site noted that “the Alcovy Trestle Bridge, which carries a CSX rail line over the Alcovy River, has a long and storied history. The stone pilings were erected before the Civil War, and it is believed that the stone pilings are the remains of an earlier bridge that Sherman burned down.”
His subordinate, General Kenner Garrard, made the 90-mile roundtrip from the Atlanta area to the Covington area very rapidly in roughly 48 hours, putting pressure on his horses, troops, and the buildings and bridges that were his destinations. Also burned were new hospital structures, supplies, and crops in the city.
By the 1860s, 9,500 miles of track existed in the South, and most ran for about 100 miles. These statistics from The Civil War Trust also show that in the North there were 22,000 miles of track. The Trust reports that “by September 1863, the Southern railroads . . . had begun to deteriorate very soon after the outset of the war, when many of the railroad employees headed north to join the Union war efforts.” The effects of employee attrition, non-standard gauges, reduced iron supplies due to port blockades, and Garrard’s cavalry were exacerbated by Sherman’s troops who tore up the tracks in what have become known as Sherman’s Neckties.
Trains served another function beyond transportation notes the Library of Congress. By 1864, they also conveyed the mail at a much faster rate than in previous centuries, which had relied previously on personal delivery by people or boats. Now families living in Newton County could get their mail from trains, or when they weren’t running, from stagecoaches going down present-day Route 278.
Yet another technology was changing their lives and improving communication between military leaders.
The Magnetic Telegraph
In his Memoirs, Sherman called the telegraph the “magnetic telegraph.” That term refers to the magnetism in the telegraph apparatus invented by Samuel Morse and others. Students today do not always realize what a telegraph was, as the era of birthday telegrams and military telegraphed messages ended in this country about 50 years ago. However, Time magazine reported that telegrams are still used in parts of India today.
In a writing assignment this semester, students in the first-level composition course will write a comparison and contrast essay about messages. That is, they will look at how messages were conveyed 150 years ago and how the modes of message conveyance differed between the two eras. They may be surprised to learn that the Morse-code messages of the telegraph were as abbreviated as the smart-phone texting of today.
Going offline is a rare moment in the connected world of the 21st century. Dial back to the middle of the 19th century and a similar phenomenon occurred with the telegraph. As he began his March to the Sea, Sherman cut the telegraph lines and went into a kind of radio silence with Federal leaders until he reached the coast. This is why Sherman’s exact location was not known until he captured Savannah and linked up to Federal supply ships anchored nearby. Being offline ensured that Sherman’s adversaries would not know precisely where he was.
Kathleen DeMarco is an assistant professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College. Reach her by email at Kathleen.DeMarco@gpc.edu.