Over 135 years ago a group came from Atlanta through the Decatur Road past Conyers into Covington and onto Savannah toward the sea.
Less than a month ago a smaller group started at Conyers and traced the same route, minus the killing, pillaging and general wartime activities.
Eddie Shirrey, Ray Aballo, Gia Maddry and Tony Stanek set out for 300 miles of bike riding to retrace Sherman’s march to the sea.
Shirrey, a history buff, dreamed up the ride in December to fill the spot of his annual long bike ride during the summer months, but also to view the historical significance of the Union General’s route.
“I love history,” Shirrey said “And, it’s compelling the idea of following the historic route of Sherman’s army.”
The group spent seven days exploring what took the Union army a month and six days to battle through, going through old southern towns and battle fields.
Among the stops were the Griswoldville battle site, the antebellum towns of Linton and the Island of Hope and the ports and shores of Savannah.
“For me, it was one of the greatest athletic accomplishments of my life,” Shirrey said in his blog following the trek. “In addition to the bucolic landscape - Historic Milledgeville, Linton, Louisville, several town squares and courthouses, fountains, Ebenezer, Savannah, Isle of Hope, Wormsloe, Griswoldville, Jarrell Plantation, Juliette (Fried Green Tomatoes), Indian Springs, countless March to the Sea historical markers, Fresh Air BBQ and hundreds of quirky roadside distractions - all make this round-trip route important.”
Paving the way
Throughout their seven days, the foursome worked hard pedaling through almost unbearable heat, hilly landscapes and steep inclines, but will continue their efforts now that they’re home, setting their sights on making the route more accessible to the masses.
Cycling paths have proven to be a tourist destination in several communities, including the Silver Comet Trail in Georgia and the Pinellas Trail on the west coast of Florida. Shirrey, who works with city and county government to increase bike path accessibility in Conyers, has a dream to create another cycling destination.
“In Georgia we have the opportunity to increase the length of the paved trail on the east side of Atlanta to continue all the way to Savannah,” Shirrey said.
Currently there is a trail that runs near Freedom Parkway in Atlanta to Stone Mountain Park. From there it goes from Lithonia South into Rockdale County, which is currently developing a path to go into Olde Town and near the Monastery of the Holy Spirit.
From there Shirrey said he would like to see the Walton Railway line purchased to add 15 miles to the bike path into Newton, making a total of 60 miles of pathway from Atlanta to Newton County.
Once to that point, Shirrey feels that the rest of the 300 miles would come easier with college towns such as Milledgeville and Statesboro meeting up with a bike friendly Savannah.
“Potentially 60 miles is just this far away from being completed,” Shirrey said. “Something like this between Atlanta and Savannah would draw folks from all over the country, not to mention how useful it would be for people here to have recreation facilities.”
The march retraced
Shirrey, Maddry, Stanek and Aballo linked their own trail leaving June 6 and returning a week later.
The cycling crew met up early in the morning and left from the Sonic on Hwy 138, before meeting some friends in Covington who escorted them out of the area.
The initial ride of the trip was “glorious” according to Shirrey’s blog reports, as the weather was low in humidity and a breeze remained at their backs.
On the second day they rode into Sandersville through hilly, country roads, and came into the town of Linton.
“There were a couple of sights that we hadn’t known about that were just complete surprises,” Shirrey said. “And one of them was a community called Linton, which is a community of perfectly preserved antebellum homes in the middle of nowhere.”
From Linton and Sandersville the riders went 11 miles toward Louisville and along Rosier Rd into Mille, encountering snakes, deer, turtles and an alligator.
On the third day Sherman’s copiers reached Savannah. On the way there they went through Sylvania into Ebenezer, where they stoped at Ebenezer Creek.
Shirrey noted that this was another historical stop on their journey, as this was the sight were General Jeff Davis inadvertently drowned former slaves following his troops to Savannah.
They then saw another mark in history at the Salzberger colony where a hole remained in a wind vane that was put there by a British soldier during the Revolutionary War.
After those two sights, it was into the in-town roads of Savannah, sharing roads with trucks and riding near train tracks.
“It’s easy to see why Savannah is such an important commercial city to our state,” Shirrey said. “Entering the historic district on our bikes with ever-increasing traffic our anxiety and excitement was boundless.”
They then checked into their hotel and enjoyed an evening of low country boil, oysters and shrimp.
The fourth day was filled with an enjoyable historic 27-mile bike ride of Savannah, seeing Forsyth Park, Wormsloe, the Isle of Hope, Bonaventure Cemetery and the Mercer-Williams house.
The joy ride through Savannah, rounded out their stay there as Shirrey, Maddry and Stanek proceeded back toward Conyers, following Sherman’s right flank.
They headed out the 30 miles to Blichton into Statesboro.
With the wind no longer at their backs, the trip was more strenuous on the ride home as temperatures reached heat indexes of over 100 degrees. Stanek even compared the ride to “a death march.”
The heat not only affected the riding, but also the enjoyment of the trip.
“The scenery along Rosemary Church Rd has been lovely for its bucolic setting,” Shirrey said. “The heat made it impossible to enjoy.”
The sixth day brought the most profound for Shirrey, as they not only rode the 100 miles from Swainsboro to Gray, but also stopped in Wrightsville and took a historic detour on their way to Toomsboro.
After the journey Shirrey said the battle sight of Griswoldville was one of the top historical memories from the trip.
“It was moving to the point of tears at the sight of the battle of Griswoldville where confederate soldiers who were old men and boys who were too young to be fighting repeatedly charged union entrenchment and were mowed down,” Shirrey said. “And they did that after seeing Griswoldville burned and had nothing to do but that.”
After the thought-inspiring stop, the troupe then rode into Gray to await their final day.
On the last day of the trip, they rode into Clinton, where they noticed the definite difference in the terrain of Georgia, stretching from the piedmont to hillier land and then into flat areas.
It was a terrain they had seen hundreds of miles of, and one that was celebrated at around 2 p.m. on the final day with a bottle of champagne.