Twenty years after the end of the Civil War, things were still broken in the newly re-United States. The South was in a terrible condition with so many men having been killed or disabled, huge swaths of the land laid waste, so many people’s homes and possessions destroyed, and the cotton economy in ruins.
The Congress and many Southern state legislatures were hopelessly divided into political factions based on different views of how Reconstruction of the seceded states ought to be handled. These factions extended into the general population, as well, with many people having dug into their own opinions and unwilling to listen at all to anyone who thought differently. (Sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it?)
But after a while, a lot of people just seemed to get tired of this constant conflict, and movements toward a less divided kind of society began to happen. Surprisingly, these movements didn’t begin among the country’s leadership, who continued to fight and feud for many more years, but among the everyday, ordinary people who seem to have just decided that they couldn’t or didn’t want to live with the old hatreds any longer.
This was certainly not universal and it certainly didn’t affect everybody. In fact, for people of color, things went backward during the late 1800s. The gains that had accrued to them as a result of the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution pretty much evaporated with the onset of the Jim Crow laws in most of the old Confederate states. However, for middle-class and poor white families, life began to change slowly for the better over these years.
Old resentments left over from the war and its terrible fallout began to recede somewhat and, frequently, the move to a different way of looking at things was led by the people from whom you would least expect it--the veterans, themselves, who had done the fighting and the suffering and the freezing and the starving.
Often, it was matter of necessity. Many Civil War vets went home to communities where numbers of their neighbors might have fought for the other side. They returned to small towns like ours where it simply wasn’t possible to totally avoid people who thought differently than they. This was especially true in states like Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina, which all sent large numbers of men to fight on both sides... The small farmers in the western part of what was then Virginia saw things so differently than the tidewater planters in the eastern (George Washington and Thomas Jefferson) part of the state that they asked to be removed from Virginia and made a separate state, and Abraham Lincoln helped that to happen. Thus was born the state of West Virginia. In all the divided states, there were folks who had been strong supporters of one side or the other during the war but, afterward, they found that they had to live together, go to church together, buy stuff from each other, cope with their children marrying each other, et cetera. So, because we all have to deal with reality, things began to change little by little, person by person.
Sometimes, the reconciliation efforts took place on a grander scale. To look at an amazing example in a surprising place, we need to take an imaginary road trip. We’ll begin by taking I-75 South, travel past Atlanta and Macon and go on about another 60 miles to the tiny town of Ashburn, where we’ll hang a left onto Georgia Highway 107. Along this route, we will pass a sign indicating the side road to the hamlet of Irwin Ville, where a small state park memorializes the capture of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, as he tried to escape to Texas at the end of the war. Very little has been changed there from the day of the capture and it’s possible to stand on the designated spot and imagine Davis riding along the old road right into the arms of a band of Union soldiers who had been sent to find him. It’s well worth a visit because it’s a place where time seems to have stood still. But Davis and his followers represent the old way of looking at things and we are searching for the new ways that began to be seen nearby in the 1880s and ‘90s. So we need to travel on past Irwinville.
About 40 miles east of the freeway, we will dead-end into US Highway 129 and enter the small town of Fitzgerald. If the name sounds vaguely familiar to you, it’s probably because the Chattanooga Times-Free Press ran an article last week on the black female candidate for governor of Georgia, Stacy Abrams, who was campaigning at Fitzgerald last week in what is definitely Republican territory. The town is right in the middle of what the locals call “wiregrass country”, the land of sandy soil, black water, old tobacco barns, gnats and my ancestors for the past 200 years. My father grew up in the tiny town of Ocilla, also on US 129, about nine miles on down the road on the Alapaha River.
U.S. 129 used to be a major thoroughfare for travelers from the North to Florida and that made Fitzgerald a bustling place back in the day, but once I-75 passed it by, it calmed itself into a slower-paced farming center of about 9,000 souls. It has some beautiful old houses and a classic downtown which the inhabitants carefully maintain. If you ride around town a bit, you will begin to notice that Fitzgerald is not your typical “pop-up” farm town that just happened because of a trail crossing or a water source or a railroad. It was a planned community, of which there are very few in Georgia, even today. Originally, it was laid out in quadrants, much like Savannah, only without the squares. If you pay attention to street signs, you will soon notice a strange phenomenon. On the west side of town, the two major north and south thoroughfares are named Lee and Johnston Avenues; on the east side, they are named Grant and Sherman--not what you would expect in Deep South Georgia. Neither, as it turns out, is the origin of the town of Fitzgerald.
This city was the dream and the brainchild of a man named Philander H. Fitzgerald, a newspaper editor and former Union drummer boy from Indianapolis, Indiana. He marched through the area with Sherman on the way to Savannah toward the end of the war.
Thousands of the soldiers who fought in Georgia and Tennessee came from Indiana; only Ohio and Illinois had more men in the Chickamauga campaigns, and a surprising number of them either stayed in the South after the war or came back this way after a few years looking for new opportunities. A few of them wound up in northwest Georgia and at least a couple became ancestors of a number of Dade Countians Some of these northerners were justifiably called “carpetbaggers because they were dishonest and took advantage of people who were already suffering terribly, but the great majority were just trying to make a new start and were willing to work as hard as their new neighbors.
Mr. Fitzgerald wanted to found a community specifically for Civil War veterans and he advertised the experiment in newspapers throughout the country. The majority of the first citizens of Fitzgerald, about 2,700, were Union vets, but, over the years, many former Confederates also moved into the area and the experiment went every bit as well as Mr. Fitzgerald had hoped it would.
After about a year of living together as new neighbors, the citizens decided to plan a Thanksgiving/harvest parade. According to the original plan, the Union and Confederate soldiers would march separately, but when the Union vets’ band struck up the national anthem; the Confederate veterans joined their parade and marched with them under the Stars and Stripes. The joint parade continued when the Confederate band played “Dixie.” This became the pattern in Fitzgerald for future parades and other community activities.
Such a reconciliation of former enemies on such a large scale was rare and that’s what makes it a great story. It’s important to note that the story continues even today. The people of Fitzgerald are still proud of the origins of their town and they still celebrate it on holidays and for other special events. Over the years, they have created and maintained an excellent museum, the Blue and Gray, which houses more than 1,200 artifacts of the Civil War and Reconstruction era, is open to visitors, and is well worth a trip to the city on its own merit.
Next installment: Some famous Yankees who stayed behind and their involvement in creating the first National Military Park.
Note from Historical Society: The next meeting, which was planned for Sept. 15, will be postponed until Oct. 13 due to retirees taking vacations in September. More information about the next meeting later.