By Sam Burnham
It wouldn't be the annual Georgia Road Trip without a full report. This year that report starts near the geographic center of the state.
In 1807, the state government, in its entirety, was packed into fifteen wagons and transported, with military escort, from the former capital, Louisville (pronounced "Lewis-ville"), and headed to the new capital, Milledgeville.
The town was named for former Governor John Milledge who proposed the idea of a more appropriate capital for the growing state. The town was designed specifically to serve as the capital and the squares were laid out with each having its own purpose. As the story goes, the crew sent to locate and survey the appropriate location found a spring and, after tasting from it, determined they had found the perfect spot and that spring was designated as the exact center of town. To this day, that spring still flows but access to it is not public and we cannot accurately report further on it.
So it goes.
The new capital city created the need for an appropriate home for the state executive. Georgia decided to construct a house that would reflect the status of power and influence that the state had achieved.
The mansion, to this day, is an impressive example of Greek revival architecture. I personally find it much more suitable for the role than its successor on West Paces Ferry Rd. Scheduling did not permit an inside look at the home but the curb appeal alone suggests that this building is what a state executive mansion should be and I look forward to a return visit.
As the antebellum capital of Georgia, Milledgeville and The old state capitol served as the location of the state's secession convention. the convention met January 16-19, 1861. Delegates including Robert Toombs, Alexander Stephens, the Cobb brothers, and Augustus Wright gathered in the house chamber to debate the issue. In what might be the greatest debate in state history, Stephens and Toombs found themselves in rare opposition. The two friends gave their arguments, Stephens against and Toombs in favor of secession. Stephens calm and calculated approach was unable to disarm the sheer force of the oration and personality of Toombs and secession won the day. Georgia left the union on January 19th.
After the war, it was determined that Milledgeville was too remote and too difficult to reach for it to be a good location and the seat of state government was relocated to the railroad hub of Atlanta. As that city has exploded in population and commerce, I wonder what impact the proximity of possible lobbyists has had on our government. While some studies suggest that smaller, more remote state capitals are more susceptible to corruption, it stands to reason that putting distance between the statehouse and lobbyists can never be a bad thing. The added charm and small town culture of Milledgeville could also help state government better relate to the areas of the state that have not been swallowed by the sprawl of Atlanta - the areas that house our agriculture and tourism industries.
For this reason, I think the state would be better off with the seat of government still in Baldwin County. This isn't going to happen under any circumstances and I have no delusions otherwise. But, for these same reasons, Milledgeville is an outstanding place to visit. We have barely scratched the surface of this area at this point and we will make a return visit.
In the meantime, if you make it to the Old Capital Museum, tell them we sent you, and let us know what you think!
The Georgia Road Trip continues....stay tuned!
This is the second post in a three-part series on travel destinations in Georgia.
Previously I shared some of the state parks in Georgia that help tell the state's story. There are many more sites like those that help to tell that story. But there are sites outside the state park system that help to tell the story as well. Georgia is blessed with several sites preserved by the US National Park Service. In continuing the theme of telling Georgia's story in travel, I'd like to use this post to share some of the great sites in Georgia from the federal park system.
1. Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park is one park that has two sites. The park straddles the Tennessee line and encompasses the Battles for Chattanooga in the War Between the States. It is the oldest and the largest of the National Military Parks in the nation. The portion in Georgia is the Chickamauga Battlefield which is immediately south of Ft. Oglethorpe.
On the grounds of Chickamauga you will find 1400 monuments to the men of both armies that fought on the 19th & 20th of September, 1863, the bloodiest two-day battle in the entire war. Many of the memorials can be found via driving tours, including the 85-feet-tall Wilder Monument. Other monuments can be accessed though a network of hiking trails that will carry you through the forests to the locations of some of the heaviest fighting of the war.
The park offers various living history demonstrations throughout the year. The visitor center has excellent interpretive exhibits and a large collection of historic weapons. A knowledgeable staff is on hand to answer questions or give directions. Maps for the hiking trails and driving tours are also available at the visitor center.
2. Ocmulgee National Monument in Macon preserves the remnants of a Mississippian culture that inhabited Georgia over 1000 years ago. Elaborate earthworks remain including the original floor of the Earth Lodge, the center of tribal political and social life. The visitor center includes hands-on exhibits that offer a unique learning experience to adults and kids alike. Ocmulgee was staffed with one of the most knowledgeable rangers I've encountered.
The mounds can be accessed by walking or driving. A partnership with Mercer University is developing a smartphone app for the site which will hopefully be available in the near future. Ocmulgee National Monument is in the process of upgrading from a national monument to a national park.
3. Ft. Pulaski National Monument is on Cockspur Island, just off Tybee Island. The fort was named for The Polish hero of the American Revolution, Casimir Pulaski. The fort was built in the 1930's. The construction was overseen by a young little-known West Point graduate, 2nd Lt. Robert E. Lee. The fort is built in a sandy coastal area atop cypress pilings drove deep into the ground. In that time the fort has settled less on its foundation than the neighboring visitor center built about 140 years later.
Besides being a major coastal fortification in the War Between the States, Ft. Pulaski holds the designation as being the first masonry fort to be proven obsolete. The weapons of the mid-19th century were able to easily penetrate walls once thought to be unbreachable. The Union siege in 1862 was short lived due to the unexpected effectiveness of the guns. This triggered the end of an era in American warfare. The scars of the last battle are still visible on the forts seaward walls. The fort later served as a prisoner of war detention site. Be sure to check the moat for alligators.
Besides the fort itself, the monument is also home to the Cockspur Lighthouse. The current tower was lit from 1856-1909 and was darkened only during the war. It replaced the 1839 tower that was damaged by a hurricane. In some form, Cockspur Light has marked the opening of the south channel of the Savannah River for 175 years.
The monument is also home to a marker commemorating John Wesley's first arrival in Georgia.
4. Andersonville National Historic Site is in the tiny town of Andersonville. The site is best known for its commemoration of the notorious Camp Sumter that housed thousands of POWs during the War Between the States. Today that camp's history is interpreted by monuments, the surviving earthworks, and reconstructed segments of the walls.
The Andersonville National Cemetery began with Confederates burying the bodies of deceased prisoners and continues today with burials of veterans of American wars. There is an audio driving tour of the cemetery that is available at the information desk in the museum. The tour covers various points of interest and encourages visitors to stop and explore.
The traditional visitor center is housed in the National Prisoner of War Museum. While Camp Sumter is covered in the museum, there is also information on Union forts such as Camp Douglas, Rock Island, and Point Lookout. The Museum also covers the stories of American POW's from all wars. This adds broader perspective to this Civil War site.
5. Jimmy Carter National Historic Site is just a short drive from Andersonville. It is dedicated to the life and service of the 39th President of the United States. The site is near the only official Georgia Welcome Center not located on a state line. Any trip to the site should start there. Free Georgia peanuts are available and the on-duty staff provide maps and information about the site.
The museum is the preserved Plains High School, where Jimmy and Rosalynn attended. The facility is specifically dedicated to the Carters but also paints a portrait of rural Southern life in the 1930's and 40's. The boyhood farm is the home Jimmy Carter lived in during his childhood. The outbuildings are still intact and rangers raise crops and animals just as Earl Carter did some 80 years ago. The train depot houses campaign specific items, as it served as campaign headquarters. Its amazing to see how rural folks won a presidential campaign in an abandoned railroad depot...because it was the only available building with indoor plumbing.
And while the site has certain points of interest, the entire town is included. Plains is a wonderfully preserved agrarian southern Georgia town. It is a delicious piece of the South of our past, preserved for future generations. That fact alone makes a stop worthwhile.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire