On Georgia’s Antebellum Trail, the Old South not gone with the wind
Posted : Tue, 03 Mar 2009
Madison/Athens, Georgia – More than 140 years have passed since the Union fought the Confederacy in the American Civil War (1861-65). For many Americans, however, it almost seems like yesterday. The epic novel – and later film adaptation – "Gone With the Wind", have helped keep memories alive. So have regular re-enactments of major battles, complete with cannon blasts, by civil war enthusiasts. And then there are attractions like the Antebellum Trail, a 150-kilometre-long, pre-war-heritage route in the southern US state of Georgia which marks its 25th anniversary this year.
Many of the windowpanes in Heritage Hall, a splendid Greek Revival mansion in the Antebellum Trail town of Madison, are covered with small scratches. The marks are somewhat disfiguring, but have an interesting story to tell.
"That’s how the daughters of the house used to see if the diamonds in their engagement rings were genuine," explained Betty Maxey, a tour guide at the house. The scratches show that the women’s fiancés had money, as "only a genuine diamond cuts glass," Maxey pointed out.
Built in 1811, Heritage Hall is one of many jewels along the Antebellum Trail, and has been a museum since 1977. When you step into the living room, it is easy to picture the slaveholding society’s elite sitting there at the dining table, which is decorated with fine porcelain.
If the home were to be sold, it would fetch 1.8 to 2.7 million dollars (1.4 to 2.1 million euros), according to Andy Williams, a member of the Madison Chamber of Commerce. "And there are old homes here that would cost twice as much," he added.
Madison lies approximately in the middle of the Antebellum Trail and has a high concentration of buildings dating from "before the war," which is what the Latin word "antebellum" means. Main and Academy streets alone are lined with nearly 40 19th-century buildings in all.
The reason for so much historic architecture in such a small area is that Union General William T Sherman did not burn Madison down – as he did many towns – when he and his soldiers marched from Atlanta to the Atlantic in 1864. And old homes were not simply demolished in Madison either, Williams noted.
Such was not always the case in the town of Athens, the northern end of the Antebellum Trail. It still has at least two dozen homes predating 1861.
"After World War II, though, only what was new was considered good. The old was taken away," said city guide Janet McNair-Clark. "In the 1960s people began to realize what they were losing."
A university town, Athens is full of young people. Its nightclubs and bars are thronged in the evenings, and it gave birth to the music bands REM and the B-52s.
But Athens also holds traditions high. One of them has to do with the wrought-iron Arch at the northern entrance to the University of Georgia campus. The three columns supporting it represent wisdom, justice and moderation. According to tradition, if you walk under the arch as a freshman, you will never graduate.
When the site of the university was selected in 1801, it was named after the centre of philosophy in ancient Greece. "The neighbouring town of Watkinsville was prepared to change its name to get the campus," McNair-Clark said. "But the founders rejected Watkinsville because it had a tavern." How times have changed!
Part of Athens’ Civil War legacy is the Double Barrelled Cannon in front of City Hall. It still points north – "just to make sure," the town’s residents joke, as if the Civil War could flare up anew.
Among the 19th-century homes in Athens open to the public is the TRR Cobb House. Cobb was a prominent Georgia lawyer and officer in the Confederate army. The history of the house is moving in more ways than one: in 1985, it was transported more than 100 kilometres away to Stone Mountain Park, near Atlanta, then returned in 2005.
Built in 1834, the TRR Cobb House was restored to reflect the styles of 1852-1862. Hanging on a wall in its library is a map of the United States, printed in Germany, that differentiates between Union states and slave states.
Besides Madison, Athens, Watkinsville and Macon, the Antebellum Trail offers plenty to see in Eatonton, Old Clinton, near Gray, and Milledgeville, Georgia’s former capital.
Milledgeville, like Athens, is a university town. One of its institutions of higher education is the Georgia Military College (GMC). Milledgeville’s Old Capitol Building, home of the state legislature until 1868, is now part of the GMC campus. A permanent exhibition on Georgia’s history there is open to the public.
Another historic building in Milledgeville accessible to tourists in Milledgeville accessible to tourists is the Old Governor’s Mansion. You get a strong sense of the pre-Civil War American South there, too, from the head slave’s bedchamber to the children’s room, where the dolls seem to have been held by the governor’s daughters just moments ago.
There are no scratches on the windowpanes of this old mansion, though.
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