Georgia’s Antebellum Trail, meandering through the towns that Sherman spared

Special to The Washington PostJuly 6, 2014 

I am a Southerner, through and through. If it’s fried, I eat it. If it’s a one-syllable word, I stretch it to two -- or three or four. If it says Old South, I’m on it like a duck on a June bug.

All my life I’ve been driving Georgia’s back roads, including a 100-mile stretch of blacktop highways from Macon, where I went to college at Mercer University, up to Athens, where the University of Georgia Bulldogs are worshiped as a minor deity.

In between Macon and Athens, the highways wind through the towns of Old Clinton, Gray, Milledgeville, Eatonton, Madison and Watkinsville.

Those hundred miles of highway are designated Georgia’s Antebellum Trail, which runs through a string of communities and historical sites that predate the Civil War.

After burning Atlanta 150 years ago, in November 1864, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman blazed a path southeast to Savannah in his March to the Sea, promising to “make Georgia howl.”

Along the way, the pyromaniac general burned and destroyed everything in his way, pretty much trying to obliterate Georgia from the map.

But the towns on this trail he mostly left alone, concentrating instead on destroying crops, plantations and railroads while looting farms and confiscating their animals.

By ignoring these towns, he left open a few pages for the history books, so that today we can still see glimpses of the Old South and a good bit of its white-columned architecture as it was before the War Between the States.

With the sesquicentennial of Sherman’s march approaching this year, it seems like a good time to revisit the trail and contemplate what was spared and what went by the wayside in the bloody conflict that once tore our nation asunder.

So my husband and I set out on a bright, sunshiny spring day, hitting the road in Macon and then making our way slowly north to Athens.

Macon to Juliette

A paltry 150 or 200 years ago isn’t that long where architecture is concerned. But every time I see an antebellum home, I’m always amazed that anything would still be standing after a couple of hundred years in the destructive, brain-frying heat and humidity of Georgia’s summers.

And yet an amazing number of these structures have survived in Macon, a city of 91,000 in Middle Georgia. We drive through several of Macon’s 11 historic districts, which include 5,500 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

We admire the 1859 Italian Renaissance Revival Hay House mansion, with its 18,000 square feet on four levels, often called the Palace of the South; the 1853 Greek Revival Cannonball House, which, as the name implies, was struck during the Civil War; and the landmark Sidney Lanier Cottage, the birthplace of one of the South’s most beloved poets, built about 1840.

After a hearty lunch of vinegar-based pork barbecue and slaw at Old Clinton Bar-B-Q, where everybody seems to know everybody in typical small-town fashion, we drive another mile or two into Gray, stopping to admire the striking bell and clock tower atop the immense red-brick Jones County Courthouse.

Our next stops are historic Jarrell Plantation, which dates from 1847 and is still a working farm, and Griswoldville Battlefield, the site of the only significant infantry battle against Sherman during his march to Savannah. It was just a one-day skirmish, but the Yankees beat us there, too.

We pass scattered cotton fields, not nearly as many as there were just a few decades ago, when King Cotton ruled the South. Cotton today is picked by giant harvesters, but in the past, it was a labor-intensive job.

Horse farms and cow pastures vibrant with wildflowers punctuate the roadsides more than cotton fields, especially the farther north we drive, toward Madison and Athens, in the heart of Georgia’s horse country.

Milledgeville to Eatonton

The road starts to get hilly near Milledgeville, as the Antebellum Trail roughly follows the Fall Line, where the elevation drops dramatically before sloping and leveling off to the sea near Savannah.

The best way to see Milledgeville, the next town on the trail, is by trolley. Probably best known in the 20th century as the home of Southern writer Flannery O’Connor, Milledgeville served as the capital of Georgia from 1803 to 1868.

The trolley takes you past the Old Capitol Building; the stunning Greek Revival Lockerly Arboretum, which was built as a private home about 1839; and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, where Sherman’s troops burned the pews for firewood, used the stable for their horses, and even poured molasses into the organ pipes.

Along the short 20-minute drive that separates Milledgeville from Eatonton, we pass more barbecue joints than you can shake a pig at, lots of pecan orchards, antiques stores -- Auntie Bellum’s Lakeside Emporium of Antiques, Furniture and Collectibles wins the best-name contest -- and dozens upon dozens of Baptist churches and their old graveyards, some dating to the 1700s.

This is the South, after all, the Bible Belt, and really, you’d be hard-pressed to find another denomination besides the Baptists except for maybe the Methodists.

Eatonton is a lovely old town that produced writers Alice Walker and Joel Chandler Harris, whose “Tales of Uncle Remus” and the movie “Song of the South” still enthrall me.

A stone statue of Brer Rabbit stands guard at the Uncle Remus Museum, a log cabin melded together from two local authentic slave cabins. You almost expect to find Uncle Remus on the porch, telling his tales of the Tar Baby, Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and the rest of “de critters” to the Little Boy.

Madison

Each of the towns on the trail holds a special place in my heart, but Madison captures my imagination like no other. Legends and myths abound as to why Sherman and his troops trampled the rest of the state but didn’t torch Madison, a town widely considered to be the most beautiful in Georgia.

The most popular is that he proclaimed the town simply too pretty to burn, while another suggests that he had a lady friend who lived or had once lived there.

The most believable theory is that he had a West Point buddy who was from Madison, and the two men reached a gentlemen’s agreement that the stately community would not be set aflame.

We pop into Heritage Hall, an 1811 home with massive white columns draping the front. Inside, the house has been restored to its antebellum elegance with period artwork and furnishings. The Rogers House, Madison’s oldest, was built in 1809, and is also a good place to catch a glimpse or two of the Old South of yesteryear.

Much like Eatonton’s, the historic district is small and walkable. Stunning neighborhoods filled with Greek Revival, Romanesque and Neoclassical homes seem as if they leaped straight from the pages of “Gone With the Wind.”

As you travel down U.S. 441, the main street, the antebellum homes seamlessly flow into a downtown filled with more than 160 shops, antiques stores, restaurants and pubs.

Watkinsville to Athens

There are two more trail stops ahead of us. In Watkinsville, we visit the Eagle Tavern Museum, built in the late 1700s and now a restored stagecoach-style trading post that served as a hotel, a restaurant and a grog stop.

The romance of covered bridges takes us to Elder Mill Covered Bridge, one of only 13 left in Georgia, and although it’s not antebellum, since it was built in 1897, it is pretty as it overlooks the rumbling waters of Big Rose Creek.

A writer friend who visited Watkinsville often once said that if you shake a tree in the town, an artist falls out. Supposedly, more artists per capita live in Watkinsville than in any other place in Georgia. Public and private art tours are readily available through the Oconee County Welcome Center.

Athens, the last stop on the northbound trail, is home to the University of Georgia, the first state-chartered university in the nation.

There are many red-brick and white-columned homes here, too, but downtown, which is crammed with cafes, boutiques and plenty of sometimes-too-loud nightlife tailor-made for a college town, is snazzy and fun.

Known as the Classic City, Athens, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, relies on its Old South traditions and, as in Milledgeville, the best way to experience it is through a guided tour.

The first time I visited Athens, I took a tour with Classic City Tours and was glad to relax and let someone else do all the driving so that I could do all the looking at the gorgeous homes and neighborhoods.

There are all sorts of locally famous house museums on the tour, although the names may not be recognizable to anyone except Athenians or Georgians.

All are on the Museum Mile of architectural Southern wonders and include the 1820 Federal-style Church-Waddel-Brumby House, which is believed to be the oldest house in Athens and serves as the Athens Welcome Center; the 1844 Greek Revival Taylor-Grady House, with 13 white columns; the 1840s late Greek Revival Ware-Lyndon House, now part of the Lyndon House Arts Center; and the T.R.R. Cobb House, a stunning petal-pink mansion that Cobb, a lawyer who served as a Confederate brigadier general, enlarged to its current dimensions in 1852.

Two Athens treasures are worth mentioning here.

The State Botanical Garden of Georgia, a unit of the University of Georgia, has some of the loveliest gardens and galleries anywhere. With more than five miles of trails, it’s one of those places where the scent of such Southern sweets as magnolias and gardenias can transport you to another time, another place, another era.

The other is Weaver D’s Delicious Fine Foods on Broad Street. It’s been around for years, and I can’t say enough about their food. It’s Southern, it’s soul, it’s just good. I’ve had the privilege of eating there only once -- so far, that is -- but every morsel was jampacked with flavor. Think fried chicken, sweet potato souffle, collard greens and barbecue pork.

In the gracious old towns along the Antebellum Trail, the Old South hasn’t quite breathed its last breath.

And for that, even we Southerners -- and anyone interested in antebellum architecture, including Yankees -- must give a tip of the hat to Gen. Sherman.

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