Civil War Wednesday: The Plight of the Mill Workers

  • New Manchester Mill ruins

    photo courtesy of author

Hoping to replicate the success of Roswell King, who founded the Roswell Manufacturing Company in the town bearing his name, Colonel James Rogers and former Georgia Governor Charles McDonald built another mill, this one alongside Sweetwater Creek in Campbell County (today’s Douglas County). Roswell King assisted them in the design and construction, and the new mill began operations in 1849. The mill turned out thread, cloth and yarn of fine quality under the direction of Rogers and McDonald. In 1860, Colonel Arnoldus Brumby and William Russell assumed the reasonability of daily operations, as McDonald’s health declined.[1]

Fighting and maneuvering during the Atlanta Campaign eventually brought the threat of Federal forces to the region, and the mill operators, both in Roswell and in Sweetwater, grew increasingly concerned over the safety of their operations. The owner in Roswell took drastic action when he made a Frenchman, Theophile Roché, a part owner. Perhaps they believed a foreign-born operator might claim neutrality and save the mill. When the Federal horse soldiers of Brigadier General Kenner Garrard rode into Roswell on July 6, a French flag flew above the mill. The ruse to convince the invading soldiers of the mill’s neutrality failed, and Northern flames soon blazed. When Major General William T. Sherman learned of the flag incident, he instructed Garrard, “Should you, under the impulse of anger…hang the wrench, I approve the act beforehand.” In the same dispatch, Sherman instructed Garrard to, “…arrest all people, male and female, connected with those factories, no matter what the clamor, and let them foot it, under guard, to Marietta, whence I will send them by cars to the North. The poor women will make a howl.” [2] Garrard managed to provide wagons to carry the 400 or so men, women, and children arrested for treason into Marietta.

Before turning his sights toward the New Manchester Mill, Sherman wired Major General Henry Halleck in Washington explaining how the entire region “…was devoted to manufactories,” and he vowed to “…destroy every one of them.”[3]  Sherman’s observation proved astute, as the mills in Roswell produced sheeting, tent cloth, and wool for Confederate uniforms; many soldiers went into battle wearing ‘Roswell Grey’. Sherman made good on his promise when Federal cavalry approached their next target along Sweetwater Creek. This mill also provided cloth to support the Confederacy, so on July 9, three days after the destruction in Roswell, the Federal torch ignited again, when Major Haviland Thompkins ordered the burning of the New Manchester Mill.

Thompkins placed each of the mill workers under arrest, but did not charge them with treason; only the mill employees in Roswell faced this fate. The officer gave each worker 15 minutes to gather their belongings, before ordering some 200 men, women, and children to begin their journey to Marietta. Unlike the 400 or more refugees from Roswell who rode in wagons, the workers from Sweetwater made the trip on foot. Regardless of their mode of transportation, all eventually found their way to the grounds of the Georgia Military Institute in Marietta, where they awaited northbound trains (some lingered for over three weeks), which would take them through Chattanooga, on to Nashville, and then their final destination – Louisville, Kentucky. A Federal soldier charged with guarding the refugees in waiting observed, especially of the women, “Some of them are tough and it’s a hard job to keep them straight and to keep the men away from them. General Sherman says he would rather try to guard the whole Confederate Army, and I guess he is right about that.”[4]

Reaching the rail terminus in Louisville, the men quartered in the city’s military prison, while the women and children received housing in a newly opened hospital, where members of the Louisville Refugee Commission provided care. The citizens of Louisville, ill-equipped to handle the influx of the refugees, wanted the people sent elsewhere. Sherman intervened and issued orders to “…have them sent across the Ohio River and turned loose to earn a living where they won’t do us any harm.”[5] Over time, the mill workers ferried to the opposite bank of the river, and many took residence in various Indiana locales. Several of the Sweetwater families settled down in Perry County, where some eventually found employment in the Cannelton Cotton Mill after the war. Years later, roughly half of the New Manchester refugees made their way back to Georgia, but returned to a town forever lost to history.[6]

Today, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources manages the Sweetwater Creek State Park in Douglas County. Pay this scenic area a visit, walk the grounds where the mill workers lived and worked, and recall their 1864 struggles!

[1] Mary Deborah Petite, The Women Will Howl: The Union Army Capture of Roswell and New Manchester, Georgia, and the Forced Relocation of Mill Workers (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2008), passim. A great source for those wanting to learn more about the arrest of the workers in both Roswell and Sweetwater.

[2] U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, reprint 1899 ed. Series I 38, pt. 5 (Harrisburg, PA: National Historical Society, 1971), 76.

[3] Ibid., 73.

[4] Theodore F. Upson, With Sherman to the Sea; The Civil War Letters, Diaries & Reminiscences of Theodore F. Upson, ed. Oscar O. Winther (1958; repr., Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977), 119.

[5] U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 92.

[6] Petite, The Women Will Howl: The Union Army Capture of Roswell and New Manchester, Georgia, and the Forced Relocation of Mill Workers, passim.

Michael Shaffer

Michael K. Shaffer is the Assistant Director and Lecturer for Kennesaw State University’s Civil War Center. He is a Civil War historian, author, and newspaper columnist, and a member of the Society of Civil War Historians. He serves on the boards of the Civil War Round Table of Cobb County and the River Line Historic Area, and assists the Friends of Camp McDonald as a Civil War consultant.

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