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Ruined lives

Gen. Sherman and the mystery of the Roswell Mill women


DO OUT-OF-TOWN FRIENDS and relatives visit you and wonder where the Civil War went? Are they disappointed when you can't show them huge antebellum mansions like those in Natchez, Ala. or a stout old fort, such as Charleston's Sumter? Take heart, and tell them history lurks in curious places. You just have to know where to look.

When planning a big production like the Burning of Atlanta, you have to rehearse before the premiere. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, he of "War is hell" fame, therefore used a classic theatrical device: the out-of-town tryout.

So, in the hot, dusty July of 1864, the Civil War came to Roswell. Specifically, to the Roswell Mills. Water-powered, tucked in a ravine along Vickery Creek just east of the town square, the 400-employee firm did a thriving trade weaving "Confederate gray" cloth.

The very success of this enterprise put it high on the Federal hit list. As the Yankee juggernaut zigzagged south toward Atlanta, repeatedly outflanking Rebel defenders, bluecoats had the Roswell Mills directly in their gunsights.

Beleaguered Confederates, concerned about the impending siege of Atlanta, already had pulled back from Roswell when Union cavalry rode into town. Sherman's forces found it largely populated by women, elderly men and children, most of whom worked at the mill. But not for long.

The story goes that at this juncture, Theophile Roche, a French-born weaver, tried un solution diplomatique. In treatying with the Yankees, he raised the flag of la belle France and, in a gesture of Gallic chutzpah, proclaimed the neutrality of the company and its employees.

Perhaps it was bad temper in time of war, or the C[onfederate] S[tates] of A[merica] logo seen on mill-made goods. Maybe it's just because Americans have always been irritated by high-falutin' Frenchmen. But Billy Yank wasn't buying. The Roswell Mills were about to have a fire sale.

Not that Sherman himself was blundering around Vickery Creek with a can of lighter fluid. That task was left to the local cavalry commander, Gen. Kenner Garrard.

"There were fine factories here," he reported to Sherman from Roswell on July 6. "I had the building burnt, all were burnt."

His commander wrote back the next day: "Their utter destruction is right," Sherman declared, "and meets my entire approval."

There would be more to come.

A King's legacy
As the mills went up in flames, smoke from the fire rose up the ravine near Founders Cemetery and the grave of Roswell King who, with his son Barrington, had founded the settlement which bears his name, as well as the Roswell Mills.

King was a banker who came up from the Georgia coast in the early 1830s after America's first gold rush turned North Georgia (and a luckless, soon-to-be-evicted Cherokee Nation) into Boomtown, U.S.A.

Local historian Caroline Matheny Dillman, author of Days Gone By in Alpharetta and Roswell, notes what happened next. "On route north, King happened by the confluence of Vickery Creek and the Chattahoochee River," she said. "He saw not only the beauty of the spot, but also its potential."

King and his sons returned to the area to construct a dam and textile mill. Until that time, most Southern cotton was sent to mills up North for production into clothing and other consumer goods. The Kings decided to make that profit themselves.

Roswell King's slaves built much of the original mill in the late 1830s. More coastal gentry -- and their human charges -- were to arrive thereafter.

"Originally, some of Roswell's founding families just planned to be there as a summer retreat, to get away from the malaria and mosquitoes," Dillman notes. "But they liked it so much, they wanted to get in on King's venture."

They were a new class of people to the area, the kind of aristocrats who'd have a piano toted all the way up from the coast, along with furniture imported from Europe. They had money, they had slaves and they were accustomed to living well. Several of their handsome homes, most in private hands, still stand near old town Roswell.

When the Kings needed help, they hired local whites eking out a bare living on rocky farmsteads in the countryside -- the "yeomanry" in olde English terms -- to live and work in the mill village. These ex-farmers and their descendants were the kind of people still at the mill when Sherman's men hit town.

The Roswell women
After Federal raiders reduced the Roswell textile enterprise to smoking ruins, its former hands, most of them female, were not left to find new pursuits. Instead, Sherman issued a draconian edict: "I have ordered General Garrard to arrest for treason all (mill) owners and employees," he wrote to headquarters in Washington.

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