In Section E of the National Cemetery in Marietta, 12 Georgians lie buried together with military honors, soldiers who died for their country in the Civil War. Denounced by most of their fellow Georgians as “hogsbacks,” “tories” or “traitors,” these men fell in the cause of the Union against the Confederacy. They died, not covered in glory on some battlefield, but executed in chains in a swamp on the side of the road outside Gainesville. But now we are a little ahead of the story.
Support for the Confederacy was lukewarm at best in the mountain counties of North Central Georgia between the Cohutta and Horse Range mountains. Although this section raised a respectable number of Confederate troops, it also had far more than its share of deserters and draft dodgers. There was some strong Unionist sentiment, but most of the people felt no particular enthusiasm for either the Yankees or for the flatland slaveholders; they wanted only to remain undisturbed while the strangers carried on their quarrel. But war does not allow the luxury of being left alone. As rebel tax collectors and conscription officers came into the mountains, more and more of the men of Cherokee, Georgia banded together to resist the assault on their livelihoods and liberties.
Several hundred Confederate troops under Col. G.W. Lee stayed busy throughout most of 1863 scouring north Georgia for deserters. Col. Lee noted that over a third of the soldiers from the mountains had deserted, and that they were not draftees, but volunteers. Lee and his troops often met stiff, organized resistance and at one point had to deal with the threat of one of the guerrilla bands to burn Dahlonega.
Repression helped to crystallize resistance, and as the Confederate demand for men and supplies became greater, the fighting in the mountains grew more desperate. Unable to work their farms without being seized or shot down, the deserters took to plundering the corncribs and smokehouses of their neighbors who were loyal to the Confederacy. This frequently meant the robbery of women, old men and children whose able-bodied male relatives were away in Mississippi or Virginia. Discharged Confederate troops, mostly wounded men, returned to find their homes and farms ransacked, and sometimes their family members raped or dead. These men organized their own guerrilla bands, sometimes as Home Guard companies with state approval, sometimes simply as freelance vigilantes.
The methods adopted by the Home Guards differed little if at all from those of their enemies. Revenge upon deserters was exacted upon their defenseless families and torture became widespread as a means of gaining information. Several supposed Home Guard companies were simply robber bands who preyed indiscriminately upon Rebel and Union households. Many Confederate soldiers are said to have deserted in order to defend their families against the men who claimed to be their comrades in arms.
By early 1864 North Central Georgia had fallen into chaos. Civil authority had largely disappeared from the region and the approach of federal troops into the northwest corner of the state lent boldness to the depredations of the Unionists and desperation to those of the Home Guards. At this time two of the most notorious “Home Guard” units sprang up, “McCollum’s Scouts” under the command of Benjamin F. McCollum, and the “Cherokee Scouts,” aka “The Jordan Gang,” under Benjamin F. Jordan. Neither group appears to have been a formal military company, though both leaders were Confederate veterans. Their actions against real and suspected Union sympathizers grew so fierce (by one account the Jordan Gang was said to have killed over 140 people) that General Sherman sent a detachment of troops to burn most of the town of Canton in retaliation.
In August 1864 many Union sympathizers in North Georgia enlisted in the 5th Tennessee Regiment of the U.S. Army. A few hundred others were organized as the “First Georgia State Troops Volunteers.” Their main duty was to guard the railroads against rebel saboteurs, but they were not actually made United States troops, probably because of their questionable reputations. On Nov. 5, 1864, 20 of these soldiers were captured in Gilmer County, along with a list of prominent Dawson County Unionists who were promptly rounded up. All were taken to Gainesville, well away from the Union lines.
Two of the prisoners escaped. Of those remaining, 12 were identified as former Confederates, and therefore both deserters and traitors. That is one account. Another is that Benjamin Jordan and his brother Robert of the Cherokee Scouts suspected the 12 of having been involved in the rape of their sister in Pickens County a year earlier. At an rate, the 12 men were chained together and taken to a swamp beside the road leading from Gainesville to New Holland where Robert Jordan walked down the line, and looking each man in the face shot him in the head with a pistol. The bodies were buried in a ditch and two years later removed to the military cemetery in Marietta.
After the war, northwest Georgia grand juries returned numerous indictments against Ben McCollum and the Jordans for their wartime activities, but they do not seem to have been convicted. The Jordans died in barroom brawls in Florida and Texas, and Ben McCollum became a lawyer in Hampton, Ga., where he was gunned down on the street by a policeman with whom he had quarreled.
Much more research is needed on what was certainly the cruelest phase of the Civil War in Georgia, but the task is difficult; records were few and feelings were high, so high that the old hatreds lingered in the mountains until well within living memory.
© 1995, John Ryan Seawright
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