By Kimberly Brigance, Clarke Otten and Michael Hitt
This is one of a series of articles recounting the history of the Civil War in Sandy Springs.
We are so overloaded with information today that it is hard to imagine how the young men in 1860’s Oak Grove would have envisioned the Civil War.
Whether it was for political reasons, the lure of travel, the perceived glory of battle, or as most remarked, to protect their land from an invading army, the men of Oak Grove joined the Confederate Army in droves, leaving behind their families, mostly wives, children, elderly parents, and those too sick or weak for military duty to try to keep their farming community going.
One of the first local settler families of Oak Grove was the John Mitchell family. Their first child, William Harris Mitchell, was born Jan. 16, 1844.
Family tradition tells of William chopping wood when he decided to join the army. He purportedly told his father he would “finish choppin’” the wood when he returned from the war. He was barely 17 when he joined up. His father left the ax in the log where William buried it. When he returned home four years later, William found it in the same place waiting for him.
However romantic this story may seem, it is unlikely the ax would have remained in a log for four years. Even if the family’s intention was to leave it there it would almost surely been taken when the Union forces occupied the family farm in July 1864.
We do know for a fact that William, or “W.H.” as he was mostly known, volunteered for the Confederate Army and served as a private in Evan’s Brigade, Gordon’s Division, Jackson Corps, of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. (The armies took their name from where they spent most of the war and not where they originated.) The muster roll of Company A of the 38th Regiment of the Georgia Volunteer Infantry shows that Mitchell volunteered on March 1, 1861.
Mitchell was wounded three times before finally being captured. He was first wounded at the Second Battle of Manassas on August 28, 1862, but no details were recorded on the wounds. He was wounded in the left shoulder and lung at Winchester, Va., on June 13, 1863, and in the foot and left hand at Spotsylvania, Va., on May 18, 1864. He was captured at High Bridge, Va., on April 6, 1865, and paroled at Farmville, Va., on April 21, 1865. Unfortunately, no correspondence between Mitchell and his family is known to exist. However, several letters from neighbors and kinsman have survived.
As the weeks dragged into years, no doubt Mitchell and many of others changed their views of war. Many wrote home from faraway places not knowing if they would ever see loved ones again. During Christmas and throughout the year, their letters express a longing to return home and be with family.
From near Carter’s Station, Tenn., James Sentell of the 9th Georgia Battalion wrote to his wife and family, who lived near what is now Mystic Drive and Roswell Road.
Luvisa, dear wife
…I wish I was nearer home than I am now so I would hear from home better. I do want to see you all so bad. Ma, I wish I would see you and stay with you and make a living for you in your old age, but I can’t have my way about that and under the circumstances you can’t think hard of me. No one ought not never forget a mother.
Tell the children I love them and want to see them. Tell them it is not my choice to stay away from them it is because I am forced to do so. I wish for peace in the land so I can be at home with you all
James McMurtry also serving in the 9th Georgia Battalion wrote to his wife, who lived near Morgan Falls, about his son Willie.
…Matt said that Willie was as fat and pert as a cricket and called his Pa every day. He don’t call me no oftener than I think of you and him and wish to be with you
Richard Jett wrote to his wife Nellie.
…I have often thought that you was the best friend I have and you have proved it by every kind act towards me since I have been away from home. I will never forget or forsake you till the hand that draws these lines be stilled in death. I oft times think of you and our small innocent babe at the still hour of midnight and suppose you have our child in your arms far away from harm and danger where I hope you may live and sleep.
As they marched off to war, few could have imagined the homes they were leaving would soon shelter their foe and the families they wanted to protect would have to face every deprivation and cruelty inflicted by the enemy alone. Those that survived the war would return to a land and people that would be forever changed.
Separated from family, with only death and war as a constant, those on the battle front and home front would remember the cold Christmas of 1864 as singularly bleak. While disease and hunger devastated the remainder of Sandy Spring population, news arrived that Gen. Sherman had given the city of Savannah to President Lincoln as a Christmas gift.
Kimberly Brigance is the curator of the Heritage Sandy Springs Museum, 6075 Sandy Springs Circle. This article is based, in part, on materials from the museum’s collection. To contact her, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clarke Otten, a resident of Sandy Springs since 1953, is writing a book on the history of Sandy Springs.
Michael Hitt, a Roswell police officer, serves as historian for the Roswell Preservation Commission and has published several local history books and articles.