Roswell Mills
The Untold Tragedy of the Roswell Mills – Commentary by Randy Young
The news some months back that US troops might have used women in Iraq as leverage to force their husbands to surrender didn't come as a surprise to me.
The originator of such tactics in our nation was none other than one William Tecumseh Sherman, and it happened right here in Georgia. The story of the women and children of the Roswell mills is one that too few of you know.
The story, little known outside Georgia, took place between the battle of Kennesaw Mountain and the battles for Atlanta. The army of Confederate General Joseph Johnston had fallen back across the Chattahoochee River, and Sherman was looking for a way to get his army across after him. He sent his cavalry division sweeping eastward back upstream with orders to capture Roswell, which sits on the river's northern bank and was lightly defended by home guardsmen and a few rebel horsemen.
Despite its tiny size, the town – which until the war was known primarily as an upland escape for the aristocracy's elite from coastal Georgia's brutal summers — had become the center of a thriving textile industry during the war. The cotton mill was cranking out up to 191,000 yards of cloth per month and the woolen mill up to 30,000 yards of "Roswell Gray" uniforms. Each of the mills employed hundreds of women, some of them black.
After easily capturing the town, the commander of the Union troops, Brigadier General Kenner Garrard, turned his attention to the town's woolen mill and cotton mill. He was surprised to find a French flag flying atop the woolen mill in what turned out to be a ploy by its Confederate owner to keep it from being destroyed.
The ploy failed.
Garrard, noting no U.S. flag atop the French one, ordered both mills burned - to the protests of a French millhand who had been granted temporary ownership of the factory by its Confederate owner a day or two earlier.
Apprised of the situation, Sherman wrote Garrard "...should you, under the impulse of anger, natural at contemplating such perfidy, hang the wretch, I wholeheartedly approve the act beforehand."
However, the millhand, a Frenchman named Theophile Roche, survived.
Sherman then ordered Garrard to arrest all employees of the factory and "...let them foot it, under armed guard..." the more than 10 miles to Marietta from where he ordered them sent north via livestock boxcars to Indiana. Added Sherman, "...the poor women will surely make a howl! I presume we should let them take along their children and clothing…"
To General Henry Halleck in Washington, Sherman noted that the women were "...tainted with treason," and, "...should be as much governed by the rules of war as if in the ranks...the whole region was devoted to manufacturies, and I will destroy every one of them, factory and worker alike black or white, to force their traitor soldiers to relent."
He added the next day, "...whenever these people get in the way, simply ship them to a new country north and west."
Within days Garrard had moved as many as 700 people, nearly all of them women and children, like cattle to Marietta. Their arrival there made the front pages of the New York newspapers.
By July 15, having had been given nine days' rations, two whole trainloads of the helpless refugees were sent north - most never to be heard from again.
According to author Webb Garrison, who wrote "Atlanta and the War, "...for the military record, that closed the case in which women and children were illegally deported after having been inexplicably charged with military treason," and, "...had the Roswell incident not been followed immediately by major military developments, it might have made a lasting impact upon public opinion concerning the entire war. In this century, few analysts have given it the emphasis it deserves."
What happened with the Roswell women has been a matter of great local conjecture ever since. Many of the refugees had little choice but to remain north, though some did make their way back home.
At least two men I know can trace their ancestry to the mill women.
Wayne Bagley of Roswell is descended from Adeline Bagley Buice, whose husband was in the Confederate army. Though pregnant, she was sent to Chicago and was unable to return to Georgia with her daughter for over five years.
By that time, her husband, having returned from the war and thinking her dead, had remarried.
Wayne Shelly of Rome is the grandson of a millworker. Her mother and grandmother also worked in the Roswell mill and all three were deported. The woman's mother died aboard a train in Tennessee, and her death was followed shortly by that of the grandmother while the group was being transported via steamship up the Ohio River. The old woman had been so feeble that she was carried on board the boat in a rocking chair.
Interestingly, the female millworkers in the little factory town of New Manchester met a fate similar to that of the Roswell women. New Manchester was on the banks of Sweetwater Creek just across the Chattahoochee due west of Atlanta. But because that town was burned along with the mill and never rebuilt thus effectively erasing its existence, the tribulations of its women and children have been nearly forgotten.
Then again, the same can be said of the women and children of the Roswell mills, perhaps the greatest "untold" story of the war.
Sherman would use similar tactics throughout 1864 and 1865 to, as he put it, "...break the spirit of the South." Today, such actions would be considered war crimes.
To sum up the episode, Dr. Garrision wrote,"...the mystery of the Roswell women, whose ultimate fate remains unknown, is one of major importance in its own right. Even more significant is its foreshadowing of things to come of which no one should be proud."
                                                                    At a Georgia Camp Meeting
                                                                            by Kerry Mills
                                                                          1936 Sheet Music