The Civil War first entered Bartow County on April 12, 1862, exactly one year to the day following the bombardment at Fort Sumter, S.C. This brief episode, while not a skirmish or hostile action, was in the form of “The Great Locomotive Chase.” As a result of the Western & Atlantic Railroad’s (W&A RR) strategic war time value, Bartow was among five north Georgia counties that would witness what has been called the greatest and most daring railroad adventure in U.S. history. Bartow enjoys perhaps the greatest portion of this story. With over 40 percent of the chase having unfolded in Bartow between the old community of Allatoona and Adairsville on the state-owned Western and Atlantic Railroad (W&A RR) line, the event produced our nation’s first Congressional Medal of Honor recipients.
Bartow citizens felt rather safe in the early part of the conflict and did not experience further intrusion until the final year as Sherman’s forces approached its borders from Chattanooga. Initially, Bartow voted largely not to secede and avoid dissolving the Union. Once the die was cast, Bartow faithfully joined the Confederacy and went to war. However, this pro-union vote was of little use when the war marched through the county. During the Spring of 1864 rear guard actions and heavy skirmishes eventually occurred at Adairsville, Barnsley Gardens, Kingston, Cassville and Cartersville, which led to the fall of Bartow County.
According to an Aug. 28, 1958, article published in The Daily Tribune News, Col. Thomas Spencer states that there were 36 recorded skirmishes and engagements — not including the 1862 Great Locomotive Chase — in Bartow between May 17, 1864, and Nov. 11, 1864.
Once again the W&A RR that runs directly through the heart of Bartow County plays a vital role in the Civil War. Union Gen. William Sherman was desperately dependent on the railroad to supply troop movements requiring that he cling close to the railroad for support. In contrast, Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston was under orders to break up Sherman’ supply line, inflict disruptive actions and hold his positions.
On May 17, 1864, Gen. Sherman entered Bartow County with three Federal Armies deploying northwest of Cassville from Adairsville and Barnsley Gardens to Kingston and Cass Station. Confederate General Joseph Johnston prepared defense works east of Cassville near what is now Antigua Subdivision and the current Confederate Cemetery. Here is where he planned for the Army of the Tennessee to engage the Union forces. Even today, at these locations, ghostly earthworks remain in the form of shallow trenches, trails and cannon emplacements.
The first fighting in Bartow occurred the late afternoon on May 17 at a location known at the Octagon House north of Adairsville. (Also known as the Battle of Adairsville) The Octagon House stood on the east side of present-day Highway 41, just a few feet from the Bartow-Gordon County line. The unusual home was built by Col. R.C. Saxon, from Laurens County, S.C., around 1850. There were four rooms on each of the two floors, and each room had a fireplace attached to one central chimney. This was an unusual structure with eight sides, two levels, constructed of 1-foot thick walls made of cement and gravel. Confederate troops were well entrenched in the area and fought heavily until evening.
According to an eyewitness account from Private Sam R. Watkins, CSA Army of the Tennessee, Co H, “We had stacked our arms and gone into camp and had started to build fires to cook supper. I saw our cavalry falling back, I thought rather hurriedly. I ran to the road and asked them what was the matter? They answered; matter enough; yonder are the Yankees, are you infantry fellow going to make a stand here? I could hardly draw anyone’s attention to the fact that the cavalry had passed us, and that we were on the outpost of the whole army, when an order came for our regiment to go forward as rapidly as possible and occupy an octagon house in our immediate front. The Yankees were about a hundred yards from the house on one side and we were about a hundred yards on the other. The race commenced as to which side would get to the house first. We reached it, and had barely gotten in, when they were bursting down and pouring in the yard on the opposite side. The house was a fine brick, octagon in shape, and as perfect about as could be desired. We ran to the windows, up-stairs, down-stairs and in the cellar. The Yankees cheered and charged, and our boys got happy. Colonel Field told he had orders to hold it until every man was killed, and never to surrender the house… At every discharge of our guns, we would hear a Yankee squall … Our cartridges were almost gone, and Lt. Joe Carney, Joe Sewell, and Bill Carr volunteered to go and bring a box of one thousand cartridges. They got out of the back window, and through that hail of iron and lead, made their way back with the box of cartridges. Our ammunition being renewed, the fight raged on… About twelve o’clock, midnight, the hundred and fifty fourth of Tennessee, commanded by Colonel McGeveny, came to our relief. The firing had ceased, and we abandoned the octagon house. Our dead and wounded — there were thirty three of them — were a strange contrast with the furniture of the house. Fine chairs, sofas, settees, pianos and brussel carpeting being made the death-bed of brave and noble boys, all saturated with blood. Fine lace and damask curtains, all blackened with the smoke of battle. Fine bureaus and looking-glasses and furniture being riddled by the rude missiles of war. Beautiful pictures in gilt frame, and a library of valuable books, all shot and torn by musket and cannon balls. Such is war.”
Another noted document is that of Maj. Arthur MacArthur (father of WWII General Douglas MacArthur) recorded in the Official Record 38, I, 327. “I immediately deployed two more companies on the right and the remaining four companies on the left side of the road. The united efforts of the two regiments (44th Illinois and 24th Wisconsin) made no visible impression on the enemy. The fighting was very severe and lasted from about 3:00pm until after dark.”
When Johnston reached Adairsville he found the wide valley terrain would exceed the front of his army and he choose to not make a stand here. He decides to retreat toward Cassville in search of better conditions. Meeting only light resistance, Union forces moved into Adairsville and destroyed the Georgia State Arsenal.
Follow the Civil War Sesquicentennial through Bartow County over the next few months through the six-part series and learn how it impacted the communities.