Editor’s Note: Third in an ongoing series about historic places and markers in southwest Georgia.
DAWSON — One of the more dramatic scenes in “Gone with the Wind” shows refugees fleeing Atlanta as the fires set by Gen. William Sherman’s troops burn brightly in the background. Did you ever wonder where those refugees went?
After the fall of Atlanta in 1864, when refugees were searching for food and havens far removed from the scenes of war, Gov. Joseph E. Brown arranged for transportation of about 300, mainly women and children, to Dawson. They stayed at “Exile Camp.” During Reconstruction, detachment of 50 Federal soldiers were quartered at “Exile Camp” to preserve order. Socially disposed, they reportedly acted with “such prudence and fairness.” That friendships between citizens and these soldiers are treasured yet. The last detachment under a “Sgt. Barker” left here April 30, 1868.
In 1857, the Terrell County Inferior Court met and decided to buy stock in the South Western Railroad at Macon. On July 17, 1858, the newly constructed road was opened with the first train passing through Dawson to Eufaula, Ala. This section of line would be one of the busiest in the region.
The opening of the railway not only allowed farmers in the cotton-rich region to benefit from efficient transportation, it allowed Terrell County to play a critical manufacturing role during the War Between the States.
The rail line also provided a means of transporting some of the more than 1,600 refugees ordered by Gen. Sherman to leave their homes in July of 1864. Under orders of Brown, the state of Georgia purchased 47 acres in Dawson for the establishment of a refugee camp. The governor also ordered the Central of Georgia Railroad to provide transportation for 300 refugees to the site where they initially lived in tents. The state would build 60 homes on the site, where they resided until months after the war’s end.
When the refugees left the camp following the war, it was then occupied by a company of 50 Federal troops stationed in Dawson to preserve order under the terms of Reconstruction. It is recorded that these troops made no effort to have an impact at the polls but acted to simply ensure all qualified citizens were able to vote freely. A second company of troops was stationed there and was reported to consist of a large number of German soldiers who recently had been granted citizenship.
For the local citizens to have such warm regards for the federal troops stationed there during reconstruction is not common for the period. In many communities, there was a deep resentment for the “overbearing” actions of Federal troops during Reconstruction.
Between 1865-1877 efforts were undertaken to return the states that made up the Confederacy back into the United States. President Andrew Johnson was a staunch believer in states’ rights, and therefore his initial Reconstruction efforts were not as aggressive as many Republicans desired, as the Southern states established a variety of “black codes” in an effort to exert control over the behavior of an estimated 4 million newly freed slaves.
Outrage in the Northern states over these codes led to a more radical Republican Party response to Reconstruction efforts beginning in 1867. For the first time, newly enfranchised blacks had a voice in government, winning seats as state legislators and in Congress as well.
In 1866 the Georgia Equal Rights Association was founded with the purpose of “securing for all, without regard to race or color, equal political right.” GERA encouraged the establishment of freedman schools, fair pay for black labor, education and political rights.
At the same time efforts were being made under radical Reconstruction to ensure blacks had the right to vote, contrasting efforts were being made to attempt to restrict the voting rights of former members of the Confederacy with loyalty oaths producing a “reconstructed Rebel”.
In some areas, these combined efforts resulted in the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in an effort to offset what some saw as Federal intervention and oppression. The overall scope of political and social changes created during Reconstruction often created a volatile atmosphere.
Records indicate that in 1866, the Inferior Court “In obedience to a Resolution of the General Assembly of the state of Georgia that the exile camp in Terrell County be sold on the first Tuesday in April, 1866, and the proceeds of such sale be paid into the Treasury of the state of Georgia.”