Bartow County Following the Civil War

By Dr. Keith Hebert, Assistant Professor, Auburn University

At the end of the Civil War, John King, a Bartow County soldier who had served in the 40th Georgia Infantry Regiment and spent the last months of the war in a northern prison camp, returned home and discovered that “Sherman’s force of invading plunderers swept over the beautiful valley and green hills of my native land and . . . left utter ruin and devastation.”  Unable to contact his son for months, King’s father had almost abandoned all hope that his son had survived the war.  When John appeared on his father’s doorstep in May 1865 the two men openly wept and praised God for reuniting their family.  Following his return, uncertainty greeted John King, as well as thousands of local Confederate veterans, at every turn.  He returned too late to plant a spring crop.  His farm had been stripped of animals, tools, fencing, and almost anything else of value.  Many sights disturbed him.  While walking through Cassville he noted the many charred remains of hundreds of buildings that had been burned by Federal soldiers in the previous November.  Worse still he witnessed destitute men, women, and children combing “the grounds of the enemy and [feeding] upon the corn and fragments of food left” behind.  King later recalled that “the year eighteen hundred and sixty five will be ever memorable among the citizens of northwest Georgia, as one of privation and suffering.”

The situation got so bad that thousands of white residents left the county and headed west to Kansas and California in search of a fresh start.  In an effort to reduce the region’s poverty and decrease the demand for food during a period of prolonged drought, Federal officials offered to pay the rail passage of northwest Georgians willing to relocate west.  Believing that Bartow Countians might convert to their faith and relocate to Colorado and Utah, the first Mormon missionaries came to northwest Georgia and convinced nearly 1,000 locals to join their faith and relocate to Latter Day Saint colonies such as Colorado Springs, Colorado.  The future for Bartow County’s white population seemed bleak.

The results of the Confederate States of America’s defeat in 1865 turned the world upside down in the American South.  The Civil War emancipated over four million slaves and laid groundwork for freedpeople to make the unprecedented leap from chattel slavery to American citizen.  In Bartow County, the end of slavery was among the most shocking results of the war, at least in the eyes of many white residents.  In 1860, the county’s 425 slaveholders owned 4,282 slaves valued at approximately $3.5 million.  Large slaveholders, known as planters, lost hundreds of thousands of dollars–amounts that represented 80 percent or more of their total prewar wealth.  Meanwhile, white residents were equally shocked by the behavior of freedpeople following emancipation.  Julia Barnsley and Susan Howard, who lived in large estates located along modern-day Hall Station Road, were surprised when many of their slaves abandoned them at the end of the war.  Slaveholders falsely assumed that freedpeople would remain and continue to work for their former masters but this did not happen in most cases as former slaves looked to the road to locate separated family members and find better opportunities elsewhere.

During Reconstruction (1865-1877) freedpeople formed new social and cultural communities that became the bedrock for African American life in Bartow County.  Whereas large numbers of the county’s slaves had been members of white churches, such as Euharlee’s Presbyterian Church and Macedonia Baptist Church, freedpeople left those churches soon after the war’s end and formed their own independent black houses of worship such as Cartersville’s African Methodist Episcopal Church.  Freedpeople actively sought to develop schools that could train older former slaves how to read and write while preparing black children to nurture the duties of responsible citizens.  While Georgia created the state’s first publicly funded schools during Reconstruction, the state system was racially segregated and inherently unequal as black schools received less funding for teachers, books, and facilities than their white counterparts.  Most freedpeople entered Reconstruction with little more than the clothing on their backs.  Many hoped that the Federal government through the work of the Freedman’s Bureau would provide much needed assistance to help former slaves acquire land that could be used to develop farms and build their personal wealth.  Unfortunately, land ownership remained out of reach for all but 10 percent of the county’s black population.  White landholders often refused to sell freedpeople land even when former slaves made cash offers.

Freed slaves and local whites in Bartow County struggled to define their new post-emancipation relationship.  Whites sought to continue their control over black labor by seeking to sign freedpeople to abusive labor contracts that paid scant wages and set stiff penalties for black men and women who did not fulfill its requirements.  Georgia passed a series of vagrancy laws intended to arrest freedpeople who were without a labor contract and force them to serve lengthy and harsh prison sentences working for their former masters.  Freedpeople resisted white efforts to control them.  Many white men countered black resistance by forming bands of night riding terrorists, sometimes known as the Ku Klux Klan but often going without a name, that physically assaulted black men, women, and children in often humiliating and degrading fashion.  Whites used violence to keep freedpeople away from the polls and to keep them working under the terms of abusive labor contracts with white farmers.

Generations of Bartow Countians, black and white, would remember Reconstruction as a dark period in local history.  While the county’s economy eventually improved by the mid 1870s, race relations would remain at a standstill for decades as freedpeople sought to expand the rights of their citizenship while whites viewed such expansions as a threat to their own liberty.  The issues left unresolved during Reconstruction continued to haunt the nation throughout much of the 20th century.