Mining the mysteries of the past: Officer finds history an arresting subject

As soon as Michael Hitt closed the deal on his new home in Sugar Hill in 1989, he got the itch to learn what had happened on his property years before.

A small stream meandering through his back yard in the Parkview subdivision proved an intriguing starting point. After a bit of historical detective work, the Roswell police officers learned that gold miners were drawn to the spot in the 1800s and that across the street, in his neighbor's yard, a pre-Civil War gold mine once stood.

Remains of old mine shafts are like catacombs beneath the neighborhood along Level Creek, he said.

That small bit of history won't be lost to the community, thanks to a plaque Mr. Hitt erected on the spot. "It's a great conversation piece," said Mr. Hitt, who finds many people who share his interest in the past.

"Most people associate gold mining with Dahlonega, but there was also a lot of activity in Gwinnett, north Fulton, DeKalb and Cobb counties," said Mr. Hitt, whose curiosity about the past has led him from one mystery to another.

For instance, it was Mr. Hitt who last month led a team of federal and state archaeologists to a wooded spot on the banks of the Chattahoochee River south of Roswell in search of the grave of a missing Union soldier. He first stumbled on the suspected grave site four years ago when he was doing research for a map and book he was writing on events surrounding Roswell during the Civil War.

Mr. Hitt's curiosity and dogged research unlocked one of Roswell' s most enduring mysteries: the disappearance of Roswell Mill workers, mostly women and children, who were charged with treason, shipped north by Gen. William T. Sherman in the summer of 1864 and never heard from again.

Persistence pays off

Most Roswell residents were satisfied to let the question go unanswered, a bit of local color that adds to the city's romantic antebellum past.

But Mr. Hitt followed the train tracks from Marietta that carried the workers to Louisville, Ky., and found records of their imprisonment and later dispersal in many directions, including to textile mills north of the Ohio River. Some made it back to the Roswell area.

His work is documented in his latest book, "Charged With Treason, " which also tells about military operations in Roswell in the days preceding the Battle of Atlanta. He lightens the history lessons with interesting stories on people of the times.

There's the one, for instance, of the Confederate spies who dressed as washerwomen and returned to Union-occupied Roswell, or the Union soldiers who carried a nest of honey with them from Roswell on the march to Atlanta and were stung out of their uniforms by the infuriated bees.

On weekends, Mr. Hitt often interprets history while dressed in a Union uniform at Kennesaw National Battlefield Park in Marietta and other park sites for visitors for the National Park Service. As historian for the Roswell Historic Preservation Commission, Mr. Hitt started a city archives at Bulloch Hall and a museum of artifacts found in the area.

When a pipeline threatened to cut through the archeological remains of Roswell Mill earlier this year, it was Mr. Hitt who sent up the alarm, causing federal and state agencies to return archaeologists to the site for a second look to ensure it would be preserved for development as a national historical site.

Cap started it all

Mr. Hitt's interest in Civil War history began early, in kindergarten in Ormond Beach, Fla., when a Confederate cap caught his eye in a souvenir shop across the street from his school.

"I had to have it. I didn't even know then there was such a thing as the Civil War. All you heard about in Florida were the Spanish and the Seminole Indians," he said.

By the time he was enrolled at Atlanta's North Fulton High School, Mr. Hitt had become so well-versed in the war that his teacher turned the class over to him on the Civil War unit.

At 15 he was invited to join the Atlanta Civil War Roundtable, a group of scholars and Civil War enthusiasts who voted him their youngest member. "My mother had to drive me to the meetings," he recalled.

As a police officer at Georgia Tech, Mr. Hitt enjoyed roaming the campus and identifying trenches and rifle pits dug during the Battle of Atlanta. When he joined the Roswell Police Department, Mr. Hitt set about writing a history of law enforcement in Roswell, telling tales of the constables, sheriffs, marshalls and Indian agents who once kept law in the same town.

He sums it all up this way: "I just wanted to know what happened here."

Copyright 1992, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, All rights reserved.

By Diane R. Stepp STAFF WRITER, Mining the mysteries of the past: Officer finds history an arresting subject., 09-20-1992, pp J/04.