Roswell Civil War mystery unraveled in book about missing millworkers

"They [Roswell mills] were very valuable and were burned by my order. They have been engaged almost exclusively in manufacturing cloth for the Confederate Army, and you will observe they were transferred to the English and French flags for safety, but such nonsense cannot deceive me. They were tainted with treason, and such fictitious transfer was an aggravation. I will send all the owners, agents and employees up to Indiana to get rid of them there. . . . "

-Gen. William T. Sherman in a July 1864 letter to Maj. Gen. H.H. Halleck in Washington.

Thus began Roswell's most enduring mystery, the fate of some 400 millworkers - mostly women and children - who were charged with treason and shipped North by Union Gen. William T. Sherman's forces as they advanced on Atlanta.

"They kind of dropped off the face of the Earth," said Sue Lewis of the Roswell Historical Society. "All I know is what I've heard, and that is that nobody knows what became of them."

So intriguing is the legend that author Frances Statham based her book, "Roswell Women," loosely on events surrounding the disappearance of the millworkers. The fictionalized account tells what could have happened to some after they boarded trains in Marietta under heavy guard.

Local historian Michael Hitt, not satisfied with fiction, set out eight years ago to unravel the myth.

He followed the train's route through Chattanooga, Nashville and to its destination, Louisville, Ky., where he dug into historical records, government documents, libraries, diaries and newspaper articles of the period.

About 17 workers made it back to Roswell to resume work in the rebuilt mills after the war. Others likely returned to the area but don't show up on the 1870 Roswell census.

A few never boarded the trains in Marietta but were hired by local families. Most were detained in a Louisville hospital converted into a women's prison and eventually found employment, some as servants and seamstresses to replace freed slaves.

Mr. Hitt's just-published book, "Charged With Treason," tells of a visit from a reporter with the Elk Horn Independent to Roswell Mill employees at the Louisville prison.

He wrote: "Were they less arrogant and brazen-faced, I should pity them. They uttered loud and bitter curses on General Sherman."

Some of the workers migrated to Indianapolis and other points north of the Ohio River to work in mills.

Because they were uneducated and illiterate, the millworkers wrote no letters home and left few clues as to their whereabouts.

"Who would they write to? No one was left. The men had joined the Roswell Battalion and had left town to battle Sherman's forces, " Mr. Hitt said.

Because they were millworkers and their fates were deemed of little importance in the war, few government records tracked their destinies.

"These weren't members of Roswell's upper crust who might have formed a club or society for the survivors of the ordeal after their return," said Mr. Hitt, a Roswell police officer. "Most of their stories were handed down in their families and eventually died out."

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

By Diane R. Stepp STAFF WRITER, Roswell Civil War mystery unraveled in book about missing millworkers., 01-23-1992, pp E/06.