On my recent trip to north Georgia, I passed through the little town of Ringgold. I’d never given Ringgold much thought, but it turns out a lot happened there in 1863 and 1864. If you know a bit of American Civil War history, you might recall that after Confederate forces were forced to retreat south of Chattanooga, the Union army then set its sights on Atlanta. Ringgold was on the railroad line between the two cities, and as a result, was the scene of a small battle.
The town’s sturdy railroad depot played a part, as it was used by the Union army as a protective barrier when planning their attack. The battle then took place, with the Confederates holding on long enough to evacuate equipment and supplies. But the battle did nothing to stop the tide of the war, and of Generals Grant, Hooker, and Sherman’s trek to Atlanta.
General Hooker used the depot as his headquarters for the three or so days he was in Ringgold. When he and his men left, they attempted to blow up the structure, but while it was severely damaged, most of it remained standing. You can clearly see the repaired sections due to the difference in rocks used.
A few hundred yards away stands this house. It was the home of Ringgold merchant William Whitman and his family. The family stood at the windows and watched the battle. Afterwards it was commandeered by General Grant as his headquarters.
The Whitman House is still privately owned, but there is a historical marker in the yard. Erected in 1955, it’s not a reliable historical record. First of all, the house was built in 1857, not 1863 as seen on the marker. But what’s really interesting is the story about Mrs. Whitman and General Grant. She refused his money, he paid her a compliment, and his men cheered her. Or, as the marker reads, “Grant is said to have remarked…”
The problem with this story is there is no proof it ever happened. Much of what is known about the house’s history comes from an account written by the Whitman’s granddaughter many years later. She was not born until years after the Civil War. Written accounts of Union soldiers do not mention the exchange.
But there it is, big as life, on a bronze marker on the lawn of the house. How many Ringgold citizens learned the story as children? How many continue to believe this romanticized account of the proud Southern woman defying the great general?
I’ve met many Northerners who marvel at the long memory of the Confederate South. What they don’t realize is how there are daily reminders of the invasion of the South by the Union forces. Everyone who passes this house on her way to town sees a reminder of how a brave Southern woman defied the great Grant.
I was born in 1955. Jim Crow was still an active force in the South. Southerners were still being educated in the mythology of the Lost Cause. Is there any wonder some Southerners cling to this mythology?
The way to the truth is education. Unfortunately the way to the mythology of the Lost Cause was also through education – bad education. Only we can set the record straight. This is not rewriting history; it is reclaiming the truth.