Review: The Women Will Howl by Mary Deborah Petite

The Women Will Howl: The Union Capture of Roswell and New Manchester, Georgia, and the Forced Relocation of Mill Workers by Mary Deborah Petite ISBN 978-0-7864-3168-7 McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2008 187 Pages – Hardcover (7 x 10) – $45 Photos & Illustrations, Appendix, Notes, Bibliography, Index

Information wanted: My widowed daughter, Eliza Ray, was sent north by General Sherman in his raid through Georgia from her home near Marietta with her five children. Information on her whereabouts will be thankfully received. Reverend Elijah Roberts, Summerfield, Alabama. —Columbus (GA) Daily Sun December 12, 1867

Thus did a father try to determine the fate of his missing daughter and grandchildren fully two and a half years after the end of the war. Sherman’s army swept through the Georgia mill towns of Roswell and New Manchester in July 1864 during the Atlanta campaign, making the state howl as he had promised. His cavalry, under the command of Brig. Gen. Kenner Garrard, burned the mills, which produced cloth for the Confederate Army. On Sherman’s express orders the Federals arrested and detained some four to five hundred (no one knows the exact number) workers, mostly women, nearly half of whom were 17 or younger. These unfortunates were then summarily deported north of the Ohio River where they were dumped into towns already overflowing with refugees.

I don’t usually read much social history, which tends to be dominated by academics with fixed ideas about class, race and gender. It was refreshing, therefore, to read a book that took a broad yet specific look at a nearly forgotten incident. Author Deborah Petite, a Californian with an interest in the Civil War, stumbled upon the story while visiting her father, who had recently moved to Roswell, in the summer of 1998. He told her the bare outline of the arrest of the women in Roswell, which piqued her interest. “I started doing some basic research in the OR as soon as I returned home to California,” she recalls. “Although there wasn’t a great deal of information, I was soon ‘obsessed’ with the story of the women. I made another trip to Roswell the following spring and toured the mill ruins there and at Sweetwater. Very little had been written and what little was published was inaccurate and poorly researched. Not surprising, very few people had heard the story outside of Georgia. I was soon convinced that the story needed to be told as factually as possible—without all the myth and embellishment. So started the obsession that would change my life and consume almost every waking moment for the next 8 years.”

Petite’s story begins with Barrington King, the visionary entrepreneur who built the mills and who was ironically, a Connecticut Yankee. King built a textile factory town in the then-wilderness of Georgia after the removal of the Cherokee. By the 1840s the mills were in full operation and were “an overwhelming success.” The King family established an aristocratic social order with themselves at the top.

Dickensian conditions prevailed in the mills. Workers were paid in scrip good only at the company store, worked long hours (dawn to dusk six days a week) in dangerous, unhealthy conditions. While this and frequent outbreaks of disease and occupational hazards like brown lung pushed many into an early grave, it did provide employment for the impoverished local population. Surprisingly, the mill owners (there was another mill at New Manchester thirty miles west) preferred free white labor over slaves. Bound labor was more expensive—hired slaves cost the mill owner the same $7 a month as a free laborer, but he had to provide their room and board. Then too, the slave had a powerful benefactor, his master, who saw to it that his property was not abused or mistreated. Free workers, on the other hand, could be hired and fired at will, and the factory owner need have little concern for their welfare. The mill owners hoped further white emigration would continue to provide a source of cheap labor.

Child labor was common, indeed preferred, for their sharp eyes and nimble fingers. Men tended toward skilled and supervisory positions while women and children, most of whom were illiterate or barely literate, tended the machines. Thus, as Petite points out, these women were not in the best of situations even before the war. “Uneducated, unskilled, paid in scrip, with every aspect of their lives under the control of the factory, the mill workers in Georgia lived lives little better than that of slaves.”

As the war continued, conditions across the South deteriorated. There were food shortages by 1862, and Georgia society was riven by political and social discord. Union sympathizers aided deserters and draft dodgers, who haunted the woods. There were food riots and armed robberies of wagons carrying goods. By 1864 almost all the able-bodied men had gone off to war, making the labor of women and children even more indispensible.

Still, it was not just a poor man’s war. “Captain Tom” King, the son of factory owner Barrington King, organized and commanded a local company, the Roswell Grays, even though he’d  been offered a “bombproof” job as a quartermaster. Severely wounded at First Manassas, he returned to duty in spite of being incompletely healed and took the field again at Chickamauga as an aide to General Preston Smith, where he was killed.

The factories were indeed vital to the Confederate war effort. In addition to cloth they produced tentage, cordage, and other critical materials. But as conditions worsened in Georgia, they were also necessary for the survival of the families whose members worked there. Even as the Federal armies approached the line of the Chattahoochee the factories kept working. One owner tried to spare his property by claiming neutrality as evidenced by a paper transfer of ownership to a French national. Sherman was incensed:

I had no idea that the factories at Roswell remained in operation, but supposed the machinery had all been removed. Their utter destruction is right and meets my entire approval, and to make the matter complete you will arrest the owners and employees and send them, under guard, charged with treason to Marietta, and I will see as to any man in America hoisting the French flag and then devoting his labor and capital in supplying armies in open hostility to the Government and claiming the benefit of his neutral flag. Should you, under the impulse of anger, natural at contemplating such perfidy, hang the wretch, I approve the act beforehand…I repeat my orders that you arrest all people, male and female, connected with those factories, no matter what the clamor, and let them foot it, under guard, to Marietta, whence I will send them by cars to the North…The poor women will make a howl. Let them take along their children and clothing, providing they have the means of hauling, or you can spare them.

No question then, that the orders came from the top, nor did Sherman make a secret of it then or later. But surely even Lincoln’s harsh war policy did not contemplate arresting teenage girls who were working not so much to support the Rebellion as their own families. Yet the sentiment seemed to be widespread in the Union ranks. When a woman accused Lt. Col. Jeremiah Jenkins of making war on women and children, he replied: “The women of the south kept the war alive—and it is only by making them suffer that we can subdue the men.”

The Yankees did not act with utter barbarity. They burned the mills—a legitimate act of war—but took care not to include nearby civilian structures in the conflagration. Still, looting was widespread and the workers, mostly young women, were rounded up as ordered. Although Sherman ostensibly saw them as traitors no charges or indictments were ever brought, and Petite was unable to find even a record of those detained. They were, however, subjected to insults and even groping by drunken Federal soldiers. Some federal officers did act humanely—General Grenville Dodge noticed the women in Marietta and gave a hundred dollar bill to the hospital steward there with instructions to employ as many of them as possible.

A fortunate few had relatives north of the Ohio river, but most of the detainees were simply transported north and dumped in cities like Louisville, already bulging with refugees, without money or any means to support themselves. Others were eventually shipped to Evansville and New Albany, Indiana, where as enemy nationals they found scant sympathy in towns already stressed by the demands of the war. As the weather worsened into winter so did their fortunes: “Children,” noted one newspaper article, “have been found dead in the woods—actually starved or frozen to death.” Indiana’s governor asked for federal assistance but was refused by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

As for their individual fates the historian must, of necessity, resort to a certain amount of speculation, as most of the women left no memoirs or letters. They remain shadows with scattered mentions made from a distance in the official records, regimental histories, letters, and local newspapers. Some might merit an anonymous mention if found dead, others would marry and remain in Indiana after the war, and some would eventually return to Georgia. Many, as evidenced by the poignant advertisement above, simply disappeared, their howls wafted away on the winds of history. After the war incidents like this were submerged in the warm glow of national reconciliation, then pushed the furthest recesses of historical memory.

Ultimately, then, Deborah Petite’s effort to “give voice” to the women is a noble failure, although she does an excellent job of describing the nearly forgotten events surrounding the burning of the factories and the travails of the workers. Her writing style is plain, but given the volatile subject matter this is an asset. It would have been all to easy to fill the pages with either postmodern cant or purple prose.

The book itself is handsomely produced, indexed, and filled with unpublished photographs. There is a reasonable selection of simple maps to orient the reader. The book’s biggest drawback is its price—$45 is rather steep for a 187-page book and this will unfortunately limit sales appeal. Nevertheless, I would recommend it to anyone who wants to understand what the war, and particularly Sherman’s campaign, meant to the common people of the South.

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4 responses to “Review: The Women Will Howl by Mary Deborah Petite”

  1. […] of Sherman, the Lieber Code did little to inhibit him, as I detailed in my review of Deborah Petite’s The Women Will Howl. By 1864 the Federal government was making war on the […]

  2. […] of civilians regardless of their loyalties, such as addressed in Deborah Petite’s book Women Will Howl and in Gen. Ewing’s infamous General Order No. 11, (expressly approved by Lincoln) or […]

  3. […] conditions in the nineteenth century. I did mention them here in a review of Deborah Petite’s Women Will Howl where I looked a the preference for more easily exploited free labor over […]

  4. […] a previous review of Deborah Petite’s Women Will Howl I talked about work in the Roswell mills (subsequently burned by Sherman’s […]

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