CHANDLER: The Last Days of the Confederacy in Northeast Georgia (2015)
The Last Days of the Confederacy in Northeast Georgia by Ray Chandler. The History Press, 2015. Paper, ISBN: 978-1626193444. $19.99.
One might not think of northeast Georgia as an ideal place to tell the story of the final days of the Civil War. The war “did not really come home to northeast Georgia in the way it did to other areas of the South,” says author Ray Chandler—at least not until those “very last months and days.”
And yet Chandler has effectively used the lens of northeast Georgia to document a complex story that has far-reaching yet very personal impact.
That’s the great genius of the History Press’s push during the Civil War sesquicentennial: highly focused stories that might not have national recognition, but which have enduring local and regional value. The press preserves and enriches community, it says, “by empowering history enthusiasts to write local stories for local audiences.”
Case in point is Chandler’s The Last Days of the Confederacy in Northeast Georgia. Chandler is a journalist and freelance writer from Elberton, Georgia (tucked along the South Carolina border east of Atlanta), and the story is one he has “wanted to tell as completely as possible for [more than] thirty years.”
“One could argue on the solid ground . . . that Georgia’s secession was essential to the Confederacy’s very formation and life,” Chandler posits. He backs up that statement with a dazzling array of characters whose intertwined stories provide the political context for the book and much of its early narrative.
Foremost among the cast might be Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, a “reluctant Confederate, against secession but embracing the cause of state’s rights.”
Stephens spun rhetorical magic to keep the state from seceding, and then spent much of the war on the outs with the Confederate government, even though he was its vice president.
A powerful quartet of pro-secession voices opposed Stephens in those early days: Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown, a “superb political opportunist”; brothers Howell and Thomas R. R. Cobb; and Robert Toombs, a “brilliant intellect trapped in a soul that could govern neither its temperament nor its passions, ultimately a tragic figure worthy of an ancient Greek playwright.”
“The fierce determination of these men to see Georgia leave the Union translated to political theater on a grand scale,” Chandler writes.
Another figure from the region recognizable to Civil War buffs is Edward Porter Alexander, who went on to command the artillery for the Army of Northern Virginia’s First Corps.
But the real value of Chandler’s book comes not just from the “high” political story but rather the close, personal perspective he shares from people in the region. Of particular note is the story of 20-year-old diarist Eliza Francis Andrews, whose father, local judge Garnett Andrews, was a Unionist.
“They say it is not safe for a person to go six miles from town except in company and fully armed,” she wrote in the spring of 1865, “and I am not sure we are going to be safe in the village, the negroes are crowding in so.”
Chandler’s book, in easy-to-follow episodes, offers snapshot after snapshot of that chaos, chronicling an almost apocryphal crossroads of social, political, and military events. Jefferson Davis passes through, E. P. Alexander hunts for lost Confederate gold, federal raiders thunder in and out of town and across the countryside, and Joe Brown shifts with the political winds.
“The region was the last part of the main Confederacy to feel the direct hand of the war that the politicians of the area had done so much to start,” Chandler writes. When war arrived, some of those politicians failed to understand what that meant. “How can war settle anything except which is the strongest party to the pending contest?” groused Robert Toombs, driven from a house that had remained secure for four years. “I did try to take the life of the nation, and I sorely regret the failure to do it.”
Chandler does not try to extrapolate the story of northwest Georgia into a larger interpretive framework, instead letting the stories of the participants stand for themselves. That, in turn, does allow them to illustrate the larger story of life on the Confederate homefront.
If the book has a drawback, it’s that Chandler’s crisp journalistic prose unexpectedly unspools into long, Faulknerian sentences on occasion. It doesn’t take him long to catch himself, though, and he quickly pulls himself back. He sees the richness in his subject matter, which perhaps tempts him into such minor pretensions, but it’s understandable. Chandler is eager to do justice to a subject and a region he loves, and his worthy effort makes a nice addition to the literature.
Chris Mackowski is the author of many books, including Grant’s Last Battle (2015).