Athens politically and materially was a Rebel stronghold during the Civil War, suppling many men and supplies to the Confederacy. Factories located on the Oconee River produced goods for those fighting for the Southern cause in Athens, which was located at the end of a railroad spur.
Clarke County was also the scene of a cavalry engagement during the Atlanta Campaign. Sherman attempted to cut railroads supplying besieged Atlanta during the Atlanta Campaign by launching the Great Raid or Stoneman-McCook Cavalry Raid, which he intended to sweep around Atlanta from both sides and meet at the southern railroad link to the city. Gen. Edward McCook was routed near Newnan, and Gen. George Stoneman was captured outside Macon. Two brigades of Stoneman's cavalry escaped northeast from Macon, and decided to raid Athens in order to resupply their commands and to "destroy the armory and other government works." Four miles southwest of Athens at the Middle Oconee bridge, they were met and repulsed by the Mitchell Thunderbolts, the Athens Home Guards consisting of ineligibles of the C.S.A. A historical marker marks the spot at Highway 441 southwest of Athens at the Middle Oconee Bridge. From here the two Union cavalry brigades eventually split up, with Lt. Col. Silas Adams working his way back to Federal lines at Marietta, and Col. Horace Capron camping out near Winder, then called Jug Tavern. On Aug. 3, 1864, Confederates under Col. William C.P. Breckinridge who had been pursuing Capron's men since Sunshine Church pounced on Capron's men in the Battle of King's Tanyard, capturing 430 and sending them to Andersonville. Capron escaped back to Federal lines. A historical marker on GA 211, five miles northwest of Winder marks the spot.
In Athens on East Broad Street is a marker telling the story of the Cook and Brother Confederate Armory at Chicopee Building, said to be the most efficient private armory in the Confederacy, producing a rifle which was considered "superior to any that I have seen of Southern manufacture," according to one ordnance officer. The armory was under contract to supply 30,000 Enfield rifles to Confederate forces until the Cook brothers, recent English immigrants, organized their workers into a reserve battalion and fought at Griswoldville and Savannah, opposing Sherman's "March to the Sea." Major Ferdinand W.C. Cook was killed in these actions. A one-of-a-kind artillery piece was invented by a private in the Athens Home Guards and is on display on the county courthouse grounds.
Athens' Double Barreled Cannon, the only one of its kind in the world, is among the most unusual Civil War relics. It was designed by John Gilleland of Athens, a private in the "Mitchell Thunderbolts," a home guard unit composed of business and professional men who were ineligible for service in the C.S.A. because of age or disability. Unlike the home guards, the cannon never saw service because of its inability to function properly. Cast in the Athens foundry in 1862, it was designed to fire simultaneously two balls connected by a chain, which would "mow down the enemy somewhat as a scythe cuts wheat." It failed due to its inability to fire both barrels at the exact instant, and the cannon has been the butt of jokes by UGA's instate rival, Georgia Institute of Technology's students and alumni ever since. The double barreled cannon was tested in a field on the Newton's Bridge Road against a target of upright poles. With both balls rammed home and the eight-foot chain dangling from twin muzzles, the cannon was fired. But the lack of simultaneous firing caused an uneven explosion of charges, snapping the chain and giving each ball an erratic and unpredictable trajectory. One contemporary at the first firing reported that the projectile "had a kind of circular motion, plowed up an acre of ground, tore up a cornfield, mowed down saplings, and the chain broke, the two balls going in opposite directions. One of the balls killed a cow in a distant field, while the other knocked down the chimney from a log cabin." The observers "scattered as though the entire Yankee army had been turned loose in the vicinity." The cannon was donated to the City of Athens, where for more than a century it has been a curiosity and has "performed sturdy service for many years in celebrating political victories," according to a historical marker.
Athens is the site of the University of Georgia, first known as Franklin College, the oldest state land-grant university in the United States. The University closed in 1864 when most of its students had joined the Confederate Army, and it reopened in January 1866. Many Confederate veterans became students after the war. Union troops camped on the college grounds and used the front columns of the Chapel for target practice. The Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander H. Stephens, and Benjamin H. Hill, considered the ablest supporter of the Davis regime, went to school here. A plaque on Old College commemorates Stephens and Crawford W. Long, the inventor of anesthesia, who were roommates and represent Georgia in the Hall of Fame at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Robert Toombs, Secretary of State of the Confederacy and a brigadier general in the C.S.A., was expelled from the University in 1828. Toombs returned and spoke on the next commencement day, outside under a magnificent oak tree, causing the entire audience in the Chapel to leave their seats to hear him. The day Toombs died in 1885, lightening struck the tree, now known as the Robert Toombs Oak. When the tree died in 1908, it was cut into mementos that have been handed down by UGA alumni ever since. A historical marker is near the spot where the tree stood. Not far from here, on Broad Street, on a traffic island across from the UGA Arch, is the Clarke County Confederate Memorial, one of the oldest monuments in the state. Fund-raising was begun by Ladies Memorial Association president, Mrs. Laura Cobb Rutherford in 1866, and after raising the needed $4,444.44, the marble shaft totalling 32 feet in height and resembling a church spire with a finial on a stepped base of Elbert County granite, was unveiled in June 1872. It is the first of the large general county monuments in the state. Inscribed on the monument are the names of the Clarke County dead with an inscription by the Rev. A.A. Lipscomb, chancellor of the University of Georgia, 1860-74.
The Taylor-Grady House, built in 1845 by Gen. Robert Taylor, was the home of Henry Grady while he was a student at the University of Georgia from 1865 to 1868. Grady was credited with helping to establish a New South image after the Civil War, when he became editor of the Atlanta Constitution and a famous journalist and orator. The home's 13 Doric columns symbolize the original 13 colonies. It is open to tours.
Howell Cobb was one of the major figures of Georgia's Civil War history, and one of his homes is found in Athens. It is not available to tour. He graduated from the University of Georgia in 1834 and married a woman from Athens. He served in the U.S. Congress from 1843-51 and as Speaker of the House from 1849-51. A moderate on Southern rights, he was elected governor of Georgia from 51-53 and returned to Congress in 1854. Appointed Secretary of the Treasury in 1857 under U.S. President James Buchanan, he served in this capacity until the election of Lincoln. He then resigned his appointment and became a secessionist. A contender for the presidency of the Confederacy, Cobb was the presiding officer of the Confederate Congress held at Montgomery, Alabama, but Jefferson Davis was elected president. As a Confederate brigadier general, he fought at Shiloh, Seven Pines, the Seven Days Battles, Second Bull Run and Antietam. He later became major general of the Georgia District, commanding Georgia's reserves. His troops accepted the surrender of George Stoneman at Round Oak, Georgia July 31, 1864, during Sherman's Great Cavalry Raid.
Cobb's great plantation near Milledgeville was destroyed during Sherman's "March to the Sea," when Sherman, who was travelling with the XIV Corps, personally visited the plantation and ordered its total destruction except for the slave quarters. On April 20, 1865, Cobb surrendered at Macon to Gen. James H. Wilson. As one of the five men that the Federal government most wanted captured and punished, Cobb was arrested but was paroled by President Andrew Johnson. Cobb finished his legal career in Macon, where he died on Oct. 9, 1868, and he was buried in Oconee Hill Cemetery in Athens, his grave marked with an impressive obelisk. Cobb's brother, T.R.R. Cobb, was colonel in Cobb's Legion, Howell Cobb commanding. T.R.R. Cobb distinguished himself and was eventually made brigadier general in the Confederate Army. He bled to death after receiving wounds at Fredericksburg. T.R.R. Cobb, who graduated from the University of Georgia with the highest marks ever received there, is also buried in Oconee Hill Cemetery. The cemetery also has the graves of two other Confederate Generals, Martin L. Smith and William M. Browne, 11 unknown Confederate graves, and a memorial near the entrance of the cemetery.
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