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The Lure of the Lore

Gaylesville and A Fateful Decision 

Few people realize the role played by the small northeast Alabama town of Gaylesville in the strategies of the War Between the States. By 1864, the western theater of the war had taken a turn favoring the North. Vicksburg, on the important Mississippi River, had been lost. Yankee General William Tecumseh Sherman had outflanked Confederate troops under popular General Joe Johnston in north Georgia leading to the loss of Atlanta. In seeking someone to aggressively resist Sherman, President Jefferson 

General William T. Sherman used the Webb Chestnut home at Gaylesville as his headquarters during the War Between the States. While here he decided to abandon chasing General Hood and made the "March to the Sea."

Davis had replaced Johnston with the one-armed, one-legged General John Bell Hood. After Atlanta, both Sherman and Hood faced important decisions that would affect the outcome of the war and, as it turned out, the South for a long time to come.

Cump Sherman, as his family called him, was a career military man. A staunch Unionist, Sherman had been stationed in the South at various times before the war. Born and raised in Lancaster, Ohio, Sherman found Alabama to his liking and dreamed of marrying his hometown sweetheart, Ellen Boyle, and settling in north Alabama. Just prior to the outbreak of war, Sherman had been the head of Louisiana State University, a military school at that time.

After Atlanta, General Hood had a choice to make. He could continue to stand before Sherman’s larger numbers and risk his army in an effort to defend the rest of Georgia; he could try to gain access to Sherman’s supply line at his rear and hopefully force him to retreat; or he could lead the Federal army away from Georgia. He chose the latter. With hopes of leading Sherman toward Tennessee, the Confederate Army moved west to Gadsden, Alabama. The Union Army followed, moving into camps in and around Gaylesville in Cherokee County. So it was here, at Gaylesville, where a Yankee who knew the Southern heart as if he were a Southerner himself determined the fate of Alabama and Georgia for generations to come.

According to past residents and local lore, General Sherman set up his headquarters in a house that still stands today. Dr. George W. Lawrence, the first physician and one of the first settlers in this part of Alabama, built the house on land near the Chattooga River after the Treaty of New Echota in 1835 opened up lands previously inhabited by Cherokee Indians. The house, now referred to as the Webb Chesnut House, sits on approximately 160 acres. Mr. Chesnut operated Beechwood Farm, a dairy farm, from 1917 until 1952 on the property. The dairy was shut down due to a "severe dry spell, a loss of base price on milk and the construction of Weiss Lake which put the dairy barn in a flood plain." Elected in 1934, Webb Chesnut also served as an Alabama State Senator. Today descendents Mark and David Chesnut own the farm and operate a quail hunting preserve on the property after purchasing it in 2000.

While in the Gaylesville area, Federal troops enjoyed the riches of Cherokee County. In the book Confederacy’s Last Hurrah, Wiley Sword quotes blue-coated soldiers writing while encamped there. One wrote, " Been living on the country for the last month and it suits me fine…" and another says "…yams, fresh pork, beer, honey, molasses-no end to them." In addition to "eating up the place" around Gaylesville, Yankee troopers burned houses, barns and fences during the cold October nights trying to stay warm. In fact, the Chesnut house is the only one remaining from that era, perhaps because Sherman himself used the house or maybe because it was being used as a hospital. In any case, the house survived and still stands today as a reminder of those days.

While at Gaylesville, Sherman sent out numerous instructions and orders to Union brigades in Alabama and Georgia. He also conferred by letter with Henry Halleck, Army Chief of Staff in Washington commanding all Federal forces, and General U. S. Grant, Sherman’s immediate superior. The three Northern Generals contemplated the next move Sherman should make. Sherman himself had made the statement that he would not chase Hood further than Gaylesville. So now it was decision time. Halleck and Grant favored a thrust to the gulf coast by way of the Chattahoochee River along the border between Alabama and Georgia. A drive through Alabama to Mobile, the important gulf port, was given serious consideration. Either way the army would gain much needed supplies by hooking up with the Yankee Navy along the gulf coast.

In the end it was Sherman’s plan that was agreed upon. He wanted to drive across Georgia destroying anything profitable to the Confederacy thereby demoralizing the South. Lessons learned over the past few months by watching his men scour the countryside for all the poultry, beef and pork they could devour had given him an idea.

Being familiar with Southerners’ devotion to their cause and knowing they would fight on under deplorable odds, Sherman’s plan had to be devastating to Georgia. History tells us that with Sherman’s decision Georgia suffered the "March to the Sea." Everything within a sixty-mile swath from Atlanta to Savannah was either eaten by the Federal army or shot. Commercial buildings and many homes were looted and burned. Georgia lay in ruin.

So today if you drive up Highway 68 approaching Gaylesville from the southwest you will see a fine old six columned home sitting by the roadway. You may want to stop along the road and sit for a moment. Reflect on what you now know. This is where ole Cump Sherman was when he made a fateful decision. A decision that led to one of the most famous episodes of the War Between the States and sealed his fate for eternity as one of the most feared and hated men in the hearts and memories of the South.

For more information on the Quail Farm, phone 256-422-3060.



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Date Last Updated January, 2006