At times, irrespective of our efforts, the sun goes down on our work and the row proved too long to hoe. Although I use a different instrument, the day has been known to end with my success still lost in the stacks and failure left as my companion. In January 2012, I received a query regarding Eliza Dabney, the wife of Atlanta’s Mayor James M. Calhoun, and her stay in Thomaston on her family’s plantation during the bombardment of Atlanta in 1864. A former resident of Upson County sent a request after reading about the above in a book titled The Bonfire: The Siege and Burning of Atlanta by Marc Wortman. The former resident was hoping to know where Eliza Dabney’s family plantation was once located in Upson County. Therefore, I exhausted all of our many resources searching for this plantation. However, alas my dive to the depths yielded no results; I reemerged with no treasure. Moreover, not only did I not find a Dabney plantation, there was not one Dabney listed in our primary sources of that time. However, with an enormous amount of research, I can now answer that question. It turns out that James Calhoun’s wife did indeed seek accommodations in Upson County, however; when I looked under the shelter of which she sought refuge, Eliza Dabney was not whom I found.
The very interesting request regarding the wife of the Mayor of Atlanta, Eliza Dabney, during the battle of Atlanta and her departure to Upson County burned as hot in my mind as the city did in 1864; and I sought desperately to avenge my failure. Therefore when, in the beginning of the summer of 2012, the author of The Bonfire: The Siege and Burning of Atlanta, Marc Wortman, was to visit the Carter Center in Atlanta; our director Penny Cliff once again had one of her incredible ideas. Although a trip to the big city was not logical, Penny Cliff had the ingenious suggestion of contacting the staff of the Carter Center to see if they could place me in contact with the author. With true Georgia hospitality, the very nice staff of the Carter Center placed me in contact with the very accommodating Marc Wortman. When I spoke with Mr. Wortman, he stated that the reason I could not find the Dabney Family in our records is that Eliza Dabney was from South Carolina and died in 1860. At this point, I felt upon my shoulder the hand of defeat, that old acquaintance that I would rather not have around but seems to come knocking anyway. However, it was actually success, my friend I love dearly but do not get to see often enough when in his next sentence Mr. Wortman pulled from his pouch a puzzle piece, a jewel I traveled so wearily to obtain. It was in this next statement that the renowned author brought forth the light, to illuminate, the fact that James Calhoun was remarried in December of 1860 to Amelia Holt. As a result, I immediately went to the Early History of Upson County, Georgia and searched the index. At this time, the miles and miles of nothingness that once stood between the answer and the question, began to fade from that barren landscape that once was; and a fertile field of magnificence is now where I walk. Waiting for me all the while, was Amelia Holt’s name listed on the small page of an old book. This was an incredible find and although all of the signs were pointing to the fact that Amelia Holt was the wife of the Mayor of Atlanta, I needed proof before I began to propagate this incredible piece of local history. Therefore, I went to the corresponding family genealogy and found Amelia’s dates. This occurred all in a matter of minutes, which reminds us that all we need is a microscopic pebble before creating a beautiful mountain of an image of someone’s life.
It turns out that in addition to the fact that it was James M. Calhoun’s second wife whom I was searching for; James was her second husband as well. Amelia Holt was the widow of Tarpley Holt who died a young man, at the age of 46, in 1854 and was buried in the Hightower Cemetery on Rest Haven Road. Tarpley left behind Amelia, a widow at 43, and two daughters. Amelia’s married name of Holt could have placed a red herring before me but with good records, in both our facility and in others, I soon found out that Amelia’s maiden name was not Holt but rather Hightower, as she was the daughter of James and Elizabeth Hightower. Nevertheless, we have come to the definitive conclusion, that in December of 1860 Amelia Holt of Upson County married the Honorable James M. Calhoun of Atlanta, Georgia. We have learned so much about the woman that essentially time labored to conceal and we have been in contact with many people in our journey to obtain pieces of Amelia’s life. The above process has attempted to escort me away from the original question of the researcher, which is where James Calhoun’s wife took refuge during the siege. However, before we arrive at that destination, let us first take the scenic route of why Amelia Hightower Holt Calhoun would need to return to Upson County for safety.
The war between the North and South had raged for three years and in the turmoil Atlanta awoke one morning with General William Tecumseh Sherman calling at her door. Atlanta was not yet the capital of Georgia during that time as that title had only made its way from Augusta to Louisville and in 1864 resting in Milledgeville. However, Atlanta , or Terminus and even Marthasville as some knew her by, was a railroad nexus thereby making Atlanta a vital hub for not only Georgia but for the South. Therefore, General Sherman was determined to destroy Atlanta as he made his way from Chattanooga to Savannah. Southern General Joseph Johnston held Sherman’s enormous Army back but was replaced by Confederate General John Bell Hood who would ultimately retreat from Atlanta on September 1. However, it seems that Mayor Calhoun could see that his city would not long stand before that September retreat as he sent his family away in pursuit of safer quarters in mid-June. As Marc Wortman points out, Calhoun helped his family pack as he gave his slaves their own choice to walk out to the lands of hinted freedom or to stay among the ones they knew. Roughly twenty of the fifty slaves decided to stay with Mrs. Calhoun and along with James’ son, William Lowndes Calhoun, who was still healing from wounds suffered in the battle of Resaca, departed the falling city to the nourishing arms of Upson County and Amelia’s old home.
Calhoun would stay in Atlanta for a few months as he would plea upon a deaf ear of General Sherman to pardon Atlanta from the incoming wrath and loose his grip on the City so that she might once more breathe that old southern air. On September 2, in a letter to General Sherman Mayor Calhoun wrote…
“Sir: The fortune of war has placed Atlanta in your hands. As mayor of the city I ask protection of non-combatants and private property”.
General Sherman declined and the Mayor and Council would appeal once more to allow those in the City to stay. However, in his final response General Sherman wrote…
“Gentlemen: I have your letter of the 11th, in the nature of a petition to revoke my orders removing all the inhabitants from Atlanta. I have read it carefully, and give full credit to your statements of the distress that will be occasioned, and yet shall not revoke my orders. Why not go now, when all the arrangements are completed for the transfer, instead of waiting ‘till the plunging shot of contending armies will renew the scenes of the past month? I assert that our military plans make it necessary for the inhabitants to go away, and I can only renew my offer of services to make their exodus in any direction as easy and comfortable as possible. You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. You might as well appeal against the thunderstorm as against these terrible hardships of war. Yours in haste, W. T. Sherman, Major-General commanding.”
Sherman’s unambiguous words finally found a station of comprehension as they met the Mayor’s desk and Calhoun knew that further appeal was otiose. On September 17, Mayor Calhoun would gather his thirty cases of luggage and he too would seek a safe harbor from the storm that would strike down Atlanta as he made his slow trek to Upson County. Two short months later on November 11, 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman would change Georgia forever as he ordered the reduction of Atlanta to ashes, save for the Hospitals and Churches, and would set out with the same torch on his destructive march to the sea.
Almost 150 years later and that piece of land, to which Amelia escaped, has not moved an inch. However, this does not detract from the difficulty of finding it. The surrounding story is fascinating yet still leaves us in the all-consuming darkness but with only candlelight to find our way to the location of Amelia’s plantation. Nonetheless, after countless hours of searching through our Wills, Estates, Deed Records and any other document I could reach, the place of safety for the Calhoun family and entourage has been narrowed down. A precise location is virtually impossible but it is this researcher’s belief, as the fire seared the brand of what would become the new Atlanta, Amelia Hightower Holt Calhoun found that den of reprieve, we all seek at some point, on land lots 196, 197 or 245 in the 11th land district near Yatesville which all were 202 ½ acres. I arrive at this conclusion based on Deed records I found of Amelia’s first husband purchasing this land and not finding a subsequent deed of him selling the property. Furthermore, I found in Tarpley Holt’s will that he left his “plantation” to Amelia therefore; giving the aforementioned land lots the potential of being said plantation of refuge. This fact was concealed and would have remained so had it not been for the remarkable work of Marc Wortman, which fortunately made way to our view. Perhaps it would have been forever lost that the wife of the Mayor of Atlanta during the War Between the States was from Upson County. Furthermore, I am convinced that the fact that she brought the Mayor and his son here as they sought for safe return to her home, lest they too would fall in the heat that would consume Atlanta, would forever been hidden. An interesting continuation of this story is the fact that, the Mayor’s son, William Lowndes Calhoun, who came to heal from his wounds of battle in Upson County, would later become the mayor of Atlanta in 1879, eleven years after it became capital of Georgia.
How long the Mayor enjoyed the serene countryside of Upson County has been consumed by time. However, as Marc Wortman explains, the Mayor took a train to Jonesboro and walked to Atlanta on December 10, 1864. Therefore, it could be safely surmised that the Mayor stayed in Upson County until that cool December day. Nevertheless, Calhoun headed in that familiar direction, but found nothing he recognized. His city was destroyed. Calhoun was the Mayor of Atlanta until 1865 and at some point, certainly before then; Amelia joined him back in the rail-entangled city. As the new decade arrived in 1870, James was back practicing Law and Amelia was keeping house as they had one servant living with them. However, the former Mayor died in 1875 and by 1880 Amelia was back in Upson County. Although, this time it was not to the majestic fields of Yatesville as she had returned to before, but rather to the gorgeous city of Thomaston. That year’s census illustrates a different lifestyle for Amelia than the previous, as she was now a widow once more, keeping house with no servant but boarder to keep her company. Sadly, Amelia would not live to be placed on another census as she died in late December 1889. Had it not been for the context clues and a death date, perhaps her obituary would have eluded us just as her Marriage and stay in Upson County during one of the most historic events in Georgia History. Her death announcement was published in early January 1890 and the heading simply read “Death of an old Lady”. Although it states her name as Amelia Calhoun, there was no mention of her marriage to the Mayor, no reminder of her marriage to Tarpley Holt, no enlightenment of her maiden name. One would not know much about this incredibly interesting lady if all they had to go by was this obituary. No family was listed, save for her one unnamed daughter that preceded her in death but actually there were two; not even the identification of her place of burial which we still have yet to find. No, this lady who was in the grips of history was on the verge of having her legacy concealed, she was almost lost forever. On the day of her passing Amelia Hightower Holt Calhoun lived in the heart of Thomaston, among the very well known of her time, and her front door opened to Railroad street. However, if one were walking this same street they would think themselves lost if they looked for a street sign, as it is not Railroad Street today, but rather Hightower Street.
If one were to look within Upson County’s treasure chest of history, they would gaze upon all that sparkles which would amaze even the most astute observer. However, possibly Amelia would have a special place in that chest, perhaps she is the Crown Jewel of this grandiose County. After all, at the turning point of history she was there. When the embers were glowing on the ash heap of what would become one of the most important cities in this country, her name was known. When that fire would light the sky for the destiny of Dixie, Amelia Hightower Holt Calhoun watched it burn.
Believed to be the home of Amelia’s father and her early home. Found in Upson County: A Pictorial History by the Upson Historical Society
Marriage Certificate of Tarpley Holt and Amelia Hightower
Tarpley Holt’s Last Will and Testament leaving Amelia his “plantation”. This Document can be found at the Thomaston Upson Archives
Marriage Certificate of James Calhoun and Amelia Hightower Holt, Provided by the Atlanta History Center
Upson County Map with Land Lots of possible plantation Amelia returned to, highlighted in Yellow
Obituary of Amelia Hightower Holt Calhoun found in the 1-3-1890 Thomaston Times
I would like to thank the following for their assistance in the research which took place to find all we could obtain about Amelia Hightower Holt Calhoun.
Marc Wortman, author of the book Bonfire: The Siege and Burning of Atlanta and his incredibly written book along with his gracious assistance during this research.
Ruth Middleton of the Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia
Sue Verhoef of the Atlanta History Center
I would also like to acknowledge the sources of the following, which were used to double check some of the above facts
Reprinted in William Tecumseh Sherman, Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, vol. 2 (New York, 1875), pages 600-602.
Written by Claude C. Burgess