Civil War Macon

Civil War Macon

On July 31, 1864, Mary Ann Lamar Cobb, the wife of the local rebel commander, Howell Cobb, wrote her mother: “A bomb fell behind the Ocmulgee Hospital right across the street and a ball or a bomb one or the other struck the in front of Mr. Holt’s house and rebounded or ricocheted went through one of the posts or pillars and the window smashing the upper part of the window sash and shattering the window panes.”[1] This letter became, to usurp Alexander Stephen’s language, the cornerstone of what is locally known today in Macon, Georgia, as the “Cannonball House.”

Like so many southern communities, the United Daughters of the Confederacy played a role in perpetuating the story of the “Cannonball House,” or as it should be known, the Asa Holt House. Today, the local tourist visitor center, TripAdvisor, and Vacation Ideas, all include the “Cannonball House” as a must-see attraction in the city.[2] While Cobb’s story is fundamentally correct, the events that fateful July 30, 1864 and subsequent mythmaking sheds light on the larger regional trends of Lost Cause culture over the past 100 years.

The Asa Holt House, Photograph by Author

My first exposure to the Asa Holt House story came when I asked students to write papers on local historic sites. As part of their assignment, students toured these locations and it quickly became apparent that the Asa Holt House staff embraced problematic language regarding enslaved people as “Servants.” One student also suggested that it should not be the “Cannonball House” but the “Hotchkiss Shell House” since it was a shell and not a cannon ball that struck the house during the raid by George Stoneman from Atlanta into the Macon area in July 1864. Far more interesting, however, as I research my new book, The Civil War Battles of Macon, I found it striking that the local paper did not cover the Asa Holt House incident. A paper in Columbus, GA did. It also was unclear how the Columbus paper knew of the story. The local Macon Daily Telegraph only reported how a rebel shell had hit a house near the U.S. cannon emplacement on Dunlap Ridge and forced the owner to evacuate her home.[3] More so, the story of the Asa Holt House seemed to have been forgotten or at least not become part of local legend in the years after the war.

By the 1930, as car travel literature advertised point of interest in Macon, neither the Blue Book guide nor the Federal Writers Project mention the Asa Holt House.[4]

However, there was an interesting coincidence in the 1920s. In 1928, Mary Callaway Jones, a member of the local Sidney Lanier Chapter of the UDC, published a small piece in the Macon Telegraph about the shell hitting the Asa Holt House. Her article discussed in some detail the facts of the shelling. Interestingly, when Callaway referred to the house, she called it Asa Holt House and not “Cannonball House.” The name “Cannonball House” was nowhere to be seen in her article.[5] However, the article served as a reminder to old and young about the event in July 1864 and may have triggered the memory of one resident.

Two years later, William Sims Payne recounted the events of that day in a written statement treasured today by the UDC and Asa Holt House owners. The 74-year-old Payne described an event that he had seen as an eight-year-old boy. Based on the topography of the location where he was at the time, he did not see the projectile hit the ground or the building. Payne’s account read:

A short time after the above happened, I was sitting on some steps in front of our home on New St., listening to the cannon firing of Stoneman’s men, when over my head I heard a curious noise as of something flattering through the air. I was hard to locate, but I knew it was a shell. In a split second I heard it hit the ground and ricochet, crashing through a big column in the front of Mr. Asa Holt’s house on Mulberry St. passing through the house, it fell in one of the back rooms, unexploded.[6]

Whether Callaway’s article jogged Payne’s memory about that July day in 1864, we will sadly never know, but it is certainly possible. Despite Payne’s account hardly being an eyewitness report, Margaret Duncan brazenly stated that a small boy playing on the sidewalk nearby watched the shell hit the house no longer referred to as the Asa Holt House but had morphed into the “Cannonball House” in the UDC Magazine.[7] Never troubled much by facts, the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Macon had within only a few decades turned the forgotten Asa Holt House into the Lost Cause-supporting “Cannonball House.”

The Georgia Historical Commission Marker for the Asa Holt House, Photograph by Author

The work of the Georgia Historical Commission and historic building surveys illustrate the effectiveness of the UDC’s work to alter the name of the house during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1954, the Georgia Historical Commission placed markers across the state to commemorate events and places of historic importance. They placed one in front of the Asa Holt House, which at the time was the residence of the widow of Charles Canning. The marker tells the story of the shell hitting the house without using the term “Cannonball House.” In the next decade and a half, the UDC eradicated the Asa Holt House and replaced it with the “Cannonball House.” The Washington Memorial Library in Macon houses the Historic Macon Building Survey, which includes the changed language. When the Sidney Lanier chapter of the UDC filed the paperwork to add the Asa Holt House to the National Register of Historic Places, they purposefully used “Cannonball House.” However, a historic building survey of an unknown date used “Asa Holt-Canning House.” Only the UDC submitted documents used the language “Cannonball House.”[8] And, today, the Lost Cause language is the norm in Macon.

As students of the Civil War era and its memory, nobody reading this is probably surprised that the UDC was able to change the commemorative language in a southern town. However, if the Asa Holt House story was some form of a cruel joke, there is a punchline as well. While today, Maconites, especially white residents, are at least vaguely familiar with the Cannonball story, they have not just forgotten that it was the Asa Holt House. They also have forgotten that a rebel shell forced the residence of Dunlap Farm to evacuate their home. Even the Historic Structure Report of the Dunlap Farm house done in 2011 does not mention the shot hitting the building.[9]

In the book, I ask readers to think about what it says when a Neo-Confederate organization is able to tell a story of white southern civilians suffering at the hands of cruel “Yankee Invaders” shelling their home, intentionally change the names to tell that story, and allow residents to forget that so-called gallant rebel soldiers whose shelling of a civilian’s home forced them to flee the house. In many regards, this is a quintessential aspect of Civil War Memory, the selective remembering and intentional forgetting of the events surrounding the War of the Rebellion.

 

[1] Mary Ann Lamar Cobb to mother, July 31, 1864, Box 57, Folder 18, Howell Cobb Family Papers, Hargrett Manuscripts, University of Georgia Libraries, Athens, GA.

[2] https://vacationidea.com/georgia/best-things-to-do-in-macon-georgia.html, https://www.maconga.org/things-to-do/?utm_source=reachlocal&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=semmaconcvbsematlanta&scid=3893059&cid=3238277&tc=CjwKCAiAl4WABhAJEiwATUnEF7r9jTabuj1WXO0k9Ih5teLkzNSfKZLdDm7FPye0Q_ZkgL8MIP6wbBoCbqIQAvD_BwE&rl_key=2ce50479e7ba3b7c42cdb2e772764341&kw=33159521:13125&pub_cr_id=447103673030&dynamic_proxy=1&primary_serv=www.maconga.org&device=c&network=g&targetid=kwd-926285580621&loc_physical_ms=1015427&rl_retarget=1&rl_track_landing_pages=1, https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attractions-g60920-Activities-Macon_Georgia.html

[3] “Raid on Macon,” Macon Daily Telegraph (Macon, GA), August 2, 1864.

[4] George, G. Leckie, Georgia: A Guide to Its Towns and Countryside (Atlanta, GA: Tupper and Love Book, 1954), 111-116.

[5] Mary Callaway Jones, “Asa Holt Home Was Gun Target During Civil War,” Macon Telegraph (Macon, GA), May 20, 1928.

[6] “Federal Cannonball Fell On Macon Century Ago,” Macon Telegraph and News (Macon, GA), July 30, 1964.

[7] Margaret H. Duncan, “The Old Cannon Ball House and Macon Confederate Museum,” UDC Magazine 49:2 (February 1986), 28.

[8] Historic Macon Building Survey, Volume XIV, 3242 – 3271.

[9] Tommy H. Jones and Steven Bare, Ocmulgee National Monument: Dunlap House: Historic Structure Report (Atlanta, GA: National Park Service Southeast Region, 2011).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Niels Eichhorn

holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas and has taught history courses at Middle Georgia State University and Central Georgia Technical College. He has published Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019) and Atlantic History in the Nineteenth Century: Migration, Trade, Conflict, and Ideas (Palgrave, 2019). He is currently working with Duncan Campbell on The Civil War in the Age of Nationalism. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History. You can find more information on his personal website, and he can be contacted at eichhorn.niels@gmail.com.

4 Replies to “Civil War Macon”

    1. Howell Cobb was on the battlefield in Macon on July 30, with the recently dismissed commander of the Army of Tennessee J. E. Johnston.

  1. I lived in Macon from 1976 to 1988 and visited the Asa Holt House several times. I am saddened, but not surprised, to see that there is still no acknowledgemrnt that the ‘servants’ were enslaved human beings.

    History is annoying when your side doesn’t look as noble as you want it to be.

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