A people without the knowledge of their past history … is like a tree without roots.
– Marcus Garvey
Want to go back in time 150 years? I’ll take you.
The Augusta Museum of History has asked me to make its monthly Brown Bag presentation Wednesday on “1864: That Was the Year That Was.”
You bring your lunch, they’ll have something to drink and then I’ll tell you what was going on in this year when everything changed. It will sort of be like my online history videos, only live. And I won’t take up much of your time.
When I was first asked, I was a bit skeptical because 1864 isn’t usually one of the years we talk about a lot. Those would be years like 1916, with its devastating fire, or 1970, which had not only a full-fledged riot but also James Brown riding in to save the day.
But if you read the old microfilm of this newspaper, you find out that a lot happened 150 years ago.
Helpful hint: If you do try to read the old microfilm, get a magnifying glass because the copies are blurry and the type is tiny. And there are no pictures, photographs, woodcuts or drawings for relief. Those would have helped, too, because it was one of those rare years in Augusta’s long history that had a flood, several explosions, political intrigue, crime waves, church thefts, trains, an embattled newspaper (this one) – and there was a war going on with a really large, well-equipped army headed in our direction.
I won’t give it all away, but here are some highlights.
THE FLOOD: According to The Chronicle on Jan. 3, 1864, “rising waters of the Savannah River have covered the lower part of town all the way to Campbell Street.” (That’s today’s Ninth Street/James Brown Boulevard.)
Augusta’s 12,493 residents got very wet. They probably got muddy, too, because with few exceptions the city streets were dirt.
THE NEWSPAPER: Believe it or not, during the Civil War “the South’s oldest newspaper” was edited by a Connecticut Yankee. He had, what I guess you would call, a public relations problem.
He also had an accuracy challenge. He seemed to think the war was almost over and that the South was about to win. You would think that would have helped him with his public relations, but it didn’t.
THE EXPLOSION: Augusta’s powderworks on the canal was a wonder until August, when 18,000 pounds of that fresh, new powder blew up. Nine were killed, and flying glass from the windows stripped the leaves from nearby trees.
HERE COMES SHERMAN: The last months of the year had most everyone fearing the Union Army was about to strike. But it didn’t. Guess why?
THE CRIME WAVE: To me, this was the oddest thing. Burglars were robbing everybody. They even stole furniture out of the Presbyterian Church, whose preacher was Woodrow Wilson’s father. And they took the carpeting out of St. Paul’s.
I guess you could say 1864 saw politicians politicizing and newspaper editorialists editorializing. It saw hopes and dreams and thefts and schemes.
And I tell you all about it on Wednesday.