Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sherman's Girlfriend(s)

Perhaps the largest tragedy in Georgia history was the infamous March to the Sea during the War Between the States. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman became quite famous for this march, which left a good portion of the state in shambles. The march began after the Atlanta Campaign ended with the Battle of Jonesboro. Sherman marched his army through Georgia and led them to the sea, taking the city of Savannah without firing a shot in the process. Savannah can be enjoyed today partially because the city was saved from the wrath of the man many called "The Butcher." Other Georgia cities were spared including Madison and Milledgeville. There are a number of rumors that abound about why some of the places along the march were not devastated. One of the most common rumors is that Sherman had a mistress in those places. I have always found that hard to believe. There is, however, a story of a young woman who did make Sherman's acquaintance some years before the War Between the States. This story may very well be the basis of some of those "mistress" legends.

The story centers around Cecelia Stovall, a beautiful young girl whose father was a wealthy cotton merchant in Augusta. Cecelia visited West Point Military Academy in 1836 to see her brother, Marcellus A. Stovall, Sherman's roommate. At a dance held on that visit, Sherman made her acquaintance. It is said that she told the young Sherman upon his advances that "Your eyes are so cold and cruel. I pity the man who ever becomes your foe. Ah, how you would crush an enemy." To this, Sherman replied, "Even though you were my enemy, my dear, I would ever love and protect you." Years later, Cecelia married Charles T. Shelman of what was once Cass County, now Bartow County. Charles built Cecelia a beautiful white house on a hill above the Etowah River. That is where the two lived when the War Between the States began in 1861.

As fate would have it, General Sherman came to the mansion on his way through the area in 1864. His attention was brought to the fine stately home high above the Etowah River. When he arrived there, he found that the family had left, and they had placed the home and its grounds in the care of an African American servant. The man exclaimed that he was glad Miss Cecelia was not there to see the sight of her lovely home being swarmed by Yankee soldiers. Upon further examination, General Sherman learned that the Cecelia of which the older man spoke was indeed his former interest, Cecelia Stovall, now Cecelia Shelman. After hearing this, Sherman ordered everything that had been taken from the home put back and that guards were to be placed at the house until his entire army had passed to avoid looting. He also left a message, which, at least until the early 1950s, was still in the family records of the Stovalls. The message read: "You once said that I would crush an enemy and you pitied my foe. Do you recall my reply? Although many years have passed, my answer is the same. 'I would ever shield and protect you.' That I have done. Forgive all else. I am only a soldier." As he handed the note to the elderly African American servant, he told him "Say to your mistress for me that she might have remained in her home in safety; that she and her property would have been protected. Hand her this when you see her."

As it turns out, Cecelia's husband, Charles, was a captain in the Confederate Army and that Cecelia had left the mansion to escape the invading army. Charles Shelman returned to the mansion after the war, as did Cecelia. He lived there until his death in 1886 and she until hers in 1904. They both were aware that they had once been absent when perhaps their most famous visitor paid a call.

This is a true story, although there may be some parts of it that were changed in the telling. However, the note that General Sherman left for Cecelia is still in the family records of the Stovall and Shelman families. Also, this story is recounted in the History of Bartow County, as well as Medora Field Perkerson's White Columns in Georgia. The note is authentic from what I have been told by local and Georgia historians. What I do wonder is if this story, while true, may have spawned the many unsubstantiated claims that Sherman did not burn other towns on the March to the Sea because he had a mistress there. It must be noted that Mrs. Cecelia Shelman was NOT his mistress, only a former love interest that never materialized. But can the many rumors and claims of Sherman's girlfriends in places like Madison, Milledgeville, Macon, and Savannah be spawned by this true story??? Perhaps.

The Legend of Rene Rondolia- Disappointing Myth

I remember watching a program called Scariest Places on Earth on the Fox Family Channel. One episode was totally about Savannah and the many hauntings that supposedly take place there. One story that was told was about a huge man who lived in the early 1800s named Rene Rondolia. It was rather disturbing to hear about this supposed gigantic killer of children, who, at his birth, weighed in at 16 pounds. According to the legend, Rene would roam the alleys of Savannah at night. Having grown in to a big child with abnormal strength, Rene could harm things without intent. Small animals would often fall prey to Rene when he would inadvertantly hurt them on account of his strength. To add to the depth of this legend, it was reported that Rene did not speak English, only broken French that he learned from his mother, a French Huguenot. According to the program, Rene was the inspiration for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. But as James Caskey, author of Haunted Savannah points out, there is absolutely no evidence to support such a claim, and furthermore, Joseph Bevan, the Savannah socialite who was a friend of Mary Shelley's father, visited with Shelley's father during a time when he and his daughter were estranged, so a meeting between Bevan and Mary Shelley would be very improbable. No credible scholar has produced any evidence that Shelley used Savannah or Rene Rondolia as an inspiration for her story. But there are still those who tell this story as if it were fact.
Moving on to Rene Rondolia, stories are told that the death of a young girl near Foley's Alley in Savannah was attributed to him. Her neck was broken, and as that was the same thing that was known to happen to the small animals with which Rene played, locals naturally assumed that this was the work of Rene Rondolia. They lynched him, hanging him from a tree in the southwest corner of Warren Square. Although it took a while, his neck broke and he died. However, it was said that the killings continued after his lynching into 1821. Others say that the ghost of Rene Rondolia can be seen near Warren Square. The story is known to scare thrill seekers and young children alike. According to Caskey, one can "Credit this tale with inspiring more sleepless nights on camping trips than any other story in Savannah."
It is good story, but sadly, it is just that-a story. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that there ever was a Rene Rondolia, and he was never buried in Colonial Park Cemetery as the show Scariest Places on Earth suggests. I noticed it was quite peculiar when on a trip to the cemetery a few years ago, I could not locate the grave in the plot where the show said it would be. Like many other legends and tales that circulate on tours and in discussions, this one was and is a total wash.