It’s worth the gamble to say that Kingston, Georgia has more historical markers per capita than any town in the state. Like so many towns, her history and fate are inextricably tied to the rise and fall of the railroad as the main way people travel. The town is even named for a railroad financier, John Pendleton King of Augusta, Georgia.
But for thousands of years before the train, Native Americans thrived in the area. The Cherokee mined saltpeter, an ingredient in gunpowder, and sold it to British and American buyers as late as the War of 1812. The Land Lottery of 1832 brought settlers in, and many more followed after the forced removal of the Indians in 1838.
A stage coach route preceded the railroad through Kingston, spawning commerce. Hotels were built to accommodate travelers and tourists who came to enjoy the nearby springs. Among those early stage coach travelers was one party that would have an enduring influence on the region: Francis Bartow, Reverend Charles Wallace Howard, William Henry Stiles and Godfrey Barnsley.
According to Bartow County historian Lucy Cunyus, early Kingston had a wicked reputation, but by 1852 was “improving in morals.” In 1849 the Memphis Branch Railroad was opened connecting Rome with the newly completed Western and Atlantic Railroad at Kingston. Thus, Kingston became an important north-south and east-west nexus. A rail yard was built providing a major employer, supplementing the booming cotton market and tourist trade which supported four hotels.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Kingston became a hospital and supply center because of the rail connections. The first “Wayside Home,” or Confederate hospital, was established here in 1861; more than 10,000 sick and wounded troops passed through it. In 1864, after the Confederate Army retreated, Union troops were attended here.
Kingston played a pivotal role in the Civil War espionage episode remembered as The Great Locomotive Chase. On April 12, 1862 Union spies, known as Andrews’ Raiders, stole a steam engine called The General at Big Shanty, and set out to destroy the W&A rail lines through northwest Georgia. They were delayed for almost an hour by Kingston depot agent Uriah Stephens, allowing the Confederate crew aboard the Yonah to come within 4 minutes of catching the Raiders. Instead of trying to negotiate the complicated Kingston rail yard, the Confederates took a locomotive owned by the Rome Railroad and continued the chase, finally capturing the General near Ringgold. Hollywood immortalized this event the 1920’s silent movie “The General,” starring Buster Keaton and the 1957 Disney classic “The Great Locomotive Chase,” starring Fess Parker.
Ultimately, Kingston fell into the hands of General William T. Sherman
Over the next several months, Union and Confederate cavalry met eight times in the area. When General John B. Hood [CS] began his abortive Nashville Campaign after the fall of Atlanta, Sherman headquartered in Kingston. It was here that he solidified his plan to “March to the Sea.” Sherman requested permission to execute the plan and at Kingston, on November 2, 1864, he received permission from Gen. Ulysses S. Grant [US] to begin his march “to make Georgia howl”. On November 12th, 60,000 men left northwest Georgia, emerging six weeks later in Savannah.
During the War, the women of the Kingston began a springtime rite of decorating the graves of Confederate soldiers with flowers in the town’s ever-swelling cemetery. In the spring of 1865, the town was under military rule. When the women requested permission from the military commander to continue their tradition, they were told that they would have to decorate all the soldiers’ graves. By then, hundreds of Union soldiers lay in the hillside as well. The women agreed, and thus “Decoration Day,” the forerunner of Memorial Day, was started. The Kingston Woman’s Club continues the ritual to this day. The annual Kingston Confederate Memorial Service at the Kingston Confederate Cemetery is the oldest continuous memorial service in the nation. Just a few weeks after the first Decoration Day, the last contingent of Confederate troops east of the Mississippi were surrendered at Kingston by General William Wofford [CS]. A native of Cassville, Wofford’s grave is in the Cassville Confederate Cemetery.
In 1911 Kingston suffered a major fire. Soon, the railroad was no longer a primary mode of travel and the new automobile routes bypassed the town. Once bustling, supposedly even wicked, Kingston slipped into sleep. Today the town is a great reminder of the gentile south as people once again find their way to Kingston. The Woman’s History Club has an impressive history museum in a park setting with tributes to the town’s heritage and veterans. Just a few miles from the Kingston stagecoach stop Godfrey Barnsley made 160 years ago, Barnsley Resort now thrives as a world-class destination. Each Spring, the Atlanta Steeplechase is held at its home at Kingston Downs.
From Slavery to the White House
One of the most triumphant legacies known in Kingston is that of Melvinia “Mattie” Shields McGruder. Mattie was born into slavery in South Carolina, and later bequeathed to the Shields family where she became one of three slaves on a 200-acre farm in Rex, Georgia. Following emancipation, Mattie worked briefly as a farm laborer before moving to Kingston to be near other freed slaves from her South Carolina birthplace. She became a midwife and cared for many of Kingston’s children. Her own son prospered as a business owner, and his descendants moved north seeking advantageous job opportunities. Mattie remained in Kingston where she was buried in 1938, but her legacy continues across five generations all the way to the White House. Read MORE