It’s worth the gamble to say that Kingston, Georgia has more historical markers per capita than any town in the state. Located in the northwest corner of Bartow County, almost equal distance between Cartersville and Rome, Kingston reached her zenith in the mid-19th Century. 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 last native culture to occupy Kingston was the Cherokee. Besides farming and trading, 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 White 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, Reverand 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 had to wait for almost an hour at Kingston while several southbound freight trains cleared the tracks. Four minutes after the Union-commandeered General left Kingston’s yard, the Confederate crew arrived on the Yonah. 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. The Raiders’ delay at Kingston is credited with the failure of their mission. (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 [US]. During the Atlanta Campaign, Sherman marched into Kingston on May 19, 1864 with two of his three armies expecting to fight the Confederates. General Joe Johnston [CS] had tricked him, however, and was waiting just to the east at Cassville. After Johnston’s retreat from Cassville, Sherman’s army moved south from Kingston, for the first time leaving the railroad.
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 Confederate Cemetery in Kingston now harbors only two Union soldiers, the others moved to the National Cemetery in Marietta; 249 unknown Confederate soldiers and two known Confederates. The annual Kingston Confederate Memorial Service is the oldest continuous memorial service in the nation.
Also in the spring of 1865, on May 12th, 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.)
Though wrecked by war, the railroad revived Kingston during reconstruction. With its central location and excellent transportation facilities, the city was used as a post-war distribution center. People from Rome and the surrounding area would travel here to receive food allotments. Because Kingston’s churches had been spared as military headquarters, ministers sought out those few intact pulpits and their flocks followed. Kingston’s church services became quite popular. Regulars would often take the train to Kingston from as far as Atlanta to hear the sermons.
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.
Though Kingston probably will never regain prominence among her northwest Georgia sister cities, people are once again finding their way to her streets. The Woman’s History Club has an impressive new addition to their history museum, and Morrell’s Corner Cafe serves down-home southern specialties daily. There’s a fully stocked grocery in one of the renovated downtown buildings, and Kingston Military Antiques attracts collectors every weekend. Just a few miles from the Kingston stagecoach stop Godfrey Barnsley made 160 years ago, a resort destination has emerged which bears his name. And in 1997, that springtime super social, the Atlanta Steeplechase, moved to a newly developed course called Kingston Downs.
While we won’t see four hotels back in Kingston anytime soon, it does seem that the old dame is beginning to rise from her slumber.