Monument marks family's Civil War saga

Monument marks family's Civil War saga

June 5th, 2012 by Ben Benton in News

DeKalb County, Ala., resident and Civil War historian Greg Starnes talks about the story behind the new monument to Walter and Lizzie Stewart, a Confederate soldier and his wife who survived the conflict as prisoner and refugee to be reunited after the war ended. The marker at rear tells the story of the family while the new white marker in the foreground marks Walter Stewart's grave.

DeKalb County, Ala., resident and Civil War historian...

Photo by Ben Benton /Times Free Press.

COLLINSVILLE, Ala. - In late summer 1864, a Confederate soldier's wife and her children were corralled inside the high fence of a refugee camp in Marietta, Ga.

Charlotte Elizabeth "Lizzie" Stewart and her daughter, Synthia Catherine, heard a band and began trying to talk her way out of the camp to see the musicians she thought might be leading a parade.

That sound led Lizzie Stewart and the children to a joyful, if brief, reunion with their husband and father, Walter Washington Stewart, a captured Confederate soldier being paraded with the musicians as "fresh fish" with other new prisoners of war, according to DeKalb County, Ala., resident and Civil War historian Greg Starnes.

Starnes researched the story that led to placement of the Stewart Monument commemorating a family's loss, reunion and jubilation in a battle against adversity amid the larger Civil War.

The monument was dedicated May 5 at the Mount Vernon Cemetery next to Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Collinsville, Ala.

Starnes said the Stewart family's division and reunion began soon after Walter Stewart's resignation from his job as a boss at New Manchester Manufacturing Co. mill in what was then Campbell County, Ga., as war seemed imminent.

Walter Stewart bought a farm where he believed his family would be secure, though he eventually enlisted in the Confederate Army to avoid conscription. Over the next three years he survived major battles at Perryville, Champion's Hill, Murfreesboro, Resaca, New Hope Church and Kennesaw Mountain, as well as sieges at Vicksburg and Chattanooga, Starnes said.

Meanwhile, Lizzie Stewart worked as a bookkeeper at the mill, which by then was making goods for the Confederate Army, Starnes said. Her job made her an employee of the Confederate government.

On July 2, 1864, the mother of now four children - the youngest had died just six weeks earlier - was arrested by Union forces along with about 200 other mill employees and charged with treason, Starnes said.

Lizzie Stewart and the children were loaded onto a train in Marietta, Ga., and hauled to Louisville, Ky., where they were held in a refugee camp, Starnes said.

Starnes said Walter Stewart was captured by Union forces in Atlanta a month later and sent north on the same rail line on which his captured family had traveled.

After that month at the refugee camp in Louisville, a restless 9-year-old Synthia Catherine Stewart on the day she heard the band playing urged her uncle "James" to speak to one of the Union guards about letting her come out to see them. But, after sympathetic Union guards allowed them a few moments of restricted freedom, Starnes said they found the music actually was coming from a group of musicians following freshly captured Confederate soldiers, he said.

"Her eyes lock on the first soldier behind the Union musicians and she starts looking and she says, 'Pappa?'" Starnes said.

Synthia Catherine convinced Uncle James to inquire about the gaunt, long-haired soldier she spotted, and the family discovered the father and husband they thought among the war dead was there in the same town, Starnes said.

Sympathetic Union guards allowed Lizzie Stewart and the children to have a few minutes alone with Walter Stewart in some nearby barracks before the reunion was ended temporarily.

"Walter vowed that when he was released he would come and take them back home," Starnes said.

After his release from prison, Walter and Lizzie Stewart worked to fund their return to their Georgia home in Sweetwater Creek, he said.

After struggling to get back on their feet and losing another child to disease, the Stewarts finally moved from Georgia to DeKalb County, Ala. Lizzie died there in 1887 at 51, while Walter remarried and fathered another two children before he died in 1904.

Today, Lizzie and Walter rest side by side in graves in the Mount Vernon Cemetery in Collinsville now marked with a monument to their struggle through the Civil War.

Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park historian Jim Ogden said stories like the Stewarts' show the Civil War's impact on families and communities beyond the battle lines.

"It is very important because this gives richness and texture and depth and complexity to the story of the Civil War," Ogden said. "In our soundbite world today we too often simplify the story of this period and don't recognize just how complex it was."