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Herald-Gazette first covered cemetery in 1997

Editor’s note: The current controversy is not the first time the Wadsworth-Clayton Cemetery has been in the news. This Herald Gazette piece was published in December, 1997. Though some accounts and opinions have changed, the key questions that remain include the cemetery’s fate and whether or not victims of the Civil War train wreck are interred there. By Walter Geiger The once quiet hilltop cemetery isn’t so quiet anymore. The rattle and hum of nearby industry fills the air. Indeed, there is little evidence that the cemetery even exists. There are neither headstones nor ornate fencing. Mostly, there is cow dung left by dozens of cows who are free to trample the burial ground as they see fit. The Wadsworth-Clayton Cemetery does not even garner mention in the definitive 1932 History of Lamar County. But, the cemetery lives on in the hearts of a dedicated few who are determined to spare it from industrial sprawl. Just down the hill from the graveyard lies the railroad line. About a mile south of the cemetery on the railroad line is the scene of the horrific train crash that on September 1, 1864 sent some 20 odd Confederate soldiers and, perhaps, one of their female nurses to lie in the Wadsworth-Clayton Cemetery for eternity. In the early fall of 1864 Atlanta was under siege. Sherman’s troops were on the brink of victory in the Battle of Atlanta. General Hood, in command of the Atlanta bastion, ordered the evacuation of the city. He commandeered a passenger train pulled by the engine Dispatch, filled it with wounded from hospitals in Atlanta and ordered it south. The train was to carry the wounded troops through Barnesville to the relative safety of hospitals in Macon. Unfortunately, in his haste, General Hood disregarded railroad schedules. As the Dispatch chugged south with its grim cargo, another locomotive, the General, was headed north. Accounts differ but the General was either heading north to Griffin or Jonesboro pulling a string of freight cars loaded with commissary supplies and had stopped in Barnesville. Two miles north of Barnesville, the tracks traverse a sweeping bend known as Lavender’s Curve. The curve and a crossing, still known to some as Lavender’s Crossing, remain to this day. Visibility in the area is poor due to the curve and it is here that the General and the Dispatch collided head on. The scene is best described by Joe Semmes, a passenger on the northbound freight whose account is quoted in the book Last Train from Atlanta by A.A. Hoehling. ’Our train met at full speed a longer train loaded inside and out with our suffering and wounded. The shock was awful. Not expecting anything of the kind, I thought for an instant that a shell had exploded in the car and that the enemy were upon us. I was thrown naturally forward, injuring my arm and my side but breaking no bones. Full of pain as I was, the terrible screams of the wounded drew me to the wreck of the trains where the most frightful scenes of the battlefield were surpassed in horror by the scenes I met. Some 20 were killed instantly and others were in the agonies of death whilst the air was filled with the screams and moans of many others. With only one arm which I could use, I did all I could. Many of the poor creatures when taken out had to be left in the broiling sun, for there was no shade for a quarter mile. No water, no nothing. One poor lady with both legs smashed and her breast smashed in and the bones sticking out I helped as well as I could, got her some whiskey and water, covered her.’ Benedict Joseph Semmes was a native of Memphis. He was General Johnston’s chief depot commissary in Atlanta. A telegraph from Isaac Pilgram, who was in Barnesville at the time of the crash, is also quoted in Hoehling’s book. The message was this. ’Today the passenger train coming down from Atlanta collided with the up freight train about two and one half miles from this place. The engines Governor and Dispatch are a perfect wreck. Seven cars are broken up. Four cars are completely demolished. The down train was loaded with wounded soldiers. About 22 persons were killed, including one woman, one major and Lt. Vaughn. About 50 were wounded. Amputation is necessary in sever cases. Many are horribly mangled. The road will be cleared by morning.’ The woman has been identified in other accounts as a Miss Saffen of Memphis. She apparently was aboard the passenger train helping to nurse the wounded. The people of Barnesville hearing of the crash, rushed to the scene to render aid. The dead and wounded were laid out on a steep embankment next to the railroad tracks near where the home once known as the Curtis Trice house now stands, according to local historian Shanna English. The wounded were taken the two miles to Barnesville and the five Confederate hospitals which operated in the city. Those killed outright were carried the short distance to Wadsworth-Clayton Cemetery and buried. Those with the grim task of burying the dead could likely look down on the scene of the train crash as they dug. Mrs. English speculates that over 100 people are buried in the long-forgotten cemetery. At some time, the graveyard was desecrated and all the headstones were removed. It is unclear where the gravestones are today. Visitors to the cemetery can clearly see the indentations of many graves in the pasture grass. In places, the small stones often used to mark the foot of older graves, still exist. Ironically, in one corner of the cemetery there lies a pile of discarded railroad track sections. Having survived desecration, the cemetery now faces another danger. The land on which it sits was recently purchased by the City of Barnesville and is slated for use in the expansion of the nearby industrial park. Mrs. English and a few others are determined to see that the graveyard is fenced off and preserved. They would love to return the headstones to the place they belong.

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