But Stewart had an indomitable will. She leaned on her faith for strength overcame incredible odds to survive. A miraculous reunion with husband and a divinely planted crop of strawberries lifted her from despair and enabled her to triumph over tragedy.
In 1860 Lizzie’s husband, Walter, quit his job at the New Manchester Manufacturing Company mill in Campbell (now Douglas) County, Georgia. Walter purchased some land and set to farming, hoping predictions of a short war would prove true. With no end in sight, however, he enlisted as a private in the Confederate army on March 4, 1862. For the next two and a half years, he would survive some of the severest clashes of the war as a member of the Forty-first Georgia Infantry.
Lizzie was left at home to run the family farm and make ends meet amid increasing shortages incurred from an ever-tightening Union blockade. With limited resources, she did her best to raise five children, all under the age of twelve.
In the spring of 1864, Lizzie took a job at the mill as a bookkeeper. The mill had entered military production and manufactured tents and uniforms for Southern soldiers, which meant that it would soon be targeted for destruction by Gen. William T. Sherman. The Northern commander ordered cavalry under Brig. Gen. George Stoneman to burn the facility and place the town, mostly women and children at this juncture, under arrest. When asked for clarification of his intentions, Sherman barked: “I repeat my orders that you arrest all people...no matter the clamor…. The poor women will make a howl. Let them take along their children and clothing, providing they have the means of hauling or you can spare them.”
The remains of the New Manchester Manufacturing Company, the textile mill where Lizzie Stewart worked, are now a part of Sweetwater Creek State Park.
Eventually, residents were ordered to gather on the bank of Sweetwater Creek to await transportation to Marietta. They were not permitted to go back to their homes under threat of death. Wagons did not arrive until the morning of July 9. The captives were left out in the elements for several days before being loaded onto cars of the Western & Atlantic Railroad and sent to Louisville, Kentucky. Women and children were confined in two boarding houses located on Broadway Street.
A couple of weeks later, Walter was captured outside Atlanta. Ironically, he was sent to Louisville as a POW. Spotted by a daughter while being paraded around town as a fresh captive, he was granted a brief reunion with his family before being sent on to Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio. Lizzie had not heard from Walter in quite some time, and the act of kindness probably saved her from sinking into despair. It bolstered Walter, too: now knowing for sure that his wife and children were alive and presumed safe, Walter disdained signing the Oath of Allegiance, vowing to return for them at war’s end.
Lizzie remained in confinement. Dr. Mary Edwards Walker arrived at the Female Refugee Prison in September with orders to tend to the pressing medical needs of the captives. An article in the Louisville Daily Journal reported that there were “over one hundred and fifty women and children, of whom nine tenths are prostrate with disease. Several deaths have occurred [and] immediate relief must be given, or all will die.” Though Mary Walker was an accomplished practitioner and would be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for her service, she was very unpopular with the Georgia women because of her masculine dress (her wardrobe did not include bustles) and her unflinchingly rigid disciplinary actions. Perhaps to avoid such discipline, Lizzie signed the oath and moved with her children into a clean boarding house. To pay the rent, she once again found employment as a bookkeeper.
Walter was released in May 1865 and walked back to Louisville. The Stewarts eventually saved enough money to purchase train tickets, and the family headed back to Georgia. They reclaimed their valuables, but with New Manchester reduced to a ghost town, Walter had to walk to Atlanta, a trek of nearly twenty-five miles, to find work. Lizzie was again left alone with the children. Despite the war’s end, tragedy did not escape the Stewart family; the oldest child got caught in a sudden storm and died on October 20, 1865.
The horrors of Reconstruction, coupled with the loss of another child, were almost too much to bear. Lizzie kept her three surviving children indoors through the long winter of 1865–1866, when the weather itself seemed to be an enemy. Cold and damp conditions persisted well into spring.
On the verge of giving up, when the weather finally broke Lizzie noticed little green shoots sprouting up all over the Stewart property. They were strawberries—thousands of them. She dubbed them her “strawberry manna,” and the Stewarts were able to sell the fruit in Atlanta to supplement Walter’s meager income. The strawberries, which had never appeared before on the property, never appeared afterward either, reinforcing Lizzie’s belief that they were heaven-sent. Still, the family moved in search of prosperity, going first to Atlanta, then, in search of fertile farmland, eventually settling in the Collbran community on top of Lookout Mountain in DeKalb County, Alabama.
Lizzie died on July 20, 1887, at age fifty-one. She was buried in Collbran’s Mt. Vernon Cemetery and largely forgotten for more than a century. Recent research led to the rediscovery of her grave, and a granite monument was unveiled during a ceremony on May 5, 2012. The memorial, which bears an inscription of Lizzie’s story, is the first of its kind to commemorate an individual female prisoner of war from New Manchester, Georgia. Lizzie’s struggles during the time her husband was away at war are indicative of the trials faced by women across the Deep South. Being reunited with him while a prisoner of war was unique, as is the memorial on Alabama soil erected in her honor. As communities nationwide commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the Lizzie Stewart memorial stands as a fitting tribute to an unwilling participant in the national struggle and a testament to the tenacity of Alabama’s Civil War-era civilians.
This feature was previously published Issue 114, Fall 2014.
About the Author
Greg Starnes is a novelist, journalist, and Civil War historian who lives in Fort Payne, Alabama, and is working on a novel about the capture of southern women in 1864.