From Prisoners to Soldiers
—March to the Sea Heritage Trail —
On this 20-acre square stood the first Georgia State Penitentiary. Completed in 1816, the walled compound occupied 2-1/2 acres in the center of the square. The penitentiary housed approximately 245 prisoners in a brick and granite main cell building, 200' by 30' in dimension, divided into four wards. The penitentiary also included an octagonal workshop, tannery, gristmill, chapel, mess hall, hospital and a rail car construction shop. The prison had become vital to the Confederacy's war effort in Georgia, including prisoners making shoes for soldiers plus cards for combing and disentangling wool and cotton. Most importantly, since 1862 the penitentiary had also served as the Georgia Armory, producing bayonets pikes and the Georgia Armory rifle.
The "Left Wing" of Union Major General William T. Sherman's army began arriving in Milledgeville on Tuesday, November 22, 1864. Shortly before their arrival Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown directed that prisoners be used to remove all furnishings from the Governor's Mansion. William G. McAdoo, Sr. observed, "Everything in the Executive Mansion was in the wildest uproar...The halls and rooms were filled with convicts in Penitentiary Stripes removing furniture and every thing valuable."
Governor Brown also issued pardons to some 175 prisoners who agreed to serve in the
militia. They were organized into a company called Roberts's Guards. The penitentiary guards were combined with factory workers to form a second company. Georgia's Inspector and Adjutant General Henry C. Wayne referred to the two companies as the "Milledgeville Battalion." A few days later these troops, under Wayne's command performed well in a holding action against the Federal army's "Right Wing" at Ball's Ferry on the Oconee River south of Milledgeville. Wayne said the "convicts generally behaved well"
although many deserted soon after. Those who did not desert returned to Milledgeville with the company in late December 1864 and were granted 30 days furlough.
As the last of General Sherman's soldiers entered Milledgeville around 5:00 p.m. on November 23rd they observed the penitentiary buildings fully engulfed in flames. Sherman might well have burned the prison anyway, as a legitimate military objective, but the remaining prisoners apparently pre-empted him, setting fire to the compound and escaping in the excitement. Although the penitentiary was rebuilt after the war, it was gradually abandoned in the 1870s as Georgia turned increasingly to the infamous convict leasing system. In 1889 the new Georgia Normal and Industrial College for Women acquired title to Penitentiary Square, cleared away the rubble of the old prison, and erected the institution that in
1996 became known as Georgia College and State University.
Left top: Georgia Armory bayonet and scabbard
Left bottom: Cast iron lock and keys
Georgia Inspector and Adjutant Gemeral Henry C. Wayne
Middle top: Georgia Armory musket with "GA. ARMORY -1862-"stamped on its lock plate
Middle bottom: Burning of the Penitentiary at Milledgeville, GA., November 23d, 1864. (Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper)
Right top map: Ground plan of the Georgia State Penitentiary, circa 1860, with an overlay of buildings on the Georgia College campus