CONYERS - Having 32 ancestors who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War and having grown up listening to stories about those relatives, Jim Cabaniss couldn't help but be interested in the subject. Turns out, he's devoted most of his life to studying the Civil War and travels throughout Georgia dressed as a Confederate chaplain giving presentations of Southern life during the war.
"My interest began when both of my grandfathers told me stories their grandfathers had told them," said Cabaniss, a Lawrenceville resident. "It culminated when I began to research those stories and visit battlefields and find out where my ancestors fought."
In his role as a Confederate preacher, Cabaniss will present a discussion on how Conyers was affected during Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's campaign to conquer the South. Specifically, he'll discuss what's known as Garrard's Raid, which took place in Conyers and neighboring counties in the summer of 1864, several months before Sherman's infamous March to the Sea.
Sponsored by the Rockdale County Historical Society, Cabaniss' presentation takes place at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the Conyers Depot Warehouse, 901 Warehouse St. in Olde Town Conyers. The event is free and open to the public and refreshments will be served.
Though Sherman's March didn't officially pass through Conyers until November 1864, he sent a brigadier general, Kenner Garrard, to Conyers in July 1864 to render the city helpless. With the goal of destroying communication between Atlanta and Augusta via the railroad, Garrard marched out of Decatur, passed through Lithonia and headed east all the way to the Alcovy River. Along the way, he and his troops concentrated on destroying infrastructure and supplies. In Conyers, troops burned the depots and passenger trains, and destroyed the railroads.
Cabaniss, a retired Methodist minister with the North Georgia Conference, said he enjoys bringing history to life by dressing like the character he's discussing and presenting and explaining items that a typical Civil War soldier would have carried. He'll have a haversack full of hard tack, a diary, a Bible, a toothbrush of hog hair and bone, a tin cup and knife and fork.
"What my goal is when I speak in these situations is that I want to make history interesting," said Cabaniss, an Alabama native who holds a bachelor's degree in history from the University of North Alabama and a master's degree in divinity from Emory University. "Far too many people make history dry and dull and it's anything but that."
Author of "Civil War Journals and Letters of Sergeant Washington Ives, 4th Florida C.S.A.," Cabaniss travels across Georgia sharing his Civil War history presentations with various groups. He's been active in the Sons of Confederate Veterans since 1977, having been past commander of several camps, and has served as president of the Dalton Civil War Roundtable.
Cabaniss said he'll base his presentation in Conyers primarily on the diaries of a young woman, Dolly Lunt Burge, who lived on a plantation near Covington (which is currently known as Burge's Plantation in Mansfield). Burge kept a diary and described in specific detail how soldiers pillaged her home during the raid.
In her accounts of the war, Burge relayed how the Union soldiers destroyed anything of value from cotton to ladies' silk dresses, and as an added insult, they placed horses in the local churches.
"They wanted to totally humiliate the populous," Cabaniss said. "Until that time, war had been an honorable thing. Sherman and Grant were the first to ignore that and after that, warfare became more brutal and vicious than it already was."
Cabaniss said he is constantly in awe of the Confederate soldiers' will to fight, even when they had little or no food, received low pay and were forced to live in extremely poor conditions.
"They felt they had a destiny before them. This is what they had to do. This was their duty. It was all about duty, honor and country," said Cabaniss.
The 52-year-old said when he visits Civil War battlefields he can almost feel the pain of the soldiers, a "collective unconscious," as he describes it.
"(The Civil War) is one of the most melancholy, tragic and triumphant events in history," said Cabaniss. "It still weighs on us to this day."