16 June 2014
Past Piedmont Chronicles: The City of Covington
The City of Covington
*originally published in About Covington in 2009
As I mentioned in a previous column, many folks refer to Covington as “C-town.” A friend of mine from Conyers once tried to tell me that Conyers is the original “C-town.” Well...for one thing, Covington is older, and with apologies to anybody who feels otherwise—Covington is the original C-town. Growing up in Covington during the 1980's was pretty cool. Buying G.I. Joe figures at Harper's, getting baseball cards at Leo's, and enjoying vanilla malts at City Pharmacy...it was a good time. The world seemed pretty small and Atlanta seemed like a million miles away. I imagine there are more than a few locals over the age of 40 or 50 who are probably getting a kick out me romantically reminiscing about Covington in the 80's. I'm sure they could tell you how it was in the 50's or 60's or earlier. And I'm sure it was great.
The city of Covington is the county seat of Newton County. For centuries, the Creek Indian nation had ownership of this area. Newton Co. would be made up of land ceded from the Creeks in 1805, 1818 and the treaty of Indian Springs in 1821. On December 24th, 1821—Newton Co. was formed through an act of the Georgia Legislature. The county was named for Revolutionary “war hero” John Newton.
Questions actually exist as to whether or not Mr. Newton was real...his legend seems to come from the writings of M.L. Weems who was responsible for a lot of the romantic and fabricated tales of the early times of American history including the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree. If Newton did indeed exist, it seems likely that he was not responsible for the act of heroism that he is credited with and there seems to be evidence that he was considered by some at the the time to be of questionable character and may have actually been referred to as a “thief and a villain.” So, the namesake of Newton Co. may have never existed at all or, if he did, was possibly considered a bit of a no-account.
On April 15th, 1822, the Inferior court designated an area on a hill south of a swampy area by the Dried Indian Creek as the county seat and named it Newtonsborough. The story behind Dried Indian Creek goes like this—a corpse of an Indian was found on the bank of the creek and it was all dried up...it seems doubtful there was any truth to that story. Lots were laid out and sold in May of that year, and the town started to slowly grow. In December of 1822, the state legislature changed the name of the town in honor of Brig. General Leonard Covington who was killed in the War of 1812 and remembered as a hero. Unlike Newton, his legend seems to be legitimate.
The War Between the States
Covington's first direct contact with Union forces occurred in the Summer of 1864 when a cavalry division led by Kenner Garrard was instructed by William Sherman to destroy several of the railroads and bridges in and around Covington. He actually instructed Garrard to avoid any unnecessary molestation of private properties. On July 22nd, war broke out in Covington when an older resident named Presley Jones decided to take on the Yankees by himself. He did manage to kill two of them before he himself was shot and killed. Unfortunately, in order to placate their revenge, the Union forces court-martialed and executed a local man named George Daniel even though he was innocent of any crime.
Despite numerous accounts to the contrary, there seems to be no evidence that Sherman knew anyone in Covington other than the sister of a man he went to West Point with. Actually, there is evidence that Sherman had given strict orders that personal homes were supposed to be off-limits. That only commercial, agricultural, and transportation-related properties were to be destroyed in addition to bridges, trains, and train tracks. Sherman and his troops would live off the land with the actual order being to “forage liberally on the country.” In fact, when Sherman had finally reached Covington himself in November of 1864, he told the Mayor that everything inside of people's houses was off-limits but everything outside was not. While the whole goal of the Georgia campaign was to make the South sick of war, it seems that more times than not, excesses seemed to occur on the flanks or well ahead or behind the main force. At times, the Union forces formed a swath 60-75 miles wide and were picking up stragglers and hangers-on all the while. The most egregious wrongs committed against locals seemed to happen more frequently on the periphery.
After the Civil War, Covington had to deal with Reconstruction. Like the rest of the South, she struggled during that period, but would eventually come through it and grow and prosper.
An interesting and little-known aspect of Covington's history was mentioned in my very first column. By the 1880's, Covington had become somewhat of a “wild west town” and had upwards of a dozen saloons and drinking establishments. Some of these included hotels and general stores, but several were just straight-up whiskey joints where cards could be played and various types of “entertainment” could be found. Liquor could also be bought by the bottle at general stores and druggist shops. The increasing influence of alcohol did start to cause some problems and by 1882, when a man named Will Smith killed two men after drinking and playing cards, the prohibition movement started to pick up some serious steam in Covington and Newton County.
I believe we have covered most of the towns and counties that this publication covers. So starting with the next column, I'm going to concentrate more on historical people and events rather that geographical areas. Next column, I'm going to write about the tragedy that occurred in 1921 when eleven peons were killed by John Williams.