Digital Library of Georgia > Samuel Hugh Hawkins Diary, January - July 1877

Samuel H. Hawkins Diary
Historical Note

The Samuel Hugh Hawkins Diary describes his experiences as a lawyer, banker, and active citizen of Americus, Georgia, from January through July 1877. Although the diary focuses on Hawkins' professional and community life, it also provides insights into many aspects of Georgia life in the important year of 1877, which historians generally acknowledge as the end of Reconstruction. These experiences set the stage for Hawkins' later fame as a prominent railroad builder of the late nineteenth century. In 1996, State Senator George Hooks donated the Hawkins diary to the Lake Blackshear Regional Library in Americus, Sumter County, Georgia.

FAMILY BACKGROUND AND EARLY LIFE

Samuel Hugh Hawkins was born January 10, 1835, near Clinton, Jones County, Georgia. He was the third son of Ezekiel and Nancy (McKay) Hawkins. In 1847, he moved with his parents to Sumter County. He attended school at Magnolia Springs and assisted his father in managing the family's cotton plantation.

However, Hawkins soon developed an interest in the law, which he studied with attorneys Ingram, Crawford and Tussell in Columbus. He was admitted to Georgia Bar in 1857 and subsequently began his long and successful law practice.

Hawkins married Cordelia Matthews (daughter of planter William Matthews of Marion County) on July 18, 1860. They had eight children: four girls and four boys (the birth of the one of the sons is mentioned in the diary entry for June 8).

CIVIL WAR EXPERIENCE

As with many people of his generation, Hawkins' life was directly affected by the Civil War. He served as a lieutenant in the Georgia Cavalry, Second Regiment, Company G. The Second Georgia Calvary Regiment was assembled at Albany, Georgia, in February 1862, and company G was organized at Griffin, Georgia, in April 1862. The regiment mustered into Confederate service for three years on May 7, 1862. Company G served as escort to Major General Benjamin F. Cheetham from September 14, 1862, to April 26, 1865.

The Second Calvary Regiment moved to Chattanooga and was involved in Tennessee skirmishes. Then the regiment was placed in the Brigade of Forrest, Wharton, J. J. Morrison, Iverson and C. C. Crews. It participated in the conflicts at Perryville, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, Philadelphia, Campbell's Station, Bean's Station, and Mossy Creek. Later the regiment was involved in the Atlanta campaign, the defense of Savannah, and the Carolinas campaign.

LAWYER, BANKER, AND CITIZEN

After the war, Hawkins returned to the practice of law. Along with Dupont Guerry and B. P. Hollis, he formed the law firm of Hawkins, Guerry and Hollis, which represented various important interests.

In addition to his law practice, Hawkins began a long career as a banker and civic-minded citizen. The Bank of Americus was incorporated on October 26, 1870, with Hawkins as one of the directors. The Board of Education for the City of Americus was incorporated February 13, 1873, with Hawkins serving as a board member. Hawkins was also involved in the Gas Light Company of Americus which was incorporated February 27, 1875.

THE DIARY OF 1877

The Hawkins diary covers an approximate six month period running from January 1 through July 2, 1877. Hawkins, as a literate professional of his time and place, provides a snapshot of daily life in Americus as seen through the eyes of a banker, lawyer, and citizen. Many entries provide straightforward descriptions of fairly mundane occurrences, while some entries reveal his pride in civic progress or his irritation with unfavorable events, and occasionally his more expressive entries respond to emotionally charged events such as death. Although the diary usually focuses on local events, some entries speak to larger state, regional, and national issues. Indeed, Hawkins wrote at a critical point in national history -- 1877 is generally considered the official end of Reconstruction by historians, although in Georgia some aspects of the transition occurred several years earlier -- and his diary provides insights into this important period.

Banking and Law

Given the fact that Hawkins had attained considerable professional success as a lawyer and banker by 1877, it is not surprising to find that most of the diary entries mention his legal work (sometimes involving civil trial cases, but often land ownership transfers and other such transactions) and his leading role at the Bank of Americus (which had been incorporated in 1870). In fact, the first and last entries in the diary are about banking operations.

The diary makes few references to legal proceedings involving criminal cases. However, Hawkins does mention the arrest (April 17) of a black murder suspect who narrowly avoided being lynched, followed by his murder trial (April 20) during which the jury was selected, trial conducted, guilty verdict rendered, and sentence to hanging all occurred within a single day. The tone of these entries seems to reflect the racial tensions of the period.

Agriculture

Many diary entries speak to Hawkins ongoing interest in farming and related business pursuits, in recognition of the supreme importance of agriculture to the local economy of Americus in the 19th century. Cotton, of course, remained the major focus of agricultural activity, and Hawkins often refers to the growing of cotton as well as the business aspects of the cotton economy. For example, in the April 7 diary entry, he mentions his purchase (along with other associates) of the rights to make and sell the Bell Cultivator for cotton farming in his local five county region. As the January 6 entry suggests, cotton farmers were often keenly aware of external events that might affect their profits - Hawkins mentions that cotton prices have been affected by ". . . early adjustment of the Eastern war question between Russia & Turkey."

Despite the dominance of the cotton monoculture, however, the Hawkins diary reveals the importance of many other types of crops. He mentions his own planting of potatoes (February 13), planting/grafting of pears, apples, peaches, grapes (March 14), harvesting of apples (several entries in June), and planting of millet (June 24).

Hawkins mentions several meetings of local agricultural and horticultural societies, and describes at length his visit to the Agricultural Convention in Milledgeville on March 6, 7 and 8.

Hawkins numerous entries about agricultural fairs indicate how important they were as practical venues for farmers to show off their accomplishments, to learn new methods, and to socialize. Hawkins contributed a great deal of effort to establishing the Americus Fair Association: his entries describe the Association's charter (April 17), organizing efforts (May 15), printing circulars (June 1), visits to potential sites for the "Park & Fair ground" (June 5-11), the taking of subscriptions to raise money for the fair site when the City Council backed out of its previously commitment (June 11), and the meeting of Association stock holders to elect officers (July 1).

Some of the agricultural events mentioned by Hawkins seem to reflect the socio-economic changes of the Reconstruction period and the racial tensions that accompanied them. Diary entries for February 17-19 and March 24-27 describe "emigrant agents" who recruit black laborers for work elsewhere (mainly Louisiana), thus depleting the local labor supply, and the attempts to stop those agents.

Farmers are always keenly aware of weather, so it is with some amazement that Hawkins reports on the unusual event of April 8 during which it rained sea birds and grasshoppers!

Politics and Reconstruction

Several diary entries report and comment upon local political issues and developments. For example, the January 4 entry provides detailed results of the election for county officials. The April 7, May 5, and May 19 entries describe the process by which delegates to the Constitutional Convention were selected.

On a more national level, students of presidential history will enjoy Hawkins' coverage of the Hayes-Tilden presidential election controversy (as described in several entries from February 10 through 22). Today's readers may be intrigued by the eerie similarities to a more recent presidential election (e.g., disputed votes in southern states, the election finally decided after months of controversy by the Supreme Court, the winning candidate Hayes having more electoral votes but fewer popular votes than opponent Tilden).

Hawkins also comments (April 4 entry) on President Hayes ordering of Federal troops from the South Carolina State House -- this event marked the official end of political Reconstruction in the United States.

Religious and Social Activities

The diary includes many entries about Hawkins' involvement in the Baptist Church and the religious life of the Americus community. He was involved in that church in various roles for nearly fifty years. The entries often provide Hawkins' opinions about various topics covered in the sermons he heard.

Hawkins was also an active participant and supporter of social activities in the Americus area. The diary mentions a Sunday School picnic in Macon (May 11), a barbecue at Saddler's Mill in Lee County (May 16), and a ladies festival in Americus (May 25).

RAILROAD BUILDER

Today Hawkins is remembered mostly for his achievements as a major railroad developer of Georgia. His previous experiences as a lawyer, banker, and civic leader -- as demonstrated in his diary -- prepared him well for more ambitious endeavors, especially his highly successful railroad development efforts. Hawkins got into the railroad business as a result of his attempt to counteract the discriminatory freight rates of the Central of Georgia Railroad (which had leased the only trackage through Americus from the South Western Railroad in 1869). Hawkins and other Americus businessmen first tried to offset Central's monopolistic practices by advocating the creation of a railroad commission -- to which the Central reacted by attempting to divert rail traffic away from Americus. The Americus group realized that they would have to construct their own railroad in order to retain Americus' prominent position in the region's commerce.

Thus Hawkins and other Americus investors established the Americus, Preston and Lumpkin Railroad, originally chartered in 1884 to run from Americus westward through Preston (in Webster County) to Lumpkin (in Stewart County). This narrow gauge railroad is said to be the only railroad in Georgia to be constructed exclusively using only local capital. In 1886 the charter was amended to authorize extending the line northward from Lumpkin to Louvale and eastward from Americus to Abbeville on the Ocmulgee River. Because Abbeville provided access to a navigable river, the company was then able to operate steamboats from there to Savannah and Brunswick.

In 1888 the company decided to extend the line so as to establish a direct rail route between Savannah and Montgomery (Alabama), and the name was officially changed to the Savannah, Americus & Montgomery Railway, often abbreviated to SAM. This ambitious program involved upgrading the original narrow gauge (3') track to standard gauge (4' 8.5"), construction of a bridge over the Chattahoochee River, construction of additional trackage, and arranging for trackage rights into Savannah. When completed the railroad covered 340 miles. The railroad's economic impact was quickly felt in the rural areas east and west of Americus, including the creation of several new towns, some of which were named by Hawkins himself after family members or places he had visited in Europe.

As a result of this major expansion, SAM was expected to become a major mineral carrier from Alabama mines to the port of Savannah. Unfortunately, the boom went bust in the depression the early 1890s, and the railroad entered receivership, to be sold in 1895 to John Skelton Williams of Richmond, Virginia. Williams reorganized SAM as the Georgia & Alabama Railway, which became a part of the Seaboard Air Line Railway in 1900. Further mergers produced the Seaboard Coast Line in 1967 and the CSX in 1980. The railroad was later transferred to a shortline holding company in 1989. Threatened with abandonment, the line was purchased by the Georgia Department of Transportation and operated by the Heart of Georgia Railroad Inc. A tourism-oriented version of the old railroad resurrected the SAM name when it began operations in 2002.

LATER LIFE

The early 1890s depression nearly wiped out Hawkins' assets, but he rallied and sought out new fields to pursue. In 1895 Hawkins bought several thousand acres of forested land in Clinch County, and eventually succeeded in rebuilding his wealth through the highly successful timber industry.

Hawkins died May 26, 1905, at age 71. His considerable legacy to Americus and the history of Georgia continues to be appreciated today.

Edward A. Johnson



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