The history of Bethel Presbyterian is the history of the northwest Georgia mountains and the sturdy Scots Irish pioneers who settled so much of it. It is the story of the associated Armuchee Academy and the Reverend T.C. Crawford and the remarkable educational institution he built on the mountain back roads of Dirt Town. And finally it is the story of Bethel Yard, the beautiful and timeless burying ground of the Bethel community and her citizens. Bethel Presbyterian sits in a lovely rural setting in the north Georgia mountains, just as it has since it was built in 1847. In 1846 the local Presbyterians petitioned the Cherokee Presbytery to create their own church since the nearest was Pleasant Green Presbyterian on the other side of Taylor’s Ridge and this meant leaving home before daylight and returning after dark. The petition was approved and a log meeting house was constructed on land in the Dirt Town community that was donated by Augustus Bryant on lot 183 that he had acquired in the lottery.
On this gently sloping hillside was a graveyard already containing interments as early as 1838. This was the beginning of the lovely and historic Bethel Yard burying ground. It was also on this land that Reverend T. C. Crawford came to Dirt Town from North Carolina to open a school. He was a man of letters who had graduated from Davidson College as salutatorian and attended Columbia Theological Seminary. At Bethel, he established Armuchee Academy, the first high school in Chattooga County. Students came from as far away as Alabama and Tennessee. Both the school and the church prospered and in 1849 construction began on the clapboard structure you see above.
The history of Bethel Presbyterian is remarkable in many ways. Natural beauty notwithstanding, this land has seen much tragedy and hardship. The banishment of the Cherokees resulting in the “Trail of Tears” and the trials and tribulations of the Civil War years are good examples. Even though Bethel was remote and Chattooga County was spared any major battles, the Civil War came calling in many highly destructive forms. Several Confederate units were organized out of Chattooga county but the first was “The Chattooga Volunteers”, organized two months after the firing on Fort Sumter. Others soon followed as the war progressed and many sons of Bethel and Dirt Town answered the call. Of 291 documented interments, 27 are Civil War veterans. This is a remarkable concentration of Civil War service in one church community.
Rural church cemeteries tell us much about Georgia’s early pioneers, and the stories that arise from the old burying ground at Bethel are remarkable. Reverend T. C. Crawford, who built the church and the school into a place of educational excellence, lies here. Bethel Yard also tells the the story of the Millican boys, Lewis and P.B., both found on the Confederate Roll of Honor for battlefield gallantry, who paid the ultimate price at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. Here too lies the story of Cyrus Jenkins Vance, the family slave, who served with his master on many battlefields, was with him when he was wounded on two occasions – and ultimately at his deathbed. Cyrus continued to serve the remaining family all the way to Appomattox, finally returning home to live out his days on the original family farm. Here too lies one of the most brutal and tragic Civil War stories in the person of the McFadden brothers. It is the tale of bands of violent Confederate and Federal “scouts” who roamed the back roads of the mountains preying on friend and foe alike, with no civil authority to do so. The brothers are tragically murdered by the Long-Roberts gang who hunted down Confederate soldiers and sympathizers, leaving a brutal trail of violence across the northwest Georgia mountains.
Sources for our commentary come from various county sources and newspaper articles but the primary source is Bethel Presbyterian Church – Dirt Town, Chattooga County, Georgia by Thomas Weaver Weesner.
Imagine traveling down an old road and coming across this remarkable church… in the middle of nowhere! We were told it was there, but had no idea of what a jewel we would find. Yes, it is basically the single gable, rectangular box structure common throughout most of the 19th century. But this one is different. The wide frieze board is punctuated by handsome brackets mounted in pairs along the north and south walls that align with and thus express the window openings. The construction date (1847) is interesting in that architectural styles were beginning to converge, i.e. Classical Revival and Picturesque. In this transitional period, more embellishment and decoration began to appear. Even more telling, this is a Presbyterian, not Baptist or Methodist church. This denomination was more inclined to accept decorative and architectural elements. Bethel stands out not only as architecturally significant but it also has to be one of the most historically noteworthy churches in north Georgia.
The heartwarming view from the pulpit… through the sanctuary and out the bright front door... does not appropriately reflect the truth of this old treasure's present situation. In fact, the congregation shrunk to less than five members a few years ago. A decision to shut down Bethel Presbyterian was made at that time. There are no longer any services… not even once a year.
The Reverend T.C. Crawford is interred in the Bethel graveyard and is still revered by the local community. Rev Crawford served the community for 38 years beginning in 1847, shortly after the church was formed and ending with his death in 1885 as a result of an accident in a lumber mill that he owned. According to a newspaper article written in 1929, T. C. Crawford was a "Great and Noble man. As a result of the church and school in this community there have gone out 14 ministers of the gospel, 14 doctors of medicine, two foreign missionaries, more than a hundred school teachers, five state senators, five representatives to the Georgia legislature, one superior court judge and hundreds of good moral Christian men and women in the business world". Not bad for a little church school in the mountains with no electricity, or running water.
This photograph was made possible by the few remaining stewards of Bethel who were willing to open her doors and let the sun shine in for pictures. In this black and white format, the authentic character of Bethel's sanctuary, even today, is easily observable and appreciated. Wide horizontal, original wall boards, ancient pews and the simplicity of the sanctuary come shining through.
The graveyard at Bethel is one of the most picturesque cemeteries in the Georgia high country. It has many stories to tell as you will see on the following pages. This part of Georgia was subject to many deprivations during the Civil War and, of 126 total interments in this burial ground, 27 of them are Civil War veterans. One must keep in mind that, for the most part, these are the ones that survived the war. Suffice it to say that many citizens of Bethel Church and Chattooga County answered the call and paid the price. Two of these were Lewis J. Millican and P. B. Millican, both of whom are listed on the Confederate Roll of Honor, an award given for gallantry on the field of battle. Lewis was a 32 year old farmer from Dirt Town who was killed at the Battle of Chancellorsville. His family was able to recover the body somehow and he is buried here at Bethel. P.B. Millican's award was given for his role at Gettysburg where he lies in an unmarked grave. For more in formation about the Roll of Honor click here. For a complete documentation of Bethel interments click here.
From several Chattooga County sources - Cyrus Jenkins Jones was a slave that was owned by the John Jones family of the Dirt Town region of Chattooga County. Three of John's sons (William, John and Jim) served with Co B in the 9th Ga Infantry. William was the oldest and was elected Captain when he and his brother John enlisted on June 12, 1861. Brother Jim also served with Co B but was not able to enlist until 1863. As the two brothers marched off to war, the family assigned "Uncle Cyrus" to accompany William as his body servant, a common practice at the time. Captain Jones and Cyrus participated in many campaigns with the Army of Northern Virginia until Captain Jones (now Major) was wounded at Gettysburg on July 2. Cyrus was by his side and helped remove him from the field, where he began his recuperation and was able to rejoin his regiment some time later. However on May 12, 1864 Major Jones was wounded again at Spotsylvania and removed to a hospital in Richmond. As surgeons tried to repair a shattered pelvic bone, Major Jones bolted upwards during the surgery, resulting in further damage. Cyrus was constantly by his master's side until the end when the Major mercifully died on October 26 and was buried in Hollywood Cemetery. Cyrus, then made his way back to the 9th Ga and served the remaining family until the end at Appomattox. It took Cyrus ten days to make it back to the family farm where the now freed slave was welcomed home. He lived in his small cabin on the family farm until his death in 1916. The above headstone is that of William's brother John who died in 1909.
In this part of Georgia, slavery was certainly present but, due to the nature of the soil, it was not on the scale required by the plantation system. As a result, the question of secession was more of an issue and many in the upcountry were opposed to it. During the latter part of the war, renegade "scouts" representing both sides were roaming the hills at will with little or no official sanction. Much violence and lawless acts were committed by both sides. The most prominent southern manifestation of this development was a band of guerrillas under the leadership of John Gatewood, an illiterate mountain man from White County Tennessee. The Union counterpart to Gatewood's "scouts", and its bitter rival, was a group known at the John Long - Sam Roberts gang. Ernest ( another account says Emmet) and Christopher McSpadden were brothers who were born and raised in nearby Walker County and had answered the call early in the war. Late in the war, in March of 1865, they were detached from their earlier units and were close to their Walker County home. One of the brothers had became ill and was taken to his mother's house in Walker county by his brother to recuperate. Word soon reached them that the Long - Roberts gang knew they were there and were on the way to capture or kill them. As a precaution, the brothers relocated to another house in Dirt Town in nearby Chattooga County. The Long - Roberts gang soon found them. In the ensuing shoot out, one of the brothers was shot on the porch defending his sick brother within. The gang soon forced entry and finished off the remaining brother in brutal fashion. And it gets worse - the story then goes that Rev T. C. Crawford learned of their deaths and sent one of his slaves to dig a grave for them at the Bethel cemetery. The story also says that the Long - Roberts gang prevented the slave from finishing the grave under a death threat, but Rev. Crawford then arrived on the scene with the bodies on a wagon and persuaded the gang to let the brothers be buried at Bethel. We have seen several versions of this sad affair regarding the details, but the basic facts are the brothers were killed by the Long - Roberts gang and buried at Bethel. A sad tale from the crypt but an example of the times in a land that had been devastated by the conflict.
From a poem on the Bethel church wall In this quiet city of the dead Lie faithful women, men well - read Who bravely fought for truth and right And gallantly they won their fight Ere they went down. The stone wall may crumble and decay, But the influence of these who went away Will never die, although they lie In Bethel Yard. Sleep on ye brave; nor heed the strife And fury of the modern life' The Sabbath breaker or infidel Shall wake you not, for all is well. Sleep peacefully, for all is well; Your flaming torch aloft we bear. With burning heart and vow we swear To keep the faith and fight it through, To crush the foe, then sleep with you In Bethel Yard
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