Jeremy Craig, 404-413-1357
ATLANTA — Digging in the grounds of a modern-day Atlanta suburb, Georgia State University’s Melissa Scharffenberg is on a mission to learn more about a small-town, humble hotel that for a brief moment, played an important role in Civil War history.
The GSU master’s student went to unearth the relics of the Lacy Hotel in Kennesaw to help researchers clue in on the people and events of an infamous hijacking of a locomotive near the inn.
She led students from Georgia State and Kennesaw State universities on the project, where they found ceramic, metal and glass artifacts, as well as bricks and coal from the old hotel.
The project stems from a fascination in history that she’s had for a long time, Scharffenberg said.
“There’s something about past cultures that really interest me, and I’ve always loved history,” she said. “But I’m more about working in the field and getting your hands dirty. Archaeology is perfect because it’s the combination of both things.
“This was the one thing that I know was right for me and that I wanted to do, and I just followed it ever since. It fits me, and it’s all I want to do,” she said.
Where the city of Kennesaw now stands, the Lacy Hotel served as a boarding house at a settlement along the Western and Atlantic Railroad, known as Big Shanty at the time.
With the secession of Georgia from the Union, the hotel was located across the street from the Confederate training camp known as Camp McDonald. Many visitors from the camp stayed there, including Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Georgia Governor Joseph Brown and Maj. Gen. Joseph Johnston. Confederate soldiers often dined at the hotel.
In 1862 the hotel served as the starting point in one of the most infamous events in Civil War history, once known as “the Great Locomotive Chase,” which would later be portrayed in film in the 20th century.
In an attempt to interfere with the Confederate rail supply network, Union soldiers stole a locomotive called “The General.”
“The Lacy Hotel was the starting point of the Great Locomotive Chase, which was one of the greatest events in Civil War history and it happened right here in Georgia,” Scharffenberg said. “Union spies hijacked the locomotive right when the conductor, William Fuller was eating breakfast at the hotel."
The hotel’s fate was sealed in 1864, when the Lacy family which ran the hotel was removed that June. The hotel was used as General Sherman’s headquarters during the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, an important point in the conflict that led to the eventual burning of Atlanta. The hotel itself was burned in November 1864.
“The sad thing is that not a lot of research has been done on this hotel, but it’s always been mentioned in Civil War history books,” Scharffenberg said. “I thought that this was a chance to learn more about this hotel that is only briefly mentioned.”
One of Scharffenberg’s goals was to help determine the location of the hotel by using a form of remote sensing to expose the burned foundations of the Lacy Hotel, a task achieved with the aid of a fellow graduate archaeology student from the University of Georgia.
From the artifacts she found, she’s also trying to tell their manufacturers, with whom the proprietors of the Lacy Hotel did business with, and how they did business — a task that’s not easy, given the short time frame of the hotel’s existence.
“The hotel was there for only five years, and this is a very short time when you’re performing an analysis on an archaeological dig,” she said. “I’m also relying on historical documents to help piece this puzzle together.”
Beyond the clues she’s discovered, Scharffenberg also said that she learned more about how to handle a team to achieve such a huge task in uncovering history.
“What’s it like to be on a dig? It’s crazy. I had never been a project manager on a dig before, and to have all of these people asking you where to go and what to do was a bit overwhelming,” she said. “But my advisor, Jeffrey Glover, was out there every day with me to help.
“It was quite an experience, but I know this will help prepare me for future digs, and I now know what to expect,” she added.
Scharffenberg’s project was aided by Glover, an assistant professor of archaeology, as well as the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History, in addition to the City of Kennesaw, students from GSU and KSU, and the University of Georgia.
Published Jan. 4, 2011