Marcus Tullius Cicero famously stated: “In times of war, the law falls silent.” This observation, made by Cicero more than 2,000 years ago, rested on his experience during the end of the Roman Republic, and the civil wars that brought it down. He saw firsthand that war provides ample opportunity for politically motivated mob violence, as partisan leaders in the senate were supported by armed gangs.
Civil wars birth mob violence, as it is all too easy to accuse the opposition of treason, which always has been (and likely always will be) a capital offense. The American Civil War is no exception, and it is entangled with Cherokee County’s history.
In Georgia, the vote on the Ordinance of Secession passed with 70% of delegates approving, but virtually all of the votes against were by delegates from northern counties. Cherokee County cast all three of its votes for secession. Notably, Gov. Joseph Emerson Brown, an ardent secessionist, was from Canton. In contrast, Pickens County voted unanimously against secession.
Regardless of which of the 33 states you resided in during this time, you had neighbors who agreed with you and others who did not. In the minds of Unionists and Confederates, those with an opposing view could be seen as treasonous, and that is where the life of Lt. Col. Benjamin McCollum went awry.
McCollum, the son of a prominent Canton family, was in his late teens when he and his brother Robert found themselves privates in the Confederate Army. By all accounts, Benjamin served quite honorably, seeing action at major battles, including Gettysburg, and rising to the rank of captain. Robert was injured in 1864, and it’s thought that Benjamin brought him home.
Once here, the governor promoted Benjamin to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Brown believed in states’ rights, and he also believed that local troops should be used only for the defense of Georgia. The war was raging in Georgia at the time — Atlanta fell to Gen. William T. Sherman in the summer of 1864 — so Brown authorized McCollum to form McCollum’s Scouts.
These “scouts” were formed to exist as a guerrilla group within the citizenry, and were charged to ensure locals didn’t assist Sherman’s men with information or provision. As much of North Georgia hadn’t been in favor of secession to begin with, and many still were vocal in the opposition to the war, McCollum’s Scouts were to make clear to everyone that supporting the Union was considered treasonous, and they would be dealt with violently. The scouts weren’t the only group; another organized by Benjamin Jordan, also a returning soldier, was known as the Cherokee Scouts. And, in keeping with Cicero’s observation, there was nothing similar to due process involved. If word came to them that someone had supported Sherman’s men, they were caught, then shot or hanged.
Larry Cavender’s “Patchwork Quilt” book series on the history of Cherokee and nearby counties has much more detailed information on these bands, and almost all of what I include here comes directly from his work. Among other specific events, Cavender relates the unfortunate story of Andrew Jones in November 1864.
Approached by two men asking for food and shelter, Jones fed them and allowed them to spend one night on his porch. As it turns out, the men were Confederate Army deserters. When McCollum learned of the assistance given by Jones (it isn’t clear whether or not Jones knew who they were), Jones was captured and taken away from his property. His family learned three days later that he’d been taken south of Canton, and hung alongside the Etowah River. A daughter and daughter-in-law carted the body back for burial. (After the war ended, McCollum eventually was indicted in Pickens County for murdering Jones, but he never stood trial.)
Later that month, Sherman sent soldiers to burn down Canton, an act which an Augusta newspaper reported “was done in retaliation for the hanging of some Tories in that section by our Scouts.”
As always in civil wars, one man’s traitor is another man’s hero. And, when the war ends, the viewpoint of the victor often is the one that carries the force of law. As such, in 1873 men from Pickens County came to Cherokee and arrested McCollum for Jones’ hanging. On their way back to Pickens, McCollum attacked one of the men with a knife and escaped unhurt. He left the area, became an attorney and eventually wound up in Hampton. During this time, he had several run-ins with others. And, in 1880, an encounter with a deputy sheriff proved fatal.
By then, McCollum was married, with four children. His family rushed to the scene, only to find him dead. After surviving battles from 1861 to 1864, a bullet finally caught up to him.
If Cicero’s quote captured the essence of Ben McCollum’s life, then another man living less than 100 years after Cicero may have captured the essence of McCollum’s passing: “Then Jesus said unto him, put up again thy sword into his place; for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” — Matthew 26:52
McCollum’s wife remarried. His daughter, Evelyn, who’d been born in Holly Springs and was around 10 when her father died, achieved a certain notoriety herself after marriage to her second husband. He was a football coach, a man named John Heisman … but that is another story, for another time.
– The Wanderer has been a resident of Cherokee County for nearly 20 years, and constantly is learning about his community on daily walks, which totaled a little more than 1,800 miles in 2021. Send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.