Alfred Austell has a unique distinction unheard of in today’s hyper-partisan environment.
Both the Republican president of the United States and the Democratic Party of Georgia recruited him to serve as the governor of Georgia.
This was in 1865, but still pretty remarkable.
Following the Civil War, Union authorities arrested Georgia Gov. Joseph E. Brown, who resigned from his office. The president of the United States, Republican Andrew Johnson, reached out to the prominent Atlantan to see if he would serve as the provisional governor until the state could hold an election.
Later, the state’s Democratic convention also asked Austell to be their candidate for governor.
Austell, a banker, financier, railroad builder and merchant, declined both, arguing he could better serve Georgians’ interest by getting back to work on his various business concerns. These included establishing the first national bank in the South following the war and operating one of the country’s largest cotton brokerages.
Truth be told, he had gone broke during the war and needed to refill his coffers.
I tell this story about my great-great-great grandad this week because the United States voted in the presidential election Nov. 3. I am slightly distracted by the national goings-on, but I’ve never missed a deadline, or taken a week off. So, I thought I would dole out some interesting presidential tidbits related to our community.
It turns out, in the case of Austell, Johnson didn’t reach out to just any old Atlantan. Austell came to the area from east Tennessee. He was a planter’s son who left the plantation to seek his own fortune.
Johnson, the 17th president of the United States who became the commander-in-chief after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, also hailed from east Tennessee. The Johnsons and the Austells were acquainted with one other before each rose to national prominence.
Five of the six presidents who followed Johnson were Union veterans of the Civil War. Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley all served their country during the War Between the States.
Only Grover Cleveland did not, and that is because he paid a man $300 to replace him in the draft.
Benjamin Harrison fought at the Battle of Peachtree Creek, which took place in Buckhead. A lawyer and politician when the Civil War broke out, he commanded infantry units from Illinois, Ohio and Indiana. His men fought at Resaca, Cassville, New Hope Church, Lost Mountain and Kennesaw Mountain.
On July 20, 1864, the Battle of Peachtree Creek raged from Howell Mill to Brookwood Hills along present-day Collier Road. The battlefield held an important place in the heart and mind of the president. When he visited the Gate City in 1891, he made the trip north on Peachtree Street.
The president stepped out of his carriage near Samuel Walker’s mill and walked about a quarter of a mile up a dirt road. He surveyed what is today Piedmont Park from roughly the location of the Piedmont Driving Club.
It was not where the famous battle happened, but no one corrected him.
It must have been odd to see the United States President walking up a country road in a natty suit.
Seeing a future president cross West Paces Ferry Road in Buckhead in shorts with his daughter on his shoulders was more of a regular occurrence.
That would be future President Jimmy Carter and his daughter Amy.
Before he made it to the White House, Carter served as the governor of Georgia. He and his wife Rosalynn resided in the Governor’s Mansion in Buckhead, a large red brick home on West Paces Ferry, surrounded on all sides by enormous white columns.
While it was a grand estate, it lacked something every child in Georgia needs during the summer months: a swimming pool. Carter worked out a deal with his across-the-street neighbor, Ann Cox Chambers.
Her family was welcome to use the tennis court at the Governor’s Mansion if he could teach his daughter to swim in her pool. Being the modest man from Plains, he eschewed the security detail and walked across the street when it was time for a swim.