Every story has a hero that saves the day when it seems all hope is lost. For the beautiful town of Madison that hero was – and still is – Joshua Hill. Though outside our small community his name may have been lost in the history books, here his legend and his home still hold a prominent place in our hearts. As the most historically significant home in Madison, the Joshua Hill House stands as a reminder of the significant contributions this legend made to our community.
Joshua Hill’s stunning mansion sits prominently on its own block, leaving visitors in awe as they drive into town and even earning recognition from Southern Living magazine when it recently went up for sale. But Madison isn’t where this story begins. Joshua Hill was born in 1812 in Abbeville, South Carolina. He would go on to study and practice law in Monticello, Georgia. Eventually, he would marry and he and his wife, Nancy Ann Wyatt Collier, would move their family of four to Madison. There he found his community and the place he planned to spend the rest of his life.
With Hill’s legal experience, he was able to secure an election to the United States House of Representatives in 1857. Sadly, this was short lived due to the ever looming threats of secession by the state of Georgia. Hill himself was an outspoken opponent of secession and was said to have strong unionist principles. Despite this setback, Hill still had a bright future in politics. In 1864, as the Civil War reached Georgia’s doorstep, Hill was elected Mayor of Madison. It was during this time that the famed Atlanta Campaign was raging only miles away. Union General William Tecumsah Sherman was on his ‘March to the Sea.’ This military operation sought to frighten Georgia’s civilian population into abandoning the Confederate cause by burning the houses and barns of people who tried to fight back with soldiers also stealing food and livestock. Tragically, it was during this series of battles that Joshua Hill lost his only son.
When Hill went to receive his son’s body from the battle, he requested to meet with General Sherman. Since Hill was outspoken in his Unionist beliefs, many believe Sherman decided to spare the city as a gesture of goodwill and respect for Joshua Hill. However General Sherman actually never stepped foot in Madison. Instead it was General Slocum who lead the left wing through Madison and was known to adhere strictly to General Sherman’s Special Field Orders No. 120 that stated:
V. To army corps commanders alone is entrusted the power to destroy mills, houses, cotton-gins, &c., and for them this general principle is laid down: In districts and neighborhoods where the army is unmolested no destruction of such property should be permitted; but should guerrillas or bushwhackers molest our march, or should the inhabitants burn bridges, obstruct roads, or otherwise manifest local hostility, then army commanders should order and enforce a devastation more or less relentless according to the measure of such hostility.
Hill did ride outside of town to meet General Slocum and request that provost guards be stationed at houses to prevent looting, helping to save most of the town barring its cotton supplies and railroad station. This is where Hill gained the title of ‘The man who saved Madison from Sherman.’ He would then go on to win election to the United States Senate for Georgia in 1871 and would forever be known as Georgia’s first Republican Senator. When he stepped down from office in 1873, he would return to Madison and continue his law practice until his eventual death in 1891.
Built in 1842, the Joshua Hill home stands in the Madison Historic District. But in fact, Joshua Hill would not recognize the house as we see it today, as it owes much of its Neoclassical Revival splendor to a renovation done by W.W. Baldwin in 1917.
Madison is renowned for maintaining one of Georgia’s largest National Register Historic Places, and the impressive Madison Historic District includes the Victorian-era downtown encircled by antebellum, Victorian, and turn-of-the-century neighborhoods. Today, people from all over the world come to look upon the home of Joshua Hill and try to understand the immense amount of history that took place within those walls. The Joshua Hill house stands as a reminder that one man can truly make a difference in his city, state, and nation.