ATLANTA - The Civil War brought hard times to Georgia, with Union troops torching Atlanta and cutting a swath of destruction through the state before delivering Savannah to President Abraham Lincoln as an early Christmas gift on Dec. 22, 1864.
Nearly a century and a half later, state leaders are hoping Georgia's role in the epic conflict will have a much different impact - drawing in millions of tourism dollars by promoting its Civil War-era sites.
With the 150th anniversary of the war's start approaching in 2011, Gov. Sonny Perdue wants to spend $5 million in this year's state budget to refurbish significant sites and begin linking and promoting them as a comprehensive "heritage tourism" package.
"We have the opportunity now to really take a step back and look at it from a variety of perspectives and tell a complete story that really helps define where we have been and where we are as a people," said Dan Rowe, deputy tourism commissioner with the state Department of Economic Development.
Georgia is home to some key wartime locales - from northwest Georgia's Chickamauga Battlefield, site of the last major Confederate victory and the war's second-bloodiest battle, to coastal Fort McAllister, the end of Gen. William T. Sherman's March to the Sea.
Other important sites include First African Baptist Church in Savannah, a crucial spot on the Underground Railroad that shepherded slaves to freedom, and the Andersonville National Historic Site, where as many as 33,000 Union captives were held in a prisoner of war camp.
"There are enthusiasts and historians who come from all over the country and from foreign countries to visit these sites," said Dan McLagan, a spokesman for Perdue. "If we make them more accessible and enhance the visitor experience, we'll bring in more visitors and those visitors will spend more money."
Perdue unveiled the plan in his annual State of the State address in January, saying heritage tourists "spend an average of 30 percent more per trip than average travelers, and we want them to come to Georgia."
The largest part of the project, which likely will be approved by the state Legislature this year, would be developing the battlefield site at Resaca, in northwest Georgia.
Perched yards from Interstate 75 in Gordon County, Resaca was the site of the first battle in Sherman's Atlanta campaign, but is undeveloped as a state or national park, like other battlefields. Right now, it's just 570 acres made up of woods and a field.
While planning is still in its early stages, the site likely will have interpretive walking trails and a visitors center housing computer interpretations of the battle, said David Freedman, a chief engineer for the state and lead architect on the project.
The Resaca site might also include computer archives that would let visitors look up their ancestors and other soldiers who fought in the battle.
Rowe said that including a focus on slavery and the lives of free blacks, state politics and civilian life - along with the more traditional battlefield sites - will be crucial to the state's plans.
The network could include the Tubman African-American Museum in Macon, named for Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman, and the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Ga., where displays include an exhibit on the role of freed slaves and other blacks, who made up 15 percent of the Union navy.
Kennesaw Mountain, a national battlefield park, is another important site. Heavy fighting occurred there in 1864, resulting in the deaths of more than 5,000 soldiers.
The state has reached out to colleges and universities, the Georgia Historical Society and other groups for help telling all aspects of Georgia's story.
And Rowe was in Washington D.C., last week meeting with national tourism directors, in part, about Civil War tourism plans.
"Part of what we need to do is reach beyond just the Civil War buffs - to be able to tell the story in a compelling way to a much broader audience and get them interested," he said.
He'll be pushing stories like that of St. Stephens Episcopal Church in Milledgeville, where visitor can see the hoof prints left by horses stabled there by Union troops and the organ given to the church by a New Yorker after learning Union soldiers poured molasses into the pipes of the old one.
"When you hear those stories, you can't help but say, ‘Next time I'm in Milledgeville, I want to go to that church,'" Rowe said.