Construction on the mill began in 1836 and the first cloth was produced before the Indians were forced west on the Cherokee Trail of Tears. The mill was incorporated in 1839, and at about this time "The Bricks" were built to house some of the mill employees.
Despite the economic downturn after the Panic of 1837, the mill continued to operate. Barrington King, Roswell's son, expanded the operation with other water-powered businesses including a grist mill, carding shop (where wool was processed), and a saw mill.
When the war began Roswell Mill produced the famous "Roswell Gray" that is so closely associated with the Rebel troops. During the Atlanta Campaign, Roswell Mill was a major target for William Tecumseh Sherman's forces. He ordered Brigadier General Kennar Garrard to advance and take the mill and attempt to secure the bridge across the Chattahoochee River south of the mill.
In July 1864 during the Atlanta campaign General William T. Sherman ordered the approximately 400 Roswell mill workers, mostly women, arrested as traitors and shipped as prisoners to the North with their children. There is little evidence that more than a few of the women ever returned home.
As the Union forces approached Atlanta in the early summer of 1864, almost all the members of the founding families of Roswell—aristocrats from the Georgia coast, most of them owners and/or stockholders of the Roswell Manufacturing Company mills—had fled. The remaining residents were mostly the mill workers and their families. The two cotton mills and a woolen mill continued to operate, producing cloth for Confederate uniforms and other much-needed military supplies, such as rope, canvas, and tent cloth.
On July 5, seeking a way to cross the Chattahoochee River and gain access to Atlanta, Brigadier General Kenner Garrard's cavalry began the Union's twelve-day occupation of Roswell, which was undefended. The next day Garrard reported to Sherman that he had discovered the mills in full operation and had proceeded to destroy them, and that about 400 women had been employed in the mills. On July 7 Sherman replied that the destruction of the mills "meets my entire approval." He ordered that the owners and employees be arrested and charged with treason, elaborating, "I repeat my orders that you arrest all people, male and female, connected with those factories, no matter what the clamor, and let them foot it, under guard, to Marietta, whence I will send them by [railroad] cars, to the North. . . . Let them [the women] take along their children and clothing, providing they have a means of hauling or you can spare them."
The women, their children, and the few men, most either too young or too old to fight, were transported by wagon to Marietta and imprisoned in the Georgia Military Institute, by then abandoned. Then, with several days' rations, they were loaded in boxcars that proceeded through Chattanooga, Tennessee, and after a stopover in Nashville, Tennessee, headed to Louisville, Kentucky, the final destination for many of the mill workers. Others were sent across the Ohio River to Indiana.
First housed and fed in a Louisville refugee hospital, the women later took what menial jobs and living arrangements could be found. Those in Indiana struggled to survive, many settling near the river, where eventually mills provided employment. Unless husbands had been transported with the women or had been imprisoned nearby, there was little probability of a return to Roswell, so the remaining women began to marry and bear children.
The tragedy, widely publicized at the time, with outrage expressed in northern as well as southern presses, was virtually forgotten over the next century. Only in the 1980s did a few writers begin to research and tell the story. Even then, the individual identities and fates of the women remained unknown.
After the war portions of the original mill were rebuilt. In 1872 a new mill wheel was added, but it was difficult to rely on water power. In 1897 the mill wheel was replaced with a wood-fired steam generator, and in 1947 the mill was purchased by Southern Mills, who updated the buildings and began to purchase electricity from Georgia Power. The mill produced its final bolt of cotton cloth in 1975. It was a victim of foreign competition.