Vistors to any of this Georgia community's stately pre-Civil War homes are not likely to find a portrait of the late Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman hanging over the hearth.

But even though Sherman does not occupy a tender spot in the hearts of Madisonians, he is one Yankee who is not "damned" either. Atlantans who live 65 miles west of here jokingly credit Sherman for inspiring an "urban renewal project" after his Union Army troops burned their city in 1864, but residents of Madison are forever grateful that he became something of a historic preservationist when he arrived here months later.

In fact, if Sherman had not been so charitable during his decisive march to the sea through Georgia, hundreds of Madisonians would not be living in authentic antebellum splendor.

Civic boosters like to call it "The Town Sherman Refused to Burn," but it also is true that Madison's stately homes would have been rubble if the town had not had friends in high places who were chummy with Sherman and "the other side."

Atlanta, of course, was not so lucky. It was the railroad hub, the arms heartbeat of the Confederacy. Knock out Atlanta and the Southern war effort would be would be all but dead. Nobody knew it better than Sherman.

Starting in July, his torch-throwing solders reduced 3,600 Atlanta homes to ashes and charred stumps of chimneys. Throughout Georgia, they set fire to plantaions, slaughtered cattle and turned the rails into twisted, molten steel. They occupied Atlanta for two months. Only a few churches, a medical college and about 400 homes were saved.

In contrast, Madison's homes did not go up in smoke when Sherman's men arrived there that November, thanks to some friendly persuasion and shrewd politicking. They escaped being casualties of Sherman's scorched-earth campaign, which blazed a swath through towns and plantations in central and southeastern Georgia before his troops finally occupied Savannah, on the east coast, four days before Christmas.

Tourists and Atlanta conventioners have come here from places all over the nation, as well as England, Mexico, Norway, Germany and Australia. They admire the homes that make up one of the south's largest listings on the National Register of Historic Places. "We're rogressive," Frankie Cartwright, a community leader, said as she escorted visitors past dozens of exquisite old homes, which sit back from narrow streets on expansive lawns sheltered by oaks and magnolias. "We like what we have and know what we have -- and we want to preserve it,"

A local politician of the time, U.S. Sen. Joshua Hill, is credited as much as Sherman for sparing the homes (but not the train depot, a cotton gin and a clothing factory).

Hill had aroused the wrath of the townfolk for being unsympathetic to the Confederate cause and to Georgia's fight for secession. But he had a friend in Washington, Sen. John Sherman, an Ohio Republican who was Gen. Sherman's brother.

As the general approached Madison after having burned Atlanta, the story goes, Hill moved down the road and they exchanged cordialities. Joining Hill was another prominent Madison resident, George Jessup, who is said to have known Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Sherman listened to their pleas to save the homes and then ordered one of his division commanders, Gen. Henry Slocum, to refrain from burning them.

When Slocum's troops marched up Dixie Avenue, one homeowner, W. R. Bennett, had not heard about Sherman's orders. He feard the worst. So he decided to fight fire with Southern hospitality. He hosted a front-lawn picnic of fried chicken and cornbread, which the Yankees cheerfully ate before moving on.

Hill's house (built about 1840), with its white Doric columns, also was spared, as were an estimated 34 others, many of which today are elegantly preserved.

Unlike other Southern historic communities such as Charleston, S.C.; Savannah, Ga., and Williamsburg, Va., Madison does not try to capitalize commercially on its antiquity.

It prefers to remain small (pop. 3,500), quiet and untrampled by tourists. Impromptu vistors are sometimes disappointed to learn that tours of homes are available only at certain times, often by appointment only.

Even without its antebellum homes however, Madison is a community with gingerbread charm. The town square has well-scrubbed, sprightly storefronts and a turn-of-the-century courthouse. A red brick schoolhouse built in 1895 is maintained as a museum by the Madison-morgan County Cultural Center, where actors and musicians hold court in the auditoruim. A classroom is authentically restored with original slate blackboards, inkwell desks and portrait of George Washington.

But Madison's pride is its home, some of which repose along what was once the stagecoach route from Charleston to New Orleans.