Atlanta Was Destroyed to Save the Union
Only after the Confederates surrendered Atlanta 150 years ago did Americans know that the Union would be preserved.
Many of us have tired of the blizzard of histories marking the sesquicentennial of the first years of the American Civil War. In this, we can sympathize a little with our ancestors 150 years ago—except that they were living through what seemed like a never-ending nightmare of war.
A deep weariness afflicted Americans by the summer of 1864. Since the first shots at Bull Run, the unfathomable piling up of the dead at Antietam, Chancellorsville, Chickamauga, and nearly a hundred other murderous engagements through to the high tide of the Confederacy at Gettysburg, had brought only blood, dissent, taxes, and tears. After the losses that left virtually no American family untouched, the outcome of the war remained uncertain. The only certainty was that the South was intent on winning the war by not losing it; Confederate supporters expected an exhausted North would soon negotiate the slave states’ independence. Continued stalemate smacked of secessionist triumph.
Everything changed literally overnight between September 1 and 2, 1864. When Atlanta fell to its Union attackers, Americans in both the North and South were finally convinced that the end of the fighting was within sight. Like Americans then, we, too, should remember the day when Atlanta fell, for its surrender marked the new birth of a united nation. It also presaged Atlanta’s rise as the capital city of what would eventually be known as the New South.
Few could have predicted Atlanta’s significance before the Civil War began. Few people outside Georgia had even heard of the regional railroad junction town before the start of the war. By the end of the second year of the Civil War, though, The New York Times reported Atlanta had become a new center of gravity in the rebellious states, heart to Confederate Capital Richmond’s brain. “Atlanta,” explained the Times, “is really the heart of the Southern States, and therefore the most vital point in the so-called Confederate States. [The region’s towns] manufacture one-third of the horseshoes, guns and munitions of war made in the South. The machinery for the production of small arms has been taken to Atlanta, which place has extensive foundries … Besides it is a flourishing city, an important railway centre, and extensive depot for Confederate commissary stores. Atlanta[’s]… occupation by the soldiers of the Union would be virtually snapping the backbone of the rebellion.”
That was just what General William Tecumseh Sherman had in mind when he began his campaign into Georgia at the head of a Yankee army of 110,000 soldiers in the spring of 1864. The Union Army had fumbled numerous previous attempts to crush the Southern military resistance. He and the Army’s commanding general, Ulysses S. Grant, would coordinate their separate campaigns, Grant directing his forces against General Robert E. Lee’s army defending Richmond while Sherman’s army tackled the rebel army outside the stronghold of Atlanta.
The ferocious Confederate defenders held off the Union invaders in every one of a series of sharp but indecisive engagements through northwestern Georgia. Historian Shelby Foote called it “a red clay minuet,” but it was more like a knife fight, with grapplers holding each other’s throat and hoping to strike a death blow. Northern troops attacked, Southern defenders never gave way, men fell by the thousands. After each battle, though, the Union forces danced around the Confederate lines, forcing rebel troops to fall back. The Southern defenders finally sheltered behind the 10-mile circle of reinforced ramparts they had wisely brought in slaves from the surrounding countryside to girdle Atlanta like a medieval fortress town. When Sherman reached those earthworks, he thought them the most impregnable he had ever seen. An assault on them would prove suicidal.
Confederate forces took the war to the Yankees, hoping to surprise them, leading to a series of ferocious battles, most famously the Battle of Atlanta on July 22. Those fights left thousands dead and positions unchanged.
In early August Sherman brought in siege guns and vowed to leave Atlanta “a used-up community by the time we are done with it.” As many as 5,000 shells fell into the center of town each day for nearly four weeks. Thousands of civilians remained within the town, sheltering in most cases underground. Some have viewed this total war approach, not just to defeat an army but to demoralize and eviscerate the society behind the army, as the precursor to all modern warfare since.
A siege, however, was not the impatient and frenetic Sherman’s style of war. He worried, too, that the longer his men remained in the trenches, the greater the risk his forces faced, particularly from raids on his hard-to-defend 138-mile, single-track rail line supplying his vast army from its Chattanooga base. He also worried that enlistment terms would soon run out on several thousand of his soldiers, siphoning away his strength.
Things were if anything worse in Virginia for Grant’s army. His masses of troops had also run up against seemingly unbreakable defenses. His forces suffered horrific casualties trying to get at Lee’s army behind the walls of Petersburg not far from Richmond. By late August it looked like stalemate was almost certainly the tragic outcome of the years of war.
A war of attrition poisoned Northern political sentiment. Many voters were now convinced that the war was unwinnable. Loss of public support for the war led a despondent and perhaps too pessimistic President Abraham Lincoln to predict he would lose in November’s election. The next president would sue for peace, which surely meant the end of the United States. The Confederate strategy of winning by not losing appeared to be a winner.
That is what confident Democratic Party delegates believed when they headed to Chicago on August 29 for their national convention. They wrote a campaign platform that called, “after four years of failure to restore the Union,” for “a cessation of hostilities.” The party’s anointed candidate for president, one of Grant’s predecessors at the head of the Union army, General George McClellan, reportedly said, “If I am elected, I will recommend an immediate armistice and a call for a convention of all the states and insist upon exhausting all and every means to secure peace without further bloodshed.” If the South held on, the North would give in.
Thus it was that the flight of Confederate forces from Atlanta overnight between September 1 and 2, 1864, stunned the entire land. Sherman’s army had once again flanked Confederate lines, in a brilliant stealth movement. They severed the last railroad lifeline into Atlanta, making the Citadel of the Confederacy as it was touted no longer tenable. As the rebels departed, they blew up an 81-car munitions train stranded on a siding. The exploding bombs and gunpowder leveled every structure for hundreds of yards in all directions. This spectacular blast, audible 80 miles away in Macon, would be immortalized in the apocalyptic Burning of Atlanta scene in Gone With the Wind.
On the morning of September 2, a party of civilians led by Atlanta’s mayor, James M. Calhoun, rode out past the earthworks under a white flag and surrendered the city to the Yankee army. Not long after that, James Dunning, a Union loyalist who had hidden his feelings within Confederate Atlanta, ran the Stars and Stripes up a pole on Alabama Street. The flag of the United States flew over the city for the first time since 1860.
Americans across the land understood just what the fall of Atlanta meant. General Grant issued a general order that “every battery bearing upon the enemy” fire in salute. In Chicago, too, a 100-gun salvo went off and every bell in the city rang out. The Democratic Party delegates heard the reverberations echo through their hall. They understood their national hopes were dashed. McClellan immediately repudiated his party’s platform. Peace would come, he now declared, only on the “one condition” of Union.
With Atlanta occupied by Sherman’s Union forces, diarist Mary Boykin Chestnutt, wife of a high Confederate official, reflected in mid-September, “Since Atlanta fell I have felt as if all were dead within me forever.” She knew just what lay in store for the Confederacy: “The end has come. No doubt of the fact … We are going to be wiped off the face of the earth. What is there to prevent Sherman taking General Lee in the rear? We have but two armies, and Sherman is between them now.”
To savor their victory and recover from the months of hard fighting, Sherman’s men occupied the city for two months. They enjoyed a respite unmolested in the heart of the South. Finally, in November, they launched out on their storied and infamous scorched-earth March to the Sea. But before then, they pulled down and burned every structure deemed of possible use to the Confederates. The last Union officer to leave Atlanta wrote home, “On the morning of the 16th, nothing was left of Atlanta except the churches, the City Hall and private dwellings. You could hardly find a vestige of the splendid railroad depots, warehouses, etc. It was melancholy, but it was war prosecuted in deadly earnest.”
Sherman’s March was the exclamation point on the defeat of Atlanta. He intended an unstoppable wasting of Georgia to prove “we can march a well-appointed army right through [Jefferson Davis’] territory….” This action “may not be war,” he archly admitted, “but rather statesmanship,” providing “proof positive” to any who still might think otherwise “that the North can prevail in this contest.”
For Atlanta, the war was over. The end of the war allowed Atlanta’s business-minded city leaders to leave secessionist ideology behind. The city quickly rebuilt. Atlanta soon flourished, becoming the resurgent urban center of an otherwise impoverished South. General Sherman even returned there as a happy tourist 15 years after his previous uninvited visit. The prosperous city’s mayor, himself a grievously wounded Confederate veteran, gave the man who conquered Atlanta a hearty welcome. The man who had destroyed the town just 15 years earlier could now ride unmolested through its streets. Sherman praised Atlanta’s “pluck and energy and the marvelous recuperation” it had made.
While attitudes toward the war remained conflicted and simmering segregationist tensions sometimes flared into unrest, it was no accident that Atlanta became home to America’s largest black middle-class population, served as the center of the Civil Rights movement, and produced many of that movement’s most prominent leaders, above all of course Martin Luther King. Atlanta was happy to leave the Civil War behind. Today, few reminders remain that any such events once took place in the town.
Not long after the April 15, 1865 assassination of President Lincoln, the mayor who surrendered Atlanta to federal forces convened a meeting of the town’s leading citizens. Mayor Calhoun brought together Union loyalists and fighting Confederates, leading citizens of a besieged, conquered, and ultimately obliterated city. They could have fought each other; they could have fought on against their invaders; they could have chosen to leave the ruins behind.
Instead, those present “unanimously and warmly” approved a resolution that offered their support for the new United States president, Andrew Johnson, and they declared “that in all time to come we shall be known, and only known, as one people, sharing one destiny, having one interest, one liberty, one Constitution, and one flag.” That marked the true beginnings of national union.
Marc Wortman is the author, among other books, of The Bonfire: The Siege and Burning of Atlanta. He lives in New Haven. To learn more, go to: marcwortmanbooks.com.