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A Scene Outside Atlanta in 1864.

According to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the fall of Atlanta into Union hands would “open the way for the Federal Army to the Gulf on the one hand, and to Charleston on the other, and close up those rich granaries from which Lee’s armies are supplied. It would give them control of our network of railways and thus paralyze our efforts.”[i] The strategic location of the city was only one of several reasons for the Confederates to hold it: Atlanta had seen tremendous growth during the war with “foundries, factories, munitions plants, and supply depots” having sprung up on account of the city becoming a railroad hub.[ii] Capturing the city became the primary goal of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, but, because the rebels had come to see the city as being second only to Richmond as a “symbol of resistance and nationality,” the campaign to Atlanta was almost certain to be easier than taking Atlanta.[iii]

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William Tecumseh Sherman.

Although Confederate General Joseph Johnston was confident that he could hold Sherman’s men eight miles outside the city until September of 1864, by the time that Davis received Johnston’s assurance by wire—on July 10—Sherman’s troops had already left Johnston’s words ringing hollow.[iv] Consistent with his pattern of attack during the campaign toward Atlanta, Sherman had again moved around the rebel left and forced his opponent back.[v] This time, however, he had a plan to send the cavalry led by General James McPherson around the left side of the Confederate line while an infantry corps attacked the right flank.[vi] Both the Union horsemen and soldiers, while crossing the Chattahoochee River, found themselves and their equipment almost entirely underwater.[vii] One Union officer recalled that when the federals began taking fire from the rebels and attempted to return fire, they discovered that “they could pump the waterproof metal cartridges into the Spencer’s chamber underwater” and then “take quick aim, fire his piece and pop down again” to reload.[viii] Astonished, the rebels called out to each other, “Look at them Yankee sons of bitches, loading their guns underwater! What sort of critters be they, anyhow?”[ix] By July 9, Sherman had forced Johnston and his troops back to within four miles of downtown Atlanta.[x]

In Richmond and Atlanta, consternation was growing: while Atlanta’s newspapers remained defiant in tone, the presses were packed and ready to follow the civilians who had already taken southbound trains.[xi] In Richmond, Davis sought counsel from his cabinet and gathered on-the-ground intelligence from General Braxton Bragg all of which led to a “gloomy view of affairs in Georgia.”[xii] General John Bell Hood, in speaking with Bragg during his, Bragg’s, fact-finding mission, declared that the rebels must no longer defend against Sherman’s movements but attack. With an understanding that Johnston could be replaced and that perhaps Davis was already vetting Hood, he continued: “I regard it as a great misfortune to our country that we failed to give battle to the enemy many miles north of our present position. Please say to the President that I shall continue to do my duty cheerfully . . . and strive to do what is best for our country.”[xiii] Although Lee had called Hood “all lion, none of the fox,” Davis had made his decision to replace Johnston with Hood unless Johnston could show that he had a plan other than to defend—which had been his modus operandi all along and one that had failed spectacularly.[xiv] On July 16, Davis wired Johnston with his inquiry and promptly received a response: the plan “must depend upon that of the enemy. . . . We are trying to put Atlanta in condition to be held by the Georgia militia, that army movements may be freer and wider.”[xv] The following day, Hood found himself in command. The Richmond Examiner opined that the “appointment has but one meaning, and that is to give battle to the foe.”[xvi] Sherman “inferred that the change of commanders meant fight” which “was just what we wanted, viz., to fight in open ground, on anything like equal terms, instead of being forced to run up against prepared intrenchments.”[xvii]

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John Bell Hood.

On July 20, Hood had his first opportunity to halt the momentum of Sherman’s army: while McPherson had taken his troops to cut the last railway link between Atlanta and the upper south, General George Thomas took his soldiers to cross the Peachtree Creek and establish a foothold north of Atlanta; separated from the others, Thomas—nicknamed the Rock of Chickamauga for his valiant leadership during that battle—appeared an easy target for Hood.[xviii] The flaw came not in the plan but with its execution. Hood’s men attacked several hours too late to catch Thomas and his men in the midst of crossing the stream, and in the “bloodiest combat in the campaign thus far,” the five Union divisions held off the rebels.[xix] Not deterred and displaying his preference for being on the offensive, Hood had devised a follow-up surprise attack on the Army of the Tennessee, led by McPherson and posted outside the city. On July 22, he sent one corps on an all-night march to what he hoped would be McPherson’s exposed flank.[xx] The maneuver achieved surprise but not to the extent that Hood had hoped as the federals quickly found their footing and “inflicted half as many casualties on Hood’s army in one afternoon as it had suffered in ten weeks under Johnston.”[xxi] During the fighting, Sherman’s headquarters came under fire and caused the commander and his officers to take shelter in a nearby grove of trees.[xxii] There, Sherman saw one of his men crouched and calling out, “Lord, Lord if I once get home,” and, “Oh, I’ll be killed!”[xxiii] Grinning, Sherman picked up a handful of stones and began tossing them toward the soldier, striking a nearby tree; with each strike came a “howl or a groan” from behind the tree.[xxiv] Sherman called out to the soldier, “That’s hard firing my man,” and the soldier, with his eyes shut, responded to his commander, “Hard? It’s fearful! I think thirty shells have hit this tree while I was here.”[xxv] When the firing subsided, the soldier came out from the cover and saw that his general had been taunting him. He “took off running through the woods, pursued by the sound of Sherman’s laughter.”[xxvi]

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James McPherson.

A more somber mood pervaded the Union camps when news spread that McPherson, while in the saddle and trying to restore the line, had ridden blindly into Confederate lines, refused to surrender, and was shot down.[xxvii] Sherman had seen McPherson “as more than a protégé” and told a friend that he “expected something to happen to Grant and me; either the rebels or the newspapers would kill us both, and I looked to McPherson as the man to follow us and finish the war.”[xxviii]

In eight days, Hood had taken 15,000 casualties to Sherman’s 6,000 lost, and the Union men, with their artillery, had settled in and prepared for a siege.[xxix] While many civilians had fled the city, those remaining soon found northern shells raining down on the streets as Sherman obliged his commander Henry Halleck’s order to “make the insides of Atlanta too hot to be endured.”[xxx] Sherman noted: “War is war, and not popularity-seeking.”[xxxi] The resolve of the Atlantans to stay and fight it out served as a source of inspiration for the southern war effort and caused the Atlanta Intelligencer (then published in Macon) to write: “Sherman will suffer the greatest defeat that any Yankee General has suffered during the war. . . . The Yankee forces will disappear before Atlanta before the end of August.”[xxxii] By August 11, one Wisconsin soldier, writing home, may have been inclined to agree with the Intelligencer as he noted that “we make but little progress toward Atlanta, and it may be some time before we take the place.”[xxxiii] Both sides sat and waited behind their fortified lines, even calling out to each other: when one federal soldier shouted, “Say, Johnny, how many of you are there left?” he received a yell in response, “Oh, about enough for another killing.”[xxxiv]

Uncle Billy—as his men called him—was not bothered by the slow rhythm of the fight. He had the affection of his blue-clad soldiers more so than any Union commander of the war save General George McClellan.[xxxv] Unlike McClellan, however, Sherman shared the soldiers’ life with his men: “He ate hardtack, sweet potatoes, bacon, black coffee off a rough table, sitting on a cracker box, wearing a gray flannel shirt, a faded old blue blouse, and trousers he had worn since long before Chattanooga. He talked and smoked cigars incessantly, giving orders, dictating telegrams, bright and chipper.”[xxxvi] With the long range artillery booming at fifteen-minute intervals and confident that the Union men would turn Atlanta into a “used-up community when we are done with it,” he said to his men, “Let us destroy Atlanta and make it a desolation.”[xxxvii]

On September 1, Atlanta fell. George Templeton Strong, the diarist, wrote upon hearing the news, “Glorious news this morning—Atlanta taken at last!!! . . . It is (coming at this political crisis) the greatest event of the war.”[xxxviii] If in fact it was the greatest event of the war, it had happened rather quickly. In the last week of August, Sherman brought nearly all of his men out of the trenches and went south of the city.[xxxix] Hood declared that the Union army had retreated out of necessity to obtain supplies, and celebrations were abound in Atlanta.[xl] In fact, meanwhile, the federals were making “Sherman neckties” out of the last railroad connecting Atlanta with the rest of the Confederacy.[xli] With the only line for the city to receive supplies having been heated over a bonfire and then twisted around trees—thus forming the necktie, and then filling the roadbed with “trees, brush, and earth” along with loaded shells that would explode if disturbed—Sherman had finally taken the upper hand against his opponent.[xlii] Hood, when the news came to him that Sherman had not retreated, took it as a sign to attack, and he sent two corps south of the city.[xliii] Sherman repulsed the rebel assault, and, the following day, “counterattacked and mauled” the Confederate soldiers.[xliv] Hood had no option: he and his men destroyed everything in the city of military value and evacuated.[xlv] One of Sherman’s divisions soon found a delegation of citizens coming into the Union camp, and the lead civilian, James Calhoun, took a formal bow and announced to the soldiers: “Sir, the fortunes of war have placed the city of Atlanta in your hands. As mayor of the city I ask protection for noncombatants and private property.”[xlvi] Honoring the mayor’s request, the federal troops marched into the city blaring their songs and hung the American flag over city hall.[xlvii] Sherman wired Washington: “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.”[xlviii]

Throughout northern cities, there were 100-gun salutes and the kindest newspaper reports that Sherman had ever received—even comparing him to Napoleon.[xlix] The “hot-weather anxiety” fed by bad news from the west and east—rivaling the soreness of the two Bull Runs in the first summers of the war—had come to an end.[l]

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A Destroyed Railroad.

[i] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 751 (quoting A.A. Hoehling, ed., Last Train from Atlanta (New York, 1958), 17).

[ii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 751.

[iii] See id.

[iv] Id. at 751-52.

[v] Id. at 752.

[vi] Id.

[vii] Id.

[viii] Id.

[ix] Id. (quoting A.A. Hoehling, ed., Last Train from Atlanta (New York, 1958), 58-59).

[x] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 752.

[xi] Id.

[xii] Id. (quoting Edward Younger, ed., Inside the Confederate Government: The Diary of Robert Garlick Hill Kean (New York, 1957), 165).

[xiii] Hood to Bragg, July 14, 1864, in War of the Rebellion . . . Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols. (Washington, 1880-1901), Ser. I, Vol. 38, pt. 5, 879-80.

[xiv] Clifford Dowdey, ed., The Wartime Papers of R.E. Lee (New York, 1961), 821-22.

[xv] War of the Rebellion . . . Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Ser. I, Vol. 38, pt. 5, 882-83.

[xvi] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 472.

[xvii] Id.

[xviii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 754.

[xix] Id.

[xx] Id.

[xxi] Id.

[xxii] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 483.

[xxiii] Id.

[xxiv] Id.

[xxv] Id.

[xxvi] Id.

[xxvii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 754.

[xxviii] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 480.

[xxix] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 755.

[xxx] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 491.

[xxxi] Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (New York, 1886), Vol. II, 111.

[xxxii] Intelligencer quoted in A.A. Hoehling, Last Train from Atlanta, 325, and in Samuel Carter III, The Siege of Atlanta, 1864 (New York, 1973), 275.

[xxxiii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 756 (quoting A.A. Hoehling, Last Train from Atlanta, 290).

[xxxiv] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 490.

[xxxv] Id. at 492.

[xxxvi] Id.

[xxxvii] Id.

[xxxviii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 772-73 (quoting The Diary of George Templeton Strong, vol. 3: The Civil War 1860-1865, ed. Allan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas (New York, 1952), 480-81).

[xxxix] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 774.

[xl] See id.; Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 522.

[xli] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 774.

[xlii] See id.; Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 523.

[xliii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 774.

[xliv] Id.

[xlv] Id.

[xlvi] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 530.

[xlvii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 774.

[xlviii] Id.

[xlix] Id. at 774-75.

[l] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 530.

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