It is April 1864, exactly one hundred fifty years ago. The American Civil War is entering its fourth year as President Abraham Lincoln faces re-election. General William Tecumseh Sherman and his 110,000 Union soldiers prepare to invade Georgia, sights set on Atlanta. The fate of a nation hangs in the balance.
It is late April, 1864. General William T. Sherman plans to push his Union armies directly south by way of the Western and Atlantic Railroad, supply line for both the Union and Confederacy. The railroad leads Sherman to Atlanta, his target: home of the South’s most essential war industries. Sherman’s war in Georgia is about to begin.
Now in May, 1864, war in Georgia is imminent. A general who sleeps little and talks ceaselessly stands for the Union: 44-year-old William Tecumseh Sherman, the man who vows to make Georgia howl. Defending Georgia for the Confederacy is 57-year-old Virginian Joseph Eggleston Johnston, adored by his soldiers and thoroughly professional in manner. The battle is about to begin…
It is early May 1864. Johnston’s Confederate army lies in wait along Rocky Face Ridge defending their supply line. Sherman sends 24,000 troops under General McPherson from the south. Johnston is caught unawares. Instead of attacking, McPherson orders his weary men to entrench for the night. Confederate reinforcements arrive…the jig is up; opportunity gone. Sherman is sixty-five miles from Atlanta.
It is mid-May, 1864. Johnston’s army is entrenched at Resaca, protecting the railroad from Union troops. Having failed at Dalton, Sherman launches his attacks. Union Colonel Benjamin Harrison’s troops capture a fort with cannons. Both armies compete for ownership; the Union prevails. Nearly trapped again by Sherman’s army, Johnston retreats south. Sherman nears Atlanta as residents grow anxious.
It is the third week of May, 1864. Fifty miles from the city, Sherman’s men fan out across hills south of the Oostanaula. Near Cassville, Confederate General Johnston spies an opportunity to destroy an isolated column of Sherman’s army. But it never happens: Johnston finds Union soldiers on his flank. Johnston retreats south as the city readies for attack, Sherman now only thirty miles from Atl.
In the last week of May, 1864, Johnston’s Confederate army forms a defensive line that extends through Dallas from New Hope Church to Pickett’s Mill. Soldiers build dense fortifications of dirt and logs to protect their heads. Assaulting these is suicide; yet the Union advances, meeting heavy casualties. The fight at New Hope is named “The Hell Hole.” Attrition stalls Sherman’s advance on Atlanta.
It is the first week of June 1864. Sherman’s attempt to bypass the Confederates has distanced him from his supply line. Food and ammunition run low. Most soldiers are farmboys averaging 24 years old. Sherman’s soldiers are Westerners; veterans of victorious battles. Johnston’s are Southerners acquainted with defeat. Sherman’s advance stalls 25 miles from Atlanta, Confederate confidence restored.
It is a muggy day in early June 1864. Union Soldier Gilmer Watts pens a letter to his wife, Clara. Most soldiers on both sides of the conflict are literate: letters of love, shared memories, and a wish to be remembered are their lifeline home. Postal services deliver millions of letters to the troops monthly, but in war, they are not always delivered on time. Gilmer Watts is 25 miles from Atlanta.
It is mid -June, 1864. Private Gilmer Watts sends news to his wife declaring that they’re well-equipped with supplies. Clara responds, hopeful that the family will be spared to spend a happy life together. Six days after writing his letter, Watts falls in the war, never to read his wife’s reply. Today, Watts rests alongside 10,000 Union soldiers in the Marietta National Cemetery
The temperature reaches 100 degrees on the morning of June 27, 1864. Soldiers are clothed in wool. Confederates entrenched atop Kennesaw Mountain have blocked Sherman for nine days. He orders an attack, and soon, the battle is hand-to-hand. Men vomit from the heat; battle sounds assail the ears.
Sherman intends to take Atlanta by the Fourth of July, despite delays at Kennesaw Mountain. On July 2, he bypasses Johnston, who withdraws toward the Chattahoochee. Atlantans panic; streets swarm. Union armies decimate fences and crops, stealing food and livestock. Sherman’s men burn two textile mills and send 600 workers north as prisoners.
In early July 1864, Sherman’s army cuts across Atlanta’s final defender: the Chattahoochee River. Outflanked, Johnston retreats and burns the railroad bridge in his wake. Johnston’s men still trust him, despite his months-long inability to outmaneuver the enemy. While Sherman closes in, Atlanta’s women face the realities of war as nurses to the injured and dying.
It is mid-July, 1864. The President of the Confederate States of America discharges General Johnston of his command for failing to halt the enemy’s drive to the gates of Atlanta. The city is a fortress, encircled by ten miles of fortifications that have destroyed its forests.
It is the third week in July, 1864. Union forces threaten to cut Atlanta’s railroad supply lines. To Sherman’s surprise, Confederate General John Bell Hood attacks north of Atlanta on the twentieth, though his efforts fall short. Unfazed, he strikes east of the city two days later, in what is known as the Battle of Atlanta.
It is late July, 1864. Confederate General Hood holds Sherman outside Atlanta’s fortifications. Union armies approach from the West, intending to cut the railroad and force Hood out. Hood’s men counter by attacking Union trenches at Ezra Church, but they suffer a demoralizing defeat.
It is the first week of August, 1864. Thus far, Sherman has been halted repeatedly, prompting him to aim a cannon into Atlanta to drive the enemy out. Martha Powell writes of her family having to flee as Sherman invades. One of the first civilians to die during Sherman’s siege is Solomon Luckie, a free African American who is struck on the corner of Whitehall and Alabama Streets on August ninth.
It is the third week of Sherman’s bombardment of Atlanta. Union artillery rains shells on the city at an alarming rate: 6-10 a minute for hours on end. The terror of bursting shells drives residents to bombproof structures, even underground, for refuge. Young Lucy Caldwell finds sanctuary in a pit dug six feet deep in her neighbor’s yard.
Sherman has shelled Atlanta for four weeks. A father and daughter die from a shelling while asleep, thus unnerving Atlanta. The Augusta Constitutionalist predicts the slaying of innocents to be one of the most tragic blights of the modern day. Burial records are not kept during the siege, but personal accounts reveal estimated deaths. And it's not over yet.
Sherman’s five-week attempt to fire Atlanta into submission isn’t working. With the Confederate army controlling the Macon Railroad, the siege is a stalemate. In the North, President Lincoln fears losing re-election if he is beaten, the war not won. On August 26, Atlanta residents awaken to a deafening silence. Union lines are empty: Sherman is gone, but no one knows what his next move will be.
It is late August, 1864. In Chicago, the Democratic Party nominates George McClellan on a platform calling for peace. Sherman marches around Atlanta to destroy its remaining supply line, the Macon Railroad. Atlanta is doomed. Hood must evacuate the city or risk entrapment and starvation. He ignites a trapped ammunition train. Union troops march in. Sherman telegraphs Lincoln about his conquest.
On September 2, Mayor Calhoun surrenders Atlanta to Union troops. Despite terrible accounts of the Yankees, residents find they are not “as bad as they are said to be.” Then, Sherman issues order no. 67, expelling all residents from the city, turning Atlanta into a military encampment. Mayor Calhoun writes Sherman to overturn the order; he responds, “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”
It is mid-September, 1864. Sherman expels the city’s residents, allowing willing evacuees to carry a limited amount of property, including slaves. During a ten-day truce, Union wagons load residents and property onto boxcars that will transport them southward. Some find shelter in the homes of relatives; others have nowhere to go and are met with disease or death from damp, unsanitary conditions.
In mid-September, 1864, the official photographer of Sherman’s army arrives on the scene. George N. Barnard produces roughly 200 photographs: all the known images of Civil War Atlanta. His task is difficult, traversing rough roads with equipment and fragile glass negatives in the stifling Georgia heat. The city that boasted 20,000 residents has now but a few hundred civilians and an occupying army.
As the death toll reaches 500,000, the nation is preoccupied with death and mourning. Given the hardships of war, many Southern women cannot afford to spend money on the traditional customs of mourning. Men die in prison camps, hospitals, and on battlefields; some are buried in mass graves, many never identified. Widows like Rhoda Mobley are lucky to receive mementos of their dead husbands.
John Bell Hood still fights while Union armies occupy Atlanta. He attempts to trap Sherman by surrounding a Union garrison at Dalton. His 40,000 soldiers outnumber the 850 inside: mostly escaped slaves fighting for the Union. The men of the 44th U.S. Colored Troops want to fight, but their white officers choose to surrender. They are treated cruelly by their captors. Many will die in prison camps.
By mid-October 1864, all Atlanta residents have been expelled, with one exception: secret Union sympathizers. Union generals occupy the finest homes, including a mansion owned by Unionist Edward Rawson. Though the secret Yankees welcome Sherman, they, too, must flee. Sherman will have no civilians in the city, irrespective of loyalty. Only Madison Berry, clerk for the Union army, is allowed to stay.
The Union refuses to swap prisoners of war until Confederate Forces agree to treat Black and White prisoners equally, but Jefferson Davis rejects the bid. Prisons on both sides are now packed, especially in Andersonville, Georgia, holding thrice its capacity of 10,000. Private William Crouse dies from lack of food and medication, amongst 13,000 others in the fourteen months that the prison exists.
It is late October, 1864. Sherman’s photographer, George Barnard, climbs atop the Atlanta Female Institute to snap a panoramic view of the city. Though the scene appears peaceful, munition factories and railroad depots are discernible in the hazy distance. The Union army builds fortifications within the city while tearing down many homes and buildings, disconcerting even to some in the Union army.
It is the first week of November, 1864. In the presidential election, Northerners and Union soldiers vote overwhelmingly for Lincoln. Confederate resistance persists after his win, and Sherman plans to abate it by having half his men defeat Confederate General Hood in Tennessee and have the others march from Atlanta to Savannah, destroying anything that can aid Confederate troops.
In mid-November, Sherman writes Ulysses S. Grant of his strategy for the Savannah Campaign…the March to the Sea. His plan is unheard of: abandon supply lines and non-essentials and survive off the land. Above all, Sherman vows to show inhabitants of the South that war and personal ruin are synonymous. He’ll see to it that his “scorched earth” policy has both economic and psychological impact.
It is mid-November, 1864. Before leaving Atlanta on the March to the Sea, the Union army destroys railroads, factories, anything in Atlanta’s business district that may be of service to the Confederacy. Soldiers ignore Sherman’s order that churches and houses be spared; officers make no attempt to stop them. Forty percent of Atlanta is destroyed as the Union army marches out beneath clouds of smoke.
In late November, the Yankee army moves through Georgia, ransacking property for supplies. Near Sandersville, 19-year-old Imogene Hoyle’s family hides jewelry, money, and clothes outside their home. Foraging parties seize food and livestock on the move; Sherman knows the army will famish if they linger in one place. With them, go thousands of slaves. Locals “fear the negroes” more than anything else.
It is the third week of Sherman’s March. General Beauregard and Confederate authorities urge the public to delay his advance. But for 36 days, the Union army marches onward with little resistance. The State Capitol in Milledgeville surrenders, and Sherman occupies the Governor’s mansion. Lincoln awaits news in Washington. Confederates don’t know where he is going. Sherman is on the loose in Georgia.
With the March to the Sea four weeks underway, thousands of refugee slaves in search of liberation follow the Union army. They are both boon and bane to Sherman’s cause: providing labor, but hindering movement. At Ebenezer Creek, the bridge is dismantled so none can follow. Countless refugees drown; survivors are shot by Confederate troops or remanded to their owners. The enslaved are not yet free.
It is mid-December, 1864. Union forces capture Fort McAllister, opening the Ogeechee River to its supply ships off the Georgia coast. Led by General Hardee, 15,000 Confederates guard Savannah. On the 17th, Sherman telegrams him, demanding to surrender. Hardee does not yield, though Savannah Mayor, Richard Arnold, does. Sherman wires President Lincoln, presenting Savannah as a Christmas gift.
It is the final week of 1864. Atlanta, the South’s industrial hub, is decimated, the damage totaling nearly $100 million in 1864 dollars. In forcing on the Confederacy “the hard hand of war,” Sherman proves the South cannot be protected; public confidence in the Confederate government collapses. Sherman’s final blow is to lead his army through South Carolina and beyond, the heartland of secession.
As Sherman’s war in Georgia concludes, the Confederate cause is defeated. Sherman has destroyed property, left thousands destitute, and is the most despised man in the South. But his methods prove true: he has crippled the Confederacy and shortened the war. Lincoln’s reelection and emancipation are won in tandem. The promise of freedom does not guarantee social justice. But there is hope in 1865.