Atlanta in the American Civil War
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The city of Atlanta, Georgia, was an important rail and commercial center during the American Civil War. Although relatively small in population, the city became a critical point of contention during the Atlanta Campaign in 1864 when a powerful Union army approached from American-held Tennessee. The fall of Atlanta was a critical point in the Civil War, giving the North more confidence, and (along with the victories at Mobile Bay and Winchester) leading to the re-election of President Abraham Lincoln and the eventual surrender of the Confederacy.
Early war years
The city that would become Atlanta began as the endpoint of a railroad (aptly named Terminus) in 1837. While it grew quickly after two railroad lines were completed in 1845, in the years before the Civil War, Atlanta was a relatively small city ranking 99th in the United States in size with a population of 9,554 according to the 1860 United States (U.S.) Census. However, it was the 12th-largest city in what became the Confederate States of America.
The city was a vital transportation and logistics center, with several major railroads in the area, including the Western & Atlantic Railroad, which connected the city with Chattanooga, Tennessee, 138 miles to the north. A series of roads radiated out from the city in all directions, connecting Atlanta with neighboring towns and states.
Thought to be relatively safe from Union forces early in the war, Atlanta rapidly became a concentration point for the Confederate quartermasters and logistics experts; warehouses were filled with food, forage, supplies, ammunition, clothing and other materiel critical to the Confederate armies operating in the Western Theater.
The Atlanta Rolling Mill, established before the war, was significantly expanded and provided a major source for armor plating for Confederate Navy ironclads, including the CSS Virginia. It also refurbished railroad tracks. A large number of machine shops, foundries and other industrial concerns were soon established in Atlanta. The population swelled to nearly 22,000 as workers arrived for these new factories and warehouses.
A number of newspapers flourished in Atlanta during the Civil War. Among the more prominent ones were the Atlanta Southern Confederacy and the Daily Intelligencer, which was moved to Macon during the Union occupation in 1864. It was the only Atlanta paper to survive the war and resume publication after the hostilities.
Atlanta as a target
Concerned after the Vicksburg Campaign that Atlanta would be a logical target for future Union Army attacks, the Confederate Chief of the Engineer Bureau Jeremy F. Gilmer contacted Atlanta businessman and entrepreneur Lemuel P. Grant and asked him to survey possible enemy crossings of the Chattahoochee River, a broad waterway that offered some protection from a Northern approach. Grant complied, and after a thorough investigation and survey, explained that the fortification of Atlanta would be as difficult as that of Richmond, Virginia, due to the many possible enemy approach routes. Gilmer gave Grant the approval to develop a plan to ring Atlanta with forts and earthworks along the key approaches to the city.
Grant planned a series of 17 redoubts forming a 10-mile (16 km) circle over a mile (1.6 km) out from the center of town. These would be interlinked with a series of earthworks and trenches, along with rows of abatis and other impediments to enemy troops. Construction on the extensive defensive works began in August 1863. They were bounded on the north on high ground (the present location of the Fox Theatre), the west by Ashby Street, the south by McDonough Drive and the east by what is today known as Grant Park. Gilmer inspected the completed work in December 1863 and gave his approval. Because of how the subsequent campaign unfolded, most of these fortifications were never really put to the test.
The fall of Atlanta
In 1864 the city, as feared by Gilmer, did indeed become the target of a major Union invasion. The area now covered by metropolitan Atlanta was the scene of several fiercely contested battles, including the Battle of Peachtree Creek, the Battle of Atlanta and the Battle of Ezra Church. On September 1, 1864, Confederate General John Bell Hood evacuated Atlanta, after a five-week siege mounted by Union General William Sherman, and ordered all public buildings and possible Confederate assets destroyed.
On September 2, Mayor James Calhoun surrendered the city. Sherman sent a telegram to Washington reading, "Atlanta is ours, and fairly won" and he established his headquarters there on September 7, where he stayed for two months. That same day, Sherman ordered the civilian population to evacuate.
After a plea by Father Thomas O'Reilly of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Sherman did not burn the city's churches or hospitals. However, the remaining war resources were then destroyed in the aftermath and in Sherman's March to the Sea. These included Edward A. Vincent's railroad depot, built in 1853. As General Sherman departed Atlanta at 7:00 a.m. on November 15 with the bulk of his army, he noted his handiwork:
... We rode out of Atlanta by the Decatur road, filled by the marching troops and wagons of the Fourteenth Corps; and reaching the hill, just outside of the old rebel works, we naturally paused to look back upon the scenes of our past battles. We stood upon the very ground whereon was fought the bloody battle of July 22d, and could see the copse of wood where McPherson fell. Behind us lay Atlanta, smouldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city.
— William T. Sherman, Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman, Chapter 21
The fall of Atlanta was especially noteworthy for its political ramifications. The capture and fall of Atlanta were extensively covered by Northern newspapers, and significantly boosted Northern morale. Lincoln was re-elected easily.
Federal soldiers continued to occupy Atlanta for the rest of the war, with the Confederacy's dwindling resources and military strength, the Confederate army was never in a position to retake the city. Periodic cavalry raids continued on Union supply lines in the general vicinity for some time.
Following the war Federal troops remained in Atlanta to help enforce the provisions of Reconstruction.
- Upper Marietta Street Artery website
- Correspondence Pertaining to Sherman's Evacuation of Atlanta reproduced at civilwarhome.com.
- Bonds, Russell S. (2009). War like the thunderbolt: the battle and burning of Atlanta. Westholme. ISBN 1594161003. OCLC 370356386.
- Dodge, Grenville M. (1910). The battle of Atlanta and other campaigns, addresses, etc. Monarch Print. Co. OCLC 2055872.
- Swan, James B. (2009). Chicago's Irish Legion: the 90th Illinois Volunteers in the Civil War. Southern Illinois University Press. ISBN 0809328909. OCLC 232327691.
- A brief history of the American Civil War
- Driving tour of modern Atlanta's Civil War sites and places
- Atlanta Cyclorama and Civil War Museum
- University of Georgia website for Georgia in the Civil War
- Civil War Sites in Georgia
- General William T. Sherman's order to evacuate Atlanta, (Special Field Orders No. 67), 4 September 1864. From the collection of the Georgia Archives.
- Civil War records available for research at the National Archives at Atlanta
- Webcast Lecture by Russell S. Bonds author of War Like the Thunderbolt at the Pritzker Military Library on May 6, 2010