Atlanta: The Twice-Burned City

This entry is part 14 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

The Burning of AtlantaAtlanta was a key city for the Confederacy during the second half of the Civil War. The city was an important commercial and rail center with a relatively small population of slightly under 10,000, according to the 1860 Federal census.

The city was serviced by several major rail lines, including the Western & Atlantic Railroad, which connected the city with Chattanooga, Tennessee, 138 miles to the north. The city was also the center of a road net that radiated in all direction connecting Atlanta with many other cities and towns.

Due to its location, the city became an important logistics and supply center for the Confederate Army. Atlanta’s 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. With the growth of Atlanta’s role in the Confederate war effort came a rise in the population which rose to nearly 22,000.

In order to protect this important rear area base from the Union Army 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. He also asked Grant to provide a defensive plan for the city.

Grant proposed a series of 17 redoubts forming a 10-mile circle over a mile out from the center of town. These redoubts would be connected by earthwork fortifications and trenches with rows of abatis and other impediments to enemy troops. Begun in August 1863, Atlanta’s defensive works were completed by December 1863.

Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s campaign to capture Atlanta began in May 1864. Facing Gen Joseph E. Johnston and the Army of Tennessee, Sherman’s Army Group arrived at the gates of Atlanta after a series of flanking attacks. In mid-July Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood replaced Johnston as commander of the Confederate Army.

After five weeks of close combat, on September 1, 1864 Hood ordered his forces to evacuate the city. Along with the evacuation he ordered that all public buildings and industrial assets were to be burned. He also set fire to eighty-one loaded ammunition cars, which led to a conflagration watched by hundreds. The explosions from the train destroyed the rolling mill.

The next day Mayor James Calhoun surrendered the city and Sherman sent his famous telegram message to the President, “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won”.

Sherman remained in Atlanta for the next two months planning further uses for his large Army Group. In November the Union general ordered his engineers to begin “the destruction in Atlanta of all depots, car-houses, shops, factories, foundries,” and the like. Sherman directed that the structures be knocked down by his engineers first “and that fire only be used toward the last moment.”

On November 12th Captain Orlando Poe, Sherman’s chief engineer, instructed his men to rip apart Atlanta’s railroads, heating and bending each rail over the burning wooden ties. Not until November 15th did engineers begin torching designated sites, some with explosive shells placed inside.

Fires were set each night from November 11 to 15, although army officials tried to prevent them by guarding certain properties and catching or punishing the perpetrators. Churches were particularly kept under guard, resulting in five of them being spared from the flames that eventually consumed much of downtown.

On the final night of the Union occupation, November 15-16, Union troops, encouraged by the arson carried out by the engineers, committed unlicensed burnings that set much of downtown afire. Viewing from headquarters the fiery glow over much of the city that night, Major Henry Hitchcock of Sherman’s staff predicted, “Gen. S. will hereafter be charged with indiscriminate burning.” Estimates of the number of buildings destroyed range from 3,200 to 5,000 with between 400-500 surviving destruction.

… 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


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