Sherman and the Burning of Atlanta

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Sherman's March to the Sea

The city of Atlanta was captured by the victorious forces of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman on September 2, 1864. The Union advance signaled the burning of military supplies and installations by the retreating Confederates under Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood. This is the conflagration that is depicted in Gone with the Windthe 1939 movie classic.

Despite the record of history, over time Sherman and his troops have been blamed for this first burning of Atlanta. The retreating Confederates were loathe to leave anything of value to their Union foes. Hood was simply practicing a policy of scorched earth, leaving nothing of value for the enemy.

The City of AtlantaUpon entering the city, Sherman sent the following message to Washington, “So Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.” The city had been surrendered by Mayor James Calhoun. Sherman established his headquarters there on September 7 and stayed for two months. That same day, the Union commander ordered the civilian population to evacuate the city.

Sherman’s troops occupied Atlanta from September 2nd until their departure on November 15th. During that time, the army rested and refitted. Sherman’s involvement with the pursuit of Hood lasted only until the end of October. He then returned to Atlanta and designated Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas as the commander of all forces in the pursuit of Hood’s Army of Tennessee. Eventually, they would clash in a series of battles during the Franklin-Nashville Campaign.

Returning to Atlanta, Sherman prepared his plans for an advance through Georgia to the port of Savannah. Sherman proposed to take a limited The Destruction of all rail infrastructure in Atlantaamount of supplies on the march, disconnecting from the normal supply lines. His plan was to live off the land, foraging food, fodder and livestock from a wide area of the Georgia countryside.

Both President Lincoln and General Grant had serious reservations with Sherman’s proposal.In the end Grant trusted Sherman’s assessment and on November 2nd sent Sherman his approval, “Go as you propose.”

On November 15, 1864, the Union army departed Atlanta. Sherman recorded his thoughts in his memoirs:

… 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. Away off in the distance, on the McDonough road, was the rear of Howard’s column, the gun-barrels glistening in the sun, the white-topped wagons stretching away to the south; and right before us the Fourteenth Corps, marching steadily and rapidly, with a cheery look and swinging pace, that made light of the thousand miles that lay between us and Richmond. Some band, by accident, struck up the anthem of “John Brown’s soul goes marching on;” the men caught up the strain, and never before or since have I heard the chorus of “Glory, glory, hallelujah!” done with more spirit, or in better harmony of time and place.

Ruins of Atlanta's Rail Station, 1864Sherman had ordered everything of military value in Atlanta to be burned. This included all of the rail assets including the roundhouse and the depot. All machine shops and warehouses went up in smoke. Sherman was intent on leaving nothing of value behind his departing forces. After a plea by Father Thomas O’Reilly of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Sherman did not burn the city’s churches or hospitals. Thus Atlanta was burned twice in 2 1/2 months.



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