Atlanta, Sunday, September 11, 1864.
It is a pleasant, breezy afternoon in September, and as I sit here in my tent, on a beautiful grassy hill in the suburbs of the fall city, and watch our National colors floating gaily from its spires, I feel profoundly thankful that God has permitted me to pass safely through all the stern struggles of this long campaign, and that mine eyes are permitted to see the old flag floating over stil another stronghold of the enemy. I knew we would triumph; in the darkest hours of this campaign my faith in our ultimate success was strong; I did not expect the city would fall into our hands without terrible fighting, but I knew we could do the fighting, and had no fears of the result….
Oh, it was a glorious battle! But this Division suffered terribly. There was no chance for flinching there. Generals, Colonels, Majors, Captains and privates, all had to go forward together over that open field, facing and drawing nearer to death at every step we took, our horses crazy, frantic with the howling of shells, the rattling of canister and the whistling of bullets, ourselves delirious with the wild excitement of the moment, and think only of getting over those breast works – great volleys of canister shot sweeping through our lines making huge gaps, but the blue coated boys filled the gaps and still rushed forward right into the jaws of death – we left hundreds of bleeding comrades behind us at every step, but not one instant did that line hesitate – it moved steadily forward to the enemy’s works – over the works with a shout – over the cannon – over the rebels, and then commenced stern work with the bayonet, but the despairing cries of surrender soon stopped it, the firing ceased, and 1,000 rebels were hurried to the rear as prisoners of war…
When the cheer of victory went up I recollect finding myself in a tangled lot of soldiers, on my horse, just against the enemy’s log breast-works, my hat off, and tears streaming from my eyes, but as happy as a mortal is ever permitted to be. I could have lain down on that blood stained grass, amid the dying and the dead and wept with excess of joy. I have not language to express the rapture one feels as if the joy were worth risking a hundred lives to attain it. Men at home will read of that battle and be glad of our success, but they can never feel as we felt, standing there quivering with excitement, amid the smoke and blood, and fresh horrors and grand trophies of that battlefield….
[By the next afternoon] …the intelligence that the enemy had “evacuated Atlanta last night, blowing up 86 car loads of ammunition and destroying large amounts of public stores.” Then went up more lusty cheers than were ever head in that part of Georgia before. Atlanta was ours; the object of our campaign was accomplished, and of course, we were happy….
Major James A. Connolly to his wife, September 11, 1864.
(Source: The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It; Brooks D. Simpson, Editor, 2013, pages 380-383)
The Capture of Atlanta
The campaign resulted in approximately 37,000 Union and 32,000 Confederate casualties, but by September 3, 1864, the city of Atlanta was firmly in Union hands. The series of battles and skirmishes had cut supply lines, and on September 1, Confederate General John Bell Hood pulled his army out of the city. The following day city officials sent word to the Union officers, requesting protection for private property and civilians, thereby surrendering. Union General William T. Sherman sent his telegram on September 3, announcing a victory that would alter military and political history: “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.”
As illustrated by Major Connolly’s letter, the Union troops did not just waltz into Atlanta. Hard fighting had won them their victory. Connolly – an aide to Brigadier General Baird – described the second day of the Battle of Jonesborough, when the Union troops broke through the Confederate lines near Lovejoy Station.
The Burning of Atlanta?
Fires burned as the Confederates left town and the Yankees came. Why? The Confederates had lit some buildings on fire in an attempt to prevent supplies from falling into Federal hands; over 80 railroad cars burned, some filled with exploding ammunition.
But…Sherman didn’t burn Atlanta in September 1864. Instead, he established his headquarters within the city. He encamped his troops in and around the city, promising to get them their soldier’s pay and grant them a time of rest after the months of fighting.
On September 5, the provost issued orders for the Atlanta civilians sympathetic to the Confederacy to leave the city. General Hood protested, leading to a series of letters between the army commanders and petitions from the mayor. General Sherman stuck to his plan, adding Special Order No. 67 on September 8, directing that Atlanta would be used “exclusively for warlike purposes” and only the soldiers of the United States would remain in the city. Repair of the defenses, orders for his soldiers to avoid occupying houses, and permission for the men to dismantle structures for building material followed.
However, Sherman’s new plans did not include holding the city of Atlanta permanently or leaving a significant occupation force. So, on November 15, 1864, the city was burned, leaving ashes behind as Sherman and his army headed out on their next military objective.
The capture of Atlanta signaled a significant turning point in the Civil War and a political turning point. As the news of Sherman’s success flooded the Northern newspapers, it helped to overwhelm the peace proposals advocated by the Democrat Party platform in the 1864 presidential election. That’s not to say the peace advocates disappeared, but their complaint about the war’s cost without significant victories evaporated, leaving Lincoln and the Republican party in a better position.
It’s yet another example of how one event leads to another in history…