Correspondence with the City Leaders of Atlanta, Georgia
September 11–12, 1864
A Union general responds to pleas to spare a city
"We must have peace, not only at Atlanta, but in all America. To secure this, we must stop the war that now desolates our once happy and favored country. To stop war, we must defeat the rebel armies which are arrayed against the laws and Constitution that all must respect and obey."
Late in the summer of 1864, the leaders of the Union Army made a change in their military plans. Before this time, they had concentrated on finding enemy troops and beating them on the field of battle. But they gradually concluded that this approach did not go far enough to bring a timely end to the war. Instead, they decided to adopt a strategy of "total war." This strategy involved confiscating (seizing) or destroying private property belonging to Southern civilians (people who are not part of the army, including women and children), in addition to targeting the Confederate Army and its military supplies. The Union leaders hoped that total warfare would break the spirit of the Southern people and make them lose their desire to continue the war.
Union general William Tecumseh Sherman (1820–1891) led an army of over one hundred thousand men in the western theater (the area west of the Appalachian Mountains) during this time. His troops spent much of the spring of 1864 chasing a considerably smaller Confederate force under General Joseph E. Johnston (1807–1891) through Tennessee and Georgia. Sherman wanted to claim a major victory in order to restore Northerners' fading faith in the war effort. But Johnston frustrated his rival by using a series of strategic retreats to avoid direct fighting with Sherman's larger army. This tactic enabled Johnston to keep his army together. By the time summer arrived, however, Sherman had pushed Johnston's forces to the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia—one of the major industrial cities of the Confederacy.
Sherman was not the only person who had been frustrated by Johnston's evasive tactics. Confederate president Jefferson Davis (1808–1889) viewed his general's decision to retreat as an unwillingness to fight. Like Sherman, Davis felt that he needed a big victory on the battlefield in order to improve the morale of his people. So Davis replaced Johnston with Lieutenant General John B. Hood (1831–1879), a bold leader known for his aggressive style. Hood went on the offensive against Sherman's larger Union forces in mid-July. The Confederate Army suffered thousands of casualties (killed and wounded soldiers) in a series of battles around Atlanta. By August, Hood and his troops were trapped in the city.
Rather than attacking Atlanta directly, Sherman decided to lay siege to the city. He surrounded it with troops, cut off the Confederate supply lines, and began pounding the enemy forces with artillery fire. Finally, Hood was forced to evacuate his men from the city. The Union Army captured Atlanta on September 2, 1864, after four months of nearly constant fighting. President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) and others across the North were thrilled when they heard the news. Lincoln declared a national day of celebration and ordered 100-gun salutes in a dozen major Northern cities. The victory convinced many Northerners to renew their support for the war effort and for Lincoln.
When Sherman marched into Atlanta, he found that parts of the city were in ruins from weeks of Union bombing. In addition, Hood's retreating troops had blown up a supply train and taken all the valuables they could carry in order to prevent them from falling into Union hands. As a result, many of the civilians who remained in Atlanta had lost their homes and were having trouble feeding their families.
Sherman decided to stay in Atlanta for several weeks in order to rest and resupply his troops. But the general had seen what had happened when other Southern cities were captured and occupied by Union troops. In some cases, whole army divisions became bogged down in caring for civilian residents. Sherman knew that he could not feed the people of Atlanta in addition to his own army. He also knew that some Southern civilians accepted Union assistance and then turned around and acted as spies for the Confederacy. After considering these factors, Sherman decided to send a message to Confederate leaders and the people of the South. Under the Union's new strategy of total warfare, Sherman ordered all civilians to leave the city of Atlanta immediately.
Sherman's order was controversial, especially in the South. Southern newspapers called the Union general the "chief among savages" and the "foremost villain in the world" for what they considered his cruel and unfair treatment of civilians in Atlanta. Prominent officials from both the city and the Confederacy protested against the order. But Sherman believed that this measure was both necessary and right. "If the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war, and not popularity-seeking," he stated. "If they want peace, they and their relatives must stop the war."
The following letters highlight the debate that took place over Sherman's decision to evacuate the civilian population from Atlanta. The first one is a letter addressed to Sherman from Atlanta mayor James M. Calhoun (1811–1875) and two members of the city council, E. E. Rawsom (1818–1893) and S. C. Wells. These re
Things to remember while reading General Sherman's correspondence with the city leaders of Atlanta:
- In his letter, Sherman tries to tell the people of Atlanta why they must leave the city, but does so without revealing his military strategy. "I cannot impart to [tell] you what we propose to do," he writes, "but I assert that our military plans make it necessary for the inhabitants to go away." Two months later, Union troops set fire to the city in order to destroy everything that could possibly be used by the Confederates.
- Sherman knows that the Confederates are outraged by his treatment of Southern civilians. But he claims that the Confederates have been practicing total warfare for some time, with terrible consequences for Union supporters in the border states (states that allowed slavery but still remained loyal to the Union). "I myself have seen in Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, hundreds and thousands of women and children fleeing from your armies and desperadoes [reckless and dangerous criminals], hungry and with bleeding feet," he writes.
Letter from the city leaders of Atlanta to General Sherman:
Atlanta, Georgia, September 11, 1864
Major-General W. T. Sherman.
Sir: We the undersigned, Mayor and two of the Council for the city of Atlanta, for the time being the only legal organ of the people of the said city, to express their wants and wishes, ask leave most earnestly but respectfully to petition you to reconsider the order requiring them to leave Atlanta.
At first view, it struck us that the measure would involve extraordinary hardship and loss, but since we have seen the practical execution of it so far as it has progressed, and the individual condition of the people, and heard their statements as to the inconveniences, loss, and suffering attending it, we are satisfied that the amount of it will involve in the aggregate consequences appalling and heart-rending.
Many poor women are in advanced state of pregnancy, others now having young children, and whose husbands for the greater part are either in the army, prisoners, or dead. Some say: "I have such a one sick at my house; who will wait on them when I am gone?" Others say: "What are we to do? We have no house to go to, and no means to buy, build, or rent any; no parents, relatives, or friends, to go to." Another says: "I will try and take this or that article of property, but such and such things I must leave behind, though I need them much." We reply to them: "General Sherman will carry your property to Rough and Ready, and General Hood will take it thence on." And they will reply to that: "But I want to leave the railroad at such a place, and cannot get conveyance from there on."
We only refer to a few facts, to try to illustrate in part how this measure will operate in practice. As you advanced, the people north of this fell back; and before your arrival here, a large portion of the people had retired south, so that the country south of this is already crowded, and without houses enough to accommodate the people, and we are informed that many are now staying in churches and other out-buildings.
This being so, how is it possible for the people still here (mostly women and children) to find any shelter? And how can they live through the winter in the woods—no shelter or subsistence, in the midst of strangers who know them not, and without the power to assist them much, if they were willing to do so?
This is but a feeble picture of the consequences of this measure. You know the woe, the horrors, and the suffering, cannot be described by words; imagination can only conceive of it, and we ask you to take these things into consideration.
We know your mind and time are constantly occupied with the duties of your command, which almost deters us from asking your attention to this matter, but thought it might be that you had not considered this subject in all its awful consequences, and that on more reflection you, we hope, would not make this people an exception to all mankind, for we know of no such instance ever having occurred—surely never in the United States—and what has this helpless people done, that they should be driven from their homes, to wander strangers and outcasts, and exiles, and to subsist on charity?
We do not know as yet the number of people still here; of those who are here, we are satisfied a respectable number, if allowed to remain at home, could subsist for several months without assistance, and a respectable number for a much longer time, and who might not need assistance at any time.
In conclusion, we most earnestly and solemnly petition you to reconsider this order, or modify it, and suffer this unfortunate people to remain at home, and enjoy what little means they have.
James M. Calhoun, Mayor.
E. E. Rawson, Councilman.
S. C. Wells, Councilman.
Reply from General Sherman to the city leaders of Atlanta:
Headquarters Military Division of the Mississippi, in the Field
Atlanta, Georgia, September 12, 1864
James M. Calhoun, Mayor, E. E. Rawson and S. C. Wells, representing City Council of Atlanta.
Gentlemen: I have your letter of the 11th, in the nature of a petition to revoke my orders removing all the inhabitants from Atlanta. I have read it carefully, and give full credit to your statements of the distress that will be occasioned, and yet shall not revoke my orders, because they were not designed to meet the humanities of the case, but to prepare for the future struggles in which millions of good people outside of Atlanta have a deep interest. We must have peace, not only at Atlanta, but in all America. To secure this, we must stop the war that now desolates our once happy and favored country. To stop war, we must
You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace. But you cannot have peace and a division of our country. If the United States submits to a division now, it will not stop, but will go on until we reap the fate of Mexico, which is eternal war. The United States does and must assert its authority, wherever it once had power; for, if it relaxes one bit to pressure, it is gone, and I believe that such is the national feeling. This feeling assumes various shapes, but always comes back to that of Union. Once admit the Union, once more acknowledge the authority of the national Government, and, instead of devoting your houses and streets and roads to the dread uses of war, I and this army become at once your protectors and supporters, shielding you from danger, let it come from what quarter it may. I know that a few individuals cannot resist a torrent of error and passion, such as swept the South into rebellion, but you can point out, so that we may know those who desire a government, and those who insist on war and its desolation. You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war, which can only be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated by pride.
We don't want your negroes, or your horses, or your houses, or your lands, or any thing you have, but we do want and will have a just obedience to the laws of the United States. That we will have, and, if it involves the destruction of your improvements, we cannot help it.
You have heretofore read public sentiment in your newspapers, that live by falsehood and excitement; and the quicker you seek for truth in other quarters, the better. I repeat then that, by the original compact of Government, the United States had certain rights in Georgia, which have never been relinquished and never will be; that the South began war by seizing forts, arsenals, mints, custom-houses, etc., etc., long before Mr. Lincoln was installed, and before the South had one jot or tittle of provocation. I myself have seen in Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, hundreds and thousands of women and children fleeing from your armies and desperadoes, hungry and with bleeding feet. In Memphis, Vicksburg, and Mississippi, we fed thousands upon thousands of the families of rebel soldiers left on our hands, and whom we could not see starve. Now that war comes home to you, you feel very different. You deprecate its horrors, but did not feel them when you sent car-loads of soldiers and ammunition, and moulded shells and shot, to carry war into Kentucky and Tennessee, to desolate the homes of hundreds and thousands of good people who only asked to live in peace at their old homes, and under the Government of their inheritance. But these comparisons are idle. I want peace, and believe it can only be reached through union and war, and I will ever conduct war with a view to perfect and early success.
But, my dear sirs, when peace does come, you may call on me for any thing. Then will I share with you the last cracker, and watch with you to shield your homes and families against danger from every quarter.
Now you must go, and take with you the old and feeble, feed and nurse them, and build for them, in more quiet places, proper habitations to shield them against the weather until the mad passions of men cool down, and allow the Union and peace once more to settle over your old homes at Atlanta. Yours in haste,
W. T. Sherman, Major-General commanding.
What happened next . . .
After resting his army for several more weeks, Sherman ordered his troops to destroy everything in the city that could be used for military purposes. On November 15, Union soldiers set fire to manufacturing plants, machine shops, railroad tracks, and train depots. But the fires soon spread out of control. Flames engulfed Atlanta's main business district and moved on to residential areas. Union major Henry Hitchcock (1829-1902) described the scene as Atlanta burned: "Immense and raging fires light up whole heavens. First, bursts of smoke, dense, black volumes, then tongues of flame, thenhuge waves of fire roll up into the sky. Presently, the skeletons of great warehouses stand out in relief against sheets of roaring, blazing, furious flames." One-third of the city was eventually destroyed, including between four thousand and five thousand homes.
People throughout the South were shocked and outraged when they heard that Sherman's army had burned Atlanta. But Sherman continued to defend his actions. He believed in the concept of total war—warfare involving not only the official participants (the armies), but also the civilian populations of the warring states. He felt that defeating the Confederate Army on the battlefield was not enough to ensure a lasting peace. He thought it was also necessary to break the spirit of the civilian population that supplied the army and supported the war effort. Sherman believed that by showing ordinary Southerners the destructive power of war, he could make them want to surrender. "Sherman expressed more bluntly than anyone else the meaning of total war," James M. McPherson wrote in Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. "He was ahead of his time in his understanding of psychological warfare, and he was in a position to practice it."
As it turned out, evacuating and burning Atlanta were only the first steps in Sherman's practice of total warfare. After capturing Atlanta, Sherman "began to realize that the whole nature of the war had changed, and that a radical reconsideration of possible objectives might be necessary. He was in the very heart of the South, and he had subject to his orders many more soldiers than his foe could bring against him," Bruce Catton wrote in The Civil War. "He had broken the shell of the Confederacy, and—as he was to remark—he was finding hollowness within. His problem was to find the best way to exploit [make use of] that hollowness."
Sherman adopted a bold new strategy. He decided to march sixty-two thousand members of his army eastward across Georgia to the city of Savannah on the Atlantic coast. He would basically ignore General Hood's Confederate forces, which had moved north toward the Tennessee border. Instead, he would concentrate on waging total war against the Southern people. "If the North can march an army right through the South, it is proof positive that the North can prevail [triumph]," he wrote to General Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885), head of all the Union forces. "I can make this march and make Georgia howl!"
During this famous "March to the Sea," Sherman's army lived off the land, with no outside supplies or communications. Sherman spread his forces into a line that stretched sixty miles wide, and authorized them to "forage [search for and raid] liberally" for food and supplies. They cut through the heart of the Confederacy, taking whatever they could use and destroying whatever was left that could be used by the Confederate Army. The official army foraging parties were joined by groups of people called "bummers." These lawless groups followed along with the Union troops, robbing Southerners and burning their property for the fun of it. Sherman did not take steps to stop the bummers because they were basically doing what he wanted—waging total war.
Sherman concluded his historic march by successfully capturing Savannah on December 24, 1864. He was considered a great hero by the North and a horrible villain by the South. The March to the Sea claimed a great deal of food and other supplies that would have gone to support the main Confederate Army led by General Robert E. Lee (1807–1870). As a result, Lee's army existed on minimal rations and grew weaker. But perhaps more importantly, Sherman's march changed public opinion in the South against the war. Many Southerners, particularly in Georgia, came to believe that continuing the fight was not worth the cost Sherman forced them to pay. The Civil War ended in a Union victory just a few months later.
Did you know . . .
- Sherman came up with an innovative way of destroying railroad lines so that they could not be used by the Confederates. First, his Union troops lit wooden railroad ties to create huge bonfires. Next, they laid the metal rails across the flames. When the middle of a rail became red hot, the soldiers twisted it into a pretzel shape known as a "Sherman necktie." It was impossible to straighten the rail without using a heavy milling machine. Sometimes the Union troops bent the rails around trees. For many years after the Civil War ended, it was still possible to see trees wrapped with Sherman neckties in the Georgia countryside.
- In the years after the Civil War ended, Sherman became close friends with both of his major rivals from the Atlanta campaign—Johnston and Hood. Johnston even helped carry the casket at Sherman's funeral.
- General George S. Patton (1885–1945)—one of the most famous U.S. Army leaders during World War II (1939–45)—admired Sherman and studied his military strategies. Some historians claim that Patton used some of Sherman's tactics during the Allied invasion of France in 1944, in which American troops successfully freed the country from German control.
For Further Reading
Carter, Samuel. The Siege of Atlanta, 1864. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1973.
Castel, Albert. Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992.
Fellman, Michael. Citizen Sherman: A Life of William Tecumseh Sherman. New York: Random House, 1995.
Hirshson, Stanley P. The White Tecumseh: A Biography of William T. Sherman. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1997.
Lewis, Lloyd. Sherman: Fighting Prophet. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1932. Reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
Sherman, William T. Memoirs of General William T. Sherman. New York: D. A. Appleton, 1886. Reprint, New York: Library of America, 1990.
Walters, John Bennett. Merchant of Terror: General Sherman and Total War. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973.