"The next morning [Confederate] General [William J.] Hardee was gone, and we all pushed forward along the railroad south, in close pursuit, till we ran up against his lines at a point just above Lovejoy's Station. While bringing forward troops and feeling the new position of our adversary, rumors came from the rear that the enemy had evacuated Atlanta, and that General [Henry W.] Slocum was in the city. Later in the day I received a note in Slocum's own handwriting, stating that he had heard during the night the very sounds that I have referred to [explosions]; that he had moved rapidly up from the bridge about daylight, and had entered Atlanta unopposed. His letter was dated inside the city, so there was no doubt of the fact. General [George] Thomas's bivouac was but a short distance from mine, and, before giving notice to the army in general orders, I sent one of my staff-officers to show him the note. In a few minutes the officer returned, soon followed by Thomas himself, who again examined the note, so as to be perfectly certain that it was genuine. The news seemed to him too good to be true. He snapped his fingers, whistled, and almost danced, and, as the news spread to the army, the shouts that arose from our men, the wild hallooing and glorious laughter, were to us a full recompense for the labor and toils and hardships through which we had passed in the previous three months.”— William Tecumseh Sherman, The Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman (1875)
“Then a strangely incongruous sight struck her [Scarlett O’Hara’s] eyes….Men, women and children, black and white, hurried, hurried with straining faces, lugging packages and sacks and boxes of food — more food than she had seen in a year. The crowd suddenly gave a lane for a careening carriage and through the lane came the frail and elegant Mrs. Elsing, standing up in the front of her victoria, reins in one hand, whip in the other. She was hatless and white faced and her long gray hair streamed down her back as she lashed the horse like a Fury. Jouncing on the back seat of the carriage was her black mammy, Melissy, clutching a greasy side of bacon to her with one hand, while with the other and both feet she attempted to hold the boxes and bags piled all about her….Scarlett screamed to her, but the tumult of the crowd drowned her voice and the carriage rocked madly by.
“For a moment she could not understand what it all meant and then, remembering that the commissary warehouses were down by the railroad tracks, she realized that the army had thrown them open to the people to salvage what they could before the Yankees came.”—Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind (1936)
The destiny of the United States changed utterly on this day in 1864 when the mayor of Atlanta surrendered his city to Union forces. Only 10 days before, Union armies had appeared so stalled on all fronts that Abraham Lincoln felt obliged to compose a message detailing how he intended to cooperate to preserve the Union with former General George B. McClellan if, as it seemed increasingly likely, “Little Mac” and the Democratic Party defeated Lincoln in the fall Presidential election.
The day after this transportation hub of the Confederacy capitulated, though, General William Tecumseh Sherman had written Gen. Henry Halleck, the de facto army chief of staff, “So Atlanta is ours and fairly won.”
So, it soon became apparent, was Lincoln’s victory. Writing this past weekend in The Wall Street Journal, historian Fergus Bordewich notes that Lincoln’s running mate, Andrew Johnson, botched Reconstruction when he succeeded to the Presidency after the Great Emancipator’s assassination, but that the consequences would have been “momentous” if their ticket had lost in November 1864:
“Although he expressed a willingness to continue the war if necessary, in practical terms McClellan's victory in the election would likely have led to European recognition of the Confederacy, Southern independence, and the forcible return to slavery of the hundreds of thousands of former slaves who had fled to the Union armies for safety.”
For all the many—and enormous—differences between the two passages above, they are united in one feeling: astonishment. Sherman is jubilant that the three-month siege of Atlanta is over, that it’s all ended now—both the foot-by-foot, thrust-and-parry campaign of maneuver against wily, defensive-minded Confederate’s Joseph E. Johnston and the pitched battles of the latter’s offensive-minded but recklessly brave replacement, John Bell Hood .
Astonishment of a different sort underlies Scarlett O’Hara’s feelings about the fall of the city in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gone With the Wind. With a news blackout existing in effect, most city residents had little idea of the progress (or lack of same) of Confederate arms. Now, it appears, for Scarlett and thousands of others, Armageddon is at hand.
Besides the different perspectives of victory and defeat (not to mention nonfiction and fiction), these passages are also marked by different perceptions of order. For Sherman, a peacetime banker whose world was profoundly darkened by the Panic of 1857—and whose wonderful subsequent appointment as superintendent of the Louisiana Military Academy had come to an end because of secession—the victory, he thought, meant the consolidation of the prewar order.
Scarlett, however, senses that disorder is at hand, in the cry repeated throughout this chapter: “The Yankees are coming!” A city that had, in a real sense, gained much of its influence throughout the war as the site where so many had fled from Union troops in Tennessee and Mississippi was now experiencing its own refugee crisis.
Neither the capital of Georgia nor even its largest city, Atlanta had leveraged its position as a railroad hub, so that by 1863 its population had reached 20,000, making it the 12th-largest city in the Confederacy. As Sherman had pressed harder in the spring and summer of 1864, however, the population had fallen back to roughly 3,000. That was the state of affairs when Sherman issued one of the most controversial orders of the war.
The Union general believed that Confederate refugees had acted as a drag on the advancement of Union armies in Memphis, Vicksburg, Natchez and New Orleans. Now, foreseeing that “sutlers and traders” were about to descend on Atlanta, too, he decided to take a step that even his dispassionate explanation a decade after the events in his memoirs failed to mitigate: “to remove the entire civil population, and to deny to all civilians from the rear the expected profits of civil trade.”
Sherman’s relocation order worsened an already perilous refugee crisis. Moreover, the steps taken by his troops to cripple the South’s war effort—machine shops, foundries, railroads, depots—blended in the mind of the region with the destruction left by Hood. (To ensure that the Union captured nothing of consequence from the city’s railroad stock, the latter blew up over 80 railroad cars filled with ammunition, in the process wrecking homes whose losses would later be ascribed to the Yankee and his men.)
There is another aspect of Margaret Mitchell’s evocation of havoc. The chaos seems at first to affect everyone the same, both black and white. But Mrs. Elsing’s black mammy, Melissy, proves as utterly incompetent at protecting her mistress’s precious food supply as Scarlett’s maid Prissy is in assisting Melanie Wilkes’ childbirth. Melissy's failure also prefigures Mitchell’s (and the racist white South’s) belief that blacks will be even more irresponsible in running state governments during Reconstruction.
Mitchell’s gripping narrative of the fall of Atlanta laid the marker for perhaps the most vivid scene in the 1939 film adaptation. But, like Sherman, she never realized the pathos of the African-Americans who were also swept up in the maelstrom engulfing Atlanta in September 1864—and who would find themselves with even less protection from the storm when the federal government withdrew its troops from the South beginning in 1877.