- Historic Sites
The Road To Modern Atlanta
THE VISITORS WHO COME HERE FOR THE OLYMPICS this summer won’t find Tara. What they will find is a city facing an unusual—and sometimes painful—past with clarity of vision and generosity of spirit.
April 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 2
A panoramic scene from the desperate battle that followed is depicted at the Cyclorama, a 42-foot-high and 356-foot-long circular painting and diorama housed in an imposing stone edifice in Grant Park, south of downtown. It portrays the fighting that took place on the afternoon of July 22, 1864, when Confederate units under the command of Gen. John Bell Hood penetrated Sherman’s line, provoking a furious counterattack. Viewers sit on a revolving platform and watch the bloody panorama unfold before them with sound and light effects. The painting was completed in 1887 by a corps of artists working for the American Cyclorama Company of Milwaukee. Sent on tour around the country, it finally came to rest in Atlanta in 1893, but not until 1921 did the work receive its handsome Classical Revival enclosure. The WPA restored the painting in the 1930s, adding three-dimensional figures and landscaping to enhance the illusion of reality. With the exception of Kennesaw Mountain, the battlefields of this campaign have for the most part been built or bulldozed over, although earthworks survive at several places outside Atlanta. An outfit called Civil War Tours takes visitors on tours of battle sites in and around the city.
When general hood realized that the defense of the city was hopeless, he withdrew his troops and ordered the destruction of an arsenal and railcars loaded with munitions. The flames spread, causing the first wave of Atlanta’s destruction. Sherman entered the city on September 2, and stayed for six weeks. If his staff officers wondered what the commander had in mind for Atlanta, their doubts vanished when the general remarked, “Atlanta…I’ve been fighting Atlanta all this time.…All the guns and wagons we’ve captured along the way—all marked ‘Atlanta.’” Sherman was determined to leave nothing behind that would be of use to the Confederacy. However, it seems that he did not intend to level the city utterly. He ordered that the civilian population be evacuated from Atlanta, but he also gave orders that private homes and churches were not to be harmed. When the systematic destruction of the factories, railroads, warehouses, and other military targets began, though, fire spread to residential neighborhoods. Sherman personally directed the effort to douse the flames and save the houses, but to no avail. One of his staff officers described the scene: “bursts of smoke, dense black volumes, then tongues of flame, then huge waves of fire roll up into the sky.…sheets of roaring, blazing, furious flames…lurid, angry, dreadful to look upon.” Some Yankees danced with glee amidst the destruction; others felt deep shame.
WHEN CITY OFFICIALS COUNTED out the money they had for rebuilding, they came up with $1.64.
The departure of the Union column provided only a brief respite from the city’s misery. Looters from the countryside descended to scavenge through the things the Federals had overlooked. Somehow they managed to fill 250 wagons with their plunder. But the Atlantans straggled back in, got the post office and the bars running again, and wearily began work on the broken and blasted rail lines. They elected a new mayor and slate of officials, who opened the treasury and counted out the money they had to finance the reconstruction of the city. They came up with the grand total of $1.64.
Atlanta was born of the railroad, and the railroad saved it. Just a year after the war ended, Atlanta’s population was almost twice what it had been at the start of the war, as people flooded in from the countryside to get work. Having destroyed Atlanta, the Yankees played a small part in rebuilding it. They placed the regional headquarters of the Freedmen’s Bureau there, and the bureau built Atlanta University for the education of former slaves. (White Atlantans, who had no comparable institution, soon founded Georgia Tech.)
Much of the rebuilding was the work of a carpetbagger, a man named H. I. Kimball who descended on Atlanta from Chicago after the war, allied himself with the hated Republican state officeholders, and opened the spigots of government cash to rebuild the city and enrich himself along the way. One of his greatest achievements came early: In 1868 he helped persuade the legislature to move the capital from Milledgeville to Atlanta. In 1870 he finished work on the city’s opera house, part of which he leased to the state for its capitol. In the same year he built the Kimball House, a lavish hotel. When it burned to the ground in 1883, he replaced it with an even grander edifice: a 440-room brick-and-stone palace that was the largest hotel in the South. In 1881 he got the World’s Fair and Great International Cotton Exposition for Atlanta. Later on a grand jury was unable to pin anything illegal on Kimball, and the city was left to contemplate all his good works. If some corners had been cut, then so be it. Atlantans were inclined to look ahead, not back.