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1864 One Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago

May 2024
2min read

Gen. William T. Sherman’s Federal army entered the abandoned city of Atlanta on September 2 following a five-week siege. As the manufacturing and transportation center of the Deep South, Atlanta had long been a focus of Union strategy; its loss effectively reduced the Confederacy to Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

When Sherman began his drive on Atlanta in May, his hundred-thousand-man army was twice the size of Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate forces opposing him. But Sherman did not want to fight costly battles of attrition against a strongly positioned opponent on his way to Atlanta. Having explored this country as a young officer twenty years earlier, Sherman believed he “knew more of Georgia than the rebels did.” He maneuvered his large army through the mountainous terrain of northern Georgia with a mobility previously unseen in modern warfare. Flanking and countermarching, creating diversions, and attacking only when it was unavoidable, Sherman weaved his way south, forcing the Confederate Army of Tennessee to abandon favorable positions to cover the approach to Atlanta. “Sherman’ll never go to hell,” marveled one Confederate prisoner. “He’ll flank the devil and make heaven despite the guards.”

General Johnston, a specialist in defensive strategy, barely managed to beat Sherman to the trenches along Peach Tree Creek, just outside Atlanta. Despite the skill of Johnston’s retreat, the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, feared the city would be lost, and he installed the Kentuckian Gen. John Bell Hood in command. Hood, at thirty-three the youngest army commander of the war, was an aggressive fighter who rode strapped into his saddle after losing his right leg at the Battle of Chickamauga. Sherman was delighted to see the defensive strategist Johnston replaced; Hood acted exactly as Sherman had hoped, leaving the breastworks around Atlanta to engage the Union army in doomed frontal assaults. The Confederates lost nine thousand troops in these engagements.

Sherman rained artillery fire on the city for more than two weeks, ignoring the fact that it was still full of civilians. “If the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty,”Sherman said, “I will answer that war is war and not popularity-seeking.
If they want peace they and their relatives must stop war.” Hood finally had to abandon Atlanta on September 1 after Sherman had cut off its final railroad line. “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won” was Sherman’s laconic telegram announcing the most dramatic Union triumph of the war. The young historian Charles Francis Adams, serving in Grant’s army outside Richmond, declared Sherman’s campaign “like a sonorous epic… a poem.”

Sherman evacuated half the remaining civilian population of Atlanta and turned the city into a Federal military base from which he would spend the next several weeks trying to persuade Grant to allow him to continue the strategy he had defined early in the campaign with two words: “Salt water.”

∗Nevada entered the Union as the thirty-sixth state on October 31. Though the Nevada Territory had contained only about one-sixth of the population required for statehood, the federal government in Washington, D.C., encouraged Nevadans to seek statehood. President Lincoln wanted to add Republican votes to Congress in order to ensure passage of an antislavery amendment, while Congress believed the additional votes would give it more authority over Reconstruction. So great was the
eagerness for Nevada’s admission that when the territory passed its proposed state constitution, it was telegraphed whole to Washington, at a cost of $3,416.77.

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