Who Really Burned Atlanta?

atlanta burning

Harper’s Magazine: Destruction of the depots, public buildings, and manufactories at Atlanta, Georgia, November 15, 1864 – courtesy Library of Congress

Who Really Burned Atlanta?

Sometimes you just have to accept that there can never be a clear-cut answer to historical mysteries. Who burned Atlanta is one of those mysteries.  Perhaps by asking a few questions in the time-honored method of investigating a murder, such inquiry will yield some interesting possibilities.  Three criteria determine a valid suspect:

1. did someone have the means to commit the crime?

2. did someone have the opportunity to commit the crime?

3. did someone have the motive for committing the crime?

Let’s look at General Sherman first, since history (and GONE WITH THE WIND) have convicted him of burning Atlanta.

1. Did Sherman have the means to burn the city? Absolutely. With an army of 60,000 men rested, resupplied and ready for the next phase of a campaign whose objective they did not know, it would have taken no more than a regiment and a strong wind to torch the entire city.

2. Did Sherman have the opportunity to burn the city? Plenty. From the time he captured the city in early September until he set out on his March to the Sea in November, he could have done it whenever he wanted.

3. Did Sherman have a motive for burning Atlanta? This is where it gets fuzzier. True, there were storehouses of supplies Hood’s troops had left when they abandoned Atlanta, storehouses Sherman might not have wanted falling into Confederate hands once he left. The truth was that he  did not need those supplies, since his secret plan for the March was to “forage liberally”. Perhaps he wanted to deny food to any residents of the city once they were allowed to return to the city, in the spirit of denying civilians of food to pass on to an army. But to starve civilians? (See below, cultivating goodwill in a beaten foe.) I’m not so sure. Then there is the possibility that he wanted to set an example to Southerners about what was in store as long as they resisted. He burned Columbia, which I believe was pure revenge on South Carolina, because it was the first state to secede and the most vocal from the earliest time for being the “cradle of secession”.

Let’s turn to General Hood and pose the same questions.

1. Means? No, unless he somehow convinced returning citizens or spies to do it.

2. Opportunity? Again, limited to either returning residents or spies infiltrated into the city.

3. Motive? Two strong ones.  First, no one knew where Sherman was going, but it was logical to assume he needed supplies to get him there. Would someone want to deprive Sherman of supplies they assumed he needed? Clearly, ‘yes’. No one knew about his foraging orders that would make taking supplies unnecessary.

Next, let’s look at an overarching concern Lincoln, Grant and Sherman felt as they realized the Union would win the war, or at least imagined what kind of peace would be best for the country should they win it. They were deeply concerned about the possibility of a long, protracted guerrilla war waged by thousands of battle-hardened Confederate veterans. Years of assassinations and sabotage after surrender came loomed large in their thinking. Winning the war with a minimum of alienation of the civilian population and returning veterans dominated their planning. This is clearly demonstrated by the generous surrender terms tendered at Appomattox and Durham. Ironically, Sherman’s terms were so generous to his Southern foes that they were countermanded by Grant and Secretary of War Stanton, much to his own embarrassment! If the fear of guerrilla war was palpable, wouldn’t it be prudent not to kick a defeated populace when it was down?  In this case, not burn a city whose military and strategic value (as a rail and communications hub) had already been destroyed months earlier?

If, on the other hand, you were a die-hard Confederate hell-bent on pursuing the war (like I believe Hood was) in the face of overwhelming force and repeated defeats, how better to instigate the defeated South to   guerrilla war than by burning Atlanta and blaming the obvious culprit, the victor and devil incarnate, Sherman.

Who’s guilty?

Where is Atticus Finch when we need him?

About Antonio Elmaleh

Author of The Ones They Left Behind. A Civil War veteran, on a mission of peace and healing, attempts to re-create Sherman's March. Based on a true story.
This entry was posted in Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, Sherman's March to the Sea and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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