It is April 1864, exactly one hundred fifty years ago. The American Civil War is entering its fourth year as President Abraham Lincoln faces re-election. General William Tecumseh Sherman and his 110,000 Union soldiers prepare to invade Georgia, sights set on Atlanta. The fate of a nation hangs in the balance.
It is late April, 1864. General William T. Sherman plans to push his Union armies directly south by way of the Western and Atlantic Railroad, supply line for both the Union and Confederacy. The railroad leads Sherman to Atlanta, his target: home of the South’s most essential war industries. Sherman’s war in Georgia is about to begin.
Now in May, 1864, war in Georgia is imminent. A general who sleeps little and talks ceaselessly stands for the Union: 44-year-old William Tecumseh Sherman, the man who vows to make Georgia howl. Defending Georgia for the Confederacy is 57-year-old Virginian Joseph Eggleston Johnston, adored by his soldiers and thoroughly professional in manner. The battle is about to begin…
It is early May 1864. Johnston’s Confederate army lies in wait along Rocky Face Ridge defending their supply line. Sherman sends 24,000 troops under General McPherson from the south. Johnston is caught unawares. Instead of attacking, McPherson orders his weary men to entrench for the night. Confederate reinforcements arrive…the jig is up; opportunity gone. Sherman is sixty-five miles from Atlanta.
It is mid-May, 1864. Johnston’s army is entrenched at Resaca, protecting the railroad from Union troops. Having failed at Dalton, Sherman launches his attacks. Union Colonel Benjamin Harrison’s troops capture a fort with cannons. Both armies compete for ownership; the Union prevails. Nearly trapped again by Sherman’s army, Johnston retreats south. Sherman nears Atlanta as residents grow anxious.
It is the third week of May, 1864. Fifty miles from the city, Sherman’s men fan out across hills south of the Oostanaula. Near Cassville, Confederate General Johnston spies an opportunity to destroy an isolated column of Sherman’s army. But it never happens: Johnston finds Union soldiers on his flank. Johnston retreats south as the city readies for attack, Sherman now only thirty miles from Atl.
In the last week of May, 1864, Johnston’s Confederate army forms a defensive line that extends through Dallas from New Hope Church to Pickett’s Mill. Soldiers build dense fortifications of dirt and logs to protect their heads. Assaulting these is suicide; yet the Union advances, meeting heavy casualties. The fight at New Hope is named “The Hell Hole.” Attrition stalls Sherman’s advance on Atlanta.
It is the first week of June 1864. Sherman’s attempt to bypass the Confederates has distanced him from his supply line. Food and ammunition run low. Most soldiers are farmboys averaging 24 years old. Sherman’s soldiers are Westerners; veterans of victorious battles. Johnston’s are Southerners acquainted with defeat. Sherman’s advance stalls 25 miles from Atlanta, Confederate confidence restored.
It is a muggy day in early June 1864. Union Soldier Gilmer Watts pens a letter to his wife, Clara. Most soldiers on both sides of the conflict are literate: letters of love, shared memories, and a wish to be remembered are their lifeline home. Postal services deliver millions of letters to the troops monthly, but in war, they are not always delivered on time. Gilmer Watts is 25 miles from Atlanta.
It is mid -June, 1864.
Private Gilmer Watts sends news to his wife declaring that they’re well-equipped with supplies.
Clara responds, hopeful that the family will be spared to spend a happy life together.
Six days after writing his letter, Watts falls in the war, never to read his wife’s reply.
Today, Watts rests alongside 10,000 Union soldiers in the Marietta National Cemetery
The temperature reaches 100 degrees on the morning of June 27, 1864.
Soldiers are clothed in wool.
Confederates entrenched atop Kennesaw Mountain have blocked Sherman for nine days.
He orders an attack, and soon, the battle is hand-to-hand.
Men vomit from the heat; battle sounds assail the ears.
Sherman intends to take Atlanta by the Fourth of July, despite delays at Kennesaw Mountain.
On July 2, he bypasses Johnston, who withdraws toward the Chattahoochee. Atlantans panic; streets swarm.
Union armies decimate fences and crops, stealing food and livestock. Sherman’s men burn two textile mills and send 600 workers north as prisoners.
In early July 1864, Sherman’s army cuts across Atlanta’s final defender: the Chattahoochee River. Outflanked, Johnston retreats and burns the railroad bridge in his wake.
Johnston’s men still trust him, despite his months-long inability to outmaneuver the enemy.
While Sherman closes in, Atlanta’s women face the realities of war as nurses to the injured and dying.
It is mid-July, 1864.
The President of the Confederate States of America discharges General Johnston of his command for failing to halt the enemy’s drive to the gates of Atlanta.
The city is a fortress, encircled by ten miles of fortifications that have destroyed its forests.
It is the third week in July, 1864.
Union forces threaten to cut Atlanta’s railroad supply lines.
To Sherman’s surprise, Confederate General John Bell Hood attacks north of Atlanta on the twentieth, though his efforts fall short.
Unfazed, he strikes east of the city two days later, in what is known as the Battle of Atlanta.
It is late July, 1864.
Confederate General Hood holds Sherman outside Atlanta’s fortifications.
Union armies approach from the West, intending to cut the railroad and force Hood out.
Hood’s men counter by attacking Union trenches at Ezra Church, but they suffer a demoralizing defeat.
It is the first week of August, 1864.
Thus far, Sherman has been halted repeatedly, prompting him to aim a cannon into Atlanta to drive the enemy out.
Martha Powell writes of her family having to flee as Sherman invades.
One of the first civilians to die during Sherman’s siege is Solomon Luckie, a free African American who is struck on the corner of Whitehall and Alabama Streets on August ninth.
It is the third week of Sherman’s bombardment of Atlanta.
Union artillery rains shells on the city at an alarming rate: 6-10 a minute for hours on end.
The terror of bursting shells drives residents to bombproof structures, even underground, for refuge. Young Lucy Caldwell finds sanctuary in a pit dug six feet deep in her neighbor’s yard.
Sherman has shelled Atlanta for four weeks. A father and daughter die from a shelling while asleep, thus unnerving Atlanta. The Augusta Constitutionalist predicts the slaying of innocents to be one of the most tragic blights of the modern day. Burial records are not kept during the siege, but personal accounts reveal estimated deaths. And it's not over yet.
Sherman’s five-week attempt to fire Atlanta into submission isn’t working. With the Confederate army controlling the Macon Railroad, the siege is a stalemate. In the North, President Lincoln fears losing re-election if he is beaten, the war not won. On August 26, Atlanta residents awaken to a deafening silence. Union lines are empty: Sherman is gone, but no one knows what his next move will be.
It is late August, 1864.
In Chicago, the Democratic Party nominates George McClellan on a platform calling for peace.
Sherman marches around Atlanta to destroy its remaining supply line, the Macon Railroad.
Atlanta is doomed. Hood must evacuate the city or risk entrapment and starvation.
He ignites a trapped ammunition train.
Union troops march in. Sherman telegraphs Lincoln about his conquest.
On September 2, Mayor Calhoun surrenders Atlanta to Union troops.
Despite terrible accounts of the Yankees, residents find they are not “as bad as they are said to be.”
Then, Sherman issues order no. 67, expelling all residents from the city, turning Atlanta into a military encampment.
Mayor Calhoun writes Sherman to overturn the order; he responds, “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”
It is mid-September, 1864.
Sherman expels the city’s residents, allowing willing evacuees to carry a limited amount of property, including slaves.
During a ten-day truce, Union wagons load residents and property onto boxcars that will transport them southward.
Some find shelter in the homes of relatives; others have nowhere to go and are met with disease or death from damp, unsanitary conditions.