The burning of Atlanta, seared into America's memory

There were fears in late 1939 that Pittsburgh-born David O. Selznick’s much anticipated film “Gone With the Wind” might not be shown in the producer’s hometown. Or, if it was shown, scenes from the Civil War-era love story between Clarke Gable’s Rhett Butler and Vivian Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara might be cut.

For many who saw the film during its premiere that year in New York and Atlanta, the most memorable scenes were Selznick’s recreation of the “burning of Atlanta,” as retreating Confederate troops torched 80 railroad box cars of ammunition on Sept. 1, 1864. Southern soldiers hoped to prevent the supplies from falling into the hands of the Union armies closing in on the city.

By the next day, Sept. 2, 1864, the Confederates had fled and Union forces captured the city.

The fall of Atlanta 150 years ago this week was pivotal to the outcome of the Civil War. It increased the odds that Abraham Lincoln would be re-elected president on the Republican Party platform to preserve the Union and abolish slavery.

The immediate effect was to destroy a key Confederate railroad center and manufacturing center, thus depriving Southern armies of vital supplies needed to carry on the war.

When “Gone With the Wind” finally opened in Pittsburgh on Jan. 26, 1940, nearly 2,000 “GWTM enthusiasts,” as they were dubbed by The Pittsburgh Press, braved near-zero temperatures and icy winds to attend the premiere at the old Warner Theater on Fifth Avenue in Downtown.

“Now it can be told,” wrote the Post-Gazette’s film and stage critic Harold Cohen, in a review that appeared the morning after the show opened, “that out of the pages of a magnificent book has leaped a magnificent motion picture.”

Nine weeks later the film closed. During its initial run at the Warner, the Press reported that about 302,000 people saw the movie, and ticket sales topped $243,000 — a staggering sum for those days.

The background for much of the film, and Margaret Mitchell’s 1,000-page novel on which it was based, was the drive by Union armies, led by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, south from Tennessee into northwest Georgia during the spring and summer of 1864.

In April, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the Union Army’s top commander, had ordered Sherman to attack the Confederate Army of Tennessee under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. Grant had also ordered Sherman “to get into the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war supplies.”

The Union high command also hoped Sherman would be able to prevent Johnston’s forces from reinforcing Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia thereby assuring, as one historian has put, “Grant’s expected war-ending victory in Virginia.”

With the capture of Atlanta, Sherman was well on his way to accomplishing part of his mission.

“So Atlanta is ours and fairly won,” Sherman telegraphed his superiors in Washington, hours after Confederate forces, now under the command of Gen. John B. Hood, abandoned the city. Soon his words were emblazoned in headlines in newspapers across the North. “Wild celebrations,” as some newspapers described them, greeted the news in many cities.

“The fall of Atlanta is the severest blow — considered both in military and political aspects — which the rebels have received since Vicksburg and Gettysburg,” wrote the editors of the Pittsburgh Evening Chronicle, a Republican-leaning newspaper.

The partisan press at work 

It was a presidential election year in 1864. And dispatches from the war front often competed with news of the upcoming election in Pittsburgh’s principal newspapers. The city’s newspapers were unapologetically partisan. And often their commentary on events on the battlefield was influenced by their politics.

For the editors of the Republican-leaning Pittsburgh Evening Chronicle, Sherman’s victory was a sign of God’s “special Providence.” A blessing, which in their view, had perhaps saved the nation from electing a president who might seek peace with the Confederacy at any price, including the recognition of the South as an independent nation.

In June, the Republicans, rebranding themselves as the National Union Party in order to attract “war Democrats,” nominated Lincoln for a second term as president during their convention in Baltimore.

But by August, with the war now in its fourth year and Union casualties rising rapidly, Lincoln despaired of being re-elected. On Aug. 23, even as Sherman’s army neared Atlanta, the president had his Cabinet sign a letter, without revealing its contents, promising to help the incoming president save the Union between the November election and inauguration day in March.

Later that week, the Democrats gathered in Chicago for their national convention and nominated Gen. George B. McClellan, who had led Union troops at the Battle of Antietem, for president.

They also approved a party platform excoriating the Lincoln administration for trampling on constitutional rights and waging a futile war. In addition, the platform called for an immediate cease-fire, with the aim of holding a convention all the states to work out a permanent peace.

McClellan accepted the nomination, but appeared to repudiate the spirit of his party’s platform, insisting that peace could only come if the Union was preserved.

The Democratic-leaning Pittsburgh Post applauded the Democratic convention’s indictment of Lincoln administration policies and felt it would resonate with the voters. It also predicted that McClellan, affectionately known as “Little Mac,” by the men under his command, would win overwhelming support among Union soldiers and their officers.

On the day Atlanta fell, The Pittsburgh Gazette, in its commentary on the recent Democratic convention, asked its readers: “Who will vote for McClellan?” The Republican-leaning newspaper had no doubt: “Every full-fledged traitor. ... Every man who is opposed to ‘coercing a sovereign State.’... Every deserter from the army, every shirker of his duty to his country.”

Atlanta, the Confederate boomtown

Atlanta, far away from much of the fighting, had thrived during the war. Its population had more than doubled from about 9,000 in 1860 to over 20,000 before hell broke lose in 1864.

It was, as the Gazette informed it readers, “one vast [Confederate] Government warehouse.” Located within its confines were “the principal machine shops of the principal railroads; the most extensive rolling mills in the South, foundries, pistol and tent factories.”

The Gazette noted that the now conquered city was the site of government factories capable of “casting shot and shell, making gun carriages, cartridges, caps, shoes [and] clothing.”

In a word, though the Gazette didn’t say it, Atlanta was in many ways a mirror image of Pittsburgh.

Now with Atlanta “fairly won,” Sherman had his own plans for the city. On Sept. 7, he notified Hood that he wanted to remove the 1,600 residents who had remained in the city as the Union armies closed in. Sherman said Union troops would escort those who wished to go north to Tennessee and Kentucky and asked Hood’s assistance in aiding those who wished to go south.

In a letter to his superiors in Washington, Sherman explained his “real reasons” for advocating what he knew was a controversial proposal: He wanted to use Atlanta’s buildings for Union war supplies. He wanted to leave only a minimal force to guard the town. He also did not want the responsibility of supplying food and clothing to the city’s beleaguered population.

Hood protested Sherman’s decision “in the name of God and humanity.”

There then passed between the two men— 44-year-old Sherman and 33-year-old Hood —an exchange of letters that set the stage for a debate that would last long after the Civil War was over.

“The unprecedented measure you propose transcends, in studied and ingenious cruelty, all acts ever before brought to my attention in the dark history of war,” Hood wrote Sherman.

But the Union general was unmoved, reminding Hood and other Southerners at every opportunity, that it was they who brought the war on themselves and the country.

“If we must be enemies, let us be men, and fight it out as we propose to do, and not deal with such hypocritical appeals to God and humanity,” Sherman replied. “God will judge us in due time.”

Atlanta’s mayor and city council members also implored Sherman to reconsider his expulsion order. But Sherman was adamant.

“War is cruelty and you cannot refine it,” he told Atlanta’s leaders. “But my dear sirs, when peace comes, you may call on me for anything. Then I will share with you the last cracker.”

Hammered home by Hollywood

Whatever his intentions, David Selznick, as much as anyone, has shaped the popular image of the siege of Atlanta. The scenes in “Gone With the Wind,” of the burning of Atlanta, filmed in a studio lot in Los Angeles while firefighters looked on in case the blaze got of control, are seared into the memories of many Americans.

Indeed, one of the foremost historians of the Atlanta campaign, Albert Castel, dated his own fascination with battle to a Friday afternoon in October 1942 when he saw “Gone With the Wind” at a matinee performance in a Wichita, Kan., movie theater.

With the civilian population expelled from the city, Sherman ordered his army to destroy machine shops, foundries, railroads, depots — anything that might aid the Confederate war effort.

The extent of the damage wrought by Sherman’s troops during their two-month occupation of Atlanta is still a matter of debate a century and half later.

“But the historical facts are clear that the entire city was not destroyed and Sherman was not solely responsible for the part that was,” wrote John F. Marszalek, one of the Sherman’s leading biographers. “Hood had destroyed numerous houses during his defense of the city and his evacuation in September.”

Mr. Marazalek continues: “Hood’s army exploded 80 cars of filled with ammunition, and as a later historian has phrased it, ‘the smoke and resulting fires [were] partially responsible for the loss of many homes and buildings later said to have been burned by Sherman.’ ”

On Nov. 8, Sherman notified his army that soon they would be leaving their base in Atlanta and begin “a long and difficult march to a new one.”

This seemingly routine maneuver history remembers as the “March to the Sea.” From mid-November to late December, Sherman’s troops would cut a swath of destruction across Georgia as they moved from Atlanta to Savannah.



© 2014 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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