5d) Atlanta is Ours

On the night of September 1, having effectively surrounded the city, Sherman considered his next move. It seemed to him now that Hardee would be even more vulnerable to destruction the next morning. Schofield and Thomas would be in position then to attack together with overwhelming force or to pursue if need be and hunt him to the death. But there were rumblings in the night that gave him pause. To the east Confederate wagons were creaking southward. These might simply be Rebel wounded headed for hospitals in Macon. Then again they might be the first movement of a complete withdrawal from Jonesboro. If the Rebels were going to run, Sherman concluded, the Yankees would simply give chase. It was the rumblings from the north, though, that kept the sandy-haired commander awake this night. About midnight Sherman heard from Atlanta what he thought to be “sounds of shells exploding, and other sounds like musketry.” Slocum was under orders to “feel forward to Atlanta, as boldly as you can.” It was entirely possible that Slocum had done just that and was now engaged in a pitched battle with both S. D. Lee and Stewart’s corps. The distant concussion died away after a time only to flare up and again fade away shortly before dawn on September 2. First light brought no information about the meaning of Atlanta’s rumblings, but it did reveal that Hardee was gone. That at least gave restless Billy Sherman something to do. He got Schofield and Thomas in motion, six corps strong, headed down the track in search of Hardee’s three divisions.

That afternoon Sherman’s men found the Confederates once more, dug in near Lovejoy’s Station behind works so strong that they confirmed the Yankee infantryman’s belief that Rebels carried their breastworks with them. The bloody repulse of late afternoon attacks on these works likewise confirmed what no soldier needed confirmed: Rebels at bay were particularly dangerous. Sherman was unwilling now to do more on this front until he knew what was transpiring in his rear. Early in the day, Schofield had sent to say that he believed the racket from the city to be Hood destroying all he couldn’t carry away. At mid-morning he sent again with a report that a black man had come into his lines with news of “the great disorder and confusion” of a Rebel retreat from the city. Finally, sometime after midnight, a rider reached Sherman with a message from Slocum himself. He was in Atlanta. After Slocum had heard the explosions whose distant rumbling had troubled Sherman, he pushed forward cautiously at first light to see for himself. At the edge of the city, he was met by the Mayor of Atlanta, James M. Calhoun, and his delegation. “The fortunes of war have placed the city of Atlanta in your hands,” said Calhoun. “I ask protection for noncombatants and private property.” The combatants of course were on their way south, blowing up everything of military value behind them. Slocum sent a courier with the news to Sherman now on the road to Lovejoy’s and this wire to Washington: “General Sherman has taken Atlanta.” Thus it was that Washington learned of the fall of Atlanta before its conqueror.

Hood’s army, it was true, had escaped intact and was now reunited behind stout works at Lovejoy’s Station. In light of Grant’s original intention for this campaign–to break up the Army of Tennessee–Sherman had failed. Still, Sherman could rightfully wire Halleck of his own high achievement: “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.” And what was won was precisely what Richmond could not afford to lose. Atlanta was, as Sherman intended, “a used-up community.” What remained of its industrial plant was now in Yankee hands. The vital railroads that led to Macon and Montgomery and thence to both the Confederacy’s Gulf and Atlantic coasts were cut, even as the Federal navy was strangling its ports. Further, if Sherman had not destroyed the Army of Tennessee, four months of fighting had struck it a crippling blow. Sherman’s legions had killed, wounded, and captured some 35,000 Confederates while losing 31,500 of their own. Harder to measure but telling nonetheless, the campaign had blunted the Army of Tennessee’s fighting spirit. Except for the fierce repulse of the Yankees at Kennesaw Mountain, there had been only the long series of retreats under Johnston and the four furious but futile battles under Hood.

It may be, too, that Sherman’s victory in Atlanta also struck a blow in a city 700 miles to the north, Chicago, Illinois. There on August 29, the same day Sherman’s men were so earnestly wrecking the West Point road, the Democratic National Convention met to draft a platform and choose a presidential candidate. They met in the Wigwam, the ponderous barn of a building where Republicans had chosen unlikely Abe Lincoln to lead their party back in June of 1860. That convention was convulsed by the momentous issue of war; this by the equally momentous issue of peace. In the end, the convention resolved that four years of struggle “to restore the Union by the experiment of war” was a self-evident failure. Its candidate, the platform declared, would, as president, initiate “immediate efforts… for a cessation of hostilities.” In a convention of all the states “peace may be restored on the basis of the Federal Union of States.” It was frankly difficult for many in the North to understand how peace and union could both be achieved in the face of an implacable foe who continued to insist that disunion was the price of peace. It was a problem that vexed the candidate the Democrats ultimately chose, that greatly beloved and greatly flawed general, George B. McClellan. He accepted his party’s nomination and then seemed at least to repudiate its platform. “The Union is the one condition of peace–we ask no more.”

But while the Democrats were cobbling together their platform in Chicago, events in Georgia outran them. Sherman took Atlanta. Grant with his chokehold on Petersburg ordered a hundred shotted guns to fire a salute into the Confederate works. In cities all over the North, less lethal hundred-gun salutes exploded in celebration. Whatever else the Chicago platform meant or implied, it now began to appear to many that its clearest and most central premise was wrong. The war was not a failure. It was not a failure because Uncle Billy and his relentless and remorseless fighting men were winning it in Georgia. Suddenly Farragut’s victory in Mobile Bay back in early August loomed larger. “Sherman and Farragut,” crowed Secretary of State Seward, “have knocked the bottom out of the Chicago platform.” As for Sherman, he would let John Hood cool his heels for a bit at Lovejoy’s, and fall back on Atlanta himself to let his men rest and refit after 120 days of struggle. He had a plan, if Grant would approve it, that would “make Georgia howl.” Thoughtful Charleston diarist Mary Chesnut seemed to have a premonition of it. “Since Atlanta, I have felt that all were dead within me, forever,” she wrote. “We are going to be wiped off the earth.”