Sherman’s Letter to Atlanta: Setting the Scene
Welcome to part 1 of a small series on the letter General William T. Sherman sent to the city leaders of Atlanta, Georgia, in September 1864 before his army advanced on the city. Part of this letter has become famous as both a hard-bitten, honest description of war and an example of Sherman’s intransigence, his unwillingness to back away from inflicting the horrors of war that he so deplored. In general, the letter has the reputation of being unfeeling toward the citizens of Atlanta and blaming Sherman’s own war crimes on his situation.
In this series we will look at exactly what Sherman said in his letter, but first we’ll examine the letter he was responding to on September 12, 1864—the letter from the mayor and city council of Atlanta that Sherman had received the day before, September 11. And we’ll begin here by setting the scene for this famous exchange.
The Battle for Atlanta took place in July 1864, when Sherman’s forces defeated Confederate forces led by General John Hood. Hood had been retreating toward Atlanta from Tennessee just as General Joseph Johnston had done before him, and these months of steady retreat toward Atlanta had the city in a state of extreme anxiety. Hood’s army suffered heavy casualties in the July battles and fell back into the outskirts of Atlanta itself. Sherman besieged the city, firing shells into it while he sent detachments of his army to cut the supply lines between Atlanta and Macon. Confederate units repulsed these attempts, and so Sherman sent his entire army west to Jonesborough, where it finally cut off the line from Macon. Now without hope of new supplies of food, ammunition, or reinforcements, Hood withdrew his army from Atlanta on September 1st. He destroyed existing supply depots and set fire to loaded ammunition cars, leaving the city completely unable to defend or provide for itself.
Atlanta Mayor James Calhoun met with a Union office and surrendered the city to Sherman on September 2nd, asking for “protection to non-combatants and private property”. Sherman accepted these terms and telegraphed Washington the next day to let the president know that “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won”, and set up his headquarters in Jonesborough. Two weeks later, he ordered the burning of all public buildings, machine shops, depots, and arsenals in Atlanta, and sent word to the city to evacuate all citizens. The burning of the city was the first of many during the “march to the sea” that was meant to destroy the south’s ability to make war by destroying its military industry and its civilian infrastructure.
Thus the stage is set for the two letters between Atlanta and Sherman. In the next post we’ll look at the first—the letter the mayor and city council of Atlanta sent to Sherman.