On September 2, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln received a telegram from General William Tecumseh Sherman that read, “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.” This was more than a victory. It was deliverance.
All summer Atlanta—like Petersburg, Virginia—had been a city under siege, and as these two stalemates dragged on, the prospects for the president’s reelection grew bleaker. They were dismal enough that at one point he said he expected to “be beaten, and beaten badly.” The war had gone on so long, and the casualties had been so severe, that enough voters in what remained of the Union were inclined to elect former general George McClellan, a Democrat, and trust him to make the best deal he could. There would, then, be no conclusive victory reestablishing the Union and ridding it of slavery. The bleeding would be stopped. But the return on all the suffering would be meager.
Atlanta had been holding out for some six weeks after Sherman’s army had defeated the forces under J. B. Hood in a series of bloody battles that pushed the Confederates into defensive positions inside the city where they, and the civilian population, were supplied by a single rail line. When that was cut in the battle of Jonesboro, Atlanta was doomed, and Hood took his troops out of the city, lest they starve there as John Pemberton’s army had at Vicksburg. On his way out, Hood put all useful military supplies to the torch, a scene that was dramatized 75 years later in Gone with the Wind.
A week after sending his message to the president, Sherman ordered that “the city of Atlanta, being exclusively required for warlike purposes, will at once be vacated by all except the armies of the United States.”
In a wire to his superior in the War Department, General Halleck, Sherman went on record. “If the people raise a howl against my barbarity or cruelty, I will answer that war is war and not popularity-seeking.”
And to the mayor of Atlanta, who did, indeed, protest an action that would make civilians homeless refugees with winter approaching, he said, in effect, that he agreed. That it was a hard and heartless thing, but, he added, “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”
He would do what he must, then, and Mayor Calhoun should do the same. Which meant he must leave Atlanta “and take with you your old and feeble, feed and nurse them . . . until the mad passions of men cool down and allow the Union and peace once more to settle over your old homes at Atlanta.”
And this was just the beginning.
The fall of Atlanta may have secured the reelection of Abraham Lincoln, but it did not mean the end of the Confederacy and the war. Lee still had an army in Virginia, besieged as it was. And Hood still had more than 30,000 men who could fight and fight hard. And there was, in Sherman’s rear, his nemesis Nathan Bedford Forrest, the cavalryman and raider who was one of the war’s most aggressive, creative, and lethal generals. In the course of the war, Forrest killed 31 men and had 29 horses shot out from under him.
These two were absolute antagonists, but they had similarly stark visions of war and its nature. Sherman made characteristically plain his desires when it came to Forrest. In the aftermath of the battle of Shiloh, Sherman witnessed the remarkable escape of Forrest, who had taken a ball in the spine but was still in the saddle, using a Union soldier as a shield. “Boys,” Sherman shouted to his soldiers, “forget the rest of the Confederates, run down that man and kill him. Bring me his body; I want to see him dead.”
Forrest escaped and lived to fight many other days, and Sherman went on to the conquests of Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and then Atlanta. He had done the last of these by cutting the final Confederate supply line into the city. Now, it was he who was vulnerable to the same tactic. Or so it seemed. Hood and Forrest could threaten the long Union line extending back into Tennessee and, ultimately, all the way up into Kentucky.
Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, saw possibility in this situation and took solace from an example in recent European military history. He promised victory to a formation of Confederate troops, “though misfortune has befallen our arms from Decatur to Jonesboro.”
“Our cause is not lost,” Davis said, for “Sherman cannot keep up his long line of communications; retreat sooner or later he must. And when that day comes, the fate that befell the army of the French empire in its retreat from Moscow will be reenacted. Our cavalry and our people will harass and destroy his arms, as the Cossacks that of Napoleon, and the Yankee general, like him, will escape with only a bodyguard.”