IF YOU APPROVE OF THE CENSORSHIP OF CONFEDERATE FLAGS AND MONUMENTS, YOU APPROVE OF TOTAL WAR—AND TOTAL WAR IS NOT A GAME.

“‘They came burning Atlanta today,’ wrote ten-year-old Carrie Berry in her diary.  ‘We all dread it because they say that they will burn the last house before they stop.’

“William Tecumseh Sherman fought long and hard to conquer that city, but now in preparation for his March to the Sea, he determined to leave nothing behind for Confederates to recover.  All railroad property, warehouses, mills, and factories in Atlanta would be leveled.  On Friday morning, November 11, 1864, he ordered engineer Orlando M. Poe to ‘commence the work of destruction at once, but don’t use fire until the last moment.’  Demolition teams had for a week been undermining masonry walls, weakening chimneys, and burying explosive charges.  A battering ram of railroad iron was required to shatter the stone walls of the railroad depot.  That night flames broke out in several parts of the city, destroying more than twenty residences, ‘the works of some of the soldiers,’ according to witness David Conyngham, ‘who expected to get some booty under cover of the fires.’  Atlanta’s fire engines were being loaded aboard freight cars, bound for Chattanooga, but went into action by order of Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum.  ‘Though Slocum knew that the city was doomed,’ continued Conyngham, ‘according to his just notions of things it should be done officially.  No officer or soldier had a right to fire it without orders.’

“Those orders came three days later, as the Federal army marched out of the city.  ‘All is solemnly desolate,’ noted Ohio captain George W. Pepper, commenting on the damage done to Atlanta by Federal shelling three months earlier.  ‘Clouds of smoke, as we passed through, were bursting from several princely mansions.  Every house of importance was burned on Whitehall street.’ Other buildings, public and private, were consumed.  ‘This is the penalty of rebellion,’ concluded Pepper.

“‘I rode through the city while the fire was at its height,’ said artillery officer Thomas Osborn.  ‘All the storehouses, manufactories, railroad buildings and such large blocks as might readily be converted into storehouses were burned.’ Though Osborn saw no residences deliberately fired, he conceded that advancing flames claimed nearby homes and ‘the center of the city was pretty thoroughly burned out.’

“That night an army band played ‘John Brown’s Body’ as the troops continued their trek south.  Col. Adin Underwood of Massachusetts was awestruck by the scene.  ‘No darkness—in place of it a great glare of light from acres of burning buildings.  This strange light, and the roaring of the flames that licked up everything habitable, the intermittent explosions of powder, stored ammo, and projectiles, streams of fire that shot up here and there from heaps of cotton bales and oil factories, the crash of falling buildings, and the change, as if by a turn of the kaleidoscope, of strong walls and proud structures into heaps of desolation; all this made a dreadful picture of the havoc of war, and of its unrelenting horrors.’

“By seven o’clock the next morning Sherman’s engineers estimated that 37 percent of the city had already burned, and the fire continued to spread.  Several churches escaped, though most did not.  Atlanta’s first house of worship built for blacks, on Jenkins Street, went up in flames.  The Medical College was spared when Dr. Peter D’Alvigny confronted soldiers igniting straw and broken furniture they had piled in the entrance hall.  The doctor shouted that sick and wounded soldiers were still inside, throwing open the door to prove it.

“On the evening of that second day Maj. Ward Nichols of Sherman’s staff described what he saw: ‘The heaven is one expanse of lurid fire; the air is filled with flying, burning cinders; buildings covering two hundred acres are in ruins or in flames; every instant there is the sharp detonation or the smothered booming sound of exploding shells and powder concealed in the buildings, and then the sparks and flame shoot away up into the black red roof, scattering cinders far and wide.’

“An Ohio infantryman witnessed ‘an ocean of fire’ sweeping over Atlanta, ‘leaving nothing but the smoldering ruins of this once beautiful city.’

“As darkness fell on the fire’s second day, James Patten, surgeon with the Federal army, paused on a rural road south of the city.  ‘We could see Atlanta burning,’ wrote the doctor.  ‘I looked at my watch and could see the time very plainly at a distance of ten miles.’

“The Daily Intelligencer later made a detailed street-by-street report on the results of the fire, concluding that two-thirds of Atlanta lay in ashes, with much of the rest damaged by Sherman’s earlier shelling.  ‘The stillness of the grave for weeks reigned over this once bustling, noisy city.’

“Major Nichols was told that the holocaust devoured no fewer than five thousand buildings before burning itself out.  ‘General Sherman is kind of careless with fire,’ observed the major.”

Walter Brian Cisco

Chapter 19: The Burning of Atlanta

WAR CRIMES AGAINST SOUTHERN CIVILIANS

2007

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