During the Sesquicentennial of General William T. Sherman’s burning of Atlanta the Georgia Historical Society placed a marker on the Carter Center grounds implying that federal soldiers did not destroy residential dwellings during the evacuation of Atlanta.
The claim is false. The extent of the estimated damage varies widely, but there is little doubt that Sherman’s soldiers destroyed a great many homes.
One low-end estimate is the assertion by Captain Orlando Poe who was placed in charge of what was supposed to be a limited demolition. He estimated 37% of the city was destroyed. However, there is good reason to doubt the accuracy of his claim since he wrote an engineering superior in Washington before he executed his orders that by the time the letter arrived, “Atlanta will have ceased to exist.”
An Indiana soldier’s diary simply records, “We utterly destroyed Atlanta.”
After Sherman left, Georgia’s governor sent a militia officer named Howard to prepare an assessment. Howard spent four days methodically walking throughout the town. Eventually he prepared a map of every house left standing, because it was easier than mapping those that were destroyed. Within a half mile radius of downtown only 400 homes remained where there were once 3,600. He estimated that about 90% of Atlanta’s buildings had been destroyed.
Residents who returned after Sherman left were shocked. Six in addition to Howard left written records.
One was former Confederate cavalryman Zachariah Rice who returned just four days after the federals left. Among his observations was that “most all of the residences in the city have been burned that were unoccupied.” Since, nearly all residents were compelled to evacuate in September, Rice’s comment implies that a majority of the homes were destroyed.
Similarly, civilian James Crew returned about two weeks after the Union soldiers left. He wrote his wife of December 1, “At least two-thirds [of the city] has been destroyed.”
A reporter for the Augusta Chronicle & Sentinel wrote on December 15, “about three fourths of the buildings have been torn down or burned and about nine-tenths of the property value destroyed.”
On the Union army’s approach to Atlanta, towns north of the city, such as Cassville, Rome, and Marietta, were burned. Once Marietta shops and homes got caught up in the blaze some soldiers tried briefly, but futilely, to stop the spread. A youthful staff officer named Hitchcock commented to Sherman:
“[The town will] burn down, sir.”
“Yes,” said Sherman. “Can’t be stopped.”
“Was that your intention?”
The general answered indirectly, “Can’t save it…There are men who do this,” motioning to a nearby group of soldiers. “Set as many guards as you please, they will slip in and set fire.”
Shortly after entering Atlanta following the Marietta destruction, Wisconsin Corporal Harvey Reid wrote, “I don’t believe that Sherman contemplates burning anything but public buildings, but it is very evident that acts of vandalism will be winked at…[T]here are plenty who will not be slow to avail themselves of such tacit license.” A few days later Reid wrote, “many soldiers set fire to the houses they had been occupying as they left them.”
Similarly, a Connecticut captain wrote “for three days the fires have been raging like a furnace…and…have spread considerably among the residences…”
After a doctor for the 7th Illinois regiment marched into town he wrote, “Many houses had been burned and all day long the fires kept increasing in number.” An Ohio captain recorded, “no sooner did we arrive than the boys commenced burning every house in [the northwestern] part of town…[and]…soon that part of the city was gone.”
The Historical Society’s marker is bad history and should be corrected. Anyone wishing to make their opinion known on the matter can write the President, or Board Chairman, of the Society. The President is Todd Groce and the Board Chairman is Robert Jepson:
Mr. Robert Jepson, CEO, Jepson Associates, One Skidaway Village Walk, Savannah, Ga. 31411
Dr. W. Todd Groce, President, Georgia Historical Society, 501 Whitaker Street, Savannah, Ga. 31401