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Union Troops Capture Atlanta

Union Troops Capture Atlanta

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With the outcome of the Civil War still in doubt, the North turned its hopes to Ulysses S. Grant, who in March 1864 was given command of all Union armies and promoted to lieutenant general, a rank last held in wartime by George Washington. In this capacity, Grant came up with a plan to attack the Confederacy simultaneously on multiple fronts, using “all parts of the army together.”

He participated in the so-called Overland Campaign himself, in which a large Union force engaged Confederate General Robert E. Lee in several bloody battles around Richmond, Virginia, the Southern capital. But after suffering an estimated 55,000 casualties (killed, wounded and missing) in just a few weeks, Grant was forced to back off and initiate a siege of Petersburg, Virginia, a rail hub that Richmond depended on for supplies.

Smaller Union forces fared no better on Virginia’s Bermuda Hundred peninsula and in the Shenandoah Valley, whereas a planned offensive against Mobile, Alabama, never even got off the ground following the disastrous Red River Campaign in Louisiana. To add insult to injury, Confederate raiders in July came within a hair’s breadth of entering Washington, D.C.

Only a campaign against Atlanta seemed to be making progress. Under General William T. Sherman, the successor to Grant as the top Union commander in the West, about 100,000 men departed Chattanooga, Tennessee, in May, heading south along a railroad line. In their way stood some 63,000 troops led by Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, who took up a series of strong defensive positions only to retreat each time after being outflanked by long, roundabout Union marches.

Wary of engaging his numerically superior opponents head on, Johnston tried to goad them into attacking. This strategy worked once, as his trench-protected soldiers cut down roughly 3,000 northerners who charged up Kennesaw Mountain on June 27, while losing fewer than 1,000 of their own.

But neither this setback nor near-daily skirmishes prevented Sherman from continuing his advance, oftentimes through heavy rain, including one storm in which a single lightning bolt killed or wounded 15 of his men. By the second week of July, Sherman’s force had reached the outskirts of Atlanta, then a city of around 20,000 that served as a rail hub and manufacturing center.

Fed up with the constant withdrawals, Confederate President Jefferson Davis replaced Johnston on July 17 with the aggressive General John B. Hood, whose right leg had been amputated at the Battle of Chickamauga and whose left arm had been permanently crippled at the Battle of Gettysburg. True to form, Hood decided not to rely on the extensive defensive fieldworks ringing Atlanta, which had been built largely by slave labor, and instead went on the attack.

His first offensive took place on July 20, when he attempted to drive back one of the three armies under Sherman’s command as it crossed Peachtree Creek. But although the Union force bent, it ultimately held its position, suffering about 1,700 casualties while inflicting at least 2,500.

Undeterred, Hood targeted a second Sherman army two days later in what would become known as the Battle of Atlanta. Prior to the fighting, he sent thousands of men on a secret, overnight march around the Union’s left flank. Despite arriving into position hours later than planned, they caught their opponents by surprise.

The delay proved costly, however, because Union commanders had readjusted their troops that morning. As a result, they were able to meet certain Confederate divisions head-on rather than being attacked from the side or rear. During the course of the battle, the southerners launched assault after assault from seemingly all directions, killing high-ranking General James B. McPherson and briefly breaching the Union line. Yet the Yankees rallied under McPherson’s replacement, General John A. “Black Jack” Logan, and when darkness fell the rebels were no closer to dislodging them.

Once more, the Confederates suffered more casualties than their Northern counterparts—an estimated 6,000 compared to 3,700—a particularly devastating outcome considering their already limited manpower.

On July 28, Hood initiated still another battle, his third in nine days. But his troops were defeated again at Ezra Church, an encounter that cost him some 3,000 men, in contrast to only 632 on the Union side. With it now clear that Hood could no longer effectively confront Sherman in the field, the Yankees stepped up their artillery bombardment of Atlanta and maneuvered to cut its railroad supply lines.

Once the last line fell in the midst of a fourth Union victory—arguably the most one-sided yet—Hood evacuated the city on September 1, blowing up a long munitions train on the way out so that it wouldn’t fall into enemy hands. As Yankee troops prepared to pour in the following day, Atlanta’s mayor officially surrendered. “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won,” Sherman boasted in a telegram.

Just a few weeks earlier, President Lincoln had doubted his re-election chances. “I am going to be beaten…and unless some great change takes place, badly beaten,” he purportedly told a White House visitor. Yet the capture of Atlanta, along with a subsequent Union victory in the Shenandoah Valley, completely changed the national mood. Lincoln would go on to win 55 percent of the popular vote and all but three states that November, receiving overwhelming support from the armed forces.

Meanwhile, Sherman’s troops were still in Atlanta, deporting over 1,600 of the city’s remaining civilian residents and destroying factories, warehouses and railroad installations, along with numerous private homes. “If the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty,” Sherman wrote to another general, “I will answer that war is war and not popularity-seeking.”

Rather than spend much time chasing Hood, who was attacking his supply line from Chattanooga to Atlanta, Sherman decided to press onward. On November 15, he and some 60,000 men set out on their so-called March to the Sea, in which they wrecked railroad tracks, pillaged and otherwise terrorized Georgia’s populace from Atlanta to Savannah.

Hood left them to their own devices, preferring instead to invade Tennessee. But his force was decimated by a reckless charge near Nashville, after which a Union attack sent what remained of his army into a full-scale retreat.

Less than four months later, as Sherman’s troops pushed up through the Carolinas, Grant captured Petersburg and Richmond and forced Lee to surrender, effectively ending Southern resistance once and for all.

Who Burned Atlanta?

Disunion follows the Civil War as it unfolded.

At 7 a.m. on Nov. 16, 1864, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman accompanied the last corps of his Union army as it left Atlanta to begin a virtually uncontested “March to the Sea,” which would end in Savannah five weeks later. Three miles outside the city, he stopped for a final look back. �hind us lay Atlanta smoldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in the air and hanging like a pall over the ruined city,” he recalled. Presently a nearby infantry band struck up John Brown’s anthem. “Never … have I heard the chorus of ‘Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!’ done with more spirit.” The men were proud of what they had done.

A little over six months earlier, Sherman and his men had started a campaign that culminated in the capture of Atlanta on Sept. 2, a victory that probably clinched President Abraham Lincoln’s re-election. But their most recent accomplishments were the destruction and civilian depopulation of Atlanta and other North Georgia towns. Under Sherman’s orders, by the end of September nearly all of Atlanta’s residents had been forcibly removed, although most had no place to go.

Estimates of the physical damage Sherman left behind varied. Capt. Orlando Poe, ordered to supervise a limited destruction, estimated that 37 percent of the city was demolished. An Indiana soldier’s diary entry simply stated, “We have utterly destroyed Atlanta.” After Sherman left, Georgia’s governor sent a militia officer named William Howard to prepare an assessment. Howard spent four days systematically mapping every house left standing within a half-mile radius of the city center, only 400 homes remained, of 3,600.

None of this will be news to anyone who has watched, or read, “Gone With the Wind.” And yet that film has long helped promote a misconception about what, exactly, happened in Atlanta that fall.

The spectacular burning scene in “Gone With the Wind” mistakenly portrays the principal inferno as happening when the Confederates left the city on Sept. 1. It’s true that the rebels demolished parts of the city as they left once Sherman gained control of all the railroads leading out of Atlanta, Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood had no choice but to try to save his army and evacuate with as many supplies as possible, and destroy what he had to leave behind. Most notable among the items marked for destruction was a reserve supply train consisting of five engines and 81 boxcars, which was idling on double tracks near the town’s eastern edge. Twenty-eight of those cars held munitions. When the train was torched, it created what was likely the largest explosion of the Civil War. Every building for a quarter mile around was damaged or destroyed, including the Atlanta Rolling Mill, railroad roundhouse, arsenal shops and a cannon factory. Nonetheless, outside the border surrounding the train, the Confederate evacuation caused fairly little damage.

The real story of the destruction of Atlanta is more complex. During the preceding siege, from July 20 to Aug. 31, parts of Atlanta were wrecked by fighting. Long trenches were dug by the opposing armies. Buildings were destroyed to provide clear fields of fire and for materials to build fortifications. Then there was Sherman’s indiscriminant five-week bombardment of the city, which started July 20. The day after the shelling began Sherman wired the Union’s chief of staff, Henry W. Halleck, in Washington, “The city seems to have a line around it at an average distance to the center of town of about one-and-a-half miles, but our shot passing over this line will destroy the town.”

The general was aware that women and children would be among the victims. On the third day of the protracted fusillade his chief telegrapher wired Washington: 𠇊s I write our heavy artillery is at work, and large fires are burning in Atlanta.” The same day a New York artillerist wrote his wife there were a “great many women and children” who had taken refuge in the city from the surrounding area. During the extended cannonade, Sherman’s artillery fired more than 100,000 projectiles. Civilian casualties are estimated at a couple of dozen killed and scores more wounded.

Still, when Sherman occupied the city in September, it was largely intact. It was only with his departure, two months later, that the real burning began.

To be clear, the wholesale destruction of Atlanta was not Sherman’s intention. He had officers draw up a plan to destroy military targets, which included a detailed map marking the structures. No private residences were among them. Captain Poe was selected to execute the plan because it was thought his engineers would be less reliant upon explosives and fire. Still, there was little doubt about the plan’s consequences: Six days earlier, when Poe first heard of the plan, he wrote his superior engineering officer in Washington that by the time his letter arrived, 𠇊tlanta will have ceased to exist.”

The real cause of the subsequent mass destruction was Sherman’s acquiescence to widespread disobedience among his soldiers. Ever since he had been post commander in Memphis, two years earlier, Sherman had advocated a brutal approach to Confederates, both military and civilian. Since he presumed that local guerrillas were responsible for taking pot shots at Mississippi River boats, he ordered that 10 citizens be forcibly removed from the city for every incident along the river. When such an instance occurred in Randolph, Tenn., he destroyed the town, leaving only a single structure standing. Sherman’s attitude quickly filtered down through the ranks, so that by the time they left Atlanta, no orders were necessary Sherman’s troops simply did what they had been told to do, so many times before.

Atlanta wasn’t the first North Georgia city to be razed that fall. A few days before the march began, Union troops burned Cassville, about 50 miles north of Atlanta. Five days later the manufacturing town of Rome was razed. The following day Sherman wired Maj. Gen. George Thomas in Nashville, “Last night we burned Rome and in two or more days will burn Atlanta.” The next target was the railroad connecting Atlanta to Chattanooga, which had been Sherman’s supply line since early September. The general decided to destroy miles of the line after the last train left Atlanta for the North on Nov. 12. The next day the rail town of Marietta was wrecked.

A new, politically appointed and youthful major named Henry Hitchcock joined Sherman at Marietta. Once shops and homes were caught up in the blaze Hitchcock commented to Sherman: “[The town will] burn down, sir.”

The general answered indirectly. �n’t save it … There are men who do this,” pointing to a group of passing soldiers. “Set as many guards as you please, they will slip in and set fire.”

Disunion Highlights

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For several days prior to the Nov. 15 March to the Sea departure, the elements of Sherman’s army north of Atlanta converged on the city, destroying railroad tracks and communities as they approached. By the time they got to the city, demolition had become habitual. Gen. Henry W. Slocum, whose XX Corps occupied Atlanta after its capture, tried to protect private residences. But the provost guards, who could be relied on to carry out such orders, were concentrated downtown.

The first unauthorized fires started on Nov. 11 near the edge of town. The next morning Slocum offered a $500 reward for the capture of the arsonists, but it was never collected. By Nov. 13, when an Illinois unit marched into Atlanta, a captain in the unit wrote in his diary, “The smoke almost blinded us.” By Nov. 15, the city was on fire everywhere. By 3 p.m., officers who were distributing supplies at the commissary invited soldiers to simply take whatever they needed, because the out-of-control fires would inevitably consume the facility.

One Michigan sergeant conceded getting swept up in the inflammatory madness, even though he knew it was unauthorized: 𠇊s I was about to fire one place a little girl about ten years old came to me and said, ‘Mr. Soldier you would not burn our house would you? If you did where would we live?’ She looked at me with such a pleading look that … I dropped the torch and walked away.”

Starting with Sherman himself, many later justified the burning as military necessity. During the night of 15th, as the fire was in progress, Major Hitchcock overheard Sherman say that Atlanta deserved to be demolished because of its manufacturing capacity for military articles. The same night an Indiana sergeant wrote in his diary, “The entire city was destroyed [but] for a few occupied houses. It reminds me of the destruction of Babylon … because of the wickedness of her people.”

Others falsely minimized the damage. In his memoirs, Sherman speciously claimed “the fire did not reach … the great mass of dwelling houses.” But in a congratulatory order to his troops after arriving in Savannah, he wrote, “We quietly and deliberately destroyed Atlanta.”

Still others accepted the reality of unauthorized burning, but incorrectly claimed it was accidental, or attributed it to impersonal factors. The wind did it. Too many soldiers discovered hidden liquor caches. The fiery march through communities north of Atlanta gave soldiers the impression that the city was to get the same treatment.

Perhaps the most widely accepted justification was the inherent cruelty of war. When a society accepts war as intrinsically cruel, those involved in wartime cruelties are exonerated. Again, Sherman previously set the tone when he responded to the Atlanta City Council’s petition that he rescind his September order requiring nearly all civilians to evacuate:

[I] shall not revoke my orders because they were not designed for the humanities of the case … War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it … Now you must go and take with you the old and feeble … and build for them … proper habitations to shield them against the [approaching winter] weather.

But not all Union soldiers were satisfied with excuses. A Wisconsin private wrote, “I believe this destruction of private property in Atlanta was entirely unnecessary and therefore … disgraceful. … The cruelties practiced on this campaign toward citizens have been enough to blast a more sacred cause than ours. … There certainly is a lack of discipline.”

Partly because most of the source documents about Sherman’s Atlanta burning are the official records of the federal armies, letters and diaries of Union soldiers, and reports in Northern publications, the story is often distorted. Since no Confederate units were present, and only a few sporadically nearby, there were few Confederate reports during the November 1864 inferno. Instead, historians must look to other primary sources, such as Southern newspapers, Georgia state documents, and civilian memoirs, diaries and letters. Their words tell a different version than the corresponding remarks of Union soldiers and newspapers.

Eventually, Sherman’s soldiers had little wish to write about the events of the first half of November 1864, because there was little to inspire pride. Sherman wrote almost nothing about Atlanta’s Nov. 15-16 blaze in his memoirs (beyond claiming that “the great majority of dwellings” were spared).

While Sherman never ordered the wholesale burning of Atlanta, he did little to stop many of his increasingly undisciplined soldiers from escalating targeted destruction into arson and rioting. It is difficult to avoid concluding that he arranged matters so that he could deny responsibility if Atlanta’s destruction became morally condemned, but accept credit if it was celebrated.

Sources: William T. Sherman, “Memoirs: Volume I” Russell Bonds, “War Like a Thunderbolt” Theodore Upson, “With Sherman to the Sea” Stephen Davis, “What the Yankees Did to Us” Michael Wortman, “The Bonfire” Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Vol. 17, Part 1 John Walters, “Merchant of Terror” Frances Elizabeth Gains, “We Begged to Hearts of Stone,” Northwest Georgia Historical and Genealogical Quarterly (Winter 1988) Sergeant Allen Campbell to father, Dec. 21, 1864, quoted in Mark Hoffman, “My Brave Mechanics”William Sherman to the representatives of the City Council of Atlanta, Sept. 12, 1864.

Phil Leigh is the author of two Civil War books​, an annotated and illustrated version of the memoirs of Confederate Private Sam Watkins entitled ​”𠂼o. Aytch​” and ​”​Trading With the Enemy,​”​ which is about intersectional wartime commerce between the North and South. He is currently writing a third book, ​”𠂼ivil War Scandals and Controversies.​”​

The Atlanta Campaign

These earthworks--crucial to Johnston's defense at Resaca--were destroyed in 20th Century when I-75 swept through the heart of the battlefield. National Archives

In early May, 1864, Federal forces under Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman began battling the Confederate Army of Tennessee. At stake was Atlanta, major manufacturing center and railroad hub. Sherman had 110,000 men in three armies around Chattanooga. Facing them at Dalton, eighty miles north of Atlanta, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston had 53,800 officers and men present for duty. Within the month the Confederates received 15,000 reinforcements, making Johnston's army at the time the South's largest. Despite his large numbers, Johnston's plan hinged on taking a strong defensive position and waiting for the enemy to attack him.

Johnston's Army of Tennessee used the hills around Dalton to create a defensive barrier. Library of Congress

Sherman enjoyed numerical superiority, but he did not use it in blunt frontal attacks as Grant was doing against Lee in Virginia. Rather, he used Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas' Army of the Cumberland and Maj Gen. John M. Schofield's Army of the Ohio to demonstrate against the Rebel lines, while he sent Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson's Army of the Tennessee to maneuver around Johnston's left flank and threaten his supply line, the Western & Atlantic Railroad. This worked repeatedly throughout the campaign, beginning at Rocky Face Ridge, from which Johnston retreated May 12.

While the two armies traded short, sharp attacks at Resaca May 14-15, McPherson crossed the Oostanaula River and Johnston retreated again. After Johnston's failed attempt to attack Sherman's army at Cassville on May 19, the front shifted across the Etowah River to the area of Dallas-New Hope Church-Pickett’s Mill, where inconclusive fighting occurred May 25-28. Johnston dug in at Kennesaw Mountain, repelling Sherman's assaults June 27 before being flanked again. Approaching the Chattahoochee River, Sherman feinted right and got troops across upstream. The Southern army retreated toward Atlanta July 9-10.

These earthworks--crucial to Johnston's defense at Resaca--were destroyed in 20th Century when I-75 swept through the heart of the battlefield. National Archives

Alarmed at Johnston's loss of territory and his failure to attack Sherman, President Jefferson Davis relieved Johnston, and replaced him with Lt. Gen. John B. Hood. The change occurred July 18, by which time the Northern forces, numbering around 80,000, were just five miles outside of Atlanta.

Hood's army of 50,000 men, pinned in Atlanta's fortifications, faced difficult odds, but Hood fulfilled the administration's wish that Atlanta not be given up without a fight. On July 20, Hood unsuccessfully attacked Thomas' army north of the city at Peach Tree Creek. Two days later, east of Atlanta, Hood sent Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee's corps in a flank attack every bit as audacious as Stonewall Jackson's at Chancellorsville. Union army commander McPherson was killed in the fighting there, the bloodiest battle of the campaign. Although Hood came closer to victory than at any other time, the Confederates were ultimately repulsed.

The battered landscape of Peach Tree Creek after heavy fighting between Hood and Sherman's forces National Archives

Sherman did not intend to assault the strong earthworks surrounding Atlanta, but planned to capture the city by cutting its railroads and starving Hood out. Union troops had cut the line running east to Augusta, and cavalry in Alabama had damaged the line to Montgomery. Only the Macon & Western Railroad kept Hood's army supplied. Sherman's movements west of the city to cut that railroad led to battles at Ezra Church July 28 and Utoy Creek August 5-7. As Hood extended his lines during August, Sherman's artillery bombarded the city and its several thousand remaining residents. Federal cavalry raids aimed at cutting the Macon & Western Railroad failed dismally. Around this time, Hood sent Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler and his cavalry into north Georgia and Tennessee to cut Sherman's rail lines they also failed.

Finally, on August 25, Sherman sent most of his infantry corps on a wide swing toward Jonesboro, 17 miles south of Atlanta, determined to cut the railroad. Union troops reached it on August 31. With their arrival and victory there, the last life line to Atlanta was effectively cut. Hood was forced to abandon Atlanta on the night of September 1, and the city surrendered to Federal forces the following morning.

Battle casualties for the four-month campaign totaled approximately 34,500 for the North and about 35,000 for the South. Sherman's capture of Atlanta was a major blow to the Confederacy, all but assuring President Abraham Lincoln's re-election two months later, and setting the stage for Sherman's March to the Sea.

Hood's vicious offensives at Peach Tree Creek and the Battle of Atlanta did not halt the Union advance. Library of Congress


Admission is included with general admission to Atlanta History Center. Access is on a first come, first served basis. A 12-minute film is projected onto the painting every hour beginning at 10:00am Tuesday–Sunday. The last presentation is at 3:00pm daily. Learn more on our FAQ.

On February 22, 2019, Atlanta History Center opened Cyclorama: The Big Picture, featuring the fully restored cyclorama painting, The Battle of Atlanta.

At the centerpiece of this new multi-media experience is a 132-year-old hand-painted work of art that stands 49 feet tall, is longer than a football field, and weighs 10,000 pounds. This painting is one of only two cycloramas in the United States—the other being the Battle of Gettysburg cyclorama —making Atlanta home to one of America’s largest historic treasures.

In the 1880s, The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama painting was an immersive experience—the equivalent of virtual reality today. The painting is a full-color, three-dimensional illusion designed to transport the viewer onto the battlefield. Cycloramas were created as a form of entertainment—they were the IMAX of their time. The painting was a visual story about the 1864 Battle of Atlanta, but over time it has evolved into a significant artifact that has its own fascinating story. Now, the historical journey of the painting itself is part of the ‘big picture’.

Created at the American Panorama Company in Milwaukee by 17 German artists, The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama took five months to create before it debuted in Minneapolis in 1886. Painted 22 years after the Battle of Atlanta, the painting originally depicted the battle from a Northern perspective as a heroic Union victory so that it would appeal to Northern audiences. When the painting relocated to Atlanta in 1892, it was slightly modified and advertised as “the only Confederate victory ever painted” to appeal to its new Southern audiences that maintained Confederate sympathies. The 1864 Battle of Atlanta was not a Confederate victory, and most of these changes from 1892 were reversed in the 1930s.

The Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama painting

Portions of the top and bottom of the painting have been automatically cropped for full-screen viewing on your device.

The Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama painting

Portions of the top and bottom of the painting have been automatically cropped for full-screen viewing on your device.

The Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama painting

Portions of the top and bottom of the painting have been automatically cropped for full-screen viewing on your device.

The Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama painting

Portions of the top and bottom of the painting have been automatically cropped for full-screen viewing on your device.

The Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama painting

Portions of the top and bottom of the painting have been automatically cropped for full-screen viewing on your device.

The Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama painting

Portions of the top and bottom of the painting have been automatically cropped for full-screen viewing on your device.

The Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama painting

Portions of the top and bottom of the painting have been automatically cropped for full-screen viewing on your device.

The Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama painting

Portions of the top and bottom of the painting have been automatically cropped for full-screen viewing on your device.

The Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama painting

Portions of the top and bottom of the painting have been automatically cropped for full-screen viewing on your device.

The Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama painting

Portions of the top and bottom of the painting have been automatically cropped for full-screen viewing on your device.

The Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama painting

Portions of the top and bottom of the painting have been automatically cropped for full-screen viewing on your device.

In the 127 years that it has been on display in Atlanta, it has been the subject of periodic interpretation. At times, it was seen as a proud symbol of the capital of the New South rising from the ashes left by General William T. Sherman. It has also been criticized as an anachronism meant to glorify the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy. Perceptions of history, and the painting itself, have depended on the eye of the beholder, as audiences viewed it in different times and places.

Visitors will now see The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama painting as it was originally intended to be viewed—an experience no one has seen or felt in nearly 100 years.

Atlanta History Center uses this restored work of art and entertainment, and the history of the painting itself, as a tool to talk about the ‘big picture.’ How can perceptions, memory and interpretations be shaped, or mis-shaped, by a combination of art and entertainment, myth and memory, cultural context, and current events during different eras?

Civil War in Georgia: Overview

Anne J. Bailey, War and Ruin: William T. Sherman and the Savannah Campaign (Wilmington, Del.: SR Books, 2003).

F. N. Boney, Rebel Georgia (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1997).

Barry L. Brown and Gordon R. Elwell, Crossroads of Conflict: A Guide to Civil War Sites in Georgia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010).

Albert E. Castel, Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992).

William W. Freehling and Craig M. Simpson, eds., Secession Debated: Georgia's Showdown in 1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

Joseph T. Glatthaar, The March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman's Troops in the Savannah and Carolinas Campaigns (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995).

Richard J. Lenz, The Civil War in Georgia: An Illustrated Traveler's Guide (Watkinsville, Ga.: Infinity Press, 1995).

Richard M. McMurry, Atlanta 1864: Last Chance for the Confederacy (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000).

Clarence L. Mohr, On the Threshold of Freedom: Masters and Slaves in Civil War Georgia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986).

Jonathan Dean Sarris, A Separate Civil War: Communities in Conflict in the Mountain South (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2006).

Mark A. Weitz, A Higher Duty: Desertion among Georgia Troops during the Civil War (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000).

Mark V. Wetherington, Plain Folk's Fight: The Civil War and Reconstruction in Piney Woods Georgia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

David Williams, Teresa Crisp Williams, and David Carlson, Plain Folk in a Rich Man's War: Class and Dissent in Confederate Georgia (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002).

As Seen in the Series

Mercy Street is set in Alexandria Virginia, a Confederate city overtaken at the start of the conflict in April 1861. The Green family’s hotel is commandeered by the Union Army and transformed into Mansion House Union Hospital. With the surprising massive influx of casualties and no developed hospital system in the first year of the war, local Alexandria establishments were used as hospitals.

Many functioned well, and were utilized throughout most of the war. With battles close by in Northern Virginia, Mansion House illustrates a functioning hospital filled with recently wounded, infected, diseased and convalescing soldiers. Surgery and wound care are the routines of the day.

Cobb County in the Atlanta Campaign

General William T. Sherman Library of Congress

Sherman’s campaign to defeat General Joseph Johnston’s Confederates and capture Atlanta had commenced in north Georgia in May 1864 at Mill Creek Gap near Dalton. Sherman’s command was actually a group of three armies officially designated the Cumberland, the Tennessee, and the Ohio, and commanded respectively by generals George Thomas, James McPherson, and John Schofield. Of the three, Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland was by far the largest, numbering 55,000 men – alone nearly equal to the total numbers in the opposing Confederate army.

Part One: Tactical Disasters

Sherman’s first thirty days in this campaign had not exactly been easy. Thirteen miles south of Dalton, at Resaca in Gordon County on May 14 – 15, Union and Confederate opponents faced off in full strength for the first time. Here they fought to a draw in two days of hard fighting. No mere skirmish, casualties at Resaca were substantially greater than those suffered three years before in the war’s first battle at Bull Run in Virginia. Employing his advantage in numbers, Sherman disengaged late on the second day at Resaca using a river crossing south of the field, thereby forcing Confederate withdrawal to protect lines of rail supply and paths of retreat to Atlanta. The flanking movement would become Sherman’s tactical signature in this contest for Atlanta.

The events of the days ahead would follow this pattern of Confederate retreat and Union pursuit southward to the Etowah River. In mid-May Johnston’s Confederates had the opportunity to destroy an isolated portion of Sherman’s army near Cassville (Bartow County) but squandered the chance. Here, Confederate General John Bell Hood spoiled the timing for the entire two-corps attack by halting his advance midway in the mistaken belief that Union infantry threatened his flank.

After the Cassville fiasco, the Confederates continued their retreat to the Etowah River crossing the river, burning the railroad bridge behind them, and taking up defensive positions south of the river in the rugged Allatoona hills. Aware of the character of these hills from a personal visit many years before, Sherman chose to suspend his direct advance along the railroad. Disposing his army along the north side of the river westward some ten miles to Kingston, Sherman set about devising a new ten-day strategy which would carry his army directly southward through the tangled wilderness countryside. He would temporarily abandon his rail line in favor of a mule-drawn wagon alternative. Surely a risky strategy, he reasoned, but it would force Confederates to abandon their impregnable Allatoona forts in order to protect their flanks and railroad. With a head start he might even beat his opponent to those country crossroads near Dallas and New Hope Church – roads that led directly to Atlanta, bypassing the formidable fortress now being constructed at Kennesaw Mountain in Cobb County. The complete dependence on wagons and mules to supply his immense army in this landscape of bad roads and worse maps was a bit unnerving. Still, the risk seemed reasonable and the goals worth it. The move could certainly offer an opportunity to choose his fields of battle, and perhaps even gain a rapid and politically timely capture of Atlanta!

The Union soldiers in this battle would come to call the crossroads at New Hope Church the “Hell Hole.” By May 25, having waded the Etowah River several days earlier, the various Union march columns were converging rapidly on Dallas. Union General Joe Hooker guided his Twentieth Corps (a component of the Cumberland army) along a wagon path leading toward a place known as Owens Mill, on a creek called “Pumpkinvine.” He hoped to reduce his march time to Dallas by avoiding the congestion of military traffic on the main routes.

John Geary, commanding Hooker’s first division, led the way. Approaching the mill, Geary received rifle fire from the ridge beyond a brigade was deployed across the creek to drive off the Confederate skirmishers. These first few shots signaled the beginning of the Battle of New Hope Church.

Geary, alarmed by the aggressive manner of the small band of Confederate skirmishers in his front, concluded, therefore, that a large Confederate force must lie just beyond. He postponed his attack three hours while awaiting the arrival of Butterfield’s and Williams’s divisions. It was almost 5 p.m. before the three Union commands began their movement toward the New Hope Church crossroads.

Things went downhill from the beginning. First, a terrific thunderstorm with frequent lightning and heavy downpours of cold rain set in shortly after 5 p.m. Complicating this, the Union commanders decided upon an ill-chosen formation: a column of divisions by brigade. Such a formation, while improving command control, exposes the flanks of the approaching column to rifle crossfire while offering very little opportunity to return such fire. At New Hope Church this formation had the effect of negating a three-to-one Union numerical advantage. An under-strength division of Confederate infantry in position at the church cemetery, without earthworks, had little difficulty stopping the attack 300 yards short of its objective at New Hope Church. The assault ground to a halt by nightfall. The night was a disaster of confusing orders, pitch black darkness, cold rain, and desperate men entrenching in ravine-laced wooded thickets strewn with the wounded and dead. That night the place truly earned its long remembered epithet: “The Hell Hole at New Hope Church.” Having suffered nearly 2,000 casualties at New Hope Church, and with the fast-marching Confederate infantry already covering the key Atlanta-bound roads near Dallas, Sherman reviewed his options. On May 26, frustrated by the tactical disappointments but also by the increasing supply shortages, Sherman decided to abandon his “wilderness” plan in favor of returning to the supply security of the more dependable railroad. But first he would try to locate the east flank of the Confederate earthworks.

The Fourth Corps of the Cumberland army was chosen for the task. Should an attack be possible, the Fourth Corps was to be supported by units from the Army of the Ohio and the Fourteenth Army Corps. The battle at Pickett’s Mill began shortly after 4:30 p.m. As at New Hope Church two days before, it was again a tactical disaster for Sherman. In that blind wilderness, three good brigades from the Fourth Corps suffered nearly 2,000 casualties and gained no great advantage. A witnessing Union officer described this mismanaged attack as “The Crime at Pickett’s Mill.” Sherman curiously made no mention of the battle in his official report, nor still later, in his Memoirs.

On May 28 it became the Confederate turn for tactical mistakes. Suspecting correctly that McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee at Dallas was preparing to shift eastward toward New Hope Church and the railroad, General Johnston instructed Hardee to attack immediately should he detect any such movement. Hoping to catch the Union infantry off balance while in the act of shifting position, Hardee ordered Bates’s division to carry out the task by striking simultaneously at two geographically separated points: one at the Villa Rica Road south of Dallas, and the other a mile distant on the Marietta Road east of the village. Curiously, the signal to attack was to be the sudden sound of heavy gunfire at the south end of the line. Confused by gunfire from a related cavalry action near the Villa Rica Road, a Kentucky unit on the Marietta Road prematurely launched a full-scale assault. This unit, the famed Kentucky Orphan Brigade was so badly mauled by being caught in a crossfire that it was subsequently disbanded. Bates’s division became entangled with the enemy and had difficulty disengaging, requiring Hardee to commit additional units from his command to the rescue. The battle continued for the better part of the day along the entire Dallas line. Confederate casualties on May 28 are estimated to have exceeded 1,000 men.

Sherman’s continued movement eastward to the railroad eventually placed McPherson near the south bank of the Etowah River where he set about repairing the river bridge and the rail tracks south toward Acworth. Meanwhile, the Cumberland and Ohio armies entered Cobb County from the west following the Stilesboro and Burnt Hickory Roads and colliding almost immediately with a formidable 12-mile line of fortifications known as the “Lost Mountain/Brushy Mountain Line.”

Part Two: Cobb County - Field of Battle/Seas of Mud

Elements of Sherman’s army began arriving in Cobb County on June 2. Daily rains began June 3 and lasted for two weeks. Wagons and artillery caissons were soon buried to hubcaps – all traces of roadways disappeared in seas of mud. Wheeled vehicles would use the “road.” Infantrymen, required to slog through the fields alongside the roads, endured the misery of rough terrain and briar patches, with full exposure to swarms of ticks, red bugs, and mosquitoes. Tents pitched between puddles of water at an evening campsite, amid downpours of rain and swarming insects, promised little rest after a miserable day.

As the Cumberland and Ohio Armies entered Cobb County they collided almost immediately with the Lost Mountain/Brushy Mountain Line.

Lieutenant General William J. Hardee

In early June the battle line was occupied near Lost Mountain by the four divisions of Hardee’s corps, with the three divisions of Polk’s corps being next in line eastward. Hood’s three divisions manned the Brushy Mountain third of these fortifications. Sherman knew the Confederate infantry was too small to sufficiently cover such a distance. Hardee’s men occupied the works westward only as far as the Burnt Hickory/Sandtown road intersection (Acworth Due West Road today). His left was anchored near the log church of Gilgal. This location would become a military landmark in the days ahead. The defense of the mile or so of trenches westward to Lost Mountain became the responsibility of Confederate cavalry. By June 5, Hardee had moved Bates’s division a mile north to the crest of Pine Mountain, a hill overlooking Thomas’s advance along the Stilesboro Road. Polk’s corps slipped a division length westward to link with Hardee, covering the absence of Bates in the battle line. On June 14, Hardee, Johnston, and Polk met at Pine Mountain, concerned that Bates’s division was becoming isolated by Union movement near its flanks. Atop the mountain, the meeting ended tragically with Polk’s death by artillery projectile. A gun a mile away near the Stilesboro Road had fired the chance shot. Today a well preserved four-gun earthwork marks the site of that Union battery. Southward at the crest of Pine Mountain, infantry and artillery entrenchments share the location with a granite shaft memorializing the place of Polk’s death.

Since the Stilesboro and Burnt Hickory Roads run roughly parallel in a southeasterly direction toward Kennesaw Mountain and Marietta, it is not surprising that Union armies using these roads frequently engaged in joint military actions during the first two weeks in June. One such occasion occurred on June 15 at the Battle of Gilgal Church/Pine Knob. The purpose of this attack was to probe and possibly break the overextended Confederate battle line, forcing a precipitous retreat.

Sherman had chosen Hooker’s Twentieth Army Corps for the task with units from the Ohio army protecting the Twentieth Corps’ right flank. By mid afternoon on June 15, Daniel Butterfield’s division approached the Burnt Hickory/Sandtown roads intersection intending to strike the Confederates entrenched at the crossing. Planned as a coordinated assault by Hooker’s three 5,000-man divisions (Butterfield’s, Geary’s, and Williams’s) on a mile-wide front extending from Gilgal eastward to Pine Knob, much depended on timing and inter-divisional communication. Neither of which would be forthcoming.

Judging that Butterfield had gotten in position a mile west on the Sandtown Road, Geary and Williams at the foot of Pine Mountain began their advance southward around 5 p.m., guiding on a distant wooded hill they called Pine Knob. With Geary’s men leading and Williams’s following closely, they began a ridge-by-ridge struggle toward Pine Knob, the hill believed to mark the location of the Confederate battle line.

Upon contact with the principal Confederate defenses, Williams’s division was to slide westward, protecting Geary’s right and tying with Butterfield’s left, thus forming a united three-division battle front for the final assault. Ridge-creased terrain, stubborn resistance by Confederate skirmishers, and approaching nightfall defeated the plan. The final assault never materialized. Today, a 20-acre wooded tract with earthworks marks Butterfield’s battleground at Gilgal one mile east, a 5-acre history preserve with a historical marker locates the forward-most position gained by Geary that night at Pine Knob. Sherman’s casualties in this failed effort are estimated to have been just fewer than 1,000 men. That same day a diversionary attack by McPherson at the foot of Brushy Mountain was more successful, netting the capture of some 300 Alabama infantry. Tactically, it was the one bright spot in Sherman’s otherwise rather dismal day.

The tactical defeat on the 15th evolved into a strategic advantage for Sherman two days later. Learning that Confederate cavalry had abandoned their trenches toward Lost Mountain, leaving his flank exposed to enfilading artillery fire from the Army of the Ohio, Hardee withdrew several miles to the east bank of Mud Creek the night of June 16. Here he anchored his right on a steep hill (now called French’s) tying to the left of French’s division of Polk’s corps (now commanded by Loring), forming here a pivot or salient. Hardee’s left would simultaneously swing south two miles to a position along the east bank of Mud Creek to a point just beyond the Dallas/Marietta road. Thus Hardee substantially reduced the length of his front and better protected his flanks. This new alignment of fortifications became known as the “Mud Creek Line.”

On the 17th at the Mud Creek Line, in a sudden dash during a thunderstorm, three regiments led by one-armed Colonel Frederick Bartelson (wounded at Chickamauga and a recently returned prisoner of war from Libby Prison) captured a position near French’s Hill. Equipped with Spencer repeating rifles, they succeeded in holding the point through the night despite several Confederate counterattacks. Bartelson’s location posed a serious threat to the new Confederate line of defense. On the 18th, French’s division was pounded by a day-long crossfire of Union artillery. On the same day, at the Dallas/Marietta road near the Darby House, Hardee’s anchor fort was destroyed in an intense three-hour duel with two Union batteries attached to the advancing Army of the Ohio. In the predawn hours of June 19, the Mud Creek battle line would be abandoned. The Confederates withdrew to the foothills of Kennesaw Mountain.

On the 20th, the Josiah Wallis House on Burnt Hickory Road became the headquarters of General Oliver O. Howard, commander of the Fourth Corps. Here, for the next few days, Howard directed the attacks on nearby hills – including division-size assaults on hills lying behind the knee-deep swampy flats of Noyes Creek. One of these hills would later be called “Nodine’s” following heavy combat there in mid June. Kirby’s and Nodine’s brigades gained and lost the hill several times on June 20. Reinforced the next day, and under direct orders from an impatient Howard, the two tried again, succeeding this time in holding the ground despite counterattacks and heavy concentrated barrages of artillery. The fighting here on this and nearby hills in mid June was especially close and personal, combative and aggressive – often hand-to-hand and frequently continuing into the night.

Gen. John B. Hood Library of Congress

It was here at the Wallis House on June 22 that Sherman first learned of Hood’s attack on Hooker’s Corps at the Kolb Farm House three miles south. Surprised by the attack, thinking Hood still at Brushy Mountain, Sherman was further confounded and angered by Hooker’s claim that the “entire Confederate army was in his front.” Hood’s corps had been quietly withdrawn from Brushy Mountain the night before to a point ten miles south on the Powder Springs Road – a major road approaching Marietta along a ridge from the southwest. Hooker’s lack of composure during this battle, and his effort later to lay the blame for any mishaps at Kolb’s Farm on General Howard’s Fourth Corps (part of a long-festering enmity dating back to Hooker’s criticism of Howard’s Eleventh Corps’ conduct at Chancellorsville in 1863) would be a factor later, when Sherman by-passed the more senior general, Hooker, and named Howard to command the Army of the Tennessee after McPherson’s death. Angered by what he considered Sherman’s double affront in this matter, Hooker would resign his post and leave the war.

Hood’s reputation at Kolb’s Farm was diminished with Johnston as had Hooker’s been with Sherman. Hood’s two-division attack was unauthorized by Johnston. The primary purpose for the displacement from Brushy Mountain was to keep pace with Sherman’s flanking movements, not to launch an attack. Hood’s effort by Stevenson’s and Hindman’s divisions gained some initial success but no permanent advantage. Hindman’s men, trapped in an artillery crossfire, suffered the majority of the 1,000 Confederate casualties. Hood claimed victory. Visiting the field the next morning, General Johnston knew otherwise.

The rains ended June 23. A hot sun quickly dried roads and fields, and U.S. Grant wired Sherman that he could maneuver freely now since there was no longer any danger of transfer of reinforcements from Robert E. Lee’s Eastern Theater forces to Johnston. Although eager to resume the “freedom” of past flanking maneuvers, Sherman would need several days staging time in preparation for the forays toward Atlanta.

Meanwhile Sherman reasoned, why not a serious assault on the mountain fortress? Surely the Confederates must be stretched thin somewhere along these miles of defenses from the mountain south to Smyrna. By June 23 plans were in progress for a major departure from Sherman’s usual flanking inclinations. The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain would be fought Monday, June 27, 1864.

Divisions from the Fifteenth Corps would attack a spur of Little Kennesaw at Burnt Hickory Road, and simultaneously a 12,000-man strike force from the Army of the Cumberland would hit a point two miles south near the Dallas Road. French’s division at the Kennesaw spur would absorb most of the blow near the Burnt Hickory Road, while Hardee would be called upon to turn back the larger attack at the Dallas Road. Each assault was to be preceded by an intense one-hour artillery barrage.

When the artillery fire lifted, Lieutenant Colonel Rigdon Barnhill’s 40th Illinois led the charge toward the mountain spur, ending with Barnhill’s death less than 30 feet from French’s entrenchments. Caught in a crossfire from nearby Little Kennesaw and French’s men directly ahead on the spur, and slowed by the tree branch entanglements prepared by the defenders, this effort by the Fifteenth Corps at the Burnt Hickory Road was over before noon. Sherman would later write Belle Barnhill, the widow, telling of her husband’s bravery and expressing regret that the body was too close to enemy defenses to recover the remains.

The assault near the Dallas Road was pursued with equal vigor. Occasionally individual soldiers, always too few in number, succeeded in overrunning the defenders and were quickly killed or captured. Musician Fife Major Allison Webber (86th Illinois) borrowed a Henry repeating rifle with 120 rounds of ammunition, volunteering to join the assault. Using the rapid fire of this repeater, Webber covered the rescue of the wounded and the construction of protective earthworks nearby, earning the Medal of Honor for his conduct.

By 11 o’clock, on Thomas’s front as well as on McPherson’s field of combat two miles north at the Burnt Hickory Road, the sound of gunfire gradually died away. The assault had failed – the result of a combination of tough Confederate resistance and extremely hot and humid weather. Some Union soldiers remained in defilade near Confederate trenches, being reinforced at nightfall sufficiently to hold the ground. There were no plans to renew the attack. No real advantage was gained anywhere on the 27th except Schofield’s capture of a Sandtown crossroads near Olley’s Creek ten miles southwest of the mountain. Sherman’s claims of 2,500 casualties at the principle points of attack at Kennesaw Mountain and Cheatham’s Hill (Thomas’s front) were probably low by half. The Confederates, protected by earthworks, reported their own casualties in the more believable range of 500 – 800 men. The Confederate figures seem more consistent with the maxim recorded in Union division commander Jacob Cox’s war diary: “one good man behind earthworks should prevail over four or five opponents advancing in the open without cover.”

With roads dried out, with sufficient supplies accumulated, and with the last units of McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee shifted from positions at Brushy Mountain and elsewhere for purposes of coordinating with and eventually replacing Schofield’s army in turning the Confederate left, Sherman abandoned his month-long focus on the battlefields around Kennesaw Mountain. He would now turn southward toward the Chattahoochee River and the prize of Atlanta.

Major General James B. McPherson

Sherman’s activities meant that Johnston must abandon his strong positions at the mountain and retire southward to protect his railroad lifeline to Atlanta. What followed would be a race for the Chattahoochee with an opportunity, Sherman believed, to embarrass Johnston’s Confederates in the act of crossing the river. Instead he found the Rebels with new defenses along an east-to-west-running ridge just north of Smyrna flanks anchored near Rottenwood Creek at the river on the east, and fish-hooked at the west on a hill two miles from Ruff’s Mill. At 4 p.m. on July 4, a column of six regiments from Dodge’s Sixteenth Corps led by Colonel E.F. Noyes (39th Ohio Infantry) attacked an advanced position near this angle, capturing the line and about 100 prisoners. Noyes himself was wounded, necessitating the amputation of a leg. Johnston abandoned the Smyrna position during the night and withdrew to the river.

What Sherman found next came to him as a total surprise: a six-mile bridgehead of defensive bunkers on the north side of the river: the powerful and unique “River Line.” Designed by General Francis A. Shoup (Johnston’s chief of artillery), constructed in less than two weeks by a labor force of nearly 1,000 slaves under Shoup’s personal supervision, the River Line provided the perfect shield for any river crossing Johnston might choose to make. Arrow-shaped log structures tightly packed with dirt each provided a platform and parapet for a company of riflemen supported by pairs of two-gun teams of artillery. These arrow-shaped mini-forts have come to be called “Shoupades.” The mini-forts and artillery positions were spaced at intervals along the battle line in such a way as to create interlocking fields of fire by rifle and cannon. The River Line today has the distinction of being truly a national one-of-a-kind Civil War defensive engineering marvel. Sherman, impressed by what he saw, chose not to test its strength, and shelved the plans to challenge the Confederate river crossing. Instead, he began a search for some places of his own to cross the river.

Using divisions from the Ohio and Cumberland armies to probe for such opportunities east near Roswell, successful division-size crossings were soon made at Sope Creek and at a nearby fish dam. Within days Sherman had corps-sized numbers on the Atlanta side of the Chattahoochee River. By July 8, the major portion of Sherman’s army was south of the river. Johnston must now abandon his River Line bridgehead north of the river and retire to the Atlanta defenses. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee had been shifted to the east to cut the Augusta railroad to Atlanta thus blocking any possible reinforcement should such be attempted. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland had followed the line of the Western and Atlantic Railroad and was now across the river near Peachtree Creek, while Schofield’s Army of the Ohio was soon shifted westward toward Ezra Church and Utoy Creek on the northwest side of Atlanta.

On July 16, 1864, John Bell Hood would be appointed to command the Confederate Army of Tennessee replacing Johnston. Aware of Hood’s aggressive inclinations, William T. Sherman must now adjust his Atlanta “chess game” to accommodate the fighting style of the new Confederate leader. He must now brace for the inevitable reckless assaults Hood was sure to bring his way.

On July 16, 1864, Sherman could not have believed he was still four major battles and six weeks away from the September capture of his prize, Atlanta.

Sherman's Inability to Liberate The South's Most Notorious Prison

In April 1864, Sherman embarked on his mission to strike at the heart of Dixie, with the intent of capturing Atlanta, the scene of much of the South&rsquos industrial might, and then to cut the remainder of the South in half (much as Grant had done the previous year as part of his Vicksburg Campaign), as he marched through Georgia to the sea. During his Atlanta campaign, he sent a detachment of Cavalry under General George Stoneman to destroy General John B. Hood&rsquos supply lines and communications between Macon and Atlanta. As part of this mission, Sherman consented to allow Stoneman to proceed to Andersonville Prison (Camp Sumter) and liberate the Union prisoners of war incarcerated there.

Stoneman was not successful in liberating the Union POWs, in fact, he was captured along with about 700 of his force and held captive until he was exchanged a couple of months later. This was the only serious attempt that Sherman made to free the prisoners at Andersonville during his Atlanta campaign and subsequent march to the sea and it was an abject failure. Given the opportunity and the superior force at his disposal, why didn&rsquot Sherman make any further attempts to free these prisoners who were dying at the rate of 200 men per day by September 1864? The truth was, he didn&rsquot really want to free them, for a number of reasons. First of all, he didn&rsquot want to divide his force, diverting some for the task of liberating prisoners and, thereby, weakening it in the face of an aggressive foe. Secondly, he didn&rsquot want to allocate his precious resources to the task of caring for these prisoners, many of whom were in very bad condition, once he did liberate them. Finally, he wanted to keep as much of the Confederate force as possible busy with the care and supervision of these prisoners so the South couldn&rsquot use those troops against him.


Construction of the prison at Andersonville, Georgia, officially named Camp Sumter, began in December 1863 but still wasn&rsquot finished when the first Union prisoners arrived February 24, 1864. The original intent was to use Camp Sumter as a holding area for Union prisoners until such time as they could be exchanged for Confederate soldiers imprisoned in the North.(1) Prison conditions were good initially, in spite of the fact that supplies, food, etc. were hard to come by. While few prisoners were ill or died within the first five months of the prison&rsquos operation, the rapid influx of Union prisoners caused this to change dramatically. By June, 1864, the Andersonville prison had swelled to more than 26,000 prisoners and food and shelter were in ever dwindling supply. Although the camp was expanded to 26½ acres, it was still inadequate to house all of its charges and to relieve the rampant overcrowding. By Summer of 1864 conditions deteriorated further due to the scant rations and lack of medical supplies. Vegetables were practically non-existent, leading to numerous cases of scurvy. Adding to the overall distress were the deplorable sanitary conditions that existed. The hospital and guard quarters were located upstream from the prison and this stream was used for all manner of trash disposal, human and animal waste, as well as bathing. The prisoners, of course, used the same stream for drinking and bathing causing widespread diarrhea and dysentery among the captives. Conditions degenerated to the point that by July, Captain Wirz consented to the parole of five Union prisoners to deliver a signed petition to the Federal government requesting that prisoner exchanges be reinstated.(2)

Dr. Isaiah H. White, Camp Surgeon, repeatedly pointed out the deplorable conditions to his superiors requesting more medical and hospital supplies, additional medical staff, and adequate supplies and housing. All of his appeals fell on deaf ears, however. The prison population swelled to over 33,000 by August making Andersonville the fifth largest &ldquocity&rdquo in all the Confederacy. By now, hundreds of prisoners were dying daily. This, of course, strained the prison&rsquos capacity even more in trying to dispose of the extremely high number of corpses &ndash many bodies lay for the days in the hot, humid environment which only contributed more to the disease and suffering of the prisoners. According to Dr. White, the U.S. Government&rsquos prisoner exchange policy had much to do with the deplorable conditions of Andersonville prison because it &ldquo&hellipthrew upon our impoverished commissariat the feeding of a large number of prisoners.&rdquo(3)

The development of unsanitary conditions, pestulence, the hot and humid weather, insufficient protection from the elements, along with lack of food and, in many cases, poor quality food, led to disease, sickness, and, much of the time, death. In addition, medicine and medical supplies, in general, were in very short supply due the fact that many such supplies were produced only in the North and were naturally unavailable to the South during the war. As a result, the South was forced to obtain supplies from Europe, but the Northern naval blockade prevented the South from obtaining many of the supplies they needed from abroad. These deplorable conditions were related to General Sherman by some of the few men who actually escaped captivity at Andersonville. In his memoirs, Sherman spoke of their &ldquo&hellipsad condition: more than twenty-five thousand prisoners confined in a stockade designed for only ten thousand debarred the privilege of gathering wood out of which to make huts deprived of sufficient healthy food, and the little stream that ran though their prison-pen poisoned and polluted by the offal from their cooking and butchering houses above.&rdquo(4)


It was during Sherman&rsquos Atlanta campaign that he first learned of the situation at Andersonville and the plight of Union prisoners incarcerated there. He had been receiving reports from escapees who had made it back to his lines, since July. In spite of the fact that Andersonville was out of his way, and hadn&rsquot been an issue when he began his campaign, it had now gotten his attention. Going into this campaign, it was clear that Sherman never intended to free the prisoners at Andersonville of his own volition, for several reasons. First of all, it hadn&rsquot been a problem at the outset of his campaign and, even after he learned about the deplorable conditions, he wanted to maintain his focus on his primary objective, which was to cut Georgia and the South in half in an attempt to end the war once and for all, and as quickly as possible. Second, he was concerned about diverting large numbers of his troops and weakening his overall force in the face of a very aggressive and formidable foe in John Bell Hood. Third, he didn&rsquot want to slow down his advance and over-burden his resources by having to care for thousands of sickly and feeble men who badly needed medical care and the attention of many of his own force. Last, he felt that by leaving the Union prisoners where they were, the Confederates would have to attend to them, taking troops and resources away from the Confederate forces he would be facing in combat.

In addition to Sherman&rsquos reluctance to free prisoners out-right by liberating them from prison, he and his superiors, including Lincoln and Grant, did not want to exchange Union prisoners for rebel prisoners because it was felt that, from a strategic standpoint, Confederate prisoners were much more valuable to the Confederacy because they would be absorbed into fighting units immediately and begin to fight again. This wasn&rsquot to say that Union prisoners were not valued by their leadership, it just meant that, due to the South&rsquos disadvantage in terms of manpower, the re-absorption of Confederate prisoners into their armies was much more advantageous for them than for the Union. It was better to keep Confederate prisoners away from the fight while burdening the South further with the occupation of guarding, feeding, and caring for thousands of Union prisoners. According to Dr. White, Chief Surgeon of Andersonville Prison, Confederate authorities made many attempts to secure the exchange of prisoners sequestered not only at Andersonville but from their other prisons as well. But, it was the position of the U.S. Government not to exchange them because they felt that each rebel prisoner released would immediately become an active soldier.(5)

General Grant spoke of his unwillingness to exchange prisoners in his memoirs. In a letter to General Butler, dated August 18, 1864, General Grant put it this way, &ldquoit is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. Every man released on parole or otherwise, becomes an active soldier against us at once, either directly of indirectly. If we commence a system of exchange which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated. If we hold those caught they amount to no more than dead men. At this particular time to release all rebel prisoners North would insure Sherman&rsquos defeat and would compromise our safety here.&rdquo(6)

In addition, Sherman was also reluctant to accept Union prisoners into his army either by exchange or through liberation because of the poor condition of such men. He was only willing to exchange prisoners, between he and Confederate General John B. Hood, who were physically fit for duty. He was, however, willing to accept sickened or invalid prisoners from Andersonville in exchange for non-combatants whom he had captured while they were providing support to rebel troops or performing repair work on damaged rail lines or on telegraph lines and other communications.(7)


In July 1864 as Sherman had almost completely surrounded Atlanta, there was still one problem which he needed to solve. Confederate supplies were still being transported into Atlanta by way of the Macon rail lines from the south. Sherman realized that he must cut this supply line if he was to be successful in capturing Atlanta quickly. To accomplish this, Sherman tasked his cavalry commanders, General George Stoneman, and Generals Kenner Garrard and Edward McCook to move their forces, consisting of about 9,000 troops, rapidly south to destroy the supply lines and communications between Atlanta and Macon.(8) Upon receiving his orders from Sherman to destroy Hood&rsquos communications and supply lines, General Stoneman asked General Sherman for his permission to liberate Union prisoners of war held at Andersonville and Macon after completing his mission. General Sherman, sympathetic to the plight of the prisoners held at Andersonville, and believing that Stoneman&rsquos plan had some merit, consented. Of Stoneman&rsquos plan, Sherman said, &ldquoat the moment almost of starting General Stoneman addressed me a letter asking permission, after fulfilling his orders and breaking the road, to be allowed, with his command proper, to proceed to Macon and Andersonville and release our prisoners of war confined at those points. There was something most captivating in the idea, and the execution was within the bounds of probable success.&rdquo Sherman continued by telling Stoneman, &ldquoif you can bring back to the army any or all of those prisoners of war, it will be an achievement that will entitle you, and your command, to the love and admiration of the whole country.&rdquo(9)

The plan was to divide the force, sending Generals Stoneman and Garrard&rsquos cavalry around Atlanta to the left to McDonough, and General McCook&rsquos troops to the right toward Fayetteville, ultimately linking up at the Macon road near Lovejoy&rsquos Station. However, at the last moment, the plan changed, calling for Garrard&rsquos unit to follow Stoneman&rsquos force only as far as Flat Rock. The rationale was for Garrard to support Stoneman and to act as a buffer between the Union forces and General Wheeler&rsquos cavalry in the event the Confederates caught on to the scheme. This had the effect of reducing Stoneman&rsquos force to only about 2,200 men. As Stoneman&rsquos cavalry detachment set off on July 27th passing to the right of Stone Mountain and continuing through Covington, they were seen by rebel pickets. After a minor clash near Monticello, Stoneman&rsquos force continued south toward Clinton, Georgia. When they arrived at Clinton, General Stoneman ordered a detachment of the 14th Illinois Cavalry to proceed to Gordon in an attempt to destroy as much as the Confederate supply line as they could. He then proceeded with the rest of his force toward Macon. As they approached Macon on the evening of July 29th, they encountered heavy resistance from a 3,000-plus Militia force. While looking for a point to cross the Ocmulgee River, in an effort to move on Andersonville Prison, Stoneman discovered that General Wheeler&rsquos cavalry unit was advancing upon his rear, effectively cutting him off from the Union forces farther to the north of his position.

Realizing his predicament, Stoneman ordered his force to retreat back north to the vicinity of Clinton in an effort to engage the Confederate cavalry closing in on him and, hopefully, to link up with other Union troops. He reached Clinton on the evening of the 30th and, after some minor skirmishes in which he recaptured Clinton and freed some Union prisoners who had been captured earlier, bivouacked for the night. The following day he advanced north toward Hillsboro and encountered a large, entrenched Confederate force which blocked his advance. Also pursuing him from the South were additional rebel forces, which threatened to surround him. Stoneman decided that his best course of action was to try to penetrate the rebel lines in front of him in an effort to break out of his entanglement. In spite of repeated attempts to penetrate the enemy lines, Stoneman&rsquos troops found themselves out-manned and outgunned. By 4:00 pm of July 31st, Stoneman ordered two-thirds of his force to penetrate the weakest part of the rebel force to the southeast while he and the remainder of his force stayed behind to provide cover for the escape. This main Union force fought their way through and escaped. Stoneman and the remaining 700 troops continued to fight until they had exhausted all of their ammunition, at which time they surrendered. The hope of liberating Andersonville was now completely dashed.

In the aftermath of Stoneman&rsquos debacle, Sherman in his explanation to General Halleck on August 7, 1864, wrote, &ldquonothing but natural and intense desire to accomplish an end so inviting to one&rsquos feelings would have drawn me to commit a military mistake at such a crisis, as that of dividing and risking my cavalry so necessary to the success of my campaign.&rdquo(10) Sherman was obviously conflicted &ndash on one hand he was sympathetic to the plight of fellow Union troops and the misery they were suffering but, and on the other hand, he felt that he had diverged from his own ideals and the unwavering logic which had guided his military success. Grant, in his memoirs, characterized Stoneman&rsquos raid and its aftermath as follows: &ldquoIn the latter part of July Sherman sent Stoneman to destroy the railroads to the south, about Macon. He was then to go east and, if possible, release our prisoners about Andersonville. There were painful stories current at the time about the great hardships these prisoners had to endure in the way of general bad treatment, in the way in which they were housed, and in the way in which they were fed. Great sympathy was felt for them and it was thought that even if they could be turned loose upon the country it would be a great relief to them. But the attempt proved a failure.&rdquo(11) It&rsquos questionable whether Stoneman&rsquos attempt to liberate the prisoners from Macon and Andersonville Prisons would have succeeded, even if he had followed orders. It seems that the effort was doomed to failure no matter what the circumstances because it lacked careful planning and coordination on Stoneman&rsquos part.

Apparently, there was no consideration given to how Stoneman&rsquos troops would handle resistance from Confederate units between Atlanta and the prisons, such as Wheeler&rsquos cavalry, for example. In addition, Stoneman had very little intelligence about how the prisons were fortified and how many troops were guarding the prisoners, and exactly how he would overcome the defenses. Even if he was successful in effecting the release of the prisoners, there was no plan or consideration given to how his cavalry force was going to move 30,000 sick and emaciated men 100 miles to safety, across territory teeming with Confederate troops. While most of the blame for this failed attempt lies with Stoneman, Sherman certainly deserves some of the blame as well. After all, in spite of the fact that he agreed to Stoneman&rsquos request, Sherman did have some reservations, later referring to it as &ldquoa bold and rash gesture.&rdquo He was also aware of the risks involved in transferring the prisoners to safety, indicating that after the prisoners were freed, &ldquothe difficulty will then commence for them to reach me.&rdquo(12) Later when writing to the Sanitary Commission to obtain supplies for those incarcerated at Andersonville, and suffering from a certain amount of guilt and remorse for not successfully freeing the prisoners, Sherman wrote, &ldquoI don&rsquot think I ever set my heart so strongly on any one thing as I did in attempting to rescue those prisoners.&rdquo(13)


After Stoneman&rsquos debacle, Sherman hesitated from making any further direct attempts to liberate prisoners at Andersonville, or other prisons nearby, not wanting to stray again from his &ldquocold logic and unsentimental reasoning,&rdquo so that he would be sure to maintain his focus on the military objective at hand. General Hood and his army demanded all of Sherman&rsquos attention and any additional attempts to free prisoners would only distract him from that endeavor and would certainly prolong the war and the suffering of the prisoners involved. Another reason that Sherman didn&rsquot pursue the liberation of Union prisoners from Andersonville and Macon, among others, was the fact that, due to the perceived threat of liberation by Sherman&rsquos army, the prisoners within close proximity to Sherman&rsquos army were being located to other prison camps throughout the South. After the fall of Atlanta, the Confederates began moving prisoners from Andersonville by rail to various towns and cities throughout Georgia and South Carolina.

Blackshear, Milledgeville, Millen, Savannah, and Thomasville were some of the 30 or so towns selected to house these prisoners until the threat had passed. The prisoners were fairly evenly split up, with several thousand going to Millen, ten thousand going to Savannah, ten thousand to Florence, ten thousand to Charleston, S.C., and the rest split up among some of the smaller towns. The disabled and critically sick were kept at Andersonville, since it was believed that they would be of little value to Sherman&rsquos army.(14) Of his inability to secure the release, or exchange, of Northern prisoners, General Sherman probably said it best in a letter to his wife Ellen, in which he wrote, &ldquo&hellip it is idle to attempt the exchange&hellip&rdquo I have already lost Stoneman & near 2,000 Cavalry in attempting to rescue the Prisoners at Macon. I get one hundred letters a day to effect the exchange or release of these Prisoners. It is not in my power. The whole matter of Exchanges is in the hands of Col. Hoffman, Commissioner at Washington. I am capturing & sending north hundreds of prisoners daily and have not intercourse with the Enemy.&rdquo(15)

Unfortunately, General Sherman let emotion get the better of him, straying from his guiding principles for one of the few times in his career when he consented to Stoneman&rsquos request to free the prisoners at Andersonville and Macon. While it is certainly difficult to fault him for his compassion and concern for the prisoners, it is more difficult to understand why, given his reputation for careful and methodical planning, he didn&rsquot insist that the raid be more carefully planned and coordinated. On the other hand, it is probably due to the failure of Stoneman&rsquos raid, that he didn&rsquot attempt any further diversions of this sort, insuring that he maintained his focus on his military objective, and, ultimately, shortening the war and the suffering of Union prisoners.

(1) John Rice, &ldquoAndersonville,&rdquo [document on-line], UMKC School of Law, accessed 23 April 2002 available from http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/Wirz/anders1.htm Internet.

(3) &ldquoAndersonville Prison &ndash Testimony of Dr. Isaiah H. White, Late Surgion Confederate States Army, As to the Treatment of Prisoners There,&rdquo [papers on-line] (Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol.XVII., Richmond, Va., January &ndash December, 1889, Richmond Times, August 7, 1890.

(4) William T. Sherman, &ldquoMemoirs of General William T. Sherman,&rdquo Volume II, (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1875) , 143.

(5) &ldquoAndersonville Prison &ndash Testimony of Dr. Isaiah H. White, Late Surgeon Confederate States Army, As to the Treatment of Prisoners There,&rdquo (Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol.XVII., Richmond, Va., January &ndash December, 1889, Richmond Times, August 7, 1990.

(7) Lloyd Lewis, &ldquoSherman &ndash Fighting Prophet,&rdquo (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1932), 418 &ndash 419.

(8) Stanley P. Hirshson, &ldquoThe White Tecumseh,&rdquo (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997) , 234.

(9) Robert Wayne Philbrook, &ldquoAlbert Philbrook & The 14th Illinois Cavalry,&rdquo [document on-line], accessed 13 April 2002 available at http://homepages.rootsweb.com/

(10) Lloyd Lewis, &ldquoSherman &ndash Fighting Prophet,&rdquo (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1932) , 403.

(11) Ulysses S. Grant, &ldquoThe Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant,&rdquo (New York: Mount MacGregor, 1885 reprint, Connecticut: Konecky & Konecky, 1992) , 437 &ndash 438 (page citations are to the reprint edition).

(12) James Lee McDonough and James Pickett Jones, &ldquoWar So Terrible &ndash Sherman And Atlanta,&rdquo (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1987), 252 &ndash 255.

(13) Lloyd Lewis, &ldquoSherman &ndash Fighting Prophet,&rdquo (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1932), 403.

(14) John Ransom, &ldquoJohn Ransom&rsquos Andersonville Diary,&rdquo (New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 1963) 154.

(15) Ed Brooks, D. Simpson, & Jean V. Berlin, &ldquoSelected Correspondence of Sherman&rsquos Civil War &ndash William T. Sherman, 1860 &ndash 1865,&rdquo (Chapel Hill & London: University of North Carolina Publishing, 1999) 684 &ndash 685.

Brooks, Ed, D. Simpson and Jean V. Berlin. &ldquoSelected Correspondence of Sherman&rsquos Civil War &ndash William T. Sherman, 1860 &ndash 1865.&rdquo Chapel Hill & London: University Of North Carolina Publishing, 1999.

Grant, Ulysses S. &ldquoThe Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant.&rdquo New York: Mount MacGregor, 1885 reprint, Connecticut: Konecky & Konecky, 1992.

Hirshson, Stanley P. &ldquoThe White Tecumseh.&rdquo New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997.

Kennett, Lee. &ldquoMarching Through Georgia &ndash The Story of Soldiers & Civilians During Sherman&rsquos Campaign.&rdquo New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995.

Lewis, Lloyd. &ldquoSherman &ndash Fighting Prophet.&rdquo New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1932.

McDonough, James Lee, James Pickett Jones. &ldquoWar So Terrible &ndash Sherman and Atlanta.&rdquo New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1987.

Ransom, John. &ldquoJohn Ransom&rsquos Andersonville Diary.&rdquo New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 1963.

Sherman, William T. &ldquoMemoirs of General William T. Sherman.&rdquo Volume II. New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1875. BizSuite Web Service.

The Burning of Atlanta – 1864

It is taught at every military academy in the world, and engrained into the cultural memory of every American. General William T Sherman’s ‘march to the sea’ from Chickamauga on the Tennessee state line through Georgia to Savannah is one of the most famous ‘scorched earth’ campaigns in history. Its lesson is how to break your enemy’s will to fight. Its defining image is the burning of Atlanta.

After nearly four years, the Civil War was going badly for the Confederacy. Sherman entered Georgia with 100,000 men, but in their heartland the Confederates surrendered each mile dearly. It decided his tactics. He wrote to Union leaders: ‘If the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war, and not popularity-seeking’. Atlanta’s antebellum elegance equaled its strategic significance as a spur to Sherman’s military vanity. It took him three months of bitter fighting to cross north Georgia, and two more of artillery bombardment to take the city. Civilians were ordered to leave while he regrouped. Then on November 15,

Sherman marched 60,000 men in three columns towards Savannah. Behind him, the classical porticos of the wealthy, the vast warehouses that had housed two centuries of trading fortunes, the factories, railroad yards, plantations, and thousands of wood-framed houses and slave barracoons burned to ashes. Refugee columns looked back at biblical scenes of pillars of flame and choking smoke, helpless against Union irregulars drunk for loot. Even freed slaves ran from Sherman’s troops.

It has become fashionable to rehabilitate Sherman from Georgia’s still-current folk perception of the ‘homed devil’ and ‘grand arsonist’ of Atlanta but when Gone With The Wind was written, there were still plenty of people alive who had seen his work for themselves. That sheet of crimson flame was for real.

When was the Burning of Atlanta: November 18-18 1864

Where was the Burning of Atlanta: Atlanta, Georgia, USA

What was the Burning of Atlanta death toll: Confederate and union casualties were both horrific, but there are no figures more precise than ‘tens of thousands’.

You should know: Partly because its cold-blooded ferocity was reinforced by the book and film of Gone With The Wind, the burning of Atlanta remains a vivid and divisive landmark in American culture. There is a truly remarkable lateral insight to the burning of Atlanta (and the march as a whole) in the poems of John Alien Wyeth. He fought Sherman as a Confederate soldier at Chickamauga, and saw the ruination of Georgia first hand. Then he lived to serve as a US Army translator on the Western Front in France, in 1917. His war poems draw together those two experiences.

Union Troops Capture Atlanta - HISTORY

By Melanie Savage

On the morning of October 17, 1859, an aide to Secretary of War John B. Floyd hurried off with an urgent message for Colonel Robert E. Lee. Floyd had just received word that the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, had been seized by a group of antislavery zealots led by the notorious terrorist John Brown. Floyd was ordering Lee to come to Washington (he was on leave at his home in Arlington, just across the Potomac River) and take command of the force being sent to Harpers Ferry to retake the arsenal and restore order to the community. Also home on leave that morning was a young cavalry officer from Virginia, 1st Lt. James Ewell Brown Stuart, nicknamed “Jeb,” who had been waiting for some time to see Floyd. The aide convinced Stuart instead to ride over to Lee’s home and deliver the peremptory orders. Floyd needed to scrape together a body of soldiers for Lee to lead to Harpers Ferry, a daunting task since no Army troops were readily available. President James Buchanan, normally a procrastinator, immediately realized the seriousness of the situation and demanded quick action. Secretary of the Navy Isaac Toucey jumped at the chance to get involved, telling his chief clerk, Charles W. Welsh, to ride over to the Washington Navy Yard and see how many Marines in the Civil War could be mustered for duty. Upon arrival, Welsh spoke with 1st Lt. Israel Greene, temporarily in charge of the Marine barracks. Welsh told the young Marine officer what had transpired at Harpers Ferry and directed him to gather as many men as he could for duty.

Although Greene was the senior line officer present, Major William Russell, the Marine Corps paymaster, accompanied the detachment of 86 leathernecks. Working with the major, Greene saw to it that each of the 86 men drew a full complement of muskets, ball cartridges, and rations. Since no one knew for certain the strength or exact position of the insurgents, two 3-inch howitzers and a number of shrapnel shells were also made ready. At 3:30 pm, Greene and his Marines set off by train to Harpers Ferry. At 10 that evening, Lee and Stuart linked up with Russell and Greene at Sandy Hook, Maryland, just across the Potomac from Harpers Ferry.

After a botched attempt at taking over the town and inciting a slave rebellion, Brown and his polyglot force had seized hostages and taken refuge inside a small brick engine house on federal property. The Marines marched to Harpers Ferry, entering the arsenal grounds through a back gate. About 11 pm, Lee ordered the various volunteer units out of the grounds, clearing space for the only regular troops at his disposal—the Marines under Greene.

The following morning, Lee demanded that the terrorists surrender. When all attempts to negotiate with Brown failed, 27 Marines broke down the door with a battering ram, rushed into the building, killed or wounded the holdouts, and took Brown prisoner. Lee would later write, “I must also ask to express my entire commendation of the conduct of the detachment of Marines, who were at all times ready and prompt in the execution of any duty.”

Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and his subsequent execution added fuel to the already simmering political fire that separated North and South. In little more than a year, with the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency, South Carolina would secede from the Union, followed by six other Southern states. With the firing upon Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, the nation would be torn apart by civil war. So, too, would be the United States Marine Corps, 20 of whose officers resigned their commissions to take up arms against the government, including fully one-half of all line officers ranked from first lieutenant to major.

Greene, pictured after the war, resigned his commission and joined the Confederate Marine Corps.

Why Marines in the Civil War Were so Under-Prepared

The armed services were ill-prepared for the magnitude of the conflict, and none more so than the Marines in the Civil War. In 1861, the Corps’ total strength numbered just 63 officers and 1,712 enlisted personnel. On July 12, the new secretary of war, Simon Cameron, wrote to request “that the disposable effective Marines now here may be organized into a battalion and held in readiness to march on field service.” In turn, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles ordered Colonel John Harris, commandant of the Marine Corps, “to detach from the Barracks four companies of eighty men each, the whole under command of Major [John G.] Reynolds, with the necessary officers, non-commissioned officers and musicians, for temporary field service under Brig. General [Irvin] McDowell, to whom Major Reynolds will report. General McDowell will furnish the Battalion with camp equipage, provisions, etc.”

The order to march did not sit well with some. Second Lieutenant Robert E. Hitchcock, the post adjutant, wrote to his parents on July 14: “Last night after I passed down the line to receive the reports of the companies, I was met by Capt. [James Hemphill] Jones, who said to me, ‘Mr. Hitchcock, prepare to take the field on Monday morning.’ So tomorrow morning will see me and five other lieutenants with 300 Marines on our way to Fairfax Court House to take part in a bloody battle which is to take place, it is thought, about Wednesday. This is unexpected to us, and the Marines are not fit to go into the field, for every man of them is as raw as you please, not more than a hundred of them have been here over three weeks. We have no camp equipage of any kind, not even tents, and after all this, we are expected to take the brunt of the battle. We shall do as well as we can under the circumstances: just think of it, 300 raw men in the field!”

Second Lieutenant Robert Hitchcock, also took part at Harpers Ferry. He was killed at Bull Run.

Reynolds, at least, was well chosen for the task. A Mexican War veteran with 35 years of military service, he knew instinctively what to expect. The same could not be said for the troops under him. Twelve noncommissioned officers commanded the four companies, which included 324 privates. Three musicians and one apprentice music boy were also assigned. Some were enlisted as recently as July 8 and had less than a week’s drill under their belts. The majority of the battalion had enlisted during May and June. Only seven privates had been in the Corps prior to the opening gunfire at Fort Sumter, and only 16 men had seen any active service.

Two Novice Armies at Bull Run

Under Reynolds and his second in command, Major Jacob Zeilin, the 350-man battalion left Washington to participate in the looming battle. As Reynolds’ battalion marched through the nation’s capital, the men were cheered and applauded as the saviors of the Union. After crossing the Long Bridge across the Potomac into Virginia, the battalion swung in behind Captain Charles Griffin’s battery of flying artillery, known as the West Point Battery. There they linked up with the Army of Northeastern Virginia, the largest field army ever gathered in North America. It was led by Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell a staff officer who had never commanded troops in combat.

McDowell’s plan was to move westward in three columns and make a diversionary attack on the Confederate line at Bull Run with two columns, while the third column moved around the Confederates’ right flank to the south, cutting the railroad to Richmond and threatening the rear of the enemy army. He assumed that the Confederates would be forced to abandon Manassas Junction and fall back to the Rappahannock River, the next defensible line in Virginia, which would relieve pressure on the U.S. capital.

Reynolds’ battalion was incorporated into the 16th U.S. Infantry, part of a brigade commanded by Colonel Andrew Porter. “The marines were recruits, but through the constant exertions of their officers had been brought to present a fine military appearance, without being able to render much active service,” wrote Porter. “They were therefore attached to the battery as its permanent support through the day.” In this way, Porter sought to lessen the likelihood that the Marines would see much, if any, fighting that day.

Marines led by Lieutenant Israel Greene storm the engine house at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, where terrorist John Brown was holed up.

The untried McDowell led his unseasoned Union army across Bull Run against the equally inexperienced Confederate Army of Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard. His plan depended on speed and surprise—two elements that were sorely missing in his grass-green army. To begin with, the march south took twice as long as expected, owing to a mix-up in the issuing of rations. Columns soon became hopelessly disorganized several regiments lost their way in the dark.

Reynolds’ Marines found themselves facing an unexpected challenge: the artillery unit to which they had been attached contained six horse-drawn cannons, which raced ahead of the marchers at every opportunity. As Reynolds reported later: “The battery’s accelerated march was such as to keep my command more or less in double-quick time consequently the men became fatigued or exhausted in strength.” The sweltering July temperatures added to the Marines’ tribulations.

Marines Break in Manassas

Crossing Bull Run at Sudley Ford, Brig. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s Union brigade fell on the Confederate left, held only by Colonel Nathan “Shanks” Evans’ under-strength brigade. Griffin’s battery, followed closely by the Marines, splashed across the creek and opened fire from a range of 1,000 yards. The Confederates found themselves at an initial disadvantage, but the inexperienced Federal troops soon buckled under the intense firing and began to fall back. Porter’s brigade, including Griffin’s battery and the Marines, held firm, but the arrival by train of Confederate reinforcements led by Brig. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston quickly changed the course of the battle. A brigade of Virginians under a recently promoted brigadier general from the Virginia Military Institute, Thomas J. Jackson, rallied at Henry House Hill.

Griffin’s battery and a second Union artillery battery under Captain J.B. Ricketts were ordered to take the hill, supported by other infantry and Reynolds’ Marines. The fighting was intense but indecisive until the chance arrival of an unknown regiment tipped the scales. Griffin wanted to open fire on the dark-clad soldiers, but Major William F. Barry, McDowell’s chief of artillery, ordered him to hold his fire. Barry thought the regiment was Union reinforcements. Instead, it was Colonel Arthur Cumming’s 33rd Virginia, whose members suddenly unleashed a murderous fire on Griffin’s gunners and the supporting Marines. Confederate Brig. Gen. Bernard Bee was so impressed by Jackson and his men that he shouted, “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer. Rally behind the Virginians!”

A well turned out battalion of Marines parades past the Commandant’s House in Washington in 1864. Band members are pictured at left, with drummer boys in the center.

The Union troops, including the Marines, broke and fled. Without support, Griffin’s battery was overrun. “That was the last of us,” he reported. “We were all cut down.” Reynolds feverishly attempted to rally the Marines, but another Confederate charge drove them from the hill. In his official report after the battle, Porter commended many soldiers, including “Major Reynolds’ marines, whose zealous efforts were well sustained by his subordinates, two of whom, Brevet Major Zeilin and Lieutenant Hale, were wounded, and one, Lieutenant Hitchcock, lost his life.” In addition to Hitchcock, nine enlisted Marines were killed in action and presumably buried in the mass graves dug by the Confederates near Sudley Church. Sixteen enlisted men were wounded in addition to the officers, and another 20 were taken prisoner. It was, the Marine commandant lamented, “The first instance recorded in its history where any portion of [the Corps’] members turned their backs to the enemy.”

To be fair, there were extenuating circumstances, most particularly the disastrously short amount of time the Marines had had to train before being rushed to the front. Nevertheless, as the least experienced soldiers in McDowell’s woefully inexperienced army, the Marines gave a reasonably good account of themselves under fire, and their 13 percent casualty rate was nearly equal to the Regular Army battalion, the most experienced unit in the Federal army at Bull Run.

Marines at Fort Wagner

Following Bull Run, Congress only slightly enlarged the size of the Marine Corps due to the priority given to the Army and after filling detachments for the ships of the Navy (which had more than doubled in size by 1862), the Marine Corps was only able to field one battalion at any given time. Marines from ships’ detachments as well as ad hoc battalions took part in the landing operations necessary to capture bases for blockade duty. These were mostly successful, but an amphibious landing to seize Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor in September 1863 would be another story.

By the summer of 1863, the Charleston defenses had continued to withstand any Union offensive. Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren replaced Admiral Samuel Du Pont as commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron and proposed a joint Navy-Army-Marine assault to seize outlying Morris Island and then move on Fort Sumter itself. He asked Secretary Welles for an extra battalion of Marines to be combined with another battalion assembled from those already serving in the fleet to form an assault regiment. Harris, in turn, put together a motley assemblage of troops—anyone he could grab, including recruiters, transients, and the walking wounded—and placed the now recovered Zeilin in command.

Dahlgren and Army Brig. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore, agreed to begin the campaign by seizing Fort Wagner on Morris Island. Union gunners made use of a new piece of artillery known as the Requa gun—25 rifle barrels mounted on a field carriage used for rapid firing. On July 10, Gillmore’s soldiers landed safely on the far side of the island, but the subsequent overland attack the next day met with a bloody repulse. One week later, Massachusetts-born Colonel Robert Gould Shaw led a doomed assault on Fort Wagner spearheaded by the African American 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Shaw and 54 of his men were killed, and another 48 were never accounted for. Other Union regiments from Connecticut, New York, and New Hampshire fared no better.

Gillmore called off the all-out attack and ordered his engineers to dig a number of zigzagging approach trenches. While they dug, calcium floodlights, another military novelty, were flashed at the defenders, blinding them enough to prevent accurate return fire. But the ground the Union soldiers were digging through was shallow sand with a muddy base. The trenching efforts also began to uncover the badly decomposed Union dead from the previous assaults on Fort Wagner. Disease and bad water plagued the soldiers as well.

Colonel John Harris was Marine Corps commandant when the Civil War began.

A Disastrous Assault

Dahlgren planned for Zeilin’s Marines to make a landing and support the Army soldiers already on shore, but Zeilin surprisingly objected. He claimed his force was “incompetent to the duty assigned it. Sufficient sacrifice of life has already been made during this war, in unsuccessful storming parties, to make me anxious at least to remove responsibility from myself.” Zeilin also complained that many of his Marines were raw recruits and that it was too hot to train them. “No duty which they could be called upon to perform requires such perfect discipline and drill as landing under fire,” he said. A furious Dahlgren cancelled the Marine landing, recording in his diary: “The Commander of Marines reports against risking his men in attacking [enemy] works. What are Marines for?” Subsequent historians have rebutted Zeilin’s claim that his men were inexperienced, noting that 60 percent of the new Marine battalion and 90 percent of the fleet battalion had at least a year’s experience.

When Zeilin fell ill, Captain Edward M. Reynolds (the son of Lt. Col. George Reynolds of Bull Run fame) took command of the battalion. After the Confederates’ surprise evacuation of Fort Wagner, Dahlgren moved swiftly to attack Fort Sumter, ordering an attack on the fort on the evening of September 8 by 500 Marines and sailors in 25 small boats led by Navy Commander Thomas H. Stevens. Dahlgren learned at the last moment that Gillmore was planning a separate boat attack on the fort that same night. Attempts to coordinate the attacks faltered over the question of whether the Army or the Navy would exercise ultimate command of the assault.

Reconnaissance also failed to reveal the need for ladders to climb the breastworks. The Confederates, who had captured a Union codebook and deciphered Dahlgren’s signals, knew when and where the attack was coming. The surrounding forts and batteries trained their guns on Sumter’s seaward approaches the Confederate ironclad Chicora waited in the shadows behind the fort. Captain Charles G. McCawley, a future commandant of the Marine Corps, was the senior Marine in the night assault. He decried the lengthy delay before the landing boats were launched, noting that there was “great confusion the strong tide separated them, and I found it quite impossible to get all my boats together.”

Confederate sentries fired a signal rocket alerting the harbor batteries to open fire. Only 11 of the Marines’ 25 boats managed to land on the rocks beneath the fort the others were sunk or became lost in the darkness. McCawley’s boat never landed. One Marine officer who did make it ashore, 2nd Lt. Robert L. Meade of Tennessee, recorded in his diary: “My men suffer[ed] from the musketry fire and the bricks, hand grenades, and fireballs thrown from the parapet.”

The assault ground to a halt within 20 minutes. The 105 surviving Marines, unable to reach the parapets or withdraw to sea in their now splintered boats, surrendered. Meade spent the next 13 months in a Columbia, South Carolina, prison camp. Twenty-one enlisted Marines, less fortunate, died in captivity at the notorious Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia.

Major Jacob Zeilin, wounded at Bull Run, became commandant in June 1864.

An Attempt to Cut the Confederate Supply Lines

By the fall of 1864, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman and his army of more than 60,000 men had taken Atlanta and headed east across Georgia toward the sea. In a telegram to Army Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, Sherman advised: “I would like to have [Maj. Gen. John] Foster break the Charleston-Savannah Railroad about Pocotaligo about the 1st of December.” On November 30, at the Battle of Honey Hill, also known as Boyd’s Neck, Foster failed in his attempt to sever the railroad.

A battalion of 157 Marines, led by 1st Lt. George G. Stoddard, redeployed aboard Navy ships for another attempt to break the railroad. “Soon after dark on the 5th I received orders from the Admiral to form my battalion and proceed on board the Flag Steamer Philadelphia for an expedition up the Tulifinny River,” Stoddard recounted in his official report. “Embarked about midnight under orders to land the next morning, cover the landing of the artillery and advance on the enemy.”

At dawn on December 6, a combined force of Marines, sailors, and soldiers landed on Gregorie Point, South Carolina. “We advanced on the right of the Naval Battery and came under fire about 11 a. m., deployed the whole battalion as skirmishers on the right, and advanced into the woods beyond Tulifinny cross roads driving the enemy before us,” wrote Stoddard. Union troops captured the Gregorie Plantation home, quickly moved toward the Charleston-Savannah Railroad, and surprised the 5th Georgia Infantry, capturing its colors. A corps of 343 Citadel cadets, bivouacking four miles away, heard the fire and marched at a run to Gregorie Point.

In the early morning hours the next day, the cadets and three companies of Georgia infantry mounted a surprise attack on the center of the Union position. Marines were in the center of the Union line, supporting the Army and Navy field artillery batteries. As the cadets slowly inched their way forward, they were met by withering musket fire. Cadet Private Farish C. Furman, a 19-year-old sophomore, later wrote of seeing “a stream of fire shoot out from the bushes in front of me, accompanied by the sharp crack of a rifle. The ball fired at me missed my head by a few inches and buried itself in a tree close by.” The cadets returned fire and mounted a bayonet attack aimed at the Union line, but were quickly forced to retreat.

Union forces prepared to counterattack. As the bluecoats emerged from a swampy, heavily wooded area, they began running across the open field toward the cadets, traversing “a dense swamp, from knee to waist deep.” It was so thick, Stoddard reported, “that you could not see a man three or four paces from you.” The Citadel cadets lifted their rifles and filled the air with Minie bullets. After suffering many casualties, Union troops withdrew to their trenches.

A Marine officer in full dress, far left, proudly shows off his troops in this 1862 photo by famed photographer Mathew Brady.

On December 9, Union forces made a final assault against the Confederate defenses. The Marine battalion formed on the far right of a 600–man skirmish line. To the right of the Marine battalion was the Tulifinny River. The cadets were camped directly ahead of the Marine position. Stoddard’s men came within 50 yards of the railroad tracks near the river before the 127th New York Volunteers on their left began to retreat. The Marines on the extreme right continued forward. Stoddard reported: “I found myself unsupported and nearly cut off. I faced my men about, but having no means of telling proper direction, kept too much to the right and struck the Tulifinny River. This turned out to be fortunate, as the enemy pursued our left and through the river, taking several prisoners. We have lost in killed, wounded and missing 23, a list of whom I send herewith. The non-commissioned officers and privates have all behaved in a most gallant manner and I am sure that by their bravery they added to the high reputation the Corps already enjoys.” Despite the failed attack, Stoddard was promoted to captain.

The Battle of Fort Fisher

The Marines suffered another embarrassing failure a few weeks later at the Battle of Fort Fisher. The fort, located at the mouth of the Cape Fear River at Wilmington, North Carolina, safeguarded the Confederacy’s last operational Atlantic port. Shaped like an “L,” the earthen stronghold mounted 39 large-caliber guns augmented by numerous mortars. It was said to be stronger than the celebrated Fort Malakoff at Sebastopol in the Crimea. Walls nine feet high and 25 feet thick waited to repel any invader.

Corporal John Mackie fires from a gun port aboard USS Galena in this Charles Waterhouse painting.

On the morning of December 14, a fleet of 75 Union warships and transports commanded by Admiral David Dixon Porter steamed south from Hampton Roads, Virginia, toward Fort Fisher. Troopships held 6,500 army troops under Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler. Delayed by a storm, the Union armada began bombarding the fort on December 24. A staggering 20,000 shells of all calibers streamed across the water from Porter’s vessels. A landing party of 2,500 soldiers came ashore on Christmas Day but could only reach to within 75 yards of the fort before being driven back. Butler hastily called off the attack. That night, Porter withdrew the fleet out of range of Fort Fisher’s artillery.

On January 6, Porter launched a second invasion. This time the infantry was commanded by Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry the disgraced Butler had been sacked. A vicious storm off Cape Hatteras again delayed the flotilla, but an 8,000-man landing force went ashore one week later. There followed two more days of intense naval bombardment, while detachments of sailors and Marines gathered for an amphibious assault. Sixteen hundred sailors, armed with cutlasses and revolvers, moved ashore, accompanied by 400 Marines divided into four companies under the command of Captain Lucien L. Dawson. Naval Commander Randolph Breeze led the overall attack.

Charleston’s Fort Sumter, pictured in August 1863, was much fought over by Union and Confederate forces throughout the Civil War. U.S. Marines took a turn at capturing the fort.

The assault boats soon ran aground in the rough surf, and the sailors and Marines jumped into the waves with grapeshot and shrapnel whizzing around their heads. A few hundred yards from the fort, the landing party occupied previously dug rifle trenches and waited for the signal to mount a frontal assault. The signal came shortly before 3 pm. The sailors, supported by the Marines, moved out in a single line, heading for a huge hole in the fort’s palisades that the naval bombardment had created. From the start, it was a bloody fiasco, “sheer, murderous madness,” young Navy Lieutenant George Dewey observed from the deck of the steam frigate USS Colorado. Dewey’s own day of glory was coming 34 years later at the Battle of Manila Bay in the Spanish-American War.

The wreckage-strewn site of the Marines’ failed landing at Fort Sumter on September 8, 1863. Some 21 Marines later died at Andersonville prison.

The attack was supposed to be simultaneous, but for some reason Terry held back his Army troops on the Confederate left. Instead, for the next six hours, the soldiers, sailors, and Marines fought hand-to-hand with Confederate defenders at Fort Fisher in a badly uncoordinated assault. “I received two or three orders from Captain Breeze to ‘bring up the marines at once that we would be late,’ so that I had to move off without time to equalize the companies,” reported Dawson. “I took the Marines up and filed across the peninsula in front of the sailors, with skirmishers thrown out.”

When the attackers were driven back, Dawson rallied two companies of Marines to provide cover fire. Several Marines spontaneously joined the Army attack on the main parapet early that evening and helped overrun Fort Fisher. Four hundred of the Confederate defenders were killed or wounded, and more than 2,000 were taken prisoner. Terry’s force lost 900 casualties, and the joint Navy-Marine force lost an additional 200, including 14 Marines killed and another 46 wounded or missing. Six Marines were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions at Fort Fisher.

Prisoner Lewis Paine, who attempted to assassinate Secretary of State Henry Seward, is guarded by a Marine at the Washington Navy Yard.

Fighting With the Fleet

Despite the Marines’ participation in major land battles at First Bull Run, Fort Wagner, Tulifinny Crossroads, and Fort Fisher, the Corps’ main contribution during the Civil War was aboard the ships of the blockading squadrons and inland river flotillas. At the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864, quick-firing Marines on Admiral David Farragut’s flagship, the sloop of war USS Hartford, helped beat back an attempt by the Confederate ram Tennessee to sink the vessel. Corporal Miles M. Oviatt, aboard the nearbysloop of war USS Brooklyn, and seven other Marines received the Medal of Honor for their roles in the battle. Oviatt’s citation read: “As enemy fire raked the deck, Corporal Oviatt fought his gun with skill and courage throughout the furious two-hour battle.” Farragut himself said of the Marines, “I have always deemed the Marine guard one of the great essentials of a man-of-war.” And Rear Admiral Samuel Du Pont said even more emphatically, “A ship without Marines is not ship of war at all.”

Sailors and Marines aboard the gunboat USS Mendota in 1864.

All in all, the Marines played a comparatively small role in the ultimate Union victory in the Civil War. Their reputation as the nation’s premier amphibious unit would not reach fruition until many years later, in World War II, when the Corps put into effect in the South Pacific the lessons learned the hard way at Fort Fisher: unity of command, parallel planning, rehearsed landings, and close integration of naval gunfire support. Said one company-grade Marine officer who had taken part in the botched attack at Fort Fisher, “The war was our great opportunity, and we owlishly neglected it.” The Marines would not neglect their even greater opportunities at Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and other Pacific stepping stones eight decades later. In that way, at least, their losses in the Civil War had not been in vain.

For more stories of U.S. Marines in the Civil War, World War II and beyond, subscribe to Military Heritage magazine.


I volunteered as a living historian and as a member of the USMC Historical Company at HFNHP portraying a private of Marines attired in the 1852 fatigue uniform (worn from 1839 to 1859) and am armed with an authentic M1842 Springfield .69 caliber smoothbore musket and 18″ bayonet used by the Corps at the time. I am a native of nearby Charles Town, Jefferson County, WV (where Brown was tried and then executed). I also served our Corps from 1967-1971 with a tour in South Vietnam. Anyone that would like to read the United States Marine Corps – Historical Company’s narrative on this event from the Marine Corps point of view please PM me. Semper Fi!

As a Canadian veteran I am always interested in history of the Marine Corp.

Excellent! My background is a that of a military historian and recently have been doing some genealogical research on my ancestors. One of my Great Great Grandfathers was a prisoner who died at Andersonville in Georgia. On both sides of my Mother’s and Father’s Family we have ancestors who fought on both sides of the war as Confederates and as Union troops. Hence, divided loyalties as is the case with many Families in the Border States. It is only recently that I have discovered we had several distant cousins who served in the Marines during the American Civil War. My service was as a Field Artillery Officer in the United States Army predominantly in Alaska and the West Coast of the United States and the beautifully sunny Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Duty, Honor, Country!

Union Blockade and Coastal Occupation in the Civil War

Barry L. Brown and Gordon R. Elwell, Crossroads of Conflict: A Guide to Civil War Sites in Georgia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010).

Paul Calore, Naval Campaigns of the Civil War (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Company, 2002).

Roger S. Durham, Guardian of Savannah: Fort McAllister, Georgia, in the Civil War and Beyond (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2008).

Jacqueline Jones, Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008).

Dave Page, Ships versus Shore: Civil War Engagements along Southern Shores and Rivers (Nashville, Tenn.: Rutledge Hill Press, 1994).

William H. Roberts, Now for the Contest: Coastal and Oceanic Naval Operations in the Civil War (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004).

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