A little more than a year from now, we will be commemorating the 150th anniversary of William T. Sherman’s conquest of Atlanta in September 1864. This was a crucial moment in the Civil War which helped to defeat the Confederacy and assure Union victory. To be sure, the Atlanta Campaign had much to do with the shaping of the South’s vision of itself. Sherman’s invasion also defined the character, shape, and purpose of Atlanta for the next century and more.
William Link’s new book entitled Atlanta, Cradle of the New South: Race and Remembering in the Civil War’s Aftermath, explores the connections between this singular place and the American South. Dr. Link, who is the Richard J. Milbauer Professor of History, published the book with the University of North Carolina Press just this year.
Atlanta hadn’t been much of a city prior to secession, he argues, with about 10,000 in inhabitants in 1860. The town didn’t even exist prior to 1847, when the village of Marthasville began to call itself Atlanta. For much of its antebellum history, the town struggled to define itself against a reputation for lawlessness and social disorder.
The Civil War remade Atlanta, which became the most important wartime center for the western Confederate armies. Its position as a central railroad depot, manufacturing, supply, military, and hospital center set it apart. Fortunes were made; housing and commodities were at a premium. In addition, the war provided new opportunities for African Americans to acquire property, assert greater economic autonomy, and begin to build the foundation of a new, free community. The Civil War thus began Atlanta’s emergence as a major southern urban center.
At the same time, the Civil War brought destruction and devastation to Atlanta During their evacuation of the city in September 1864,Confederate military forces destroyed the remaining military stores in the city, while they burned the transportation center. Sherman burned much of the city when he left it two months later. Sherman aide Henry Hitchcock described “tongues of flame . . . huge waves of fire” which rolled “up into the sky” and with “the skeletons of great warehouses” standing out “in relief against and amidst sheets of roaring, blazing, furious flames.”
There were few cities in the occupied South suffering as much devastation as Atlanta, but destruction provided a basis for the city’s future growth. Dr. Link outlines this point in a recent interview with the historical magazine, Civil War Monitor. Indeed, the “New South”—a social construction fashioned in the 1880s—rested on the ability of a city such as Atlanta to embrace a clean slate and to reinvent its future. Atlanta’s white boosters embraced a new narrative about the city’s past which wiped clean the slaveholding past and adopted a message of openness to investment by northern capitalists. Wartime destruction became an emblem of Atlanta’s embrace of modernity, its ability to fashion itself as a resurgent phoenix leading toward a New South future. “As ruin was never before so overwhelming,” New South enthusiast and booster Henry W. Grady announced in December 1886, “never was restoration swifter.”