September 3, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman received official confirmation that his Federals had captured the vital industrial and railroad city of Atlanta.
Federal Maj Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit: collaborationnation.wikispaces.com
The fires and explosions caused by Confederates evacuating from Atlanta continued into the early morning of the 2nd. Sherman, the overall Federal commander, ordered his forces south of town to renew their attack on Lieutenant General William Hardee’s isolated Confederate corps on the Macon & Western Railroad. However, the Federals learned that Hardee had withdrawn southeastward, linking with the rest of General John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee at Lovejoy’s Station.
Major General John Schofield, commanding the Federal Army of the Ohio, informed Sherman at 10:25 a.m. that a black resident had just reported that the Confederates were leaving Atlanta “in great confusion and disorder.” Sherman initially doubted the report, opting instead to confront the Confederates at Lovejoy’s.
During this time, Major General Henry W. Slocum, commanding the lone Federal corps still north of Atlanta, directed part of his force to enter the city after hearing the explosions throughout the morning. Mayor James M. Calhoun consulted with city officials before they rode out under white flags to confer with the advancing Federals.
Calhoun met the lead division commander and declared, “Sir, the fortunes of war have placed the city of Atlanta in your hands. As mayor of the city I ask protection for noncombatants and private property.” Calhoun and the Atlanta delegation surrendered the city at 11 a.m.
The Federal commander passed the word back to Slocum and then led his troops into the city. They skirmished with Confederate stragglers, many of whom were drunk. Federal troops raised the U.S. flag over City Hall. Slocum entered Atlanta around 2 p.m. and telegraphed Washington, “General Sherman has taken Atlanta. The Twentieth Corps occupies the city.”
Slocum informed Sherman that Hood had retreated down the McDonough Road, east of the railroad, toward Macon. However, communications between Slocum and Sherman at Lovejoy’s were temporarily cut off, so Sherman was still unaware that Atlanta had fallen.
Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, replied to Slocum, “While you are cut off from communication with General Sherman, telegraph your situation daily to General (Henry W.) Halleck.” Sherman wrote Slocum that he was “very anxious to know the particulars of the capture of Atlanta… as we have rumors to the effect that you now occupy the city.”
The Federals below Atlanta probed the Confederate positions at Lovejoy’s but were strongly repulsed. Sherman notified Major General Oliver O. Howard, commanding the Federal Army of the Tennessee, “I do not wish to waste lives by an assault.”
He then informed Major General George H. Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland, “Until we hear from Atlanta the exact truth, I do not care about your pushing your men against breastworks.” He urged Thomas to “destroy the railroad well up to your lines. As soon as I know positively that our troops are in Atlanta I will determine what to do.” At 11:30 that night, Sherman wrote Schofield, “Nothing positive from Atlanta, and that bothers me.”
Sherman finally received confirmation after midnight. He wired Halleck at 6 a.m. on the 3rd: “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won. I shall not push much farther in this raid, but in a day or so will move to Atlanta and give my men some rest.”
News of Atlanta’s capture sparked joyous celebrations throughout the North, along with 100-gun salutes in Washington and dozens of other cities. Grant ordered a 100-gun salute fired into the Confederate trenches under siege at Petersburg. Grant wrote to Sherman:
“I feel you have accomplished the most gigantic undertaking given to any general in this war, and with a skill and ability that will be acknowledged in history as not surpassed, if not unequalled. It gives me as much pleasure to record this in your favor as it would in favor of any living man, myself included.”
The New York Times exalted:
“Atlanta is ours. The foundries, furnaces, rolling-mills, machine-shops, laboratories and railroad repair-shops; the factories of cannon and small arms; of powder, cartridges and percussion caps; of gun carriages, wagons, ambulances, harnesses, shoes and clothing, which have been accumulated at Atlanta, are ours now.”
President Abraham Lincoln jubilantly issued a Proclamation of Thanksgiving and Prayer to be observed on Sunday the 5th for “the signal success that Divine Providence has recently vouchsafed to the operations of the United States fleet and army in the harbor of Mobile and in the reduction of Ft. Powell, Ft. Gaines, and Ft. Morgan… and the glorious achievements of the Army under Major General Sherman… resulting in the capture… of Atlanta.”
Taking Atlanta strengthened the Federal fighting spirit and immediately shifted momentum in the upcoming presidential election to Lincoln. Secretary of State William H. Seward predicted that Sherman and Rear Admiral David G. Farragut would defeat the Democrats, who had just met at their national convention in Chicago, by declaring that “Sherman and Farragut have knocked the bottom out of the Chicago platform.”
Conversely, the loss of Atlanta demoralized the South, and crucial industrial resources in the heart of Confederate territory were permanently lost. This virtually sealed the Confederacy’s fate. An editorial in the Richmond Enquirer stated that the disastrous loss of Atlanta came “in the very nick of time when a victory alone could save the party of Lincoln from irretrievable ruin… It will obscure the prospect of peace, late so bright. It will also diffuse gloom over the South.”
However, Sherman had not yet succeeded in his primary mission, which was to destroy the Army of Tennessee. The Federals continued probing Hood’s positions at Lovejoy’s Station but otherwise allowed the Confederates to regroup and concentrate.
Sherman’s four-month campaign had included nonstop maneuvering and fighting, during which the Federals had suffered nearly 35,000 casualties. This number was light due to Sherman’s expert flanking maneuvers. The Confederates lost roughly the same amount, but their losses were irreplaceable, and the Army of Tennessee was no longer an effective fighting force. Nevertheless, Hood resolved to fight on.
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