September 7, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman, commanding the Federal armies now occupying Atlanta, made the controversial decision to force all residents out of their city.
General John Bell Hood, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee, was on the Macon & Western Railroad, about 20 miles south of Atlanta and 15 miles south of Rough and Ready, when he received a message from Sherman:
“I have deemed it to the interest of the United States that the citizens now residing in Atlanta should remove, those who prefer it to go South and the rest North. For the latter I can provide food and transportation to point of their election in Tennessee, Kentucky, or farther north. For the former I can provide transportation by cars as far as Rough and Ready, and also wagons; but that their removal may be made with as little discomfort as possible it will be necessary for you to help the families from Rough and Ready to the cars at Lovejoy’s.”
Federal Maj Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit: collaborationnation.wikispaces.com
Federal forces had occupied several cities in the Confederacy during the war, but this marked the first time that a Federal commander ordered all civilians out, including even those loyal to the U.S. In his memoirs, Sherman explained, “I was resolved to make Atlanta a pure military garrison or depot, with no civil population to influence military measures.”
Sherman offered to help residents (regardless of their sympathies) move their “clothing, trunks, reasonable furniture, bedding, &c., with their servants, white and black, with the proviso that no force shall be used toward the blacks one way or the other.” Unlike most other Federal occupation commanders, Sherman gave the slaves a choice: “If they want to go with their masters or mistresses they may do so, otherwise they will be set away, unless they be men, when they may be employed by our quartermaster.”
Evacuating Atlanta’s civilians would involve displacing 446 families totaling about 1,600 people, most of whom were elderly, infirmed, women or children. Most able-bodied men in these families were off either serving in the Confederate army, languishing in Federal prison camps, or killed. Forcing these people out violated Sherman’s pledge to city officials on the 2nd to respect the lives and property of noncombatants.
The next day, Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 67, declaring that “the city of Atlanta, being exclusively required for warlike purposes, will at once be evacuated by all except the armies of the United States.” Atlanta Mayor James M. Calhoun wrote Sherman explaining that turning out the sick and aged just before winter would be “appalling and heartrending.”
Sherman responded to the mayor and city council, “I give full credit to your statements of the distress that will be occasioned by it, and yet shall not revoke my order, because my orders are not designed to meet the humanities of the case, but to prepare for the future struggle.” He went on:
“You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out… You might as well appeal against the thunder storm as against these terrible hardships of war… They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war… Now you must go, and take with you your old and feeble, feed and nurse them, and build for them, in more quiet places, proper habitations to shield them against the weather until the mad passions of men cool down and allow the Union and peace once more to settle over your old homes at Atlanta.”
Sherman then issued a congratulatory order to his soldiers, praising them for capturing Atlanta and completing “the grand task which has been assigned us by our Government.” However, this order failed to note that the real grand task assigned–destroying Hood’s army–had not been achieved, as that Confederate force remained a threat in the area.
On the 9th, Hood replied to Sherman’s message: “I do not consider that I have any alternative in this matter. I therefore accept your proposition to declare a truce for two days, or such time as may be necessary to accomplish the purpose mentioned, and shall render all assistance in my power to expedite the transportation of citizens in this direction.” But then Hood vented his rage over Sherman’s punitive order:
“And now, sir, permit me to say that the unprecedented measure you propose transcends, in studied and ingenious cruelty, all acts ever before brought to my attention in the dark history of war. In the name of God and humanity, I protest, believing that you will find that you are expelling from their homes and firesides the wives and children of a brave people.”
Sherman replied that Joseph E. Johnston, Hood’s predecessor, had “very wisely and properly, removed the families all the way from Dalton down, and I see no reason why Atlanta should be excepted.” Sherman also alleged that Hood had “burned dwellings along your parapet, and I have seen today 50 houses that you have rendered uninhabitable because they stood in the way of your forts and men. You defended Atlanta on a line so close to town that every cannon shot and many musket shots from our line of investment that overshot their mark went into the habitations of women and children.” Hood angrily answered:
“I feel no other emotion than pain in reading that portion of your letter which attempts to justify your shelling of Atlanta without notice… You came into our country, with your army avowedly for the purpose of subjugating free white men, women and children, and not only intend to rule over them, but you make negroes your allies and desire to place over us an inferior race, which we have raised from barbarism to its present position, which is the highest ever attained by that race in any country in all time.
“To this my reply is, for myself, and, I believe, for all the true men, ay, and women and children in my country, we will fight you to the death. Better die a thousand deaths than submit to live under you or your Government and your negro allies.”
Sherman, who shared much of Hood’s opinion on the inferiority of blacks, argued that “not a single negro soldier left Chattanooga with this army or is with it now.” He ended his last letter, “This is the conclusion of our correspondence, which I did not begin, and terminate with satisfaction.”
The truce began on the 11th and lasted 10 days. During that time, all of Atlanta’s civilian population was exiled. The Federals prohibited wagons, so the people could only take with them what they could carry. Many were robbed of those few possessions before they reached Confederate lines. Occupation forces seized the valuables left behind.
Sherman wrote, “If the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war and not popularity-seeking.” Sherman’s policy of “total war,” which included targeting civilians and destroying cities, made him the most hated man in the South.
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