September 2, 1864 (Friday)
“Then came the awful hours of waiting—waiting for the unknown! Delicate women, as well as stalwart men, looked after their weapons and put them in order. There was no thought of resisting insults and robbery, but some outrages they were resolved to defend themselves against to the death. Men with wives and daughters stayed at home, to be ready for any emergency. But the center of the town was filled with the riffraff, with stragglers and deserters, with negroes delirious over their strange sense of freedom, and with lean and haggard men and women of the lowest class, who were going through the stores, picking up such odds and ends as had been left behind by their owners. This was the state of affairs on the morning of the 2d of September, when Atlanta, worn out and shattered by the storm of war, lay panting between two flags, under the protection of neither, abandoned by one, and with no hope of mercy from the other.” – From History of Atlanta, Georgia by Wallace Putnam Reed
James Calhoun, Mayor of Atlanta, called a meeting of the city’s highest officials. The Rebels had abandoned them, leaving the people to the mercy of General Sherman’s Federals. With no other course, they rode out toward the Union works north of town, and were met by Federal cavalry accompanied by a brigade of infantry.
These northern men had been sent by General John Slocum, now commanding the Twentieth Corps, which had been left behind by Sherman to watch the northern crossings over the Chattahoochie. Slocum had heard the explosions from General Hood’s ammunition train through the night and suspected that the enemy might be in retreat. That morning he sent forward three such columns to ascertain whether or not the Rebels remained in Atlanta.
This column, commanded by Captain Henry Scott, now found out the truth. “Soon after passing through the works formerly occupied by our army,” wrote Scott in his report, “a body of men was observed coming out from the city. Advancing rapidly toward them, I discovered that they were citizens bearing a flag of truce. Going forward, I asked them what propositions they had to make. One of them made himself known as they mayor, and said that he had come to surrender the city and ask protection for non-combatants and private property.”
Scott agreed and immediately sent word back to Slocum – Atlanta had fallen. But as his command entered the city, they were fired upon and a “spirited skirmish ensued.” After the smoke had cleared, Scott reiterated the terms of the surrender and warned “that if the rebels continued to fire from behind houses they need expect no protection for persons or property.” The mayor himself tried to talk some sense into the remaining Rebels, but they nearly shot him for he effort. With the strength of his skirmish line, Scott cleared the city, capturing 100 of these wayward drunken stragglers in the round up.
In the city and defenses, they found few small arms, but quite a number of pieces of heavy artillery. This was how they spent much of their morning.
Around 2pm, General Slocum arrived with most of his command, and immediately sent word to Washington. “General Sherman has taken Atlanta, The Twentieth Corps occupies the city.” wrote Slocum, though at this point, Sherman knew nothing of it, and wouldn’t for quite some time. Oddly communication between Atlanta and Washington was relatively speedy, though the same could not be said of Atlanta and Sherman’s army, only ten miles south.
“While you are cut off from communication with General Sherman,” wrote General Grant from City Point, Virginia, “telegraph your situation daily to General Halleck.”
Through the day, Sherman tried as he might to learn Atlanta’s fate. In a message to Slocum, he explained 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.”
For Sherman, the Confederates in his front were simply falling back, but he suspected that Atlanta had fallen. “Until we hear from Atlanta the exact truth, I do not care about your pushing your men against breast-works.” If Hood’s Confederates were in retreat, what need was there to expend more lives? Instead, at 8pm, he ordered the Army of the Cumberland 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.”
To General Oliver Otis Howard, he echoed, “I do not wish to waste lives by an assault. If the enemy is gone in the morning occupy his lines to your front and await orders.”
This he would not learn until early the next morning. Then, he would write to General Henry Halleck: “So Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.”
Now would come a lull, and soon a drastic transformation.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 38, Part 2, p20, 332; Part 5, p763, 764, 767-768, 771; History of Atlanta, Georgia by Wallace Putnam Reed; Decision in the West by Albert Castel. [↩]