Sherman Orders Atlanta to be Emptied

September 7, 1864 (Wednesday)

“If the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war, and not popularity-seeking. If they want peace, they and their relatives must stop the war.” – William Tecumseh Sherman.

Sherman's troops destroying the railroad.
Sherman’s troops destroying the railroad.

General Sherman had seen to the occupation of several major Southern cities thus far in the war. Memphis, Vicksburg, Natchez and New Orleans had all fallen, and he had learned from these prior exercises. The object was never to simply occupy a location, but to defeat the Confederate army. Yet, when the bulk of his own forces had to move forward, he was compelled to leave behind at least a fully division to garrison the town. Anything less might be overrun by the populace.

But with Atlanta, Sherman decided to try something new. “I peremptorily required that all the citizens and families resident in Atlanta should go away, giving to each the option to go south or north, as their interests or feelings dictated,” he wrote in his memoirs. “I was resolved to make Atlanta a pure military garrison or depot, with no civil population to influence military measures.”

Rather than simply going door-to-door to remove the citizenry, Sherman wrote first to Confederate General John Bell Hood, whose army had vacated Atlanta and was now encamped near Lovejoy, twenty miles south.

“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.”

Not only would Sherman help the Southern-sympathizers relocate their families, but he would also assist them in moving 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.”

This was a slightly different approach that was undertaken by some. Often, when the Federal army came into town, the black slaves would be immediately set free. But here, Sherman was giving them 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.”

More than likely, this meant put to work digging latrines and entrenchments as Sherman, like George Meade, refused to have black soldiers under his command.

To this, Hood agreed, though what choice did he have?

“I do not consider that I have any alternative in this matter,” replied Hood. “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.”

Hood made some logistical suggestions, but was furious over Sherman’s idea to expel the city’s residents.

“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.”

Even preparing for such an undertaking would take days, and a sever series of letters would be soon exchanged between Generals Sherman and Hood, though the latter could do little more than protest.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 38, Part 5, p822; Vol. 39, Part 2, p356; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Advance and Retreat by John Bell Hood. []
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