September 14, 1864 (Wednesday)
From all indications, the prisoner exchange would be small, but it was something – especially for the 4,000 soldiers who would be swapped. “I agre upon the terms of your letter of the 12th to the exchange of the 2,000 prisoners captured by both armies,” wrote Confederate General John Bell Hood to William Tecumseh Sherman. But he had a grievence. Sherman wished to give back “the men captured in Atlanta who are soldiers of the Confederate Army,” but were on some sort of labor duty within the city.
“I can make no agreement to exchange, not knowing whether they are exempts, or what they are,” concluded Hood, “but for every many regularly in the C.S. service, whether detailed or not, I will exchange man for man.”
The place was set – Rough and Ready, outside of Atlanta, and Hood sent word to Andersonville prison to prepare to release the last 2,000 Union soldiers there received. Sherman did the same, sending to Chattanooga word of the exchange. The staff officers of the two generals would meet tomorrow to work out the details.
While this seemed amicable enough, there was a completely different conversation happening parallel to the one about prisoners. Sherman had seen the disadvantages that a disloyal population could bring to an army garrisoned within its city. It was because of this that he decided to evacuate Atlanta. Those loyal to the South were welcome to go south, those loyal to the North were welcome to go north. Nobody, however, could stay.
Sherman first proposed this idea on the 7th, and on the 9th Hood voiced his strong objection, stating 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 response, Sherman reminded Hood that “it is not unprecedented, for General Johnston himself, very wisely and properly, removed the families all the way from Dalton down, and I see no reason why Atlanta should be excepted.” He also argued that there was “no reason to appeal to the dark history of war when recent and modern examples are so handy.”
He also reminded Hood that he (Hood) had “burned dwellings along your parapet [in Atlanta], and I have seen today fifty houses that you have rendered uninhabitable because they stood in the way of yoru 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.”
Sherman put forward that it was “a kindness to these families of Atlanta to remove them now at once from scenes that women and children should not be exposed to, and the “brave people” should scorn to commit their wives and children to the rude barbarians who thus, as you say, violate the laws of war, as illustrated in the pages of its dark history.”
Sherman’s letter was biting, sarcastic and brilliantly written. Hood’s reply denied that Johnston did any such thing. “I feel no other emotion than pain in reading that portion of your letter which attempts to justify your shelling of Atlanta without notice….”
The conversation quickly devolved into an argument about politics and the reasons the war was started. God was also brought into things, as was white supremacy.
“You came into our country,” wrote Hood, “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.”
Sherman, in his previous letter, suggested that they simply “fight it out like men,” probably referring to the armies, but perhaps he wished to meet with Hood in the boxing ring. Hood seemed acquiescent. “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.”
In between tirades, Hood suggested that such a discussion between two soliders was profitless, and Sherman heartily agreed. In his follow up letter, Sherman too placed the race card, telling Hood that “not a single negro soldier left Chattanooga with this army or is with it now.” This was Sherman’s design. Like Meade, and like the entire Confederate army he was fighting, Sherman wanted nothing at all to do with black soldiers.
But in the end, it was profitless. “This is the conclusion of our correspondence, which I did not begin,” wrote Sherman, “and terminate with satisfaction.”
No further letters would be exchanged between the two about such matters.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 39, Part 2, p 414-422; Series 2, Vol. 7, p82. [↩]