It is taught at every military academy in the world, and engrained into the cultural memory of every American. General William T Sherman’s ‘march to the sea’ from Chickamauga on the Tennessee state line through Georgia to Savannah is one of the most famous ‘scorched earth’ campaigns in history. Its lesson is how to break your enemy’s will to fight. Its defining image is the burning of Atlanta.
After nearly four years, the Civil War was going badly for the Confederacy. Sherman entered Georgia with 100,000 men, but in their heartland the Confederates surrendered each mile dearly. It decided his tactics. He wrote to Union leaders: ‘If the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war, and not popularity-seeking’. Atlanta’s antebellum elegance equaled its strategic significance as a spur to Sherman’s military vanity. It took him three months of bitter fighting to cross north Georgia, and two more of artillery bombardment to take the city. Civilians were ordered to leave while he regrouped. Then on November 15,
Sherman marched 60,000 men in three columns towards Savannah. Behind him, the classical porticos of the wealthy, the vast warehouses that had housed two centuries of trading fortunes, the factories, railroad yards, plantations, and thousands of wood-framed houses and slave barracoons burned to ashes. Refugee columns looked back at biblical scenes of pillars of flame and choking smoke, helpless against Union irregulars drunk for loot. Even freed slaves ran from Sherman’s troops.
It has become fashionable to rehabilitate Sherman from Georgia’s still-current folk perception of the ‘homed devil’ and ‘grand arsonist’ of Atlanta; but when Gone With The Wind was written, there were still plenty of people alive who had seen his work for themselves. That sheet of crimson flame was for real.
When was the Burning of Atlanta: November 18-18 1864
Where was the Burning of Atlanta: Atlanta, Georgia, USA
What was the Burning of Atlanta death toll: Confederate and union casualties were both horrific, but there are no figures more precise than ‘tens of thousands’.
You should know: Partly because its cold-blooded ferocity was reinforced by the book and film of Gone With The Wind, the burning of Atlanta remains a vivid and divisive landmark in American culture. There is a truly remarkable lateral insight to the burning of Atlanta (and the march as a whole) in the poems of John Alien Wyeth. He fought Sherman as a Confederate soldier at Chickamauga, and saw the ruination of Georgia first hand. Then he lived to serve as a US Army translator on the Western Front in France, in 1917. His war poems draw together those two experiences.