The City of Atlanta’s Letter to General Sherman

In part 2 of our short series on the (in)famous letter of General William Sherman to the city of Atlanta in September 1864, we look at the letter he first received from the city fathers on September 11. It’s odd that Sherman’s reply to this letter can be so famous while the letter from the city languishes in obscurity.

You’ll recall that Atlanta had officially surrendered to Sherman’s army on September 2nd, after Confederate General Hood had ended his defense of the city and withdrawn his army. Sherman set up camp in nearby Jonesboro, and about a week later let the city know that he planned to burn all public buildings, machine shops, depots, and arsenals in Atlanta, so that it could no longer support the Confederate war effort. Sherman ordered the city to evacuate all citizens.

Atlanta was very important to the Confederacy; it was the largest railroad hub in the South and one of the largest manufacturing centers. It was crucial to moving soldiers to and from battle, and to war production. Destroying its capacity to make war was Sherman’s first priority.

The city fathers responded to the order to evacuate on September 11, stating:

“SIR: We the undersigned, Mayor and two of the Council for the city of Atlanta, for the time being the only legal organ of the people of the said city, to express their wants and wishes, ask leave most earnestly but respectfully to petition you to reconsider the order requiring them to leave Atlanta.

At first view, it struck us that the measure would involve extraordinary hardship and loss, but since we have seen the practical execution of it so far as it has progressed, and the individual condition of the people, and heard their statements as to the inconveniences, loss, and suffering attending it, we are satisfied that the amount of it will involve in the aggregate consequences appalling and heart-rending.”

—In the second paragraph they are saying that they anticipated how hard this would be on the citizens of Atlanta but they went ahead and began the evacuation (“the practical execution of it so far as it has progressed”). But as the evacuees came forward to complain of their hardships and suffering, the city fathers stopped the process because the terrible consequences would only multiply (“aggregate consequences”) as evacuation proceeded, and it would be too appalling too continue.

“Many poor women are in advanced state of pregnancy, others now having young children, and whose husbands for the greater part are either in the army, prisoners, or dead. Some say: ‘I have such a one sick at my house; who will wait on them when I am gone?’ Others say: ‘What are we to do? We have no house to go to, and no means to buy, build, or rent any; no parents, relatives, or friends, to to to.’ Another says: ‘I will try and take this or that article of property, but such and such things I must leave behind, though I need them much.’ We reply to them: ‘General Sherman will carry your property to Rough and Ready, and General Hood will take it thence on.’ And they will reply that: ‘But I want to leave the railroad at such a place, and cannot get conveyance from there on.'”

—It is mostly women and children who are still in Atlanta, in various states of weakness and illness. They have nowhere to evacuate to, and don’t want to leave behind all their possessions, which would leave them as even poorer refugees. If they could at least take some valuables they’d have something to sell to get food and lodging. Promises that their things will be taken to a depot at Rough and Ready, west of Atlanta, are empty because people headed to other places will have no way to get there to pick up their things.

“We only refer to a few facts, to try to illustrate in part how this measure will operate in practice. As you advanced, the people north of this fell back; and before your arrival here, a large portion of the people had retired south, so that the country south of this is already crowded, and without houses enough to accommodate the people, and we are informed that many are now staying in churches and other out-buildings.

This being so, how is it possible for the people still here (mostly women and children) to find any shelter? And how can they live through the winter in the woods—no shelter or subsistence, in the midst of strangers who know them not, and without the power to assist them much, if they were willing to do so?”

—Sherman’s advance over the previous summer has already pushed thousands of refugees south of Atlanta, so there is no room for the entire city to now evacuate as well. Shelter has run out, and thus the evacuation order would be forcing women and children to live in the woods, with winter approaching, and no one able to help them find better shelter or food.

“This is but a feeble picture of the consequences of this measure. You know the woe, the horrors, and the suffering, cannot be described by words; imagination can only conceive of it, and we ask you to take these things into consideration.

We know your mind and time are constantly occupied with the duties of your command, which almost deters us from asking your attention to this matter, but thought it might be that you had not considered this subject in all of its awful consequences, and that on more reflection you, we hope, would not make this people an exception to all mankind, for we know that no such instance ever having occurred—surely never in the United States—and what has this helpless people done, that they should be driven from their homes, to wander strangers and outcasts, and exiles, and to subsist on charity?”

—Here they appeal to Sherman as a soldier and an American. As a soldier, he knows the brutality of war. Perhaps he has not stopped to consider, in his rush to move his army, how brutal the evacuation would be. As an American, he is implored not to execute the first mass evacuation of civilians in U.S. history. What have innocent civilians done, that they should be punished for this war? Let soldiers fight soldiers, and leave the innocent alone.

“We do not know as yet the number of people still here; of those who are here, we are satisfied a respectable number, if allowed to remain at home, could subsist for several months without assistance, and a respectable number for a much longer time, and who might not need assistance at any time.

In conclusion, we most earnestly and solemnly petition you to reconsider this order, or modify it, and suffer this unfortunate people to remain at home, and enjoy what little means they have.”

Respectfully submitted:
James M. Calhoun, Mayor
E.E. Rawson, Councilman.
S.C. Wells, Councilman.

—Most of the population, if allowed to stay at home, could provide for themselves and not be a burden on anyone.

One feels the city fathers are concluding by saying that if he lets Atlanta alone, Sherman could travel east to the sea without worrying about Atlanta rising up. They will be barely surviving, and in no shape to launch any attacks. The city is neutralized—why kill it as well?

The appeal to protect innocent civilians is the strongest, and is the backbone of this letter. In the next post, we’ll see how Sherman answered it.

Next time: Sherman’s reply

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