OTD in History… September 1–3, 1864, Confederacy surrenders Union General Sherman captures Atlanta, Georgia

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

On this day in history September 1–3, 1864, Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman’s siege on Atlanta, Georgia during the Civil War is successful, as the Confederate Army under General John Bell Hood evacuates the city destroying its munitions in the process. Before entering the city, however, Sherman still faced Confederate resistance at Lovejoy’s Station; he only enters Atlanta on September 3, and then began to set up headquarters. On September 2, the Union General telegraphs President Abraham Lincoln and proclaimed, “Atlanta is ours and fairly won.” On September 4, Sherman declares in a letter to General Henry Halleck, Chief of Staff of the U. S. Army, “If the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer war is war, and not popularity seeking. If they want peace, they and their relatives must stop war.” On September 5, President Lincoln “proclaims day of victory for the capture of Atlanta and Mobile, Alabama.”

Atlanta is the second most important Confederate city after its capital, Richmond Virginia, and its captures is a major turning point in the war and first victory in what would become Sherman’s March to the Sea campaign. The battle and capture of Atlanta was also the key to Lincoln political fate in the 1864 presidential election. As historian Gary Ecelbarger writing in his book, The Day Dixie Died, The Battle of Atlanta indicates Atlanta, “In July of 1864, it had become the symbol for both the life of the Confederacy and the preservation of the Union. Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, but Atlanta was the heart of the South…. Atlanta was the key. James Russell Lowell, a renowned poet, and editor of the era identified it as “the real campaign” for Lincoln’s election. A big battle appeared inevitable at Atlanta; its result would determine the fate of a nation.” (Ecelbarger, 27, 29)

On March 9, Lincoln appointed the Sherman the supreme commander of the armies in the Western territories, as the president also appointed General Ulysses S. Grant Commander of all the Union Armies. Grant ordered Sherman to take control of Atlanta, the Confederacy’s main industrial city and “railroad hub” in an attempt to cripple fiercely the Confederacy. Sherman began his Atlanta campaign on May 4, 1864, and it would take him four months to complete his task as the Confederacy resisted his advances. Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston resisted in a defensive tactic but still retreated as Sherman’s forces under Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson attacked the Confederacy “from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Marietta, Georgia.”

Although the Confederacy won the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, on July 17, 1864, Confederate leadership in Richmond decided to replace Johnston with Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood. Although more willing to engage with Union troops Hood took risks that hindered the Confederacy. Instead of retreating Hood fought Union forces at the Battle of Peachtree Creek on July 20–22, losing and suffering immense casualties. During the Battle of Atlanta Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee’s corps took too long to flank the Union Army from the left, giving McPherson time to strengthen it. Still, it was not enough, and as the Union began its retreat, but Confederate infantrymen killed Maj. Gen. McPherson. Confederate Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler, however, would not be able to hold Decatur giving the Union the ability to advance attacking the city at Bald Hill. Sherman would unsuccessfully attack the Confederate “supply lines,” from the West and South, until he decided to attack the lines entirely from the west and on August 31, captured the railway lines coming from Macon, at Jonesborough, Georgia, the “severing” of supply lines forced Hood and his troops to withdraw from Atlanta but destroying it munitions in the process.

When it came to Atlanta, Hood took a risk and it backfired, instead of defending the city, he retreated and destroyed the rail lines, threatening “Sherman’s supply lines.” Hood gambled believing Sherman’s forces would come after him after Atlanta, but they did not and the Confederacy lost its rail hub and industrial center. Throughout September and early October, Hood continues to destroy the supply lines from Chattanooga to Atlanta, hoping to lure Sherman back to Tennessee. Skirmishes continually broke out along the lines including the Confederate October 3, capture of Big Shanty and Kennesaw Water Tank but Sherman does not let his troops too far out of Atlanta. Two days later the Union has a decisive victory at the railway junction of Allston, Georgia.

On September 2, Atlanta Mayor James Calhoun surrenders the city to the Union army and requests from Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum “protection to non-combatants and private property.” Sherman, however, refuses on September 7, ordering the evacuation of all Atlanta civilians “446 families, about 1,600 people” leave between September 11 and 20, some went further South, those sympathetic with the Union moved North. On September 12, Sherman notifies Mayor Calhoun, “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it, and those who brought war into our Country deserve all the Curses and Maledictions a people can pour out.”

Sherman decides the only solution to stop the Confederate railway attacks was to destroy Georgia through to Savannah. On September 10, Sherman first tells Grant, “I am proposing a March to the Sea,” promising Grant “I can sweep the whole State of Georgia. Otherwise, I would risk our whole army by going too far from Atlanta.” General Grant responds, “It is desirable that another campaign should be commenced… If we give him no peace while the war lasts, the end cannot be distant.”

After continued skirmishes, Sherman again makes his proposal on October 9, telling Grant “Until we can repopulate Georgia, it is useless to occupy it, but the utter destruction of its roads, houses, and people will cripple their military resources… I can make the march, and make Georgia howl…” On October 13, General Grant makes the proposal to Secretary of War Edward M. Stanton writing, “On mature reflection, I believe Sherman’s proposition is the best that can be adopted.” Finally, on November 2, after repeated pleading from Sherman, Grant approves Sherman’s proposal to march to the sea. Grant later wrote in his memoirs, “I was in favor of Sherman’s plan from the time it was first submitted to me.”

Although Sherman began preparations for the march, the general would wait until after Lincoln’s November 8, reelection victory to move forward. In the summer of 1864, before the capture of Atlanta, Union moral in the North was at a low; Lincoln feared losing reelection, while his opponent former Civil War commander General George B. McClellan under the Democrats looked as if he would win. The Democratic Party was fractured, splintered between Peace Democrats, Moderate Peace Democrats; Radical Peace Democrats (Copperheads) and War Democrats who defected to the Union ticket. Lincoln was running under a Union ticket of Republicans and War Democrats, where he promised to continue the war until the Confederacy would agree to the terms of reunion and emancipation of the slaves. McClellan was promising to end the war and only demand reunion from the Confederacy.

Just a week before the capture on August 23, Lincoln asked his cabinet to sign a “blind memorandum,” “This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be reelected. Then it will be my duty to so cooperate with the President-elect as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured the election on such grounds that he cannot possibly save it afterward.” Lincoln nearly compromised his peace demands from the Confederacy looking to forgo from the demands for abolition as a condition just to appease. Republicans were not satisfied, Radical Republicans convened at a convention to nominate a more hard-line candidate in May, while Republicans were looking to nominate another candidate to replace Lincoln.

The defining victory at Atlanta turned the tide for Lincoln practically assuring his victory, it demonstrated Lincoln’s course with the war was working. A Republican newspaper said it best with the headline, “VICTORY Is the War a Failure? Old Abe’s Reply to the Chicago Convention Consternation and Despair Among the Copperheads.” (McPherson, 773) The news of victory came just after the Democrats met in Chicago for their convention and as McClellan was writing his nomination acceptance letter. On November 8, Lincoln along with new Vice President Andrew Johnson won the election. Sherman later wrote, “This victory was most opportune; Mr. Lincoln himself told me afterward that even he had previously felt in doubt, for the summer was fast passing away; that General Grant… made election of Mr. Lincoln certain.” As historian, James McPherson noted in his book Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, with the capture of Atlanta, “The president was now a victorious leader instead of a discredited loser.” (McPherson, 776)

With Lincoln’s reelection secure, Sherman continued with his plans on November 9, he issued Special Field Order №120 dividing the army under left and right wings, the left under Major General Henry W. Slocum and the right Major General Oliver O. Howard ordering them to get their troops ready to move. Next between November 12–15, 1864, Sherman orders the destruction of military-related property in Atlanta, including, “factories, machine shops, rail yards, and communications.” The fires, however, burnt down most of the city, as Sherman left on November 16 with 60,000 towards his March to the Sea to capture and destroy Georgia all the way to Savannah, which he captured on December 23, 1864, crippling the Confederacy forever and ensuring a Union victory.


Ecelbarger, Gary L. The Day Dixie Died: The Battle of Atlanta. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2010.

Johnson, David. Decided on the Battlefield: Grant, Sherman, Lincoln, and the Election of 1864. Amherst, N.Y: Prometheus Books, 2011.

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988.

Trudeau, Noah A. Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009.

Sherman, William T. The Capture of Atlanta and the March to the Sea: From Sherman’s Memoirs. New York: Dover Publications, 2007.

Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.

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