The Burning of Atlanta: Why Not?

In early November, 1864, Gen. William T. Sherman resolved to leave the confines of Atlanta and march to the sea. Before leaving, he would destroy what he believed were facilities that could be used by the Confederates to prosecute the war.


But, before burning Atlanta, he first burned small towns north of Atlanta. He started with Cassville, a small village. Cassville was accused of harboring Confederate raiders who had attacked the railroad and a Union wagon train. The First Ohio Volunteers arrived in the morning of Nov. 5 with orders to burn the town. The federals gave the residents 20 minutes to pack up and leave. The inhabitants, mostly women and children, huddled in the cemetery as the town was reduced to ashes. They never re-built.


Next up was Rome. As Brig.-Gen. Corse prepared to burn the town, a Union Colonel protested. Gen. Sherman replied, “You have known for ten days that Rome was to be evacuated and have no right to appeal to my humanity.”  The Federals proceeded to stack up dry goods boxes and trash in the stores and set fire. Soldiers with firebrands in their hands ran from designated places to undesignated place and simply burned them all, regardless of any pre-planning. The troops fired two flour mills, two tanneries, one salt mill, one foundry, machine shops, depots, and bales of cotton. They also fired several private homes. A livery stable caught fire and the horses within burned along with the rest. Sherman wired Gen. George H. Thomas, “Last night we burned Rome, and in two or more days we will burn Atlanta.”


The original plan in burning Atlanta was to burn certain designated places. A large steam mill was on the list. So were shops, houses, the courthouse, all around the central square, known as Five Points. A brand new major, Henry Hitchcock rode up to the general just as these buildings were burning, right under the general’s nose. Thinking this was not intended, Maj. Hitchcock saw a group of soldiers trying to save the courthouse.

“Twill burn down, sir,” Hitchcock said.

“Yes,” added Sherman. “Can’t be stopped.”

“Was it your intention?”

“Can’t save it. I’ve seen more of this than you,” said the general, sometimes known as Crazy Bill.

The general then added that soldiers just do these things. It can’t be stopped. “I say Jeff Davis burnt them.” Hitchcock then apologized, saying he was new. Gen. Sherman replied, “Well, I suppose I’ll have to bear it.”

In truth, the Federals had already damaged all the fire fighting equipment in the city and had already forced out all the fire fighters, along with the all the residents.

For the next few nights, Union soldiers went about firing private homes. One young resident, Carrie Berry, age nine, remained as one of the very families in the city. She recorded how frightened her family was each night when the soldiers would wander with firebrands in their hands. She said the soldiers said they would fire all the houses if they had to leave the place. The nights of Nov. 11 through 15, Carrie and her family suffered through some very long nights.

There’s No Help For It

After the war, Sherman insisted no private home in Atlanta was burned by his troops. He insisted only the burning of four buildings had been planned. But, certainly the destruction was monumental. Yes, mills, machine shops, depots, train car sheds were burned. But, also burned was every hotel, except the one in which Sherman had been staying. Most of the business area was burned, including shops, depots, mills, and warehouses. Four churches were burned to the ground, including the African Church. The theater and the concert hall were both burned. Every school and institute of higher learning was burned. Some 3,200 to 5,000 private homes were burned. Only 400 private homes were left standing. We know this because Pres. Davis sent a Georgia Militia colonel to complete an inventory of the destruction two weeks after the Federals left.

Sherman rationalized his tactics in the early days of his march to the sea. Against the pleas of a widow, he told Hitchcock, “I’ll have to harden my heart to these things. That poor woman today – how could I help her? There’s no help for it – the soldiers will take all she has. Jeff Davis is responsible for all this.”  See a picture of some of the destruction here.


Russell S. Bonds, War Like a Thunderbolt (Pennsylvania: Westholme Publ. 2009), p. 342-364

One thought on “The Burning of Atlanta: Why Not?

  1. Morse sat on the roof of a house and watched Atlanta burn. It was a “magnificent and awful spectacle,” he wrote later to his brother Robert. “For miles around the country was as light as day, … the flames shooting up for hundreds of feet into the air.” Earlier, over the roar and crackle of the flames, Morse had heard the 33rd Massachusetts band serenade Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who ordered the city torched. “It was like fiddling over the burning of Rome.” The next morning, nothing was left of the city “except its churches the city hall and the private dwellings. You could hardly find a vestige of the once splendid R.R. depots, warehouses, &c. It was melancholy,” Morse lamented, “but it was war, prosecuted in deadly earnest.”
    Lt Colonel Charles Morse served with Sherman with the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry. He was there and these are his words.
    The actual fact is that only 40% of Atlanta was burned in total. This includes the massive explosion and fire started by John Bell Hood. Most of the destruction was in the business district and railroad area.


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