A reader recently asked about one of my posts about Gen. Sherman. He disagreed with my post which charged Gen. Sherman with a war crime. See that post here.
My post focused not on the war crime itself, but on the dialogue that ensued between Gen. Hood and Gen. Sherman. The reader brought up a valid point, that there were facilities in Atlanta, a large railroad depot, an iron works, etc. which the Federal artillery may have been targeting. The reader suggested the Federal artillery was not deliberately targeting civilian homes. In the Army, we call that collateral damage. And, in 1864, or in 2021, collateral damage can be very hard to avoid. In Iraq and Afghanistan, we did everything we could to avoid collateral damage. But, the Federals before Atlanta did not.
Fire at the Houses
And, now we know from Sherman’s own military records what he told his commanders. Gen. Sherman did not tell his gunners to fire at the railroad depot or at the iron works. The depot could be seen from the Yankee positions. It was a large building. But, no, Sherman did not tell his generals to target the large building. He told Gen. Thomas on Aug. 1 as the siege was commencing, “You may fire from 10 to 15 shots from every gun you have in position into Atlanta that will reach any of its houses.” On Aug. 7, he told Gen. Thomas to bring down his Parrot guns from Chattanooga and put them into position to “knock down the buildings of the town.” Sherman told his generals to target the houses and the buildings.
In another dispatch, he told his soldiers to “make sad havoc” on Atlanta and “reach the heart of Atlanta and reduce it to ruins.” There was no mention in these dispatches of the railroad depot or iron works. In another dispatch to Gen. Thomas, he told him to “get your guns well into position . . . let them open up slowly, and with great precision, making all parts of the city unsafe.” Here, Sherman makes it clear that all parts of the city are fair game. He warned Gen. Oliver to ignore the Confederate artillery fire – the Confederates want to draw your fire, said Sherman. But, that would distract them from their more important goal: destroy Atlanta and “make it a desolation.” And, of course, the Federals had a huge advantage. They had virtually unlimited artillery shells. The Confederate artillery batteries had to husband their shells very carefully.
The Federal artillery could range the center of the city, so they could effectively fire anywhere they wished. Stephen Davis in his book,“What the Yankees Did to Us: Sherman’s Bombardment and Wrecking of Atlanta,” found that the Yankees dropped about 32,418 shells on the city during that 36 day siege. All those rounds fell within a 2 mile radius of the commercial center known as Five Points. See website here.
The better defense of Sherman’s violations of the rules of war is that he believed the Atlanta civilians had evacuated. But, no, the general had sufficient intelligence from Confederate prisoners and even from the few Atlanta newspapers to know some 5,000 civilians remained. The ones who remained were those too poor or with too few resources to evacuate. It was generally the better off folks or those who had family in the rural areas who evacuated.
Fire at Night
And, too he told his gunners to fire at night. It is incredibly difficult to target artillery at night. Artillery fire, even today, must be observed to make it accurate. A person, even today, cannot simply look down the barrel of an artillery piece and aim it. Someone must observe the point of impact and adjust fire toward the intended target. That would be exceedingly difficult to do at night. In theory, they could have registered targets and then fired them at night. But, if a target was registered, why were they missing the supposed target by miles.
One could argue, perhaps, that Sherman told his gunners to target houses, but perhaps his men did not listen to him. No, unfortunately, that is not true. There are accounts of artillery men gloating over their success. “I have the honor to report that at least three houses, two frame and one brick, were destroyed by the fire in Atlanta,” said one signal officer one afternoon. “Our shells burst in the city right and left of brick stack,” (apparently meaning chimneys) Gen. Thomas reported in a dispatch. Some batteries reported they heated up some shells in furnaces with the hopes of starting fires when the shells landed within the city. Whether these “hot shots” worked is not known.
Targeting Burning Houses
But, there were many fires during the siege. The Atlanta fire companies were kept very busy. Houses caught fire almost daily. The few firemen remaining in the city – many were serving in the Confederate army – found it dangerous to go to the fires. The Federal gunners would typically target the burning fires. The smoke was easy to see in the day. And, the fire was easy to see at night.
And, of course, the gunners did not succeed in damaging the train station. It remained standing until the Federals evacuated and burned the city.
1. Russell S. Bonds, War Like a Thunderbolt (Pennsylvania: Westholme Publ. 2009), p. 212-214
4.“A Very Barbarous Mode of Carrying on War”: Sherman’s Artillery Bombardment of Atlanta, July 20 – August 24,1864,” Georgia Hist. Quarterly, Vol. 79, No. 1 (Spring, 1995), pp.57-90.
5. Russell S. Bonds, War Like a Thunderbolt (Pennsylvania: Westholme Publ. 2009), p. 212-214