This photo looks almost like one of the 19th century ghost towns of the Old West. It isn’t. This is Atlanta, one of the great cities of the South–or what was left of it–after the devastating military campaign in late 1864 by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman known as the “March to the Sea.” Having captured Atlanta in September, in the late fall Sherman proposed to Union commanders and to President Abraham Lincoln a new operation aimed at breaking the will and the ability of the Southern people to continue fighting the Civil War. By marching his armies from Atlanta, in the interior of Georgia, to Savannah on the coast, and tearing up all usable infrastructure along the way, Sherman intended to eliminate the last vestiges of support for the Southern war effort.
Sherman and his army set out on November 15, 1864. Carving a path of destruction through Georgia, the Union Army fought several battles along the way, including one at Waynesboro, Georgia on December 4th, 161 years ago today. The Union, being much more well-equipped and disciplined, completed their march and Sherman famously telegraphed Lincoln on December 21: “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah.”
This photo shows the aftermath of Sherman’s work. Some buildings are in ruins (though I notice the saloon is completely intact), and the railroad tracks look like they need some work–Atlanta’s strategic significance was as a rail junction, and destruction of rail lines was one of Sherman’s major objectives. Yet curiously life is still going on here. At the left of the photo you see some people and carts coming and going, looking ghostly because they moved during the long shutter exposure. At the end of the street toward the left you can see mounds of dirt and piles of lumber as if rebuilding is going on, or about to begin. I also love the gloomy clouds above this scene. It’s rare to see weather depicted explicitly in these 19th century photos (though it does sometimes happen).
Southerners generally regard Sherman’s March to the Sea as a war crime, and perhaps it was. Unfortunately it has a lot of company–the sack of Jerusalem in the Crusades or the torpedoing of the Lusitania in World War I are other examples I’ve profiled here. But it was Sherman who reminded us, after the March was over, “War is all hell.” War is an atrocity by its very nature. That’s something I’ve learned quite vividly of late, regardless of which war you’re talking about or what moral arguments are used to justify it.