Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Thoughts on Atlanta's surrender: 'Your government can't protect you'

On this day, 150 years ago, Mayor James Calhoun and other officials rode up to Federal troops in northwest Atlanta to surrender the city. Much has written about the significance of the Sept. 2, 1864, fall of Atlanta. The Picket asked historians and others to share their thoughts.

Charlie Crawford, president, Georgia Battlefields Association:

The Confederate evacuation of Atlanta over the night of 1-2 September 1864 had significance beyond the normal abandonment of territory by the losing side.  Many people in the north perceived the war effort as going poorly, and the prospect of more years of fighting made them inclined toward a peace negotiation that would likely result in letting the southern states leave the Union.  On 23 August 1864, less than ten days prior to the fall of Atlanta, President Lincoln was convinced that he would not be re-elected because Grant appeared to be stalled before Petersburg and Sherman was unable to take Atlanta.  The news of the fall of Atlanta, telegraphed to Washington on 2 September, changed the perception of Lincoln and much of the northern populace.  They couldn’t know that the fighting would end less than nine months later, but the prospect of defeating the Confederacy on terms dictated by the United States government was enhanced, and more voters would support the man who had led them to this point.  What happened on this day 150 years ago meant the war would be fought until victory was achieved, the Union would be restored, and slavery would end.  

Ken Johnston, executive director, National Civil War Naval Museum at Port Columbus: 

The surrender of Atlanta on September 2, 1864 can be (and has been) spoken of in terms of military, economic, or political significance – and rightly so on each count. The thing that stays with me, however, is the psychological significance. There had been major southern cities that were reclaimed by Federal authority before, but they tended to be cities where US military power was more easily projected along water ways by the US Army and Navy – places like New Orleans, Vicksburg, Nashville, Memphis, and Chattanooga. A southerner could take comfort, if so inclined, in the knowledge that Federal forces hadn’t penetrated into the deep heartland of the southern states with “boots on the ground”. Atlanta changed that.

After the surrender of Atlanta no southern partisan could realistically maintain that a city – or home – was beyond the reach of the US military. A heavily fortified southern city, over one hundred miles past previous front lines, defended by one of the two principal field armies of the Confederacy had surrendered to an army that had marched overland into the heart of territory previously untouched by war. The message was clear: “you are not safe, your government can’t protect you”. The psychological fall-out of fear, anxiety, and depression would be crippling to the Confederate war effort – and the surrender of Atlanta was but a prelude to the demonstration of power that General Sherman was soon to make.

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