Defeat at Jonesboro ended John Bell Hood’s hopes of holding Atlanta. He abandoned the city the evening of September 1, destroying all useful military stores that could not be moved (a scene later immortalized in the book and film Gone With The Wind). The next morning (150 years ago today), Atlanta’s mayor surrendered the city to Sherman’s troops; over the next days, Sherman’s army group consolidated in and around the city. After 4 months and 23,000 casualties (vs 27,000 Confederate losses), Sherman’s men had achieved a great victory. “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won,” telegraphed Sherman on September 3.
Atlanta’s fall electrified the North. Just the previous month, George McClellan had been nominated on a Democratic platform that called the war a failure. Sherman’s announcement destroyed that claim. This measurable land success changed public opinion, and turned the 1864 election campaign to Lincoln’s advantage, never to be lost.
The fall of Atlanta also sparked one of the most interesting and important letter exchanges of American military history, between Sherman and the city leaders. On September 4, Sherman ordered the population evacuated; the mayor and city council protested. Sherman’s reply on September 11 offers perhaps the best glimpse into the myriad currents running through this complex leader; an intersection of professional, political, personal, and humanitarian impulses all put together. It also offers the true and vitally important statement that “war is cruelty and you cannot refine it.” The full text is available here: http://www.rjgeib.com/thoughts/sherman/sherman-to-burn-atlanta.html.
In the end, Atlanta’s population left the city. But Sherman’s job was not complete; he owned the city, but had not defeated the army that had protected it. Soon Hood would be on the move.