Things I learned on the way to Atlanta – When the Army comes to town

War is destruction. Of lives, of health, sometimes of sanity, and very often, of property. When an army – any army comes to visit, destruction follows.

During the course of the war, journalists both north and south favored articles about the “vandal horde’ of one army or another visiting such destruction on innocent civilians. The Atlanta Campaign was no different: when Rome (in the northwest corner of Georgia) fell to Federal troops on May 19, 1864, Southern papers described looting and more serious “insults” in vivid terms. By contrast, the Federals marveled at the chaos the departing Confederates left as they retreated. One both sides, soldier accounts were frank:

Entering town on May 19, the Federals found chaos. Despite French’s assertion that all government stores had been successfully evacuated, vast quantities of materiel remained. The retreating Confederates had been turned loose on those supplies, and the pillaging soon spread to private property. Rome, which had hosted the Federal prisoners of Abel Streight’s brigade, captured by Nathan Bedford Forrest a year earlier, gained a reputation “as the place where the women spit in our [men’s] faces,” and so fearing retaliation, much of the Secessionist element had fled, leaving houses and stores untended. Once it became apparent that the Rebels were leaving, a number of civilians, “consisting primarily of soon-to-be-liberated slaves and poor whites, contributed to the lawlessness by hauling off just about anything they could carry.” Texas Cavalryman George Griscom forthrightly noted that his regiment departed only “after plundering the depot . . . [which] furnish[ed] the 9th [Cavalry] with [a] bountiful supply of clothing, commissaries, &c.” H. C. Reynolds of the 51st Alabama Partisan Rangers wrote that “Rome was sacked by our troops before we left or while in the act of leaving & every store broken open & the contents stewn around in every imaginable shape.”[1]

The 85th Illinois, arriving in the midst of this bacchanal, promptly joined in. “The rebs could not get all their whiskey away,” recounted Private Drake, so “the officers were all drunk.” Hungry for souvenirs, “the boys got lots of rebbel money.” Just outside of town, “we came across one of the hardest old secesh woman that I ever saw. She said we would never whip them . . . they would fight till every man was killed and then the women would fight us. We just laughed at her.” Fellow Illinoisian Henry Nurse of the 86th Infantry Regiment, thought there were “some mighty fine looking south ladies in this little town,” but added, “when we come the citizens were all scared most out of their wits. . . . They was afraid we would kill them.”[2]

The Federals did eventually restore order, though vacated property continued to be fair game. Writing to a friend a week after the city’s capture, one aristocratic female resident admitted that “the Yankees are not half as much to be dreaded as the negroes and a whole army of poor white women, who have come into town and torn everything to pieces, taken all the nice furniture out of the houses and carried it off.” Worst of all, “the negroes are very insolent. I’m in constant dread that the worst is to come.”[3]

At Cartersville, which fell to Federals on May 20th, Similar scenes prevailed. The correspondent of the Memphis Daily Appeal leveled especially harsh criticism at the Rebel cavalry:

“The discipline of some commands belonging to this branch of the service displays to bad advantage on a retreat. On last Friday, just as our infantry had filed through Cartersville, a brigade of cavalry entered from the opposite side. And proceeded to sack that once pleasant village. About two hundred of them, including a full quota of officers, charged the depot, forced the small but resolute guard, and after bursting open the doors, gutted the contents, which consisted chiefly of private property stored there for shipment by refugee citizens. . . . The guard acted firmly but was overpowered, and threatened with rough treatment. The brigade commander was not twenty steps ahead when his men attacked the guard. He merely looked back, suppressed a smile, and rode on. Every man, like so many buccaneers, made frantic efforts to secure a surfeit of the spoil. One fellow came out with half a bushel of genuine coffee, another had a large roll of gray cloth, a third surveyed the contour of his countenance in a fine mirror, while a crowd spread out a splendid carpet, danced on it a while and then cut it up into saddle blankets. This statement can be verified by a large number of witnesses. It is painful to chronicle an event like this, which is not only a disgrace to the perpetrators, but an injury to the service.”[4]

For more on Rome in the Civil War, see


[1] Drake, The Mail Goes Through, 78; David Slay, “Playing a Sinking Piano: The Struggle for Position in Occupied Rome, Georgia,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 90, no. 4, (Winter, 2006), 485-86; Kerr, Fighting with Ross’ Texas Cavalry Brigade, 144; “Dearest,” May 22nd, 1864, H. C. Reynolds Letters, TSLA.

[2] Drake, The Mail Goes Through, 79; “Dear Father,” May 23rd, 1864, Henry Nurse Letters, ALPL.

[3] Slay, “Playing a Sinking Piano: The Struggle for Position in Occupied Rome, Georgia,” 486

[4] “Letters from the Army,” Memphis Daily Appeal, May 24, 1864.

2 Responses to Things I learned on the way to Atlanta – When the Army comes to town

  1. And then there was the planned destruction. Gen. Sherman ordered Rome to be burned on Nov. 10. Brig.-Gen. Coarse prepared to execute those orders. A Federal colonel protested, because families might still be in the town. Sherman rejected the appeal writing, “You have known for ten days that Rome was to be evacuated, and have no right to appeal to my humanity.”

    Then the soldiers piled high dry goods boxes and trash in stores and set them off. The crackling of the embers furnished a melancholy echo to the wails of the women and children. “Soldiers ran from place to place with firebrands in their hands, setting the places designated here, and perfectly harmless places there.” The destruction, said one observer, included all but isolated structures until there was no place to do business and less business to do than places. Later that day, Gen. Sherman sent word to Gen. Thomas of his progress, “Last night we burned Rome, and in two or more days will burn Atlanta.” Russell S. Bonds, War Like a Thunderbolt, p. 343


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