In 2014 some friends and I had it in mind to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the burning of Atlanta by making T-shirts. On the front would be an image of William Tecumseh Sherman, wild-eyed and wreathed in flames. The back would read, “Burning Down the South, Summer Tour, 1864,” and be followed by a list of the cities Sherman torched on his way to Savannah.
Though we didn’t make the shirts, the burning of Atlanta is always a hot topic, and not just on round-numbered anniversaries. It is my firm conviction that the event is purposefully evoked by popular zombie-disaster soap The Walking Dead, which is set largely in and around Atlanta. It’s somewhat surprising to me that nobody talks much about the perspicacity of destroying the city all over again. Atlanta’s motto is resurgens, which can be translated not only as “to rise again,” as from the ashes of war, but also as “to rise from the dead.”
I didn’t fall in love with Atlanta when I moved here in 2005. It was years, in fact, before it began to feel at all like home and not a giant warehouse where I stored my stuff while I sat motionless in traffic. The relentless prioritization of commerce rendered it charmless and cold to my eye. Atlanta was founded as a railroad junction connecting Chattanooga with Savannah, and it never has completely shed the character of that functional beginning. The infrastructure of the city is focused much more on pushing things through than on allowing anything to stick around. The old is continuously shoved aside to make way for the new.
A superficial glance around Atlanta can convey the impression that what the city values most highly are Cokes, cars, and Wolf Blitzer. It certainly doesn’t immediately convey any sense of a city interested in its own roots. Consider the zero milepost, a small stone column that once marked the terminus of the Western and Atlantic Railroad. This object is effectively Atlanta’s belly button; the city’s original borders were drawn as a three-mile-wide circle with this at the center. Now it resides, largely unheralded, at the bottom of a parking garage.
The destruction of Atlanta during the Civil War was fairly comprehensive and, it must be said, largely bipartisan. Sherman’s name is anathema here even today, but much of the damage—particularly what we think of as the burning of Atlanta, as opposed to the weeks of shelling that preceded it and the civilian evacuation and transmutation of the city into a military bastion that followed—was done by the Confederates on their way out, in the interest of denying the Federals the matériel and industrial machinery they were compelled to leave behind. So it’s understandable that there isn’t much left from the prewar period to preserve. Though preservation doesn’t seem to be a priority: Atlanta housing stock included only five original antebellum structures until this past January, when one of them was unceremoniously bulldozed by a private contractor. Unlike Sherman, the contractor didn’t even bother to warn the neighbors.
Of the battles in and around Atlanta that fateful summer—which produced more than 20,000 casualties and arguably sealed the fate of the wayward South—there’s barely a scrap of land in the entire city devoted to their remembrance. And although it’s not entirely gone, what does remain is fragmentary and scattered. Remnants of prewar Atlanta loiter like ghosts on street corners and in alleys, hidden in plain sight.
Walk down a city sidewalk and you can occasionally spot a peculiar variety of water-meter cover. Elongated ovals of cast iron pierced with a pair of holes near the center for easy lifting, the covers are a testament to unadorned functionality but for a single detail. Located in the upper right is a circle, probably three inches across, featuring a bird rising from a bed of flames and crowned with the word “Resurgens.” Beneath the bird it reads “Atlanta, GA,” with two dates inscribed on either side, 1847 and 1865.
This is the seal of the city, incorporated in 1847 and risen from the ashes in 1865 like a phoenix (or, if you go in for such things, a zombie). The seal was designed in the 1880s, and its use in this capacity suggests that someone in city government has an excellent sense of humor, emblazoning on water meters a symbol evocative of an Atlanta on fire. It is also one of the few signs you can find that old times here are not forgotten.
Most Saturday mornings I drive my wife to her job in Kirkwood, a suburb of Atlanta just to the northeast of the center of 1864’s great clash. The three-mile trip takes us down Memorial Drive, truly the Ernest Borgnine of streets. The scenery is made up mostly of squat, unhappy buildings and scattered patches of clinging vegetation. At one spot it passes a huge and largely vacant plaza dominated by a parking lot—several acres of cracked asphalt, entirely devoid of cars. The shapes of former commercial establishments lurk like old condiments in the back of a refrigerator. Memorial isn’t the worst street in Atlanta, but it’s a hard place to love.
Halfway to our destination, the road runs alongside a steep embankment, blanketed in a thick layer of kudzu. Half buried in the vegetation is a bronze sign. It’s impossible to read it at forty miles per hour, and you can’t very well stop without risking a rear-end collision. Although there’s a sidewalk, walking next to Memorial is even less appealing than driving on it. But if you take your foot off the accelerator and swivel your eyes as you pass, you can catch the enigmatic title stamped onto the sign, in all caps: MCPHERSON’S LAST RIDE.
James Birdseye McPherson was a young Union general, one of Sherman’s most trusted commanders. The name will ring bells for anyone familiar with Atlanta, primarily for the former U.S. Army fort located in the southwest quarter of the city. McPherson was something of a wunderkind—a talented and energetic officer who many predicted would eventually rise to command the entire U.S. Army. That’s if he had lived, which he did not. In the early afternoon of July 22, 1864, while reconnoitering in the woodlands before his troops, McPherson and a pair of aides ran afoul of Confederate pickets, who shouted at him to surrender. Instead he turned his horse to flee and was shot dead, some four hundred yards south of the marker that now sits off Memorial Drive.
It’s easy to be completely ignorant of any of this when living in the area. The sign on Memorial is all that most people see, if they see it at all when driving by. Even a speed reader would get only this curt tale:
July 22, 1864. When Gen. McPherson heard the firing to the S.E. while at luncheon (Whitefoord Ave. at R.R.), he mounted his horse & sending away most of his staff on various missions, galloped south to this hill.
Here he observed Dodge’s 16th A.C. troops in desperate combat with Bate’s & Walker’s divs. in Sugar Cr. valley. Anxious about the left of the 17th A.C. (at Glenwood & Flat Shoals), he proceeded on a road through the pines in that direction, accompanied by an orderly, & Signal Officer Wm. Sherfy, who reluctantly followed after vainly warning the general that Confederate troops had seized the road.
The location of McPherson’s death is not visible from the road, located as it is on the other side of the embankment, across a small park and then an interstate highway a short distance into a residential neighborhood. But if you put in a little effort, you can find there a tiny shrine. On a triangle of land about the size of two parking spaces, an upturned cannon marks the spot where McPherson met his end. It’s surrounded by a low fence of wood and iron, flanked by a small plastic bench and ringed with a few square feet of landscaping—some pink and yellow flowers, a couple of crepe myrtles, and an American flag. It’s lovely, quiet, and intimate, a humble remembrance for the highest-ranking general to be killed in the war. Though as a remembrance for the battle as a whole—and there isn’t much else around—it’s but a trinket.
The Battle of Atlanta was unusual. It was not the first siege of the war, and it wasn’t the last. But the besieging of cities in the manner of Vicksburg, Petersburg, and Atlanta was not the model for most Civil War actions, and moreover Atlanta suffered uniquely after its fall. Sherman intended for Atlanta to become a base of operations for further campaigning, and to this end he expelled the majority of the population still in the city in September 1864. So combined with the destruction of property wrought by six weeks of fighting, the retreat, and the conversion of the city to an armed camp, Atlanta was all but wiped off the map. It is arguable there has never been another occasion in which an American city was so thoroughly devastated. Today, looking back at ceaseless waves of development and redevelopment, each plastered thickly over the last, it’s not a stretch to view the city’s destruction and rebirth as a template for its progress ever since.
This is sensitive terrain. “Creative destruction” is a popular theme in business, but if you’re in the path of the destruction it looks a lot more like a euphemism for layoffs and closures and plain heartlessness. Similarly, if you were a denizen of Buttermilk Bottom, the large, predominantly black slum that was unceremoniously flattened in the late 1960s to make way for the Atlanta Civic Center, you’re probably not going to have a positive outlook on bulldozers. Many residents eventually made their way to what is now the neighborhood of English Avenue, a concentrated pocket of poverty that itself seems destined for the wrecking ball as its segment of the BeltLine Project (a much-lauded twenty-two-mile bicycle and pedestrian path circumnavigating the city) nears completion and begins to draw the attention of wealth. Likely the inhabitants will this time be shunted off to the suburbs. This is one face of gentrification, and it’s not a pretty one.
All the same, change and adaptability are undeniably part of the lifeblood of any successful venture. Just as Germany and Japan, presented perforce with a clean slate, refashioned their tank and airplane industries into the modern automotive behemoths we know today, Atlanta’s desolation in 1864 was the key to its future. While the ashes of the railroad roundhouse and the Atlanta rolling mill smoldered in September of that year, the government of Georgia continued its business uninterrupted nearly a hundred miles to the southeast. Once virtually a synonym for the state, even in the Northern papers, Milledgeville had been Georgia’s capital for sixty years. Now, apart from Flannery O’Connor fans, few have even heard of the place. Representative of the older, agrarian South that had been forcibly invalidated by the war, Milledgeville was superseded as capital in 1868 by Atlanta. It was a simple matter for the latter city to present itself, in the formulation of Georgia-born journalist and orator Henry Grady, as the apotheosis of a New South. So little had survived, it could remake itself in whatever form it chose.
Battlefields are a sort of scar tissue. And while the South doesn’t have a monopoly on them, down here they are not scars incurred in a victory but suffered in a defeat. They also serve as a constant reminder of the South’s culpability in the nation’s great original sin of slavery. It’s a hard burden, one against which Atlanta’s continual impulse to create itself anew, free of attachment to the past, may be understood.
What happened in Atlanta in the summer of 1864 was doubtless, at least for those involved, a disaster. For those of us living in Atlanta today it is something else. A disaster, meaning literally “bad star,” is confined to the actors imperiled by its astrological ruination. Viewing the kaleidoscope of outcomes implicated in such an event, perhaps catastrophe—“down turn”—is better. Stipulating that the thing doing the turning has two halves, it stands to reason that while one half is turning down, somewhere else, the other half is turning up. To see Atlanta in this light is to see every change as part of a complex process in which the good and bad, often so tightly alloyed as to be inseparable, are swept away in favor of something different, possibly but not necessarily a net gain.
Would Atlanta be better off with a battlefield park and a well-funded effort to preserve the contours of the land that two armies contested 152 years ago, sprinkling it with granite slabs and mute brass cannons? Perhaps. But I can find much solace in the idea that Atlanta’s progress tells us much of what we need to know of the signal event in its past. And sitting on the bench next to McPherson’s monument, I can find the same peace I would find at in the silence of Vicksburg or Shiloh, but on a scale to which, by definition, any human can relate. We Atlantans don’t possess a scar like Vicksburg’s, where the ground is still churned as if by the fury of giants. We just have the phoenix, stamped in iron, and the memory, and the knowledge, of what came before us. That’s a scar of another sort, the culmination of a wound, but also a continual new beginning.
Explore Disaster, the Spring 2016 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly.