When Margaret Mitchell’s Atlanta Burned, 150 Years Ago

If you only know the (great) movie version of Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With The Wind, you might think Atlanta was burned in a day. But a city as big as Atlanta can’t be burned down that easily. It took General Sherman’s army nearly three months, from September 1864 to November, to reduce the entire city and railroad center to ashes. The first of the three months was exactly 150 years ago.

150 years ago: the conflagration blazes around us. Of course, the clever journalist turned fiction writer Margaret Mitchell was not there for the original burning. It would take several generations before the young lady began typing her manuscript from a quaint room on Peachtree Street, imagining Scarlett O’Hara moving in to Aunt Pittypat’s house on the same uptown corner.

Margaret Mitchell researched her book well, and her skill for brisk and vivid description made her telling of Atlanta’s agonizing fall the one that stuck. Here is a passage from Margaret Mitchell’s masterwork, her one and only book, the epic poem of the Confederate South.

Note: I tried to select a brief sequence of the burning of Atlanta from Gone With The Wind, but prose this elegant must be allowed to breathe, so here’s a long section. Here we find Scarlett O’Hara and her refugee friends hearing the news from the city they’d just fled.

The Confederates, he told them, had retaken Atlanta after Sherman marched out, but it was a valueless prize as Sherman had burned it completely.

“But I thought Atlanta burned the night I left,” cried Scarlett, bewildered. “I thought our boys burned it!”

“Oh, no, Miss Scarlett!” cried Frank, shocked. “We’d never burn one of our own towns with our own folks in it! What you saw burning was the warehouses and the supplies we didn’t want the Yankees to capture and the foundries and the ammunition. But that was all. When Sherman took the town the houses and stores were standing there as pretty as you please. And he quartered his men
in them.”

“But what happened to the people? Did he–did he kill them?”

“He killed some–but not with bullets,” said the one-eyed soldier grimly. “Soon’s he marched into Atlanta he told the mayor that all the people in town would have to move out, every living soul. And there were plenty of old folks that couldn’t stand the trip and sick folks that ought not to have been moved and ladies who were — well, ladies who hadn’t ought to be moved either. And he moved them out in the biggest rainstorm you ever saw, hundreds and hundreds of them, and dumped them in the woods near Rough and Ready and sent word to General Hood to come and get them. And a plenty of the folks died of pneumonia and not being able to stand that sort of treatment.”

“Oh, but why did he do that? They couldn’t have done him any harm,” cried Melanie.

“He said he wanted the town to rest his men and horses in,” said Frank. “And he rested them there till the middle of November and then he lit out. And he set fire to the whole town when he left and burned everything.”

“Oh, surely not everything!” cried the girls in dismay.

It was inconceivable that the bustling town they knew, so full of people, so crowded with soldiers, was gone. All the lovely homes beneath shady trees, all the big stores and the fine hotels — surely they couldn’t be gone! Melanie seemed ready to burst into tears, for she had been born there and knew no other home. Scarlett’s heart sank because she had come to love the place second only to Tara.

“Well, almost everything,” Frank amended hastily, disturbed by the expressions on their faces. He tried to look cheerful, for he did not believe in upsetting ladies. Upset ladies always upset him and made him feel helpless. He could not bring himself to tell them the worst. Let them find out from some one else.

He could not tell them what the army saw when it marched back into Atlanta, the acres and acres of chimneys standing blackly above ashes, piles of half-burned rubbish and tumbled heaps of brick clogging the streets, old trees dying from fire, their charred limbs tumbling to the ground in the cold wind. He remembered how the sight had turned him sick, remembered the bitter curses of the Confederates when they saw the remains of the town. He hoped the ladies would never hear of the horrors of the looted cemetery, for they’d never get over that. Charlie Hamilton and Melanie’s mother and father were buried there. The sight of that cemetery still gave Frank nightmares. Hoping to find jewelry buried with the dead, the Yankee soldiers had broken open vaults, dug up graves. They had robbed the bodies, stripped from the coffins gold and silver name plates, silver trimmings and silver handles. The skeletons and corpses, flung helterskelter among their splintered caskets, lay exposed and so pitiful.

And Frank couldn’t tell them about the dogs and the cats. Ladies set such a store by pets. But the thousands of starving animals, left homeless when their masters had been so rudely evacuated, had shocked him almost as much as the cemetery, for Frank loved cats and dogs. The animals had been frightened, cold, ravenous, wild as forest creatures, the strong attacking the weak, the weak waiting for the weaker to die so they could eat them. And, above the ruined town, the buzzards splotched the wintry sky with graceful, sinister bodies.

Frank cast about in his mind for some mitigating information that would make the ladies feel better.

“There’s some houses still standing,” he said, “houses that set on big lots away from other houses and didn’t catch fire. And the churches and the Masonic hall are left. And a few stores too. But the business section and all along the railroad tracks and at Five Points–well, ladies, that part of town is flat on the ground.”

“Then,” cried Scarlett bitterly, “that warehouse Charlie left me, down on the tracks, it’s gone too?”

“If it was near the tracks, it’s gone, but–” Suddenly he smiled. Why hadn’t he thought of it before? “Cheer up, ladies! Your Aunt Pitty’s house is still standing. It’s kind of damaged but there it is …”

There it is, indeed. We often think of Gone With The Wind as a story about a young girl with a crush, but it was also the story of a mature woman who became a powerful businesswoman and a proud rulebreaker in post-Civil War Atlanta. Margaret Mitchell based Scarlett O’Hara on herself, and indeed both of them had the knack for rising up from ashes, and inspiring others to do the same.

I have spent 2014 working on an website project for a federal health agency based in Atlanta, and I had an opportunity to spend a week in this glimmering city earlier this year. I visited Margaret Mitchell’s simple apartment house on Peachtree Street. I also tried to visit some Civil War battlefields, but I discovered to my dismay that Atlanta doesn’t like to remember the Civil War very much. Battle memorials for this city are few and far between.

This conforms to a general principle of battlefield preservation that I’ve observed: if the region that owns the battlefield is proud of the battle, there will be a great battlefield park. This explains Gettsyburg, Antietam, Manassas, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, Shiloh and Chickamauga.

But Atlanta doesn’t like its battlefields, and hasn’t done much to honor them. There’s a small Civil War museum east of the city, near one of many spots where the Confederates entrenched around the city in the summer of 1864 in a hopeless attempt to hold Sherman’s army back. There are occasional reenactments of the major battles that took place around these entrenchments: Peachtree Creek, East Atlanta, Jonesborough, Ezra Church.

But there’s not a battlefield park to be found. The locations at Peachtree Creek, East Atlanta, Jonesborough and Ezra Church are completely paved over, developed into houses and golf courses and shopping centers, unknown and forgotten.

Atlanta wasn’t kidding around when it obliterated its battlefields. They actually built a highway cloverleaf directly on top of Bald Hill, the site of the shooting of Union General James McPherson. This was one of the most climactic and dramatic moments of the battle for Atlanta. Here’s a picture of the spot today.

No respect at all! This only proves how deeply painful and offensive it must have been for the people of Georgia to see their brightest city destroyed with such enthusiasm by invading enemies. The lack of public recognition for the traumas of 1864 indicates a need for healing that has still never taken place.

This is another reason we can all treasure Gone With The Wind: Margaret Mitchell’s novel turned out to be the war memorial that the city could not create for itself.

2 Responses

  1. Kennesaw Mountain, a nice
    Kennesaw Mountain, a nice battlefield park is located about 45 minutes northwest of the city in suburban Cobb County. Also check out the Cyclorama in Grant Park a few miles east of downtown.

  2. Thanks Jason … Yeah, the
    Thanks Jason … Yeah, the museum in Grant Park is the one I referred to above.

    As for Kennesaw Mountain, that battlefield proves my theory that Civil War battlefields are treated very differently based on who won … This was the site of a rare Confederate victory in Georgia in 1864! I wish they would preserve the fields of battle where they lost as well.

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