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Atlanta has long haunted American imaginations as a symbol of the South’s most hopeful promises and its most glaring inequities. William A. Link’s Atlanta, Cradle of the New South brilliantly analyzes the emergence of the city’s most enduring myth—its phoenix-like rebirth from the destruction of the Civil War and the alleged mis-rule of Reconstruction to the “brave and beautiful city” proclaimed by Henry W. Grady (p. 140). Recounted most vividly in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, the legend of plucky white citizens saving a city from rapacious Yankees and misguided African Americans has helped shape popular interpretations of Southern history for more than a century. Link’s painstaking examination of Atlanta’s postbellum rebuilding and the myths that its resurgence inspired represents a substantial contribution to the burgeoning fields of Civil War memory studies and Southern social history.
Link offers readers an unparalleled introduction to the history of nineteenth-century Atlanta and an exquisitely vivid account of the 1864 Union occupation and burning of the city. In the aftermath of the Civil War, African Americans, seeking enhanced social opportunities and protection from white violence, flooded into Atlanta. The presence of United States soldiers and federal officials provided African Americans and their Republican allies a modicum of safety from the wave of terroristic attacks that the opponents of Reconstruction unleashed across Georgia. By the early 1870s, white supremacists had largely regained control over the city and state. In subsequent decades, white Democrats tirelessly marshaled images of “invasion, violation, and hostile occupation” to secure votes and influence (p. 105). Those myths, particularly ones surrounding the assassination of Republican “scalawag” George Ashburn and federal officials’ attempts to bring his murderers to justice, exercised an overwhelming power over many white Georgians, precisely because they tapped [End Page 130] into the sense of fear and dislocation that many whites experienced throughout the 1860s.
In the late 1880s, white civic leaders publicly embraced Henry W. Grady’s “New South” vision that linked narratives of the rebirth of Atlanta with a regional program promoting national reconciliation and commercial expansion. Even while disavowing slavery and racist vituperation, Grady openly embraced white supremacy and other forms of racial inequality. In 1888, Grady denounced the longstanding nemesis of Atlanta—William Tecumseh Sherman—architect of the destruction of the city during the Civil War, for advocating federal intervention in the South to safeguard the basic civil rights of African Americans. Throughout the Jim Crow era, white commercial and political leaders advertised their city as the embodiment of racial peace as they promoted Atlanta as a national commercial center.
Black Atlantans, in contrast, cultivated very different visions of the past and future of their city in the independent schools, colleges, and churches that black activists and Northern white volunteers and philanthropists built and supported in the aftermath of war. Those institutions sustained historical memories, painting the Civil War as a war of liberation (rather than outside occupation) and characterizing Reconstruction as an idealistic program promoting racial progress (rather than an inherently unjust intervention into local affairs). While whites shared the vision of the Atlanta past made famous by Grady and Mitchell, African Americans drew sustenance from the counter memories of protest and revolutionary potential promulgated in the writings and utterances of civil rights activists, such as W. E. B. Du Bois.
The past decade has witnessed an outpouring of scholarship on the crucial role played by national debates over the meanings of the Civil War and Reconstruction in shaping American race relations. Atlanta, Cradle of the New South underscores the role of lived experiences and local political and cultural contests in determining how the Civil War would be remembered not only in Atlanta but in the nation at large. Link’s pioneering and engaging study merits the attention [End Page 131] of professional historians and general readers alike.
David Fort Godshalk teaches history at Shippensburg University in Shippensburg...