This deeply researched, informative book provides a panorama of Civil War Atlanta, one admirable for the author’s inclusiveness and marshaling of telling details. In a sense, Wendy Hamand Venet retraces a familiar arc—of the city’s rapid rise to commercial prominence on the eve of the war, descent into social chaos over the course of the conflict, and rebirth during Reconstruction. But Venet, a professor at Georgia State University steeped in the Gate City’s history, proves that she is singularly well qualified to add nuance and texture to the story, and to dispel the still lingering aura of Margaret Mitchell’s “tragic era” depiction in Gone with the Wind.
The first section of the book is its most original, as it interlinks Atlanta’s prewar boom, propelled by the railroads, with its lurch toward disunion, driven by a discourse of “profit-based secessionism” on the part of the business community (29). Relative to other Georgia cities, Atlanta had a low investment in slavery (only 20 percent of the population was enslaved) and a high proportion of unionists, eager to keep turning profits in the existing system. So the city’s secessionists, led by the irrepressible Congressman Lucius Gartrell, appealed to the electorate’s financial interests with free trade arguments: the South would achieve new heights of prosperity if it could divest itself of economic dependence on the North and establish direct ties to Europe, cutting Yankee middlemen out of the picture.
When the war started, these promises seemed to bear fruit: Atlanta businessmen worked to establish trading partnerships in Europe and to promote manufacturing within the city, especially the production of military matériel. The Confederate government recognized the city’s potential as the chief manufacturing and supply center in the South when it located a new state arsenal and quartermaster’s depot there. Atlanta also became the news-gathering capital of the lower South; its residents thrilled to the news of Robert E. Lee’s successes in Virginia and to the exploits in Kentucky of John Hunt Morgan, their beau ideal of a southern cavalryman. Confederate [End Page 79] women, under the stern and efficient leadership of Martha Winship, who fancied herself the commander of female enlistees, threw themselves into benevolent work on behalf of the soldiers.
But with U. S. Grant’s incursions in Tennessee in 1862, the mood in the city began to change. Wounded men poured in, overrunning the available facilities. Prices for housing, food, and fuel mounted, as did anxieties over enemies within: the treachery of southern unionists; the specters of infectious disease, speculating, counterfeiting, and widespread thievery; and escalating slave flight and resistance. Venet is especially cogent on this last theme, noting the elevated demand for slave labor in factories and hospitals during the war, and the prevalence of slave leasing, hiring, impressment, and trading in the city—and emphasizing that in the face of deteriorating conditions, slaves fled businesses and households and thereby undermined white civilians’ morale. Word from the front brought Confederates no relief: for example, in the wake of the Confederate victory at Chickamauga in September 1863, the number of sick and wounded men in Atlanta hospitals swelled to ten thousand. In the summer of 1864, under the pall of Sherman’s campaign, Venet writes, Atlanta “began to implode” (156). Countless civilians evacuated the city before the Union’s sustained bombardment of it, and those who remained behind found themselves in a hell-scape; one surgeon testified that many civilians, even children, had undergone amputations during the shelling. When Sherman ordered the expulsion of the remaining civilians and then gave orders to destroy the city’s depots, warehouses, and machine shops, he sealed his reputation among Confederates as the purveyor of “barbarous war.” That the fires set by the Union forces claimed civilian structures such as the Athanaeum—a monument to the city’s prewar prosperity and ambition—is for Venet richly symbolic of how Atlantans reaped the whirlwind.
After the war...