- A Changing Wind: Commerce and Conflict in Civil War Atlanta by Wendy Hamand Venet
Four decades ago, in The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience (1971), Emory M. Thomas called attention to the economic, industrial, and symbolic changes that gave southern cities new importance and visibility between 1861 and 1865. During the Confederacy’s brief life span, Thomas argues, an “urban revolution” was in fact under way in a region that had gone to war in defense of agrarian values. Prefiguring the New South mentality of the 1880s, the Confederacy’s city dwellers exhibited unmistakable signs of an incipient urban identity.
At the time Thomas wrote, southern cities had received scant attention from historians. Over the next generation the picture changed markedly as Don H. Doyle and other specialists in urban history gave long overdue attention to the urban dimension of the southern past. Atlanta was a major beneficiary of this new historiographical trend. During the 1970s no fewer than three doctoral dissertations examined Atlanta during the Civil War and Reconstruction years. Journal articles on a variety of important Atlanta topics proliferated over the next two decades, and by 1990 a new level of analytic sophistication was apparent in books such as James Michael Russell’s Atlanta, 1847–1869: City Building in the Old South and the New (1988) and Doyle’s New Men, New Cities, New South: Atlanta, Nashville, Charleston, Mobile, 1860–1910 (1990).
Wendy Hamand Venet’s book touches on most of the themes developed in the Atlanta scholarship of the past generation. Relying heavily on newspaper sources, she charts the ebb and flow of white civilian morale that occurred mainly in response to industrial growth, inflation, food shortages, and Confederate battlefield fortunes. Published personal accounts such as Sam Richards’s Civil War Diary (2009), edited by Venet, and To Raise Myself a Little (1982), the diaries and letters of Amelia Akehurst Lines, edited by Thomas Dyer, provide valuable details on many aspects of daily life, including commerce, entertainment, wartime scarcity, disease epidemics, women’s changing roles, slavery, and related topics. Atlanta’s growing significance as a hospital and convalescent center for the [End Page 328] Confederate Army of Tennessee receives much discussion, although the town’s ongoing role as a refugee center deserves more extended treatment.
All southern cities contained opponents of secession, and Venet situates Atlanta’s Unionist sentiment within a broader framework of disaffection that manifested itself in military desertion, unrest over food shortages and inflation, general war weariness, and expedient relocations to the North or to Europe by profit-minded entrepreneurs whose sectional loyalties were at best fluid. (A prototypical figure in the ranks of Atlanta’s commercial opportunists was John C. Peck, an asthmatic building contractor who moved to the city during the 1850s seeking a warmer climate. After profiting from the manufacture of “Joe Brown pikes” and numerous construction projects for the Atlanta Arsenal, his enthusiasm for the rebellion cooled. When Confederate fortunes plummeted in 1864, he left for Minnesota’s colder climate and provided Union general George H. Thomas with detailed plans of the city’s fortifications. Four months after Appomattox he returned to Atlanta and resumed his business by helping rebuild the structures that Sherman’s army had destroyed.)
Venet’s decision to conflate many types of “disloyal” behavior in a single discussion has advantages as a narrative strategy. But it also blurs the distinction between nonideological discontent over wartime hardship and the unconditional Unionism described in Thomas G. Dyer’s meticulously researched and closely argued book Secret Yankees: The Union Circle in Confederate Atlanta (1999). A similar trade-off occurs in the treatment of Atlanta’s class structure. In her brief survey of Atlanta’s antebellum origins, Venet highlights the role of businessmen in charting the destiny of a city built around trade, industry, and railroads rather than plantation slavery. Prewar leaders are described as sharing a “common vision for economic development” stressing business growth, publicity, improved infrastructure, and better law enforcement (11). Later chapters call attention to the widening...