Diary of Orrin Brown—Nov 19, 1864


Burning Atlanta - Library of Congress

Diary of Orrin Brown, Shady Grove, southeast of Covington, Georgia

Saturday–Nov. 19th

We were on the road again at 6 AM. It rained nearly all night, the day has been cloudy and quite muddy. We went into camp aboout 6 PM.

It sounds like a quiet day for a long 12-hour march. Elsewhere more drama was recorded in the XIV Corps.  This from from the diary of Capt. James Royal Ladd, 113th Ohio:

“Nov. 19th. Marched at 6 a.m. Our Regt. in advance of the Corps. Went out with foraging party.  Left the main road.  We had proceeded about 1 mile when two men of the party were accidentally shot, or rather carelessly by their comrades while shooting chickens.  Sent back to road and procured surgeon and ambulance.  Passed on two miles farther and came to a splendid plantation where the boys got all the forage they wished, consisting of meal, flour, potatoes, pork, chickens, turkeys, honey …… We also took from this place several head of horse and mules which served to convey our forage to camp.  We also obtained a large quantity of molasses, which is one of their chief products, often finding several barrels at a single plantation.  Gen (Joseph E.) Brown, after the fall of Atlanta, ordered the State Militia to be relieved in order that they could come home and secure their crops and more especially the molasses crop.  Well, they secured it and we have eaten a good portion of it for them.  Sweet potatoes are in great abundance and on this campaign we have found them already dug, which is very convenient; it saves time in procuring them.”

They say the victors write history.  It’s a reminder that there is usually two or more sides of any story and its good to be skeptical of official accounts.  However, even these 150 years later it often seems which side of history a Civil War writer is on depends on the geography of their antecedents.  Yankees (like me) write Northern accounts.  Sons of Confederates tend to favor Southern accounts.  Not that this is unique to this conflict—I wouldn’t expect a good Englishman to gush on Bonnie Prince Charlie, nor a good Scot to honor Edward Longshanks—yet I’m continually surprised how people can look at the same historical record and read out such different accounts.  I guess that’s the “social” in social science.

Author Phil Leigh wrote last week in the New York Times’ Disunion column questioning just who is to blame (credit?) for burning Atlanta:

The spectacular burning scene in “Gone With the Wind” mistakenly portrays the principal inferno as happening when the Confederates left the city on Sept. 1. It’s true that the rebels demolished parts of the city as they left; once Sherman gained control of all the railroads leading out of Atlanta, Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood had no choice but to try to save his army and evacuate with as many supplies as possible, and destroy what he had to leave behind.

The destruction of Antebellum Atlanta was essentially three-stage.  First, the Union army shelled the city during the five-week siege, but accounts indicate it accomplished more psychological than physical damage.  It wasn’t until Sherman cut the railroad supply lines that the city did yield.

Then as noted, Hood did destroy what he considered strategic facilities on his exit from the city.  Most notably this included an 81-car munitions train parked next to the Atlanta Rolling Mill, which young Pvt. Brown toured later in ruins.  As the front ebbed and flowed during the entire war, both the Confederates and Federal forces took turns tearing up and laying back down rail lines between Atlanta and Chattanooga.  It only made sense that Hood would decline to leave an advantage to Sherman, but it also indicated his despair of ever regaining the city for the Southern cause.  It seems entirely likely he would put the torch to the place.

Finally, Sherman and his Union troops completed the task of urban renewal in bulk.  The typical histories do credit Hood with not leaving much behind for Sherman to fire.  Leigh notes that much of this destruction was unauthorized, and unappreciated.  My reading of Pvt. Brown’s journal confirms that assessment, and I also read a sense of inevitability in the city’s demise.  Elsewhere, the New York Times‘ assessment follows this more balanced approach.

We can agree to disagree.  While the victor writes the history, the critics lay the blame.



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