On Sacred Ground

December 28, 2010

On Sacred Ground 

By Wade H. Watson III 

            We recently marked the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 with solemn observances, including the reading of names of the dead, lowering of flags, flyovers of jets, and acts of reverence. We remembered the approximately 3000 Americans who lost their lives and the many acts of heroism that day, from the firefighters who bravely rushed into the burning World Trade Center towers to the passengers of Flight 93 who stormed the cockpit of a hijacked plane. The site of attack in New York is regarded as sacred ground because of the gravity of the events that took place there. Anything that might threaten our memory of that place, that day or those whose lives were lost, provokes heated national debate. 

            Yet if we are truly concerned with properly honoring the place where Americans died under tragic and heroic circumstances, we need not travel to New York or Washington or to the Pennsylvania field where Flight 93 went down. We need only turn off Peachtree Street and travel less than a mile west on Collier Road to Tanyard Creek Park across from where Collier’s Mill once stood. Near that spot are the remnants of a field where over 4400 Americans were killed or wounded on the afternoon of July 20, 1864 during the Battle of Peachtree Creek, the first of four major battles that are loosely called the Battle of Atlanta.[1] Most of us tend to think of the Battle of Atlanta as a brief and largely irrelevant episode in a war that is best forgotten. Yet in his recent book, War Like The Thunderbolt: The Battle and Burning of Atlanta, Atlanta attorney and author Russell S. Bonds gives these battles and the long siege that the city suffered during the summer and fall of 1864 a fresh context and a new meaning for us to consider. 

            According to Bonds, the outcome of the war and the fate of the Confederacy remained much in doubt in the summer of 1864. Despite what we now understand of the reality of Union superiority in arms and resources, the conventional wisdom in Washington in July 1864 was the war had become a quagmire of death and destruction that few wanted to continue. Popular Union General George McClellan was running a strong Presidential campaign for the Democrats, suggesting that he could find a just way to negotiate an end to the war and to reunite the country. Despite the Union’s success at Vicksburg and Gettysburg the previous summer, nothing much had changed. Lee’s army was still intact, the Confederacy was still in operation, and despite the Emancipation Proclamation, little had changed for the slaves in the South who were still under Confederate control. As late as August 1864, Lincoln himself believed that he was destined to lose the November election.  

            While we now view Atlanta’s fall as inevitable, few believed or understood that at the time. The city was a fortress, with formidable breastworks in two lines encircling it. It was supplied by railway lines to the east, west and south. It was defended by a veteran army that, while depleted, was still dangerous and ferocious in battle, inflicting casualties that had become a political liability for Lincoln and his party. Sherman’s advance from Chattanooga to the Chattahoochee had been marked by heavy casualties on both sides. Each side had experienced the deadly folly of attempting to charge entrenched positions defended by increasingly accurate rifles. While General Johnston’s strategy of fighting and retreating was viewed with alarm in Atlanta, it is now often cited as an example of a classic defensive operation against superior forces, delaying Union victory in a war of attrition.  

          As Union forces approached Atlanta’s outer defenses, however, Jefferson Davis replaced General Joseph E. Johnston with General John Bell Hood, instructing him to attack the Sherman’s army and to save the city. What followed were the battles chronicled in Bond’s book that sealed the fate of the city and ultimately that of the Confederacy. In addition to the heavy casualties at Peachtree Creek on July 20, over 9200 were killed or wounded east of the city at Bald Hill and Decatur on July 22, and another 3600 at Ezra Church near the present intersection of Martin Luther King Drive and I-20 on July 28, 1864.[2] After nearly six weeks of fighting, Atlanta still held. Union guns bombarded it daily and constantly for over four weeks with devastating effect on the civilian population, although the number of casualties from the bombardment is unknown.  The city held on because the Union cavalry had been unable to permanently cut the rail line south to Macon. Finally, General Sherman employed nearly his entire force to attack and sever Atlanta’s supply line in the two-day Battle of Jonesboro on August 31 and September 1, at a collective cost of approximately 5000 killed or wounded.[3] Cut off from its supplies and greatly outnumbered, the Confederate Army had no choice but to abandon the city to avoid its own destruction. General Sherman declined to pursue the army. Instead, on September 2, 1864, he occupied the city, forced its remaining civilians to evacuate, and ultimately, burned it to the ground in mid-November before commencing his infamous March to the Sea. In the end, over the course of four long months, over 22,000 American soldiers were killed or wounded in the fight over Atlanta, the city’s entire civilian population became refugees, and most of its property was destroyed.  

          The fall of Atlanta affected both sides’ perceptions of the viability of the Confederacy, now cut in half with its transportation center destroyed. It improved the Northern mood sufficiently that Lincoln secured a relatively narrow victory for his second term. There would be no political compromise with the Confederacy now.  

          What meaning can we draw from these events that pertains to our everyday life here in Atlanta?  One of my law partners who grew up in Boston recently commented to me when I asked him this same question: “The civil war means nothing to me; why can’t you people get over it?” Whether we hail from the north or the south, most people in Atlanta have sentiments remarkably similar to those of my partner.  Most of us rarely think about the war, and we have done little to preserve the places where our forebears bled and died. Apart from scattered historical markers, virtually nothing remains to remind us of these Atlanta battlefields where so many Americans gave their lives.  Many, if not most, Atlantans view this chapter of our history as little more than a curiosity or perhaps as an historical embarrassment. 

           Yet, as Bonds reminds us in the concluding chapter of his book, the great Atlanta journalist Henry Grady understood the meaning of the battles for Atlanta in a way that should still resonate with us today. Grady was only 35 years old when he was invited to be a dinner speaker for the New England Society meeting held at Delmonico’s restaurant in New York City on December 22, 1886. Grady was the editor of The Atlanta Constitution and a well-known orator, but he worried greatly about his remarks.  Anything he said about the South and the war would likely become a source of controversy, either in New York or at home. To make matters worse, General Sherman spoke immediately before him as a band played “Marching Through Georgia.”  

          Rising to the occasion, the young Grady spoke passionately of the emergence of what he called the New South, marked by the creation of new industry, with a hundred farms replacing every plantation and fifty homes replacing each former mansion. He then turned to General Sherman and famously said, “from the ashes you left us in 1864 we have raised a brave and beautiful city….”[4] 

          Grady further declared that he was glad that by the omniscience of God, “Human slavery was swept from American soil,” and “the American Union saved from the wreck of war.”[5] In rhetoric that echoes the elegance of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, he then reminded his audience of what is unique about the place we call Atlanta: 

This message comes to you from consecrated ground.  Every foot of soil about the city in which I live is a sacred battleground of the republic.  Every hill that invests it is hallowed to you by the blood of your brothers who died for your victory; and doubly hallowed to us by the blood of those who died helpless but undaunted in defeat—sacred ground to all of us—rich in memories that make us purer and stronger and better—silent but staunch witness to the red desolation of the matchless valor of American hearts and the deathless glory of American arms–speaking an eloquent witness in its peace and prosperity to the indissoluble union of American States and the imperishable brotherhood of American people.[6] 

          As we go about our daily lives in this great city, we should be mindful of Grady’s words and remember that the ground on which we walk was the site of American heroism, American struggle, and American sacrifice that ultimately saved a nation and advanced the cause of human freedom. In this very real sense, we live in a city built on sacred ground. Just as we remember the heroism and loss of 9/11, we should also remember the Americans who consecrated this city long ago with their blood and their lives, and be grateful.  

[1] R. Bonds, War Like The Thunderbolt (2009), p. 106.

[2] Id. at 172, 200-201.

[3] Id. at 265, 275.

[4] Id. at 392-393.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.


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