by Larry Upthegrove
The destruction of the City of Atlanta began on November 11, 1864 by the Fourteenth Army Corps under the command of General Slocum, and the direction of Captain Poe of the engineers per this order from Union General William T. Sherman:
“Captain O. M. POE, Atlanta, Ga. You may commence the work of destruction at once, but don’t use fire until toward the last moment. W. T. SHERMAN, Major-General”
In the next several days, the work proceeded with increased rapidity as more personnel arrived in the city to equip themselves for the coming March to the Sea and help with the demolition.
As buildings were brought down by hammers and battering rams, the roofing and woodwork was set afire, with the flames in a contained area. On the night of November 15, with all the Army ready to move out, the city was set to torch, randomly and viciously, with flames spreading over most of the city.
Not everything was burned, and reports were both exaggerated and sketchy, but devastation is the brief description of the result of the burning. Loss of human life was limited, but the loss of habitation was widespread.
Governor Brown needed an accurate assessment of damage, so on November 25 he ordered his General of Militia, Oakland resident Pinkney Howard, to prepare a survey of the situation and report to him. The following is that report: (editor’s note: notes from the author are included in parenthesis to explain how the damage relates to Oakland Cemetery’s “Silent Citizens.”)
“ATLANTA, Ga., Dec. 7, 1864.
In obedience to orders of November 25, to inspect the State property in Atlanta, and the city itself, I have the honor to make the following report. With it, I beg leave to present your Excellency with a penciled map of the city, showing the position of every house left unburned.
To His Excellency Joseph E. Brown, Governor of Georgia:
The property of the State was destroyed by fire, but a vast deal of valuable material remains in the ruins, Three-fourths of the bricks are good, and will be suitable for rebuilding if placed under shelter before freezing weather. There is a quantity of brass in the journals of burned cars and in the ruins of various machinery of the extensive railroad shops; also a valuable amount of copper from the guttering of the State depot, the flue-pipes of destroyed engines, stop-cocks of machinery, &c. The car wheels that were injured by fire were rendered useless by breaking the flanges. In short, every species of machinery that was not destroyed by fire was most ingeniously broken and made worthless in its original form —the large steam-boilers, the switches, the frogs. etc. Nothing has escaped. The fire engines, except Tallulah No. 3, was sent North. Tallulah has been overhauled and a new company organized. Nos. 1 and 2 fire engine-houses were saved (the Fire Chief, Captain William Barnes was off fighting in Virginia and would be killed in May of next year. He was buried in Oakland Cemetery). All the city pumps were destroyed, except one on Marietta-street. The car-sheds, the depots, machine-shops, foundries, rolling-mills, merchant mills, arsenals. laboratory, armory, etc., were all burned.
In the angle between Hunter-street, commencing at the City Hall, running; east, and McDonough-street, running south, all houses were destroyed. The jail and calaboose were burned. All business houses, except on Alabama-street, commencing with the Gate City Hotel, running east to Lloyd-street, were burned. All the hotels, except the Gate City (Gate City Hotel was being used as a Federal hospital at the time) were burned. By reference to my map, you will find about four hundred houses standing. The scale of the map is four hundred feet to the inch. Taking the car-shed for the centre, describe a circle, the diameter of which is twelve inches, and you will perceive that the circle contains about three hundred squares, Then, at a low estimate, allow three houses to every four hundred feet, and we will have thirty-six hundred homes in the circle. Subtract the number of houses indicated on the map, as standing and you will see by this estimate the enemy have destroyed thirty-two hundred houses. Refer to the exterior of the circle, and you will discover that it is more than half a mile to the city limits in every direction, which was thickly populated, to say nothing of the houses beyond, and you will see that the enemy have destroyed from four to five thousand houses. Two-thirds of the shade trees in the park and the city and of the timber in the suburbs have been destroyed. The suburbs present to the eye one vast naked, ruined, deserted camp. The Masonic Hall (Oakland resident Lewis Lawshe was Master of the Lodge, and his influence with Yankee Masons saved the building) is not burned, though the corner-stone is badly scarred by some thief, who would have robbed it of its treasure, but for the timely interference of some mystic brothers (probably Northern brothers).
The City Hall is damaged, but not burned. The Second Baptist Second Presbyterian, Trinity and Catholic churches and all the residences adjacent between Mitchell and Peter streets, running south of east, and Lloyd and Washington streets, funding north of west, are safe, all attributable to Father O’RILEY, who refused to give up his parsonage to Federal officers, who were looking out for fine houses for quarters, and there being a large number of Catholics in the Federal army, who volunteered to protect their church and parsonage, and would not allow any house adjacent to be fired that would endanger them. As a poor of their attachment to their church and love of Father O’RILEY, a soldier who attempted to fire Col. CALHOUN’s (James M. Calhoun, Mayor of Atlanta and Oakland resident) house, the burning of which would have endangered the whole block, was shot and killed, and his grave is marked. So to Father O’RILEY the country is indebted for the protection of the City Hall, the churches, etc.
Dr. QUINTARD’s Protestant Methodist, the Christian and African Churches were destroyed. The Medical College was saved by Dr. D. ALVIGNY (Oakland resident), who was left in charge of our wounded. The Female College was torn down for the purpose of obtaining the bricks with which to construct winter quarters. All Institutions of learning were destroyed. The African Church was used as an academy for educating negroes. RODERICK BADGER (Oakland resident), a negro dentist, and his brother BOB BADGER (Oakland resident), a train-hand on the West Point and La Grange Railroad, both well known to the citizens of Atlanta, were assistant professors to the philanthropic Northmen in this institution. Very few negroes remained in the city. Thirteen 32-pounder rifle cannon, with caseables and trunnions broken off and jammed in the muzzles, remain near the Georgia Railroad shop. One well is reported to be filled with ammunition. Fragments of wagons, wheels, axles, bodies, etc., fire strewn over the city.
Could I have arrived ten days earlier with a guard of one hundred men, I could have saved the State and city a million dollars.
There were about 250 wagons in the city on my arrival, loading with pilfered plunder — pianos, mirrors, furniture of all kinds, iron, hides without numbers, and an incalculable amount of other things, very valuable at the present time. This exportation of stolen property had been going on ever since the place had been abandoned by the enemy. Bushwhackers, robbers and deserters, and citizens from the surrounding country for a distance of fifty miles have been engaged in this dirty work.
Many of the finest houses, mysteriously left unburned, are filled with the finest furniture, carpets, pianos, mirrors, etc., and occupied by parties who, six months ago, lived in humble style. About fifty families remained during the occupancy of the city by the enemy, and about the same number have returned since its abandonment. From two to three thousand dead carcasses of animals remain in the city limits.
Horses were turned loose in the cemetery to graze upon the grass and shrubbery. The ornaments of graves, such as marble lambs, miniature, statuary, souvenirs of departed little ones, are broken and scattered abroad. The crowning act of all their wickedness and villainy was committed by our ungodly foe in removing the dead from the vaults in the cemetery and robbing the coffins of the silver name plates and tippings, and depositing their own dead in the vaults.
I have the honor to be, respectfully, your obedient servant,