The city of Atlanta, Georgia, was an important rail and commercial center during the Civil War. Although small in population, the city became a large target towards the end of the war, when a powerful Union army led by General Sherman approached from Union-held Tennessee. The fall of Atlanta was the beginning of the end for the Civil War, giving the North more confidence, and lead to the re-election of President Abraham Lincoln and the eventual surrender of the Confederacy.

Trout House, Masonic Hall, and Federal encampment on Decatur Street

Atlanta began as the endpoint of a railroad in 1837. Atlanta, or Terminus grew quickly after two railroad lines were completed in 1845, in the years before the Civil War, Atlanta was a relatively small city ranking 99th in the United States in size according to the 1860 census. However, it was the 12th-largest city in the Confederate States of America.

The city was a vital transportation and logistics center, with several major railroads in the area, including the Western & Atlantic Railroad, which connected the city with Chattanooga, Tennessee. We are familiar with the W&A Railroad because it was the one that ran through our tunnel.  A series of roads radiated out from the city in all directions, connecting it with neighboring towns, much like the Atlanta we know today.

Since it was fairly safe from Union forces early in the war, Atlanta rapidly became a concentration point for the Confederate quartermasters and logistics experts; warehouses were filled with food, supplies, ammunition, and clothing critical to the Confederate armies.

In 1864, however to the fear of Georgians, Atlanta became the target of a major Union invasion. The area that is now metropolitan Atlanta held several violent battles, including the Battle of Peachtree Creek, the Battle of Atlanta and the Battle of Ezra Church. On September 1, 1864, after a five-week siege by General Sherman, Confederate General Hood evacuated Atlanta. Hood ordered all public buildings and possible Confederate assets destroyed.

Before retreating from Atlanta, Hood destroyed this mill and railway to prevent capture.

The next day, Atlanta Mayor James Calhoun surrendered the city. Sherman sent a telegram to Washington reading, “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won”. He set up headquarters there, and stayed for two months planning his fiery march to Savannah.

Even though Sherman had just successfully captured Atlanta with minimal losses, he was worried about his supply lines, which stretched all the way to Louisville, Kentucky. With Confederate cavalry leader Nathan Bedford Forrest on the loose, Sherman expected to have a difficult time maintaining an open line of communication and reasoned that he could not stay in Atlanta for long. The number of troops committed to guarding the railroad and telegraph lines was almost as many as he had with him in Atlanta.

Atlanta’s Union Station Destroyed by The Union Army.

For Sherman, the defeated residents of Atlanta could only hinder him in his preparations since they represented mouths to feed in addition to his own army. Furthermore, he did not want to bear responsibility for women and children in the midst of his army. Eviction of the residents was Sherman’s most logical solution. He wrote, “I have deemed it to the interest of the United States that the citizens now residing in Atlanta should remove, those who prefer it to go South, and the rest North.”

The Mayor Calhoun, protested, but Sherman curtly replied, “War is cruelty and you cannot refine it.” General Sherman provided transportation south of the city, where the refugees were taken near the defeated army of Confederate General Hood.

On September 8, Mayor Calhoun, notified Atlanta citizens that they would have to evacuate the city. Each citizen was required to register the number of adults, children, servants and a count of the number of packages or parcels they were taking with them.


NOTICE, ATLANTA, GA., September 8, 1864.


To the Citizens of Atlanta:


Major-General Sherman instructs me to say to you that you must all leave Atlanta; that as many of you as want to go North can do so, and that as many as want to go South can do so, and that all can take with them their movable property, servants included, if they want to go, but that no force is to be used, and that he will furnish transportation for persons and property as far as Rough and Ready, from whence it is expected General Hood will assist in carrying it on. Like transportation will be furnished for people and property going North, and it is required that all things contemplated by this notice will be carried into execution as soon as possible.


All persons are requested to leave their names and number in their families with the undersigned as early as possible, that estimates may be made of the quantity of transportation required.




— James M. Calhoun, Notice to the Citizens of Atlanta

Lieut. Col. Le Duc sat behind a table on the porch of Richard Peters house at Mitchell and Forsyth Streets. He began registering and issuing travel permits to the citizens that were evacuating Atlanta to the South.

Between September 11 and 16 some 446 families, about 1,600 people, left their homes and possessions. One young Atlanta woman, Mary Gay, lamented bitterly that her fellow citizens “were dumped out upon the cold ground without shelter and without any of the comforts of home.”

Citizens leaving Atlanta in compliance with Sherman’s orders.
Courtesy: The Atlanta History Center

Sherman’s decision didn’t win him any fans among the Southerners, but he was only starting to build his infamous reputation with the Confederates. This hatred of Sherman has lived on in the South, especially Georgia to this day. In November, he embarked on his march to the sea, during which his army destroyed nearly everything that lay in its path. Burning everything on his march, Sherman cemented his mark on Atlanta’s history as well as Georgia’s.

Historical marker for the surrender of Atlanta in Atlanta, Georgia.