In this column, members of the Georgia Humanities Council and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.
This week, guest columnist Todd Groce, president and CEO of the Georgia Historical Society, asks why events that occurred 150 years ago still matter today.
By W. Todd Groce
One hundred and fifty years ago this fall, in September 1864, U.S. forces commanded by Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman captured Atlanta, the communication, transportation, and manufacturing hub of the Deep South and, after the capital in Richmond, the most important city in the Confederacy. In November, Sherman destroyed the business and industrial heart of the city and then set out on his March to the Sea, a military campaign designed to wreck the Confederacy’s ability to wage war and break the will of its people to resist.
The fall of Atlanta and the subsequent March to the Sea were mortal blows to the Confederacy. In taking the city, Sherman ended the military stalemate that was fueling a growing peace movement in the United States, thereby ensuring the reelection of President Abraham Lincoln and with it, the doom of the Confederacy. Gettysburg may have been the “high water mark of the Rebellion,” but Atlanta is where the plug was pulled on the drain.
So why are these events from 150 years ago still important today?
First, without the preservation of the Union there could have been no emancipation. Although the Civil War did not begin as a crusade to free the slaves, the overwhelming documentary evidence shows that it did begin as a Southern independence movement aimed at preserving slavery. Confederate victory would have meant slavery’s continuation indefinitely. Only by destroying slavery could the U.S. government eliminate what had caused secession and war in the first place.
But if saving the United States brought freedom to black people, it also ensured the freedom of whites.
While secessionists believed that the United States was a compact that could be broken by the individual states that created it, Americans who adhered to the United States during the Civil War believed that the Union of the states was perpetual. They considered the secession of the slave-holding states following Abraham Lincoln’s election not only unconstitutional but also a direct threat to the success of the experiment in self-government, not just in America but around the world. By rejecting the results of an election, secessionists undermined the concept established by the American Revolution that the People are capable of governing themselves. The citizens of a republic, Unionists contended, do not need a king to rule over them, because they are capable of selecting their own leaders — and peacefully abiding by the decision of the majority.
Unionists, north and south, equated secession with anarchy and eventual despotism. The rejection by secessionists of Lincoln’s constitutional election presented a mortal threat to freedom, they believed. If every time the loser of an election seceded, where would it end? Unionists feared that the United States would splinter into ever-smaller pieces, wracked by perpetual civil war — conditions ripe for the emergence of a dictator. As Abraham Lincoln observed, “The central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy.”
For Lincoln, the future of democracy was at stake. “Our popular government has often been called an experiment,” he said in 1861. The people had proven they could successfully establish a government, and now they needed to prove they could maintain it “against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it. It is now for them to demonstrate to the world that those who can fairly carry an election can also suppress a rebellion.”
Echoing his predecessor Andrew Jackson, who told South Carolina in 1832 that “disunion by armed force is treason,” Lincoln spoke of secessionists trying to “sugar coat” treason under the guise of states’ rights. Like his predecessor George Washington, who told the Whiskey rebels in 1794 that elections, not arms, were the way to settle disputes, Lincoln declared that “ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets; and that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided, there can be no successful appeal back to bullets.”
Defending these principles of self-government prompted Unionists to deliver the fatal blow against slavery. When it became clear that there could be no permanent Union without eliminating what had triggered secession, the United States freed the slaves, ensuring that slavery would never again threaten government of, by, and for the people. As one Union officer wrote at the end of the war, the soldiers of the United States had “the proud satisfaction that it has been our privilege to live and take part in the struggle that has decided for all time to come that Republics are not a failure.”
By producing victory for the United States and preserving a unified American republic, the events in Georgia 150 years ago sounded the death-knell of slavery, repudiated the doctrine of secession, and produced what Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom.” Each time we recite the Pledge of Allegiance — “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” — we reaffirm the continued relevance of the Civil War in our lives. Because of what happened here in 1864, the nation that in the 20th century was a beacon of liberty for millions of immigrants, defended civilization against the Nazis, and stemmed the tide of Communism did “not perish from the earth.”
W. Todd Groce, Ph.D., is president and CEO of the Georgia Historical Society and the author and co-editor of two books on the Civil War era. The GHS recently collaborated with the Atlanta History Center, Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and Digital Library of Georgia to digitize archival collections related to the Civil War in Georgia for a project called America’s Turning Point: Documenting the Civil War Experience in Georgia.
Kelly Caudle of the New Georgia Encyclopedia provides editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.