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He had a lot of nerve to come riding into town like that

In November of 1864, having occupied Atlanta for a little over two months, William Sherman left the city to continue his march to the sea. About three miles out, he paused briefly and gazed back at Atlanta. Years later he wrote of that moment, “Behind us lay Atlanta smoldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in the air and hanging like a pall over the ruined city.” And though Sherman’s destruction of Atlanta had received help from a retreating Confederate army, there is no question that what Sherman left behind was less than the shell of a once promising community.

In the Spring of 1864 about 22,000 people lived in Atlanta, only 3,000 remained at the time Sherman entered the city and all of them had been ordered to leave during Sherman’s occupation. The spectacle that greeted the citizens who returned after Sherman left must have been shocking. Gone were the railroad lines that had fostered Atlanta’s phenomenal growth, so to the Union train station, the railroad roundhouse, the rolling mill factory, the arsenal shops and the cannon factory, along with every building within a quarter mile of the Confederate exploded munitions train. Of the 3,600 homes that surrounded the city, only 400 remained.

The destruction of buildings and property were the easily recognized manifestations of a defeated city. What was soon to be discovered was the utter and complete debilitation of the city’s infrastructure. As John Bell Hood’s army made its hasty retreat out of Atlanta and ahead of Sherman’s army, his soldiers had looted anything they could carry. For his part, Sherman had used the two month occupation of Atlanta to resupply his army before destroying Atlanta’s capability to wage another war. And when he left, nothing of use remained. No animals, no food, no growing crops, no hardware, no wagons…nothing but ruins.

What is even more remarkable is that only two years after the end of the Civil War, the population of Atlanta had swelled to 20,000 determined people. Over the next decade Atlantans, propelled forward with a new found sense of destiny, would rebuild their railroad system which, in turn, would fuel a city bigger and better than it was before the war. And from that rebuilt infrastructure, Atlanta would become known as the “Gate City.”

And it was in January of 1879 that Atlantans welcomed, with enthusiasm, a special visitor to the “Gate City.” A visitor that is the subject of this week’s Stories of Atlanta.

Lance Russell

Lance Russell is an Atlanta-based filmmaker and media communicator who, for over three decades, has been entrusted by clients to tell their stories. A seasoned producer with an innate ability to cut to the heart of the matter, Lance’s instincts are tailor-made for today’s “media bite” culture. Brief, poignant and always entertaining, Lance’s current passion is bringing Atlanta’s colorful and inspiring past to life with his “rest of the story” style video series, Stories of Atlanta. “History’s best communicators,” says Lance, “have always been storytellers. It’s in our DNA. ‘Once upon a time’ is how we got to where we are now.”


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  1. donThomas September 7, 2015 8:15 pm

    I suspect that W.T. Sherman may have been impressed with the imposing 6-story, 500 room hotel which replaced The Atlanta Hotel that had been there in 1864. The Kimball House Hotel was erected just northwest of and parallel to the railroad tracks serving Union Station. It would have been the original 1870 Kimball House House that greeted Sherman in 1879 that was constructed of brick and panted bright yellow with brown trim; kind of hard to miss, I think, among the soot laden buildings near the station. The hotel was the first building in Atlanta to have elevators and central heat and an impressive four-story open-air atrium filled with plants.The original hotel.was destroyed by a fire started from an unattended cigar on August 12, 1883. The second Kimball House Hotel was built on the same spot. The new fire proof.hotel opened on New Year’s Day 1885. The only thing as destructive as fire to the old buildings of downtown Atlanta is the inevitable parking decks such as the one that replaced the second Kimball House Hotel n 1959 and still operable to this day.Report

  2. Lance Russell September 7, 2015 10:10 pm

    donThomas The Kimball House (both of them) is one of Atlanta’s many lost treasures.  Thanks Don for bringing it to life on this page.  My hope is that one day I can produce a video about H.I. Kimball.  Though Atlanta has a city history filled with bigger-than-life individuals, I don’t think we’ll find anyone more interesting and more contradictory than Hannibal Kimball.Report

  3. Chad Carlson September 11, 2015 9:24 am

    For the best book on Sherman and Atlanta check out “What the Yankees Did to Us” by Stephen Davis. The title belies the excellent scholarship.Report

  4. Heath Harvey September 11, 2015 3:36 pm

    Program on GPB last night said that Sherman was welcomed by most, with some thanking him for getting rid of all the old buildings so they could start anew.Report

  5. James Burns September 12, 2015 7:22 am

    Copyedit: “Cities,” not “citied.”Report


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