The Battle of Atlanta and the forging of modern politics

By Tom Baxter

In military terms, the engagements which took place here 149 years ago Monday marked one more indecisive but ultimately fateful turn in the bloody Civil War campaign to capture this city. Atlanta didn’t fall to Union troops until Sept. 2, 1864, although there was no more major fighting. The conflict on July 22, which took the lives of more than 9,000 men, including a general each side, was recorded in history as the Battle of Atlanta.

Politically, few battles have had as immediate, or as lasting an impact as this battle and the larger campaign of which it was the centerpiece.

Re-election to the presidency wasn’t common in American politics when Abraham Lincoln ran for a second term in the war year of 1864. The last president to accomplish the feat had been Andrew Jackson in 1832. There were no polls in that day but the consensus is that if there had been, Gen. George B. McClellan, the Democratic peace candidate, would have been leading Lincoln throughout most of the year, as the staggering increase in casualties eroded support for the war. Lincoln faced a challenge within his own party as well, from Sen. John C. Fremont of California and the radical Republicans.

More than a year after the Union’s victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Lincoln desperately needed proof that the stubborn conflict could at last be brought to a conclusion. It came with the capture of the young city which constituted as much of a rail hub as there was, in a region where the governors had spent the years before the war vetoing railroad expansion proposals.

We think of the news as very obviously connected to elections, but the flow of information was so slow and erratic before this time that things didn’t work in the same way they did afterwards. This was the first big-news election, and the big news was the fall of Atlanta.
“The impact of this event cannot be exaggerated,” historian James M. McPherson writes in “Battle Cry of Freedom,” his one-volume history of the Civil War. “Cannons boomed in 100-gun salutes in northern cities. Newspapers that had bedeviled (Gen. William T.) Sherman for years now praised him as the greatest general since Napoleon.” The news literally took the thunder out of McClellan’s Democratic Convention acceptance speech, as well.

The Republican strategist Lee Atwater was keenly interested in the way Lincoln employed the railroads to deliver the news of the victory, particularly to the troops themselves in various theaters of the war. This was the first presidential election in which absentee military voting was employed, and it had a huge impact on the outcome.

Lincoln won the election in large part because he won the support of his troops, who talked politics to pass idle hours in camp that year and cemented their support for the president who vowed to carry the war on to a successful conclusion. That backbone of support for Republican candidates by veterans of the Grand Old Army would become a dominant feature of national politics for decades to come. The GOA eventually transposed into the GOP.

Earlier this year I joined an eclectic group of Civil War buffs for a tour of Battle of Atlanta sites led by Daniel Pollock, a CDC doctor with a passion for Civil War history, and organized by novelist Charles McNair. Emory University’s Southern  Spaces website is working on an online version of the tour Pollock gives, and it should be worth investigating. Amid the busy corners and back streets of the city, Pollock is adept at tracing the course of the South’s last, desperate effort to pull off the kind of daring offensive that had worked so gloriously at Chancellorsville, but fell apart in the woods and hills of what is now Southeast Atlanta.

Early in the afternoon of that day, Confederate Gen. William Walker, a Georgian, was killed when the lead units of Hardee’s Night March, an attempt at encircling the Union army to the east of the city barged into two deployed Union divisions. In the confused fighting which continued later, Union Gen. James Birdseye McPherson, stumbled into a Confederate-controlled area, refused to surrender and was shot as he attempted to ride away.
This was a politically significant event as well, though how things might how played out otherwise, there’s no telling. In that violent conflict it’s hard to find many figures who drew as much admiration from both sides of the battlefield as McPherson. Sherman, viewing the bombardment of the city from the current site of the Carter Center, is said to have gotten off his horse and cried at the news of his death, and Gen. John B. Hood, his Confederate adversary, noted with sadness the death of “my classmate and boyhood friend.” The capable and respected officer, who had supervised the construction of Alcatraz before the war, had already been talked up as a future presidential candidate, and his death represented, for the Union, one of the most dramatic moments of the war.

The East Atlanta monument near the spot where McPherson died is an Atlanta landmark  worth visiting. Could one good man have made a difference in the corruption-ridden post-war period? Would a general who drew criticism and praise for his kind treatment of civilians at Vicksburg have proved more able to bring the country back together?

We’ll never know, because on the day when a new era of politics driven by rapid communication of the latest events began to dawn, the gleaming promise of William Birdseye McPherson came to an end.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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