By Ken Denney
"Do you mean to tell me, Katie Scarlett O'Hara, that
Tara, that land, doesn't mean anything to you? Why, land's
the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting
for, worth dying for, because it's the only thing that lasts."
-- Thomas Mitchell as "Gerald O'Hara"
David O. Selznick's Gone With The Wind (1939)
The guides at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park near Atlanta tell a story. During the 1930s, back before there was a park, the federal government was buying parcels of land around the historic Civil War site. One farmer's property particularly interested them, for on it stood a massive earthen fort in good preservation, one of only a handful of surviving relics from the highly significant, yet often underrated, 1864 Atlanta Campaign. For months government agents made offers, but the farmer refused to sell. The more the agents persisted, the deeper the farmer dug in his heels. Finally, he cranked up a bulldozer and leveled the fort, destroying in an hour a piece of history that had weathered a century. The crusty descendant of Confederate veterans couldn't allow the government to tell him what to do.
Today, strip malls and subdivisions dot the lands where the Union Army battled the armies of the Confederacy during the Atlanta Campaign. The traces of this conflict are quickly being erased by urban sprawl. To the dismay of historians wishing to slow, if not stop, this process, Southerners, the very people who have the greatest reason to preserve these sites, are responsible for their destruction.
In Columbia, in Atlanta, in Jackson, Southerners rally to defend a symbol of their "Southern Heritage"-- the Confederate Battle Flag. Arguments abound in regard to the fate of the controversial flag. Another more tangible symbol of that same Southern heritage--the very land sanctified by Confederate blood--remains underappreciated but apparently not undervalued. Descendants of those Confederate soldiers are selling their true Southern heritage, the land, for Yankee dollars.
In the spring of 1864, Gen. Ulysses Grant, commander of all the federal forces, implemented a strategy that no Union commander before him had attempted. The Confederate forces were concentrated in two regions only, north and south. Grant devised coordinated attacks on both. Grant supervised the actions against Robert E. Lee's northern Confederate forces. William T. Sherman simultaneously attacked the southern Confederate force commanded by Joseph E. Johnston.
No prior Union commander had attempted such a coordinated, strategic assault on the Confederacy. As a result, the Confederate armies had been able to survive, even as the Confederacy continued to lose territory. The persistence of the Confederates had almost exhausted the federal treasury and sapped the will of the North. Lincoln faced another election in 1864 that he was certain he would lose. His opponent, Gen. George McClellan, would almost certainly end the war if elected, perhaps by negotiating a peace that recognized the Confederate states as a new republic.
Northern pessimism grew that year as spring turned into summer. Lee stalemated the federal armies in the North; Johnston teasingly led Sherman deep into the Georgia interior, avoiding a fight and drawing on the calendar as an ally. But Johnston, unloved by his government, his tactics disputed, was replaced by John Bell Hood, who was no match for Sherman. The fate of the Union was decided in September 1864, when Sherman captured Atlanta. Lincoln was re-elected and the war continued. Atlanta's fall ended Southern hopes for victory. Lee's struggle against Grant served only to delay the inevitable.
The Atlanta Campaign began in early May 1864 in the foothills above Dalton, Ga., and ended four months later with the Confederate evacuation of Atlanta. Today, Interstate 75 roughly traces the route of Sherman's and Johnston's attempts to outmaneuver each other. Sherman's force of about 100,000 men ranged all over the countryside, engaged in a deadly dance with Johnston's 65,000 men. Johnston, a skilled tactician whose goal was to preserve his army, had hoped to outmaneuver Sherman, catch some part of the federal commander's scattered force by surprise, and smash it. The result was a series of engagements throughout north and west Georgia--land now the prime target of developers and people who want the comforts of suburban life.
Today, a person driving through Cobb County will see numerous historical markers alongside the busy roads. Chances are, however, that he wouldn't stop to read them, even if he wanted to. The markers are staked alongside busy roadways and cluttered shopping centers. The places where troops marched or stopped to rest--or to bleed and die--are, as often as not, paved over, their spaces enclosed by giant buildings. Only the sites of major engagements remain somewhat protected, though new development crowds in around them.
While it is true that the story of the Civil War is told by the outcomes of singular battles, it may not be necessary to save every trail and every earthwork related to the war. Other battlefields may be more easily circumscribed into definite boundaries. The Atlanta Campaign, however, is different from any other campaign; by contrast it was nothing short of a slugfest. The two forces were engaged virtually every day for four months. June 1864 saw 22 consecutive days of rain, yet the armies fought on, contesting virtually every inch of what is now the Dallas Highway in west Cobb.
In reality, the entire route of the Atlanta Campaign is a single battlefield. Yet it has been so broken up by development that the significance of the Campaign may be lost to historians and to others who think only of the combats of Lee and Grant.
Unlike modern war, the Civil War was fought on foot and horseback. Weapons of limited range required the soldiers to get close, almost face to face, to kill one another. Features of landscape proved highly significant. Hills, for example. A cannon placed on a hill could damage the enemy severely, keeping him away. Rivers, creeks and forests tangled up columns of troops, causing them to delay their march or break their cohesion. Sherman and Johnston equally used landscape features to their full tactical advantage.
Lines of blue and red ink on a map of the Atlanta Campaign trace the meandering paths of the two armies. Why did the commanders take those paths? A person wishing to solve that mystery might go out to the places marked on the map but find no answer. The commanders moved their armies to gain the greatest tactical advantage of the landscape features available to them--features now replaced by an acre of asphalt, a grocery store, or a subdivision with a cute Saxon name. In some instances, the destruction of a vital landscape feature makes it utterly impossible to understand the progress of a battle. In the Battle of Dallas, for example, a planned coordinated attack by the Confederates against a Union force failed. Why?
A Confederate brigade was to attack a federal force no one had seen. If the brigade met little resistance, it was to fire four quick cannon shots as a signal for other forces to attack. If there was heavy resistance, no signal would be fired.
The ground where the Federals lay was unusual. When the first Confederate brigade moved in, an acoustical freak of the landscape amplified the sound of the firing. One of the units waiting to attack heard the noise and assumed the general attack was under way. They had not heard the four-gun signal. The unit moved in and was mowed down by the well-entrenched Federal forces. Some of the best troops in the Confederate army died simply because of a trick of landscape and acoustics. The site of that battle has been utterly erased, the field and its unique features bulldozed away.
Currently only a few disjointed islands of preservation remain to tell the story of the Atlanta Campaign. The physical links that denote their importance to one another have been paved over or plowed under. Students must now rely on history books--books written by people who never saw the landscape or who remembered it poorly--to learn the story of their heritage.
Even sites set aside for preservation are in jeopardy. A new residential area--with a faux city square--has been planned for the land around Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park. People continue to crowd in, features continue to disappear. Whether anyone will be able to study and understand the heritage of the war remains an open question.
Why is this happening? In large part, the people selling land to developers, or developing it themselves, are descendants of Confederate veterans. Some are descendants of Union veterans who returned to Georgia after the war to settle on sites that had been transfixed in their memories. Those who own historical lands hold them in trust for future generations. In theory, at least. In reality, the lure of money quickly overwhelms any sense of this obligation. Too often, morality ends where prosperity begins.
This feature of human nature presents a special irony. Without question, the barbarism of slavery sundered our nation, leaving two sides to war against each other for very different sets of ideals. The motivation of individual soldiers proved a different matter. Whether he owned slaves or not, the individual Southern soldier fought to insure that no federal government should be able to tell him what to do or how to live. The old farmer who would not sell his fort to the National Park Service was their true son.
Today, the federal government and other agencies--even Southern agencies--strive as determinedly as ever to preserve historical sites. But the nature of the Southerners who own those sites has not changed. They remain in rebellion, unreconstructed individualists who insist no one can tell them how to use their own property.
This attitude led Southerners into the Civil War; this attitude is causing them to lose the relics of that war. The Southerners who loudly cry for preservation of the "symbols" of their Confederate legacy are the same ones selling off the tangible remains of that legacy as so much real estate.
As Walt Kelly might have said, "We have met the enemy..." And he has a Southern accent.
Ken Denney is a writer and former journalist who works for an Atlanta public relations agency. He is also an amateur historian who has extensively studied the Atlanta campaign. Send e-mail to: email@example.com.
This article first appeared in Waysouth.