We have just passed the 150th anniversary of the Battle for Atlanta, which occurred during the recent unpleasantness between the North and the South. The historic marker next to the UGA arch on that hallowed school’s North Campus correctly refers to the struggle as the War for Southern Independence, but don’t tell anybody because we will have activists picketing from can to can’t if they realize that’s what the marker actually says.
Everybody and his twin brother Tom have asked me why I haven’t written about the sesquicentennial of that historic event. My response? Why should I?
Truth be known, it wasn’t all that much of a battle as battles go. I don’t mean to sound like a heretic of Southern history, but by the time Jefferson Davis replaced Joe Johnston with John Bell Hood, the fall of Atlanta was a foregone conclusion. It was sort of like the question, “When will the next high-profile college football player be arrested?” It is not a matter of “if,” but “when.”
Please note that I did not say Georgia football player. Every school has its knuckleheads. We just punish ours more diligently, thus making them available to the schools that compete against us.
But we were talking about the fall of Atlanta. The political ramifications were much more consequential than the military results. When Atlanta fell, so did former Gen. George B. McClellan’s chances of becoming president of the United States. McClellan was running as the “peace candidate” on the Democratic ticket. Gen. Sherman’s victory in Atlanta effectively doused McClellan’s fire, so to speak, as a candidate.
Now understand, I appreciate the efforts of our gallant boys in gray — or butternut, as it were — as much as the next person, but am a lot more interested in what happened in the aftermath of Sherman’s ashes than in the day Miss Pittypat and Scarlett O’Hara fled Atlanta in advance of the Union army’s advance.
I would much rather talk about Henry Grady than Sherman, Hood or even the fictitious Rhett Butler.
Henry W. Grady was only 14 years old on the day that Atlanta fell. An Athens native, Grady’s father was a Confederate officer, but was serving with Lee in Virginia in 1864 and not in defense of his native state. He would die at Petersburg, later in that same year.
Young Grady would go on to attend and graduate from the University of Georgia — hallowed be thy name — and become a newspaperman and the No. 1 proponent of what would be called the “New South Movement.” He introduced the term in New York City, of all places, when he was invited to speak to the illustrious New England Society in 1886. Grady urged Northerners to invest money in his “new South,” and he urged his fellow Southerners to diversify agriculturally and to embrace a moderate amount of industry. He often pointed out the folly of Southerners sending their vast resources to the northern states and foreign lands, only to buy them back after they had been processed — at greatly inflated prices.
He loved to tell the story about the Georgia fellow who was buried “in the midst of a marble quarry: they cut through solid marble to make his grave; and yet a little tombstone they put above him was from Vermont. They buried him in the heart of a pine forest, and yet the pine coffin was imported from Cincinnati. They buried him within touch of an iron mine, and yet the nails in his coffin and the iron in the shovel that dug his grave were imported from Pittsburgh. They buried him by the side of the best sheep-grazing country on the earth, and yet the wool in the coffin bands and the coffin bands themselves were brought from the North. The South didn’t furnish a thing on earth for that funeral but the corpse and the hole in the ground.”
Grady once spoke at a dinner in which General Sherman, himself, was in attendance. Grady was said to have lauded Sherman as a right competent military man who was “right careless with fire.”
But he was also said to have invited Sherman to come to Atlanta and see that out of his ashes the people of Georgia had created a brave and beautiful new city.
I think that is more remarkable, 150 years later, than what happened on July 22 in 1864. The good people of Georgia in general, and of Atlanta in particular, have experienced more than our share of ups and downs over the past century and a half, but I truly believe that we have achieved Henry Grady’s dream by becoming the capital of the New South. I am proud to hail from the North Georgia Piedmont and rather than dwell on the past, would much rather look to the future.
Now, when it comes time to write about Sherman’s March to the Sea, in December, you might find me singing a slightly different tune. Some things a true Southerner just doesn’t forget.