It is most fitting that Atlanta in the 21st century is an international gateway and transportation hub. The city was conceived as a rail crossroads for travel north, south, east, and west, and its role as a strategic junction has always figured largely in its destiny. It all began with a peach tree.
In 1826, surveyors first suggested this area of Georgia as a practical spot for a railroad connecting the state with northern markets. This was not yet the heyday of railroads, and the report was more or less ignored for a decade. But in 1837, the state legislature approved an act establishing the Western & Atlantic Railroad here. Look for the marker known as Zero Milepost when you visit Underground Atlanta; this marks the W & A Railroad site around which the city grew. The new town was unimaginatively dubbed "Terminus," but future governor Alexander H. Stephens, visiting what was still dense forest in 1839, predicted that "a magnificent inland city will at no distant date be built here."
The Trail of Tears
One aspect of the city's inception, however, was far from magnificent. In the early 1800s, most of Georgia was still Native American territory. White settlers coveted the Cherokee and Creek lands because they wanted to expedite the building of the railroad and further expand their settlements. Throughout the 1820s, in order to keep the peace, Native American leaders signed numerous treaties ceding millions of acres. They adopted a democratic form of government similar to the white man's, complete with a constitution and Supreme Court; erected schools and shops; built farms; and accepted Christianity. But the white frontiers-people cared little whether the Native Americans adapted -- they wanted them to leave.
With President Andrew Jackson's support, Congress passed a bill in 1830 forcing all southern tribes to move to lands hundreds of miles away on the other side of the Mississippi River. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the order, Jackson ignored the ruling and backed the Georgia settlers. In 1832, the state gave away Cherokee farms in a land lottery, and the white settlers used guns to force the Cherokee off their land. In 1837, 17,000 Native Americans were rounded up by federal soldiers, herded into camps, and forced on a cruel westward march called the "Trail of Tears." Some 4,000 died on the 800-mile journey to Oklahoma, and those who survived suffered bitterly from cold, hunger, and disease. Terminus and its surroundings were now firmly in the hands of the white settlers.
A City Grows
Terminus soon began its evolution from a sleepy rural hamlet to a thriving city, a meeting point of major rail lines. In 1843, the town was renamed Marthasville, for ex-governor Wilson Lumpkin's daughter Martha. No one in Marthasville took note in 1844 when a 23-year-old army lieutenant, William Tecumseh Sherman, was stationed for 2 months in their area, but the knowledge he gained of local geography would vitally affect the city's history 2 decades later. The first locomotive, the Kentucky, chugged into town in 1845, and shortly thereafter, the name Marthasville was deemed too provincial for a burgeoning metropolis. J. Edgar Thomson, the railroad's chief engineer, suggested Atlanta (a feminized form of Atlantic).
In 1848, the newly incorporated city held its first mayoral election, an event marked by dozens of street brawls. Moses W. Formwalt, a maker of stills and member of the Free and Rowdy Party, was elected over temperance candidate John Norcross. But if Atlanta was a bit of a wild frontier town, it also had civic pride. An 1849 newspaper overstated things poetically:
Atlanta, the greatest spot in all the nation, The greatest place for legislation, Or any other occupation, The very center of creation.
Storm Clouds Gather: Antebellum Atlanta
By the middle of the 19th century, the 31-state nation was in the throes of a westward expansion, and the institution of slavery was the major issue of the day. In his 1858 debate with Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln declared, "This government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free." A year later it was obvious that only a war would resolve the issue. In 1861 (a year that began dramatically in Atlanta -- with an earthquake), Georgia legislators voted for secession and joined the Confederacy.
In peacetime, the railroads had fashioned Atlanta into a center of commerce. In wartime, this transportation hub would emerge as a major Confederate military post and supply center -- the vital link between Confederate forces in Tennessee and Virginia. Atlanta made the following ridiculous bid to become the capital of the Confederacy: "The city has good railroad connections, is free from yellow fever, and can supply the most wholesome foods and, as for 'goobers,' an indispensable article for a Southern legislator, we have them all the time." The lure of plentiful peanuts notwithstanding, the Confederacy chose Richmond, Virginia, as its capital. However, from early on, federal forces saw Atlanta's destruction as essential to Northern victory.
A City Burns
Atlanta served as not only a major Southern supply depot, but also the medical center of the Confederacy. Throughout the city, buildings were hastily converted into makeshift hospitals and clinics, and trains pulled into town daily to disgorge sick and wounded soldiers. By 1862, close to 4,000 soldiers were convalescing here, and the medical crisis was further aggravated by a smallpox epidemic.
That same year, Union spy James J. Andrews and a group of Northern soldiers disguised as civilians seized a locomotive called the General, with the aim of blocking supply lines by destroying tracks and bridges behind them. A wild train chase ensued, and the raiders were caught and punished (most, including Andrews, were executed). The episode came to be known as the "Great Locomotive Chase," one of the stirring stories of the Civil War and the subject of two subsequent movies. Today, you can see the General on display at the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History.
The locomotive chase was an Atlanta victory, but the Northern desire to destroy the Confederacy's supply link remained intact. In 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant ordered Major General William T. Sherman to "move against Johnston's army to break it up, and get into the interior of the enemy's country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their resources." Georgians had great faith that the able and experienced General Joseph E. Johnston, whom they called "Old Joe," would repel the Yankees. As Sherman's Georgia campaign got underway, an overly optimistic editorial in the Intelligencer scoffed at the notion of federal conquest, claiming "we have no fear of the results, for General Johnston and his great and invincible satellites are working out the problem of battle and victory at the great chess board at the front." Johnston himself was not as sanguine. Sherman had 100,000 men to Johnston's 60,000, and the Union troops were better armed.
By July, Sherman was forcing the Confederate troops back, and Atlanta's fall seemed a foregone conclusion; Johnston informed Confederate President Jefferson Davis that he was outnumbered almost two to one and was in a defensive position. His candid assessment was not appreciated, and Davis removed him from command, replacing him with the pugnacious 32-year-old General John Bell Hood. The change of leadership only further demoralized the ranks, and Sherman openly rejoiced when he heard the news.
Some disgruntled Confederate soldiers deserted. Hood abandoned the defensive tactics of Johnston, aggressively assaulting his opponent. His policy cost thousands of troops and gained nothing. In the Battle of Peachtree Creek on July 20, 1864, Union casualties totaled 1,710; Confederate, 4,796. Throughout the summer, the city suffered a full-scale artillery assault. More than 8,000 Confederates perished in the Battle of Atlanta on July 22, while Union deaths totaled just 3,722. The Confederates lost another 5,000 men during hours of fierce fighting on July 28, while the Yankees lost just 600. The Yankees further paralyzed the city by ripping up train rails, heating them over huge bonfires, and twisting them around trees into useless spirals of mangled iron that came to be known as "Sherman's neckties." The most devastating bombardment came on August 9 -- "that red day . . . when all the fires of hell, and all the thunders of the universe, seemed to be blazing and roaring over Atlanta."
By September 1, when Hood's troops pulled out of the area, first setting fire to vast stores of ammunition (and anything else that might benefit the Yankees), the town was in turmoil. Its roads were crowded with evacuees, and its hospitals, hotels, and private residences were flooded with wounded men. Crime and looting were rife, and food was almost unavailable; the price of a ham-and-eggs breakfast with coffee soared to $25. Rooftops were ripped off houses and buildings, there were huge craters in the streets, and many civilians were dead. The railroads were in Sherman's hands.
On September 2, Mayor James M. Calhoun, carrying a white flag to the nearest federal unit, officially surrendered the city. The U.S. Army entered and occupied Atlanta, raising the Stars and Stripes at city hall for the first time in 4 years. Claiming he needed the city for military purposes, Sherman ordered all residents to evacuate. Atlantans piled their household goods on wagons, abandoned their homes and businesses, and became refugees. Before departing Atlanta in November, Union troops leveled railroad facilities and burned the city, leaving it a wasteland -- defunct as a military center and practically uninhabitable. The Yankees marched out of the city to the strains of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
As of January 1865, there was $1.64 in the treasury, the railroad system was destroyed, and most of the city was burned to the ground.
A City Rebuilds
Slowly, exiled citizens began to trickle back into Atlanta. Confederate money had become worthless. At the inauguration of his second term in 1865, Lincoln pledged "malice toward none, charity for all" -- but after his assassination later that year, this policy was replaced with one of harsh Republican vengeance. It wasn't until 1876 that federal troops were withdrawn and Atlanta was freed from military occupation.
Still, the city was making a remarkable recovery. Like the ever-resilient Scarlett O'Hara ("It takes more than Yankees or a burning to keep me down"), Atlanta rolled up its sleeves and began rebuilding. A Northern newspaper reported, "From all this ruin and devastation a new city is springing up . . . the streets are alive from morning till night with drays and carts and hand-barrows and wagons . . . with loads of lumber and loads of brick."
In the years after the war, Atlanta was filled with carpetbaggers (Northern adventurers and politicians who went south to take advantage of the unsettled postwar conditions) and other adventurers hoping to turn a quick buck, and with them came gambling houses, brothels, and saloons. But the city also boasted hundreds of new stores and businesses, churches, schools, banks, hotels, theaters, and a new newspaper, the Atlanta Constitution. The railroads began operating again. In 1867, African Americans chartered Atlanta University, today the world's largest predominantly black institution of higher learning. Newspaper editor Henry Grady, Atlanta's biggest civic booster, inspired readers with his vision of an industrialized and culturally advanced "New South." A new constitution in 1877 made Atlanta the permanent capital of the state of Georgia. Two years later, General Sherman visited the city he had destroyed and was welcomed with a ball and, lest he get any funny ideas, a grand military review.
In 1886, a new headache cure was introduced to the city -- a syrup made from the coca leaf and the kola nut, which would eventually become the world's most renowned beverage, Coca-Cola. Atlanta adopted the symbol of a phoenix rising from the ashes for its official seal in 1888 and, the following year, dedicated the gold-domed state capitol and opened a zoo in Grant Park. Piedmont Park was built in 1904 as the site of the Cotton States and International Exposition -- a $2.5-million world's fair-like extravaganza with entertainment ranging from Buffalo Bill and His Wild West Show to reconstructed "international villages." Former slave Booker T. Washington gave a landmark address, and John Philip Sousa composed the "King Cotton March" to mark the event.
The 20th Century
At the turn of the 20th century, Atlanta's population was 90,000, a figure that more than doubled 2 decades later. Though a massive fire destroyed almost 2,000 buildings in 1917, the city was on a course of rapid growth. In 1929, Atlanta opened its first airport on the site of today's Hartsfield International, presaging the growth of a major air-travel industry. The same year, Delta Air Lines took to the skies and became Atlanta's home carrier.
Margaret Mitchell's blockbuster Civil War epic, Gone With the Wind, which went on to become the world's second-best-selling book (after the Bible) and the basis for domestically the biggest-grossing picture of all time (when adjusted for inflation), was published in 1936. Louis B. Mayer turned down a chance to make the film version for MGM, because "no Civil War picture ever made a nickel."
A grimmer legacy of the Civil War and the institution of slavery was racial strife, and the early years of the 20th century were marked by violent race riots. Atlanta University professor W. E. B. Du Bois founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, in 1900. In 1939, black cast members were unable to attend the glamorous première of Gone With the Wind because the theater was segregated. And as late as 1960, segregation in Atlanta (as everywhere in the South) was still firmly entrenched and backed by state law. Unlike much of the South, though, the city adopted a progressive attitude regarding race relations. Even before the civil rights movement, there were hints of tolerance -- the hiring of black police officers, the election of a black professional to the Atlanta Board of Education, the desegregation of a public golf course in 1955, and, in 1959, the desegregation of public transit. Mayor Bill Hartsfield (who held office for almost 3 decades) called Atlanta "a city too busy to hate." And his successor, Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr., called on Atlantans to face race problems "and seek the answers in an atmosphere of decency and dignity."
Atlanta peacefully desegregated its public schools and the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1961. Atlanta native Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., headquartered his Southern Christian Leadership Conference here and made Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he was a copastor with his father, a hub of the civil rights movement. In 1974, Atlanta inaugurated its first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, and, following a term by another black mayor, Andrew Young, Jackson was reelected.
In 1966, Atlanta went big league when the Braves and the Falcons came to town. And Atlantans went wild in 1974, when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's home-run record here.
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