“Atlanta is ours, & fairly won.” This dispatch from General William T. Sherman on September 3, 1864, set off wild celebrations in the North. A prominent New Yorker wrote in his diary: “Glorious news this morning—Atlanta taken at last!!!…it is (coming at this political crisis) the greatest event of the war.”1 President Abraham Lincoln ordered a salute of one hundred guns to be fired in no fewer than eight cities. From the siege lines at Petersburg, Virginia, General Ulysses S. Grant informed Sherman that “in honor of your great victory I have ordered a salute to be fired with shotted guns from every battery bearing upon the enemy.”
Southern dejection mirrored Northern elation. “The disaster at Atlanta,” lamented the Richmond Examiner, came “in the very nick of time” to “save the party of Lincoln from irretrievable ruin.” A North Carolinian wrote: “Never until now did I feel hopeless but since God seems to have forsaken us I despair.” The famous Confederate diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut foresaw the doom of her new nation: “Since Atlanta I have felt as if all were dead within me…. We are going to be wiped off the face of the earth.”2
The fall of Atlanta did indeed portend the end of the Confederacy seven months later. By assuring Lincoln’s re-election, this Northern victory proved to be the final and most important turning point of the Civil War. It also offered the most graphic illustration of the Siamese-twin connection between military and political events, between the battlefront and the home front. The famous maxim of the nineteenth- century military theorist Karl von Clausewitz defined war as the continuation of politics by other means. In the American Civil War, especially in 1864, politics was the continuation of war by other means. No other country before World War II held general elections in the midst of war. Twice in the twentieth century, Britain canceled elections because of wartime emergencies.
The American experiment of holding an election during a civil war whose result would determine the nation’s very existence is surely unique. But the constitutional requirement for quadrennial presidential elections is inflexible. No one in 1864 proposed to cancel or postpone the polling, even though the government’s prospects for reelection appeared dim until the capture of Atlanta. As Lincoln himself explained: “We can not have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.”3
As the year 1864 opened, Northern prospects for winning the war before the November elections appeared bright. Victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and elsewhere in the latter half of 1863 left Union armies poised for campaigns to crush out the last vestiges of Confederate resistance. Lincoln appointed Grant general in chief. Grant took charge of operations in Virginia and put Sherman in command of the army group to invade Georgia. Many in the North believed the war would be over by…
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