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Atlanta Civil War

Where is the best place to immerse myself in Atlanta Civil War history?

Battle of Peachtree CreekThe Battle of Peachtree Creek marker is in a residential neighborhood and on the BeltLine. It played a critical part of the Atlanta Civil War story.

Two words usually come to mind when you think of Atlanta: Civil War. I can’t tell you if this is a good or bad thing, but the fact remains, Atlanta played a pivotal role in the Civil War and the Civil War really did make Atlanta what it is today. 

People come from all over to trace the Atlanta Civil War history. The entire state of Georgia is filled with the ghosts of this tragic episode in American history which killed nearly 750,000 Americans.

The Civil War fascinates so many people, but it also can be overwhelming. There are national parks, battlefields, memorials, museums and markers all over Atlanta and surrounding areas. On this page I’ll help you learn about and navigate:

Atlanta Civil War - The Battle of Atlanta

In the Civil War, The Battle of Atlanta lasted just one day – July 21, 1964. However, that was literally THE Battle of Atlanta. The Atlanta Campaign covered several other battles around the city over several months, culminating in General Sherman’s March to the Sea, where he burned Atlanta to the ground on route to Savannah. All of these battles made the Atlanta Civil War chapter one of the most pivotal in the war.

The Battle of Atlanta was notable for many reasons. The Union Army was within victory of the bloody Civil War but taking Atlanta would be a decisive blow to the Confederate forces and would prove impossible to overcome. The victory boosted the Union’s morale, steeled them for victory and ensured President Abraham Lincoln’s reelection.

And, of course, as noted, it led to the burning of Atlanta and its subsequent rise as the capital of the South. One of the more interesting facts to me is how colossally bad the Confederate general leading the forces was. Military colleges have studied his blunders for years. 

You can learn about these battles in various places in and around Atlanta and the Atlanta Civil War chapter wonderful books about this critical period. 

Atlanta before, during and after the Civil War

Before the Civil War, Atlanta was a fairly minor city. It was one of the smallest cities in the country with only about 10,000 residents. In fact, Atlanta wasn’t even the capital of Georgia – and didn’t become the state capital until Reconstruction after the war. But because of Atlanta’s geographic location – it’s sort of central and western – and with a network of railroad lines, it was ideally suited to serve as the Confederacy’s center for military operations, warehouses, munitions storage and supply lines.

Atlanta was not very glamorous nor considered one of the main cities in the South. The crown jewels of the South – Charleston, S.C., Savannah, New Orleans, and Richmond, Va. – were the most important cities in the South from Colonial times through the War. Even cities in Alabama – not an original Colony – were considered more prestigious. 

But it was precisely because of Atlanta’s strategic base that grew in importance and the Atlanta Civil War story is so important. It was the center of the Confederacy's rail system and munitions manufacturing. During the Civil War, Atlanta became the symbol for the Confederacy’s strength.  It was a must-win for both sides, although in reality, the Confederate army was outmanned, out-maneuvered and out-armed from the get-go. The thorough defeat inflicted on the Confederacy was demoralizing and ensured victory by the Union Army. 

The Battle of Atlanta was one day but fighting occurred throughout the summer and the mayor surrendered September 2, 1864. There’s an historical marker noting this on one of the busiest roads in Atlanta – it’s fairly nondescript. 

After Atlanta fell, its citizens fled, fearing violence by Union troops. Ironically, Confederate forces began burning and blowing up munitions and the major munitions plant to keep them out of Federal hands. 

However, that was NOT the well-known Burning of Atlanta. In November, 1864 Gen. Sherman began his “March to the Sea” to finally take Georgia once and for all and hopefully bring the war to a close. For a month, Sherman led 60,000 soldiers on a 285-mile march, from Atlanta to Savannah, destroying as much as they could along the way.

The goal was to frighten Confederate citizens and force them to abandon their cause. Sherman's forces burned barns, unoccupied homes and other buildings.  They pillaged plantations, taking food and supplies. Any run-ins with Confederate troops went badly for the South – by this point, they were emotionally, financially and materially beaten. While the Union troops needed supplies, they also intended to prove a point. 

Sherman arrived at Savannah on December 22, 1864. The beautiful city had remained unscathed and Sherman spared Savannah and presented it to President Lincoln as a Christmas present. By April, 1865, the Confederacy surrendered. 

After the war, Atlanta became the de facto capital of the South. It officially became the capital of Georgia. And the city literally rose up from the ashes, becoming a hustling and bustling center for building, commerce and trade. The city’s population doubled immediately and by 1900, it had nearly 100,000 residents. While Atlanta was essentially burned to the ground, it grew out of Reconstruction as the leading city in the South – and one of the most important ones in the country. Indeed, the city’s motto is Resurgens – Latin for “to rise again” – and its symbol is the Phoenix. 

Where to find the most important Atlanta Civil War places

You can find Atlanta Civil War signs and markers all over the city. However, unlike many well-known battlegrounds – say, Gettysburg – the Battle of Atlanta is not well-preserved in the city. This is due to a few reasons. 

First, a lot of the battleground areas were technically “outside” the city. Today, they are actually filled by beautiful neighborhoods that arose in the early and middle of part of the 20th Century. There are interesting and informative markers and historical signs all over these neighborhoods – even as they are in playgrounds and parks. Many residents have found ordinance, bullets and other ammunition in their backyards. 

Second, as noted, the city was pretty thoroughly demolished during the end of the war. Immediately following the war, Atlanta was re-built and rose prominently. But both Federal forces and even local leaders didn’t want to linger on the past and actively sought to diminish if not re-write history. This has been an issue in Atlanta for decades – historic preservation was, for a long time, not a priority.

The Surrender of Atlanta is marked on a busy, in-town street by a plaque. It’s one of those things you have to know where to look for to find it. You can find it here.

Surrender of Atlanta PlaqueThe plaque marking the surrender of Atlanta is on a busy street on the Westside of Atlanta.

Atlanta Civil War museums and exhibits

The story of Atlanta Civil War - and indeed one of the finest Civil War museums in the country - is at the Atlanta History Center. It features a permanent exhibit, Turning Point: The American Civil War. The name of the exhibit references both the totality of the war – a true turning point in the history of the United States – and the Battle of Atlanta which definitively and decisively turned the war to victory for the Union. 

Civil War CannonA cannon at the Atlanta History Center. Munitions manufacturing played a big part of the Atlanta Civil War focus.

The exhibit is one of the nation’s largest and tells the story of the Civil War in EXTREME detail from beginning to end. With thousands of artifacts, you could easily spend an entire day in this exhibit alone and never actually get to the end of the war. What I love about this exhibit is it is very academic – it doesn’t gloss over anything and it doesn’t try to make the Civil War about anything other than what it was. 

At the Atlanta History Center you must also visit the Cyclorama, 132-year-old, 360-degree, hand-painted depiction of the Battle of Atlanta. The Cyclorama had been housed elsewhere in Atlanta, but in 2019 it was restored and relocated to the History Center. It is housed in a separate building to accommodate its size – larger than a football field, nearly 50 feet tall and weighing in at 10,000 pounds. 

In the late 19th century, hundreds of cycloramas were created for various reasons; today, only 16 remain worldwide, with four in the United States. And of those, only two are functioning – the Atlanta one and one depicting the Battle of Gettysburg. 

The Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama is a MUST SEE – but it’s important to know some history behind it. When it was created, 22 years after the Battle of Atlanta, it depicted a strong Union victory (which was the reality). When it moved to Atlanta near the turn of the century, it was modified to appeal to Southerners and billed as “the only Confederate victory ever painted,” which clearly was not accurate. Thankfully, these changes were reversed in the 1930s. The painting has been the source of controversy over the last 125+ years, being criticized for glorifying the “Lost Cause” myth of the Confederacy, but it’s an important and historic piece and worth a long visit.

Atlanta Civil War tours

There are numerous ways to see Atlanta Civil War sites but they are mostly self-guided tours. Check out for the best recap of what to see – note that there’s a whole section about “Atlanta’s Lost Civil War Battlefields.” As I mentioned, Atlanta didn’t make history preservation a priority. 

Civil War TrailsYou can follow the Atlanta Civil War trail - and other battlefield trails.

Gone with the Wind, Atlanta and the Civil War

Besides the Civil War, the other thing people think of when they think of Atlanta is Gone with the Wind. And of course, the two are inextricably linked. Margaret Mitchell’s sweeping epic about Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, Tara and Atlanta all takes place before, during and after the war. It is one of the most successful and beloved books ever written – and the movie really put Atlanta on the map.

However, don’t come to Atlanta and expect to walk in Scarlett’s shoes. There is virtually nothing here that is from the book. Tara was a plantation in the country. About the only thing you can see is where Margaret Mitchell wrote the book – the apartment she referred to as “The Dump” – that is now a museum, a marker on Peachtree Street showing where Margaret Mitchell grew up and a marker showing where she died when she got hit by a taxi. You can also visit her grave at the Historic Oakland Cemetery. There is a GWTW museum in Marietta, Ga. dedicated to movie memorabilia – but it’s not a “must see” 

While that’s all that remains of Margaret Mitchell and Gone with the Wind, it remains one of the most important books and movies that told the story of Atlanta and the Civil War. Both are worth reading and watching – you can get them here. 

It’s important to learn about Margaret Mitchell, too. She was an interesting character. Likewise, while GWTW is one of the most important books and movies about this genre, it also requires some critical examination. There are ample resources to learn about the dichotomy of these works. The best biography of Mitchell also explains how she created this epic piece – and how it ruined her life. 

My favorite essay about this, which also addresses the issues surrounding Confederate monuments, is in The Bitter Southerner.

Nearby Civil War locations

The Battle of Atlanta was one of the most important battles of the Civil War for many reasons. But of course, there were battles all over the South. In Georgia, there are many places to immerse yourself in history. Of the 22 national parks dedicated to the Civil War, four are in Georgia. 

The closet is in Kennesaw. Before reaching Atlanta, Union General Sherman and Confederate General Johnston battled throughout North Georgia, in Marietta, Pickett’s Mill and New Hope Church. But on June 27, 1864 – a month before reaching Atlanta – they met at Kennesaw Mountain, which is just 25 miles from the city of Atlanta. This battle was technically a tactical loss for the Union forces, but because it wasn’t a knockout blow, it fortified the Union, which went on to take Atlanta with little effort. 

Kennesaw Mountain features several memorials – the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park and the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History. 

There are locations in and around Atlanta, from parks to ruins to cemeteries.

Where to learn even more

There is literally no shortage of resources about the Civil War, from books to museums. 

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