Did Atlanta Matter?

Originally published in Blog Them Out of the Stone Age, August 24, 2005

Only the most devoted readers of this blog will recall that I’m under contract to write a book in the Oxford University Press Pivotal Moments in American History series, edited by David Hackett Fischer and James M. McPherson. McPherson published the inaugural volume in the series — Antietam: Crossroads of Freedom — in 2002. Fischer’s contribution to the series, Washington’s Crossing, came out last year. Six other books in the series have also appeared, with at least one more in press.

My “pivotal moment” deals with 1864. It was a presidential election year, so the most obvious pivot is the question of Lincoln’s reelection. Usually this is framed in terms of whether the Democratic nominee, George B. McClellan, might have defeated him in November, and whether that, in turn, might have led to a compromise peace or even Confederate independence. But given that Lincoln faced no fewer than three challenges from within his own party, one must also think about the chances of his being replaced — by Salmon P. Chase, John C. Frémont, or some other candidate. Believe it or not, the name of Benjamin F. Butler was bruited about more than once. And Lincoln quietly but carefully sniffed out Grant for possible presidential aspirations before appointing him general in chief.

Eighteen sixty-four was also the year in which white Americans, North and South, began to come seriously to grips with a change in the racial status quo. African Americans had a significant, albeit informal, influence over this shift, most obviously because Blacks were becoming increasingly important as a reservoir of military manpower.

In the realm of counterfactuals and contingency, Lincoln’s reelection is widely thought to have hinged on the perception of Union military success.

If the election had been held in August 1864 rather than November, Lincoln would have lost. . . . This did not happen, but only because of events on the battlefield — principally Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, and Sheridan’s spectacular victories over Jubal Early in the Shenandoah Valley. These turned northern opinion from deepest // despair in the summer to confident determination by November.” (James M. McPherson, “American Victory, American Defeat,” in Gabor S. Boritt (ed.), The Collapse of the Confederacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 39-40.

“There was nothing inevitable about northern victory in the Civil War. Nor was Sherman’s capture of Atlanta any more inevitable than, say, McClellan’s capture of Richmond in June 1862 had been. . . .” (Ibid., 41)

Albert Castel agrees, and greatly amplifies this thesis in

Albert Castel, “The Atlanta Campaign and the Election of 1864: How the South Almost Won By Not Losing,” in Castel, Winning and Losing in the Civil War (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996), 15-32.

However, William W. Freehling — though in agreement that Atlanta “was the Confederacy’s last best hope to escape strangulation,” thinks that it was nonetheless a forlorn hope, that the point of no return had been reached in 1863. And he argues that certain structural factors — e.g., superior Northern military and industrial strength and internal stresses within the Confederacy — make Confederate victory unlikely in any event. As for Lincoln’s reelection being dependent on a timely military triumph, and Union victory being dependent on Lincoln’s reelection:

“[F]or military historians to be declared right that Sherman’s victory alone could have saved Lincoln’s victory, or that Lincoln’s victory alone could have saved Union victory, political historians must be proved dead wrong about antebellum politics in general and the Democratic Party in particular.” [William W. Freehling, “The Divided South, the Causes of Confederate Defeat, and the Reintegration of Narrative History,” The Reintegration of American History: Slavery and the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 226-227] The former because 90 percent of 19th century American voters remained loyal to party, the latter because Peace Democrats were a minority within that party.

See also Freehling’s The South vs. the South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), esp. pp. 177-199.

William C. Davis shares Freehling’s skepticism in “The Turning Point That Wasn’t: The Confederates and the Election of 1864,” The Cause Lost: Myths and Realities of the Confederacy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996), 127-147. Davis does concede, grudgingly, that Confederate military success in 1864 could have unseated Lincoln, but ups the ante by implying it would have taken more than Atlanta.

In the end the only Confederate acts that could have — not necessarily would have — affected the outcome were those in the one theater in which the war was being decided from the outset: the battlefield. If Jubal Early had captured Washington and held it for some appreciable time. If Sterling Price had wrested Missouri from the Union and been able to hold it. If the forts at Mobile had been able to repulse Farragut and his fleet. If Lee had been able to take some action against Grant, however small, to embarrass him in the trenches at Petersburg. And most important of all, if Joseph E. Johnston or John Bell Hood had been able to turn Sherman decisively, not just away from Atlanta, but back on his base at Chattanooga. If all these ‘ifs’ had come to pass, they would have constituted a series of body blows to Union morale and Lincoln’s prestige, at the rate of one every few weeks during the last four months of the election campaign. Then quite possibly, even probably, sagging Northern spirits would have translated into Democratic votes.” (137)

This comes fairly close to the famous Saturday Night Life sketch that asked, “What if Eleanor Roosevelt could fly?” Even if the Confederates ran the tables, it would have resulted only in a McClellan victory, and Davis argues that McClellan would have continued the war and would have inherited a military position in which he could hardly have failed to win it.

Larry J. Daniel concurs with Davis and systematically critiques Albert Castel’s essay in “The South Almost Won By Not Losing: A Rebuttal,” North and South Magazine vol. 1, no. 3 (February 1998):44-48, 50-51. (BTW, I’m grateful to Eric Wittenberg for the loan of this article, which I was finding hard to locate.)

Most recently we have:

Richard M. McMurry, “The Atlanta Campaign and the Election of 1864,” appendix four of Atlanta 1864: Last Chance for the Confederacy (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 204-208. He writes:

[F]orays into counterfactual history can be instructive. They often help us get a better understanding of the past by forcing us to examine roads not taken and the reasons why they were not. Such exercises, however, lose validity as they become more and more complex. They must keep within the bounds of the possible. It helps if we limit them to possibilities that were probable.

To apply such counterfactual speculations to the Atlanta campaign and the 1864 election, we have to work our way successively through a maze of at least a dozen counterfactual scenarios.

Which he does on pp. 206-207, and concludes:

In arguing that Lincoln had to have military success (or perceived success) in 1864 to win reelection, Castel was correct. I believe, however, that success came late on May 8 at Snake Creek Gap, not at Atlanta on September 2. Given the passive way [Confederate Gen. Joseph E.] Johnston was determined to conduct his campaign, loss of that meant that the Rebels could not — or at least really would not attempt to — halt Sherman’s advance into Georgia. (207)

It’s that last contention that justifies the focus on Snake Creek Gap in the Snake Bite series of posts. My purpose, however, is neither to introduce new revelations about this operation nor to argue that America’s future necessarily hinged on what occurred here. It’s to better understand the role of counterfactuals and contingency in historical interpretation — and figure out how to explain this to the readers of my OUP book.

Comments (2) to “Did Atlanta Matter?”

  1. So is your book going to be all about Snake Creek Gap? If so, I hope you are open to reconsidering some of what you have argued before…