2009 marked the 145th anniversary of the fall of Atlanta during the Civil War, so Mark Wortman's book published last year was a timely look at this fascinating chapter (some would say dark chapter) in Georgia's history. Wortman has a journalist's flair for keen insight and detail, and above all he tells a good story.
Like most of my interviews, 30 minutes proved all too short to ask the author everything I was interested in. Some of the ones I posed to Marc Wortman: How does a guy with a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Princeton get interested in Atlanta and the Civil War?
One of the things in his book that most intrigued me was the fact that we now take it for granted that Atlanta is an important city, that it's the Gateway to the New South, the home of Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, the Atlanta Braves, Home Depot, CNN, Coca-Cola, etc., but the Atlanta he describes wasn't all that big or seemingly all that important as a city. Wortman writes, "Few people in the North or among Union military officials had heard of Atlanta before the outbreak of the rebellion." How then did two great armies find themselves in and around Atlanta in the summer of 1864? And why is Atlanta's fall directly credited with paving the way for Lincoln's re-election the following November?
A book like this is full of fascinating characters, among them of course William Tecumseh Sherman. He obviously plays a very prominent role in this book, and in fact Wortman gives him the very last word. Even today, his name evokes fierce passions and emotions in Georgia. And yet, when he returned to Atlanta in 1879, Wortman writes that "few people in Atlanta remained ill disposed toward Sherman." How is that possible? I'm quite certain that wouldn't be the case now, 145 years later. Last year the Georgia Historical Society had a public program about Sherman, and we received numerous letters and emails from people across Georgia (and the rest of the country) vehemently denouncing him. How was it possible that "few" of the Atlantans who actually lived through Sherman's siege were so forgiving in 1879?
Finally, with the Civil War's 150th anniversary fast approaching, there will be commemorative events across the country. One of the questions I like to pose to writers of Civil War history: What do the events in your book still have to teach us in the 21st century?
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