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Historic postcard image of the Cycylorama, depicting the Battle of Atlanta
Courtesy of Tommy Jones

When General William T. Sherman and his 98,000 Union soldiers marched out of Chattanooga in early May 1864, few Atlantans felt threatened, confident in General Joseph E. Johnston's ability to keep the Yankee intruders at bay. Outgunned and out-manned, however, Johnston could only feint and parry with his enemy and, in spite of significant Confederate victories at Resaca, New Hope Church, and Kennesaw Mountain, the 50,000-man Confederate army was forced to withdraw to the south side of the Chattahoochee River by early July, burning the bridges at their rear as they took up positions in the heavy fortifications that ringed Atlanta. Two weeks later, the entire Union army had crossed the river as well and even the Confederates' new general, John Bell Hood, could not stave off the inevitable.

Fierce fighting north of the city at Peachtree Creek cost the Confederates nearly 5,000 casualties on July 20. Two days later, another 7,000 were lost east of the city at what became known as the Battle of Atlanta, an engagement immortalized in the Cyclorama at Grant Park. As the city was subjected to a month-long bombardment by Union gunners, the battles at Ezra Church on July 28 and at Jonesboro on August 31 cost the Confederates another 10,000 casualties and finally forced the city's capitulation on September 2. Residents who had not already fled were forcibly evacuated on September 20 as the city became an armed camp for Sherman's army. On November 14, with his army rested and re-supplied, Sherman ordered the city burned and, the next morning, set out on his "March to the Sea," determined to "make Georgia howl."

Peachtree St. with wagon traffic in 1866
Photograph by George N. Barnard, from the collection of the National Archives, NWDNS-165-SC-46

Sherman's campaign and occupation left Atlanta's business district, most of its industrial base, and many residences in ruins. By some estimates, two-thirds of the city's buildings were destroyed when the Union army departed in November 1864, and hardship followed for many residents. Yet even before the war ended the following spring, Atlanta was rapidly rebuilding, and by the end of 1865 at least 150 stores were open for business. The city's location at the junction of three of the region's most important railroad lines insured its renaissance, and building on the promise of the railroads, city boosters wasted little time grieving the "Lost Cause." "A new city is springing up with marvelous rapidity," one contemporary observer noted, and many saw a city that was already more northern than southern, both in the pace of civic life and in its faith in industry and commerce. "Atlanta is a devil of a place," one rural visitor wrote, " . . . The men rush about like mad, and keep up such a bustle, worry, and chatter, that it runs me crazy." Removal of the capital from Milledgeville to Atlanta in 1868 confirmed the shift in political and economic power that occurred as a result of the Civil War; and as Savannah and Charleston stagnated, Atlanta boomed.

Atlanta was already looming large over the region, and by 1870 was the fourth-largest inland port for cotton in the Southeast. Its wholesale "drummers" dominated the State's retail supply markets, and with excellent railroad and communication connections, Atlanta was a natural center for banking and commerce of all sorts. Downtown merchants and grocers alone generated more than $35 million in trade annually by the early 1870s, and the opening of the Kimball House hotel in 1872 signaled the growing importance of the city's hospitality industry.

1904 advertisement for E. Van Winkle Gin and Machine Works, one of Atlanta's most prominent factories
Photo from National Register collection
Although Atlanta's population was only 37,500 in 1880, it ranked among the 50 largest cities in the United States and the largest city between Richmond and New Orleans. Henry Grady's campaign for a "New South" of industrial development, regional cooperation, and tolerant race relations was not entirely successful; but much of what he did benefited Atlanta and set the tone for the next 50 years. In 1881, city boosters held the first in a series of "international" expositions to promote the city's textile and industrial development, culminating in the ambitious Cotton States and International Exposition, which drew a million visitors to Piedmont Park in the fall of 1895. Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill, E. Van Winkle Gin and Machine Works, Atlantic Steel, and Ford Motor Company's first Atlanta assembly plant were only the most prominent of dozens of cotton and mercantile warehouses, factories, and textile mills that lined the railroad corridors radiating from downtown.

Historic postcard depicting the view from the Candler Building of downtown business area--the English--American Building is the triangular building in the center
Courtesy of Jody Cook

Atlanta's population rose above 65,000 in 1890, soared to over 150,000 in 1910, and surpassed 200,000 in 1920. By then, the dense redevelopment of much of downtown Atlanta had crowded out most of the old residential buildings, some of which had survived Sherman's fires in 1864, and new construction was replacing them with larger and larger office buildings, hotels, factories, and warehouses. When it was completed in 1892, the South's first "skyscraper," the eight-story Equitable Building, loomed large on the skyline of Atlanta; but by World War I, it was overshadowed by taller buildings, including the English-American, Candler, and Hurt buildings.

In the 1870s and 1880s, mule-drawn and steam-powered streetcar lines as well as commuter train service sparked suburban development, and with electric streetcars fanning growth after 1889, residential real estate became a major industry in the city. Older neighborhoods continued to grow, especially around West End and Grant Park; and the expositions at Piedmont Park in 1887, 1889, and 1895 were a tremendous catalyst for residential development in unincorporated "North Atlanta" along Peachtree Street and Piedmont Avenue north of Ponce de Leon Avenue. In the 1890s and early 1900s, new residential districts emerged as old farms on the outskirts of the city were rapidly carved up into fashionable "garden suburbs." Beginning with Joel Hurt's Inman Park in 1889, streetcars drove suburban development in Ansley Park, Druid Hills, Candler Park, Adair Park, and dozens of others that followed in the first quarter of the 20th century.

Widespread automobile ownership after World War I helped expand Atlanta's suburbs and at the same time brought downtown traffic to a near standstill as automobiles competed with streetcars and pedestrians for a place on the city's crowded streets. By the end of World War I, thriving neighborhood business districts with grocery stores, drugs stores, laundries, and hardware stores had evolved all around the city, most notably around Peachtree and Tenth, Little Five Points, and West End.

Washington Park, a historic black neighborhood
National Register photograph by Yen Tang
With segregation, especially after the 1906 race riots shattered the carefully-crafted veneer of the "New South," Atlanta's black communities coalesced around the famous religious and educational institutions that emerged after the Civil War, including Gammon Theological Seminary southeast of downtown and Atlanta University and the Washington Park neighborhood on the west. By World War I, black-owned businesses, churches, and other institutions prospered and gave support to a community that was, perhaps, better prepared than some to endure and resist the rule of Jim Crow. In May 1917, fire burned across 300 acres of northeast Atlanta, destroying nearly 2,000 buildings and leaving 10,000 people homeless, most of them African Americans in the overcrowded Fourth Ward. The fire accelerated the northward exodus, known as the Great Migration, of the city's African Americans already underway as the burgeoning auto and defense industries in Chicago, Detroit, and other big northern cities offered new economic opportunities and, it was hoped, better living conditions in general.

As the boll weevil ruined the South's agricultural economy after World War I, the great real estate boom in Florida provoked Atlanta, Columbus, and other cities to mount advertising campaigns to stem the flow of investment out of Georgia. In 1926, just months before a hurricane put an end to the Florida boom, the city embarked on its first "Forward Atlanta" campaign that, in three years, generated 20,000 new jobs worth an additional $34.5 million annually to the city's economy.

Downtown Atlanta today, with its many highways
2002 Kevin C. Rose, www.AtlantaPhotos.com

In addition, the city, urged on by Alderman and later mayor William B. Hartsfield, established a municipal airport on Asa Candler's old motor speedway south of town in 1929; and by the end of 1930, only New York and Chicago had more regularly-scheduled flights than Atlanta's Candler Field. In 1931, the nation's first passenger terminal was constructed at the airport, followed by the nation's first air-traffic control tower in 1938. Now named Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Atlanta's municipal airport insured that the city would remain a major transportation hub, a position that was reinforced by the three interstate highways that were built through the city after World War II.

As the national economy slid into depression, building activity virtually ceased in Atlanta in the early 1930s. Works Progress Administration and other New Deal programs made possible significant improvements to the city's infrastructure in the last half of the decade, and the city saw a resumption of some private residential development as well as construction of its first civic center, its first downtown park since the 1860s, and the nation's first Federally-funded housing project. In addition to improvements at the municipal airport, the city benefited from construction of the State's first, four-lane, super highway to Marietta in 1938. In the 1930s and 1940s, the city's growth slowed dramatically from the astounding double-digit rates that were typical in previous decades, but with the end of World War II, suburban development skyrocketed.

A comprehensive plan for the city's development was laid out in 1946 and included a major focus on "urban renewal" and on a new system of "expressways" that would eventually be incorporated into the nation's interstate highway system. In 1952, annexation of Buckhead and residential neighborhoods north and west of the city tripled the city's land area and added 100,000 new residents; and although the city's population would peak at just under 500,000 in 1970, there were already a million residents in a five-county metropolitan area by 1960. "The city too busy to hate," as the city's leadership proclaimed in the 1950s, Atlanta would soon be not just a regional powerhouse, but one of the leaders of the "Sun Belt" that rearranged American politics, business, and culture in the late 20th century.

Essay by Tommy Jones, Architectural Historian with the National Park Service's Southeast Regional Office.

  [image] E. Van Winkle Gin and Machine Works and link to Industrial Atlanta essay
  [image] Tullie Smith House and link to Antebellum Atlanta essay   [image] African American baseball players of Morris Brown College - Atlanta and link to African American Experience essay   [image] Historic postcard of Fox Theatre Historic District and link to Growth and Preservation essay

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Essays: Antebellum Atlanta | Industrial Atlanta | African American Experience | Growth and Preservation

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