“The Day Dixie Died: The Battle of Atlanta”
By Gary Ecelbarger
St. Martin’s Press; 320 pages; $26.99
By Steve Weinberg
If Civil War historian Gary Ecelbarger can change minds, Georgians should observe July 22 as a date equal to July 4 in significance.
Numerous Civil War battles have been promoted as the most significant for the five-year conflict. But the Battle of Atlanta, carried out mostly on July 22, 1864, is rarely mentioned. Ecelbarger, a scholar based in Northern Virginia, wants it to achieve primacy. As the title — “The Day Dixie Died: The Battle of Atlanta” — suggests, Ecelbarger’s new book considers the Confederacy’s defeat in that battle an underrated turning point.
Here’s the gist of his case: By July 1864, it seemed obvious the Confederacy would not defeat the Union militarily. However, the Union, personified by President Abraham Lincoln, wasn’t going to win on its terms because Confederate troops had exacted a huge toll and did not appear ready to surrender. Lincoln wanted the Southern states to rejoin the Union with slavery abolished; he wasn’t going to compromise on those two matters. With Northerners restless about the Civil War’s casualty count and more years of battle, Lincoln feared he would lose the November 1864 election for another term as president.
According to Ecelbarger, if the Union troops had lost the Battle of Atlanta, Lincoln surely would have lost the electoral vote four months later. Instead, the Union victory in Atlanta allowed voters to cast ballots for Lincoln with more confidence than before.
Previously, Ecelbarger published the book “The Great Comeback: How Abraham Lincoln Beat the Odds to Win the 1860 Republican Nomination.” That book does not place the Battle of Atlanta in the context now advocated by Ecelbarger. Another Ecelbarger book, “Black Jack Logan, ” features a Union military commander who played a decisive role in the Battle of Atlanta. But by intentionally focusing on just one commander, Ecelbarger necessarily excludes some of the panoramic reportage and commentary found in “The Day Dixie Died.”
For readers who care little about military tactics and the battlefield quirks of commanders, parts of “The Day Dixie Died” will feel like a slog. That said, the book is worth reading because of Ecelbarger’s superb, terse explications of national politics while hundreds of thousands died during the bloody war that split not only states but also nuclear families. (He estimates the number of dead and wounded from the Battle of Atlanta alone at 10,000.) Here is one example of that skill, commenting on the upcoming 1864 presidential election: “Anti-Lincoln fervor was displayed in newspaper editorials, private letters, and public displays across the states of the Union. It came from prominent men and ordinary citizens, from people who had always opposed Lincoln to those who had supported him in years — and months — past. All shared their disapproval of the way the president was handling his duties as commander in chief.” Ecelbarger then explains Lincoln’s awful record when appointing military commanders; the author singles out Nathaniel P. Banks, Benjamin Butler and Franz Siegel as especially ill suited for leadership necessary to defeat the Confederate troops.
Georgia readers might be put off by the detailed descriptions of specific battlefield maneuvering, but will treasure Ecelbarger’s book for its explanations of why Civil War-era Atlanta had emerged as such a key locale. As he says, the city “owed its existence to the very factor that made it a prized military object: railroads. When the Western & Atlantic Railroad was completed with its terminus in the sleepy little town of Marthasville in 1845, no one could predict how this Georgia hamlet would thrive from its new lifeline.”
After three more railroads ran to Marthasville, the town changed its name to Atlanta and claimed a population in 1860 of about 10,000, approximately 80 percent Caucasian. The commercial atmosphere of Atlanta became more and more profitable before the Civil War. While the war decimated commerce, it did not devalue Atlanta’s worth for the South, as it became a hub for moving troops and supplies.
The book is generously illustrated with battlefield maps and photographs. The photo captions are frequently as interesting as the vigorous body text. For instance, the caption under the photo of John Alexander “Black Jack” Logan reveals that “three years after the war he nationalized a regional grave-decorating tradition and called it Memorial Day, an annual tradition that is his legacy today.”
Throughout the book, Ecelbarger skillfully presents evidence that the Battle of Atlanta deserves recognition equal to that focused on Gettysburg and Shiloh.