Civil War Resources in the Atlanta Area: An Overview
Gordon Jones, October 2006
If it weren’t for Gone With the Wind and General Sherman, no one would think of Atlanta as a Civil War destination. With its traffic jams and endless miles of look-alike suburbs, today’s Atlanta bears little resemblance to its Civil War past, when it was only a small railroad town of about 20,000 souls. And although the Virginia-theater battles were larger and their towns cuter, they were but wasteful dalliances compared with Sherman’s Atlanta campaign. It was his decisive blow to the strategic railroad and manufacturing hub of the Deep South in the summer of 1864 that finally brought the Confederacy to its knees, both militarily and politically. With the capture of Atlanta on September 2, Lincoln’s sagging political fortunes took an unexpected turn for the better, and with his re-election, the outcome of the war for union and emancipation for the first time became inevitable. Or at least, that’s the way we Georgians tell the story.
The battles around Atlanta were small and numerous: there was no single Gettysburg-like battlefield where all was won or lost in a day. Most of Atlanta’s battlefields have long since been paved over, but between housing developments you can still see some important sites. Many visitors start with Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, conveniently located off I-75, northwest of the city. For more adventurous drivers, there is also Pickett’s Mill State Park, located off Georgia Highway 92 in Paulding County, also northwest of Atlanta. It is probably the most pristine Civil War battlefield in the country, devoid of monuments, with tree lines and pastures just as they appeared in 1864. Both sites feature excellent interpretive centers, and Kennesaw sports a good Civil War bookstore. While in the Kennesaw area, you might also stop by the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History, where the General, the steam-driven hero of the Great Locomotive Chase of 1862, is enshrined within a first-rate exhibition of railroad memorabilia. Here you can also buy automobile touring guides covering the rest of the Atlanta campaign in north Georgia.
Two hours north of Atlanta on I-75 is the more famous Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, the first Civil War battlefield set aside by the War Department in 1895. Two hours south of Atlanta near Americus is the more infamous Andersonville National Historic Site, also home to the National Prisoner of War Museum. You may also want to drive over to nearby Columbus to check out the National Civil War Naval Museum, featuring the impressive remains of the ironclad CSS Jackson and the gunboat CSS Chattahoochie.
Civil War Exhibits
For Civil War exhibitions, the place to start is the Atlanta History Center’s magnificent Turning Point: The American Civil War, located in their museum on West Paces Ferry Road in Buckhead. Here resides one of the largest Civil War collections in the country, used skillfully to tell the story not just of the Atlanta Campaign, but of the entire Civil War from start to finish. An added plus is the museum’s gift shop, which has a great selection of Civil War and other regional history books. Outside the museum is the Tullie-Smith farm, a typical (not Tara) 1860s north Georgia homestead with period outbuildings, crops, and livestock. On the same campus is the Kenan Research Center, featuring a massive collection of Civil War books, manuscripts, and photographs. These include rare military manuals, diaries and letters of Georgia soldiers, post-war reminiscences of Union and Confederate soldiers, as well as the papers, maps, and artwork of Atlanta Civil War historian Wilbur G. Kurtz.
The oldest Civil War "attraction" in the city is the Atlanta Cyclorama, located beside the Atlanta Zoo in Grant Park (not named for Ulysses). Here you can glimpse the massive 1886 circular painting depicting the largest battle of the Atlanta campaign on July 22, 1864. While you’re waiting for the show to start, have a look at the locomotive Texas, which chased (and caught) the General in 1862. Just beside the cyclorama’s upper parking lot is Fort Walker, the last remnant of the 12-mile-long Confederate fortifications that once ringed the Atlanta. And, of course, don’t forget to pay homage to the writer who made the burning of Atlanta famous; the Margaret Mitchell House and Museum on Peachtree Street is well worth a visit, if for no other reason than to see the tiny apartment where Mitchell penned her famous novel. Across the street is a new and surprisingly critical exhibition exploring the novel’s origins and impact, as well as its 1939 movie debut (the doorway from the set of Tara is a must-see).
For Civil War books and manuscripts, you can’t beat the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library on the top floor of the Robert W. Woodruff Library at Emory University, just east of downtown Atlanta. The special collections in African American, Southern, and Civil War history are among the best in the nation, and down in the stacks you will run across some wonderfully classic yet obscure Lost Cause histories. Serious researchers in Georgia Civil War history must sooner or later venture to the University of Georgia in Athens, about an hour and a half east of Atlanta. Aside from its treasure-trove of letters from Georgia soldiers and statesmen and the most complete selection of Georgia newspapers on microfilm, the Hargrett Rare Books and Manuscripts Library is famous for owning an original vellum copy of the Confederate Constitution, which it displays one day a year.
All of the university and public libraries in Georgia are linked online through the GALILEO system, which also allows access to a number of digital databases. Library patrons using GALILEO on-site are granted complete access; otherwise you must use a less-than-complete-access guest password. Two of the best online reference sources for Georgia and its Civil Warriors are the New Georgia Encyclopedia (www.georgiaencyclopedia.org) and the Digital Library of Georgia. The latter contains links to everything from an online collection of George Barnard’s Atlanta campaign photographs to the Civil War home front collection at the University of North Carolina.
Conveniently enough, the Georgia State Archives and the Southeast Region of the National Archives share the same parking lot in Morrow, Georgia, on the south side of Atlanta. Both are housed in new buildings with new microfilm readers, copiers, and plenty of online finding aids. The State Archives houses copies of Confederate enlistment and muster rolls as well as pension records, some of which are also available on-line. The National Archives, including a nearby auxiliary records center, houses census and military records from most of the former Confederate states, including an amazing collection of Confederate court records. In many ways, this complex is your one-stop-shop for Georgia and/or Confederate records.
Of course there are many other Civil War resources in the Atlanta area, including smaller battle sites, historic houses, and of course those ubiquitous (and nearly unintelligible) historic markers. But with any luck, this list will at least get you started. And remember to pick up one of those nifty Tara snow-globes.
—Gordon L. Jones is the Senior Military Historian at the Atlanta History Center where he has served as a curator and administrator for the past sixteen years.