A Changing Wind

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A Changing Wind: Commerce & Conflict in Civil War Atlanta  
Author(s) Wendy Hamand Venet
Publisher Yale University Press
Publication date 2014
Pages 280
ISBN 9780300192162

In A Changing Wind, Wendy Hamand Venet describes the evolution of Atlanta as it transformed from an up-and-coming railroad hub to a Confederate city second in prominence to only Richmond, Virginia. To tell this story, Hamand draws from a variety of primary sources, including newspapers, diaries and personal correspondence, and records of individual businesses. The end result is a detailed narrative of how Atlanta’s citizens guided the city to prosperity, weathered the vicissitudes of war, and ultimately seeded its renewal.

In the 1850s, Atlanta was a prosperous railroad hub but was still “rough around the edges” compared to other, more established southern cities. Local businessmen guided the city’s politics, and many of them opposed secession. The Tennessee Unionist, John Bell, won a plurality among Atlanta’s voters in the 1860 presidential election, though it is equally telling that the fire-eating secessionist, John Breckinridge, placed second. Atlanta Unionists' chief motivation was economic. Secession threatened interstate commerce and, therefore, profits.

Unionist sentiment could not, however, survive the election of Abraham Lincoln. Atlantans such as the allonymous Plebian, who wrote for the city’s Daily Intelligencer, initially considered secession to be treason. Yet they also hoped that slavery and national integrity could be equally preserved. This hope evaporated as secessionist sentiment grew more heated. Many southerners feared that Lincoln’s presidency would inspire slave rebellions. Secessionists in Atlanta also aggressively courted public opinion and succeeded in convincing the city’s business leaders that “the South’s salvation lay in freeing itself from economic dependence on the North and establishing direct ties to Europe.”

When the Union blockade stymied international trade, Atlanta’s business leaders sought their fortune through the industry of war. Local companies made a variety of cloth and metal goods for the military, ranging from hats to buckles for knapsacks. The city’s chief manufacturing contribution to the war was the Atlanta Arsenal, which employed more than 5,500 people at its peak and produced more than 45 million percussion caps before the approach of Sherman’s army forced its abandonment. For a while, the harsh realities of war seemed far removed. A booming war industry nurtured a variety of new businesses that clothed, fed, and entertained an influx of soldiers and civilians. The city’s largest theater, the Athenaeum, continued to draw large audiences, often performing plays that touted Confederate nationalism. Items that had been sneaked past the Union Navy found popular demand and savvy retailers advertised them as "blockade goods."

As the Confederacy’s fortunes changed, however, Atlanta became a city of what one citizen described as “intense anxiety.” Scarcity of food and high prices led to riots and looting in the spring of 1863. As the Union army approached, refugees and wounded soldiers overwhelmed the city’s capacity to facilitate them. Once loyal citizens began to question the war, and paranoia over spies and Union collaborators prompted the formation of ad hoc “vigilance committees” to root out potential traitors. From there, the situation only grew worse. Sherman’s artillery shelled the city through July and August of 1864. On September 1, the Confederate army evacuated the city, destroying whatever equipment they could not take with them. Soon after, Union soldiers took to the streets and began looting. Finally, Sherman forcibly expelled Atlanta’s remaining civilians and burned the city to the ground.

After the war ended, the same entrepreneurs who led the city to prosperity in the 1850s took initiative to insure its renewal. Hamand notes the irony that “the four-year war fought by the Confederates to preserve plantation slavery had revealed the South’s cities as the major drivers of the region’s economy." The North still needed cotton and many Atlantans grew wealthy delivering it as railroads superseded port cities’ role as transportation hubs. Other businessmen found ways to directly profit from rebuilding the city, such as the former blockade goods retailers, William McNaught and James Ormond, who opened a construction supply company. Atlanta’s postwar entrepreneurs also retained the political flexibility they had shown in the Antebellum era. When it became clear that readmission to the Union was imperative to economic recovery, 100 businessmen honored General John Pope with a lavish banquet and lobbied him to allow a constitutional convention. Atlantans did not need to cozy up to their occupiers for long. Reconstruction in Georgia ended barely a decade after it had begun, and former Confederates came to dominate politics. By then, however, the city was well on its way to renewal.

Hamand makes clear that Atlanta’s story was not limited to prosperous, white businessmen. She observes that “the war forced white women into independent roles”, and created new opportunities for political engagement. The Ladies’ Soldiers’ Relief Society, which boasted a roster of 150 members by the end of 1861, scraped lint for bandages, sewed uniforms for soldiers, and organized fundraisers for the war effort. Increased political engagement in wartime did not translate to concrete gains when the guns fell silent. In 1872, an Atlanta newspaper dismissed women’s suffrage as “tinsel and counterfeit”, though Southern women’s efforts to decorate Confederate graves and erect monuments to fallen soldiers played a key role in glorifying the “Lost Cause.”

“African Americans,” writes Hamand, “took advantage of the war to stretch the boundaries of slavery both personally and economically.” Before the Civil War, Atlanta’s business-based economy did not much rely on slavery, though the institution garnered plenty of support. The factories of the Atlanta’s war industry offered new opportunities to slaves and the city’s handful of free blacks. Meanwhile, the war inspired more and more slaves to escape. Those who stayed became harder to control as deteriorating conditions enabled stiffer resistance and forced some African Americans (and, to be fair, plenty of white Atlantans) to resort to crime. When the war ended, however, the enfranchisement promised by Reconstruction was cut short by the rise of Jim Crow, but not totally reversed. “In postemancipation Atlanta, African Americans made identifiable gains, including access to rudimentary public education, and, briefly, limited office-holding . . . [but] they faced a future with minimal access to economic advancement and minimal access to the political sphere.”

A Changing Wind is a work of narrative history, so Hamand does not advance a specific argument here. Yet if one had to identify a thesis, it would be that Atlanta showed itself to be a city of enormous resilience, and she does a fine job telling this story. A Changing Wind is quite readable and moves at a brisk pace. The pace, though, can also be somewhat of a liability. Certain points in the book could use deeper analysis. For instance, the final chapter, which discusses the struggle to define the memory of Atlanta’s war experience, treats this complicated topic too briefly. Overall, however, Hamand’s balance of breadth and detail is impressive.