Independence Day weekend in 1864 saw the first Union troops enter Marietta.
July 4, 1864, came during an anxious time in Marietta.
That year, same as this, Independence Day fell on a Monday. Most Southerners at the time believed they were engaged in a second war for independence, but that Fourth of July weekend saw the first Union troops enter Marietta.
Late during the previous June, the Confederate Army of Tennessee, under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, had successfully held its position at Kennesaw Mountain against a much larger Union force commanded by William Tecumseh Sherman. Since a defeat at Chickamauga, most of Sherman’s advance towards Atlanta had consisted of flanking maneuvers without any significant engagement; in other words, he had ignored the Confederate Army wherever it was entrenched, choosing to simply go around. It had been a successful tactic, since Johnston’s men were forced to fall back and redeploy each time they were outflanked.
But upon reaching Kennesaw, Sherman had ordered a full frontal assault against Johnston’s forces, which were arrayed on and around the mountain. Perhaps it was because Sherman was so tantalizingly close to Atlanta, which he knew could be seen from the mountain’s top. In any case, the assault had been an complete failure, resulting in 3,000 Union casualties compared to about 800 Confederate, and the gray line had not budged.
Sherman later confessed to his wife his own dismay that he had, at the time, considered 3,000 casualties to be a relatively small matter. But when he had considered resuming the assault, his generals advised him that a repeat of this battle might spell the army’s ruin.
Thus, on Friday, July 1, Sherman resumed his tactic of simply going around the enemy. He ordered the Union Army of the Tennessee to the far right, “down the Sandtown Road, straight for Atlanta.” He believed this move would force Johnston to abandon Kennesaw and take up a defensive position along the Chattahoochee River, which would be the last geographical barrier between Union troops and Atlanta.
The maneuver worked.
On Saturday, July 2, Johnston ordered his army to fall back through Marietta and resume their defensive position in Smyrna. Marietta itself was to be evacuated.
News of the retreat came as a shock to most Mariettans. As Johnston’s army swept through town, they dismantled and removed anything that might be of use to the invaders, even going so far as to remove the ovens at a large Marietta bakery. Confederate soldiers destroyed several miles of railroad track and telegraph cable between Marietta and Kennesaw. Private homes were similarly left bare by those families who evacuated them.
While most of Marietta’s population fled, a substantial number remained. For them, Saturday evening brought with it an eerie silence and a sense of disbelief. The bustling county seat now seemed like a ghost town, entire neighborhoods standing silent and vacant. Less than a half day’s march up the road were 100,000 Yankee soldiers, presumably headed this way, and the Confederate army that had hitherto defended them was now gone.
Saturday night passed in an anxious, sleepless vigil. When the sun rose Sunday morning, the streets were still silent and empty. People filed into church pews for solace, reassurance and prayer.
Services began as usual that morning. But as worshippers at St. James Episcopal Church went through the liturgy, hundreds of boots could be heard outside on the square. These were soon joined by horse hoofs and wagon wheels, and many braced themselves, waiting for the doors to be thrown open.
But this did not happen; church services continued unmolested. But upon their conclusion, men and women emerged to find the square filled with blue uniforms and covered wagons. At the very center of the square stood Sherman himself.
Entrance into the town, from a Union perspective, was a different experience entirely. A correspondent from the New York Tribune wrote the following:
“Marietta has been pronounced by those who have visited it as the finest town they have seen since they crossed the Ohio River. It must have cost the citizens many a pang to tear themselves away from the grateful shade and quiet comfort of the luxurious homes of Marietta. Probably not more than twenty houses are occupied.”
The correspondent also remarked on the large number of fresh graves and recent inscriptions populating the cemetery on the outskirts of town.
But even as Sherman’s men set up camp in and around Marietta, Johnston’s army reached the bulwark at Smyrna, where they turned and dug in. As Independence Day 1864 dawned, the Union vanguard encountered a Confederate line that stretched from Nickajack Creek through Smyrna to Rottenwood Creek. At 11 a.m., the two armies engaged.
And so July 4, 1864, marked the occupation of Marietta and the Battle of Smyrna Camp Ground. Once again the Union attacked a Confederate force defending a fortified position, and once again the attack failed. But just as before, Sherman maneuvered his men in such a way as to force Johnston to give up his current position, this time moving toward the mouth of Sope Creek. But even as Confederate troops dug in along the riverbanks, the Union Armies of the Cumberland and of Ohio were moving in from the northeast and the southwest.
By July 8, Union forces had begun crossing the Chattahoochee at Sope Creek near the Marietta Paper Mills. The ruins of the paper mills remain to this day.
A well-written and detailed account of the war in Cobb County can be found in Sarah Blackwell Gober Temple’s The First Hundred Years: A Short History of Cobb County, in Georgia.
Artifacts and documents from the Union occupation of Marietta and battles in surrounding areas can be seen at the Marietta Museum of History in Marietta and the Southern Museum of Civil War and Railroad History in Kennesaw.