While in Gettysburg I picked up Stephen Davis’s most recent book, What the Yankees Did to Us: Sherman’s Bombardment and Wrecking of Atlanta (Mercer University Press, 2012). The book has received mixed reviews, but I decided to give it a chance. While the book thus far lacks an analytical edge those of you looking for excruciatingly detailed descriptions of pre-war and wartime Atlanta will be rewarded. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the many anecdotes included in the book, it’s that I also expect a historian to provide a close analysis of these sources.
I was struck at the beginning of the book by the author’s apparent need to explain his own personal interest in the Civil War stretching back to the 1950s and the Centennial, but even more by the choice of title. The title is based on a diary entry by a resident of the city, but Davis also intends something else with it.
And there is that word, us. In adopting it in both my title and text, I mean us as a deliberately vague combination of the people of Atlanta as well as the physical structures that defined our city, and that together–people and buildings–made us “Atlanta.” In summer 1864, civilian residents still in the city–white, black, free and slave, male and female, young and old, native-born or immigrant–all endured the same frightening ordeal of Yankee bombardment, occupation, and eventual expulsion. To that extent, we who are Atlantans, though we do not share a common ancestry, do nonetheless share a common history of the war, and a collective memory from it. So us does not mean solely white Southerners fighting Yankees. Even if it did, we have accepted the verdict of the war, and have transcended defeat, just as Henry Grady declared in his famous “New South” speech of 1886: “There was a South of slavery and secession–that South is dead. There is a South of union and freedom–that South, thank God, is living, breathing, growing every hour.” In the century-plus since then, Americans have continually redefined the meaning of the Civil War. Particularly important has been the African-American narrative of the war, which has enriched our understanding of the nation’s greatest conflict. (p. xviii)
I’ve said before that it is presumptuous to assume to speak for a diverse community about how the past continues to impact or shape (if at all) the present. I do think that this tells us about how Stephen Davis relates to Atlanta’s past and as far as I am concerned that is just fine, but I also don’t quite understand how this is meant to impact how the reader engages with this particular story.
Do black and white Atlantans really share a collective memory of the occupation and destruction of the city? What about those who arrived after the Civil War and specifically the many African Americans who in recent decades have returned to the city of their ancestors?
Seems to me that the “South of union and freedom” had something to do with the destruction of Atlanta.