How Georgia Was Impacted By Civil War & Reconstruction

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn how Georgia was impacted by the Civil War and Reconstruction. We will examine key themes and developments in Georgia's history following the Civil War.

Destruction in Georgia

Maybe some of you have been to Atlanta, Georgia. It is a large capital city with the busiest airport in the world. Two interstates, 75 and 85, cut through the heart of the city, revealing an impressive skyline of buildings. Atlanta is home to Coca-Cola and the 1996 Summer Olympics. The city has a rich historical and cultural legacy. Did you know Atlanta was burned down toward the end of the Civil War? Georgia as a whole was devastated by the ''War Between the States.''

During the war, Union General William T. Sherman boasted that he would ''make Georgia howl,'' and he did. He ordered the business district of Atlanta be burned to the ground. It is believed 40% of the city was destroyed. Toward the end of 1864, Sherman became famous for his ''March to the Sea,'' in which he and his men cut a 50-mile-wide path of destruction throughout the state of Georgia. The path stretched from Atlanta to the port city of Savannah. Railroad lines were torn up, and farms and businesses set on fire, as Union troops adopted a scorched earth policy.

Union troops destroy railroad lines during Shermans March to the Sea.

Rebuilding Georgia would not be an easy task. It would take years to bring stability to the area. Let's dig deeper and learn about the political, economic, and sociocultural developments in Georgia in the years following the Civil War.

Political Developments

Before the outbreak of war, African-American slaves made up 44% of Georgia's population. Under federal control, politics in Georgia immediately after the war centered on providing assistance to former slaves and rebuilding the infrastructure. In early 1865 General Sherman issued Field Order 15, which allowed federal officials to confiscate abandoned plantations and redistribute them to freed slaves. This order was issued in part to provide former slaves with a place to live and the means to provide for themselves. This redistribution of land took place mainly along the Georgia coast. It was a temporary solution as President Andrew Johnson revoked the order later in the year.

After the war, the slogan ''forty acres and a mule'' emerged. Confused over the ever-changing government proposals and polices, many former slaves believed the government would provide them with forty acres of land and a mule in order to begin a new life. It didn't help that some politicians promised this. In the end, ''forty acres and mule'' existed only in public imagination.

In March 1865, President Lincoln created a federal agency called the Freedmen's Bureau to assist freed slaves as they transitioned into working members of society. The agency helped freed people get jobs and worked to mediate conflicts between them and white Southerners.

An agent of the Freedmens Bureau negotiates a racial conflict.

After the war, Georgia came under federal military occupation. No longer legally a state, it became part of the Third District, along with what had once been Alabama and Florida. In 1870, Georgia became the final state readmitted to the Union.

Economic Developments

Before the Civil War, the capital of Georgia was Milledgeville. Upon readmittance to the Union, the capital was changed to Atlanta. Atlanta was founded in the 1830s as a railroad hub. Despite being burned down by Union forces in 1864, Atlanta was rebuilt and grew during Reconstruction. By 1880 it was Georgia's largest city. With freed people leaving agricultural jobs and moving to the city, Atlanta quickly became a modern industrial city. In the 1880s electric street cars began operating in the city. In 1886 a former Confederate soldier named John Pemberton developed a soft drink called Coca-Cola. The company thrived, bringing jobs and money to Atlanta.

Georgia was among the first Southern states to make use of a convict leasing system. Under this system, convicts were ''leased'' out to private companies in order to provide free labor. Under this system, African-Americans were disproportionately represented. Convicts were often treated poorly and forced to work under horrible conditions. Progressive reformers regarded the convict leasing system as little better than slavery. Through convict leasing, Georgia was able to industrialize quickly. Railroads, iron work plants, mines, and other industrial projects throughout the state often made use of unpaid convict labor. Through the system, businessmen like Joseph E. Brown acquired tremendous wealth.

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