The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Atlanta History Center present
War in our backyards
150 years ago, Atlanta became a decisive turning point in American history. Scroll to experience why and how.
No man’s land was a scarred field during the siege of Atlanta. Georgia Tech’s administration building is located there today.

Part 1: Antebellum Atlanta

Chapter 1
Welcome to 1860 Atlanta

A map of Atlanta in the 1860s.

To understand how the 1864 battles around Atlanta changed history, it helps to know about the city on the eve of war.

Founded just 23 years earlier and located in the backcountry environs of North Georgia, Atlanta was closer to a frontier town than a bustling city. Its growth was fueled primarily by the junction of four railroad lines -- the Western & Atlantic, the Georgia Railroad, the Atlanta & West Point, and the Macon & Western -- that connected Georgia’s products and merchants to markets westward.

Yet three things were about to propel the town of less than 10,000 into history's path: the confluence of those railroads, a unique entrepreneurial spirit among its inhabitants, and the American Civil War.

On the map

Total population: 9554

Free population: 7640

Slave population: 1914

White population: 7615

Free black population: 25

The 1860 federal census showed a population approaching 10,000 -- a remarkable number for a crossroads that didn't even take its present name until 1847. Such growth spurred Atlanta into the 100 most populous U.S. cities, but barely. Even in the less-populated South, Atlanta was behind places such as Wheeling, Va. (now W. Va.), and Wilmington, N.C.

100 Largest cities by population, 1860
    A place for employment

    Advertisement for a business in Atlanta

    Booming job markets included railroads, construction and prostitution. The 1860 Census reveals a strange mix in the 2,484 job descriptions given by Atlantans, exclusive of the work done by the city's 1,900 enslaved residents.

    10 most common jobs

    1. Laborer: 284

    2. Carpenter: 235

    3. Clerk: 177

    4. Widow: 136

    5. Merchant: 90

    6. Machinist: 79

    7. Locomotive fireman: 66

    8. Painter: 61

    9. Locomotive engineer: 59

    10. Prostitute: 49

    Look up jobs by type:


      Five houses still stand inside I-285 from antebellum Atlanta: the Goodwin House (left) at 3931 Peachtree Road; the Peachtree Golf clubhouse at 4600 Peachtree Blvd; the Judge William Wilson home at 501 Fairburn Road SW; Meadow Nook at 2420 Alston Drive SE; and the Tullie Smith House, which has been relocated to the Atlanta History Center grounds.

      Chapter 2
      Slavery, elections & secession

      An 1860s slave market on Whitehall Street, though this block is now part of Peachtree Street. Explore this and other photos bearing this icon closer by clicking (or touching on a tablet) and dragging to zoom in on details. To reset, simply click/touch a second time.

      As North and South split apart over slavery, Atlantans approached the 1860 presidential election with apprehension. In the minds of most white Southerners, the election was a national referendum on the future of slavery, an institution that was the foundation of the region's economy. If Republican Abraham Lincoln won, their belief went, the only way Southern states could preserve slavery would be by exiting the Union and forming a new government that guaranteed the right to own African-Americans.

      Yet many Atlantans wanted no part of a new nation. On Election Day, Atlanta voters went for a pro-Union candidate, John Bell. But when Lincoln won anyway, and Georgians voted for secession two months later, the city's white population overwhelmingly threw its support behind the creation of the Confederacy.

      War broke out in April 1861, and a few diehard Unionists -- mostly Northern transplants who had moved here for business reasons -- found themselves disconnected from their nation. Most of the city, however, was caught up in Confederate patriotism and the fervor of war.

      A place for bondage

      Slavery was an integral part of the overall economy -- 1 out of every 5 Atlanta residents was a slave. Like other urban areas, Atlanta had a lower slave population than the rest of the antebellum South due to the absence of plantations.

      Unlike rural areas, many slaves in Atlanta had valuable job skills, such as carpentry or tailoring, which helped fuel a modernizing economy.

      Slavery’s role in antebellum Atlanta.

      Hover over (or touch on tablet) the pie charts for percentages



      Fulton Co.

      DeKalb Co.

      Cobb Co.

      Gwinnett Co.

      Milton Co. (north Fulton today)

      Clayton Co.

      Two elections

      The idea of a Republican president was so abhorrent to most white Southerners that Abraham Lincoln didn't even appear on the ballot in Georgia and 10 other Southern states.

      Atlanta's torn loyalties are reflected in results of the Nov. 6 election, when the moderate John Bell outpolled John C. Breckenridge, who was the choice of most hard-line white Southerners. And even when a special election on secession followed on Jan. 2, 1860, the statewide result was not completely one-sided either.

      Harper’s Weekly magazine’s take on the divisive 1860 presidential election.

      Secession Vote

      Fulton County


      ‘Disunion’ seems imminent and that I fear will prove ruinous to our business. How strange it is that the fanaticism of the North should be so encouraged by the mass of people at the price of the peace and union of the whole country!
      Samuel Richards, Atlanta resident
      Nov. 25, 1860