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The Work of Sherman

Sunday, August 23, 2009

THE BONFIRE

The Siege and Burning of Atlanta

By Marc Wortman

Public Affairs. 431 pp. $28.95

In "The Bonfire," Marc Wortman offers military annihilation as Shakespearean tragedy. Fresh from writing a history of World War I's Yale Flying Club, Wortman describes the 1864 burning of Atlanta, which eventually revived to grow into the eighth-largest U.S. city. In following the quiet struggles of James Calhoun, Atlanta's Unionist mayor, who was forced to accommodate determined Confederates, and Robert Yancey, a black merchant who built a personal fortune despite his legal status as property, the author evokes a "great, growing, and all-welcoming Gate City, made by war, [that] now belonged to the war." Atlanta became a symbol of Confederate gumption, destined to be destroyed before it could be born again.

Those benumbed by military jargon may wish to skim Wortman's descriptions of flanking maneuvers, bivouacking and artillery-shell sizes. But the presence of scorched-earth advocate Gen. William Sherman -- "Let us destroy Atlanta and make it a desolation" ranks among his gentler declarations -- prevents the narrative from slipping into the History Channel battle-tech ghetto.

-- Justin Moyer

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