Was The Burning of Cassville, GA Three Times Justified?
Updated: Apr 11
by Gordon Thorsby
Lt. Gen Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee was already looting. Wheeler’s Confederate Cavalry came through the town of Cassville (nicknamed Manassas after the 1861 battle) and robbed homes and farms of food, forage and livestock. They had to. The South was being slowly starved. The blockade was beginning to work. The problem for the North was that the process was moving too slow. However, the people of the town were not happy with the results of Wheeler's run through the town.
Lt. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston was ready to make a stand at Cassville for at least a day or two and to inflict casualties on Sherman’s Federal army, but after discussion with his generals, Johnston once again withdrew toward Atlanta. Confederate soldiers were also NOT happy to retreat yet one more time. Major General William T. Sherman was at Adairsville, and he advanced on the town of Cassville.
In the morning, Cassville was mostly abandoned when the Union army rolled in. Sherman planned to destroy a nearby Iron works but it had been moved to Atlanta. The town was peaceful when soldiers from the 19th Michigan entered the pretty streets. The few people still there were unexpectedly sociable. Things changed when the XXIII Corps entered and began looting the town, at first for food, and from there it degraded into mayhem. The hotel was first to burn, then the female college on the hill, and the residence of Col. Akins (Georgia Congressman) was burned to the ground. Efforts to control the chaos failed. This first act was considered by officers as simple vandalism but others indicated that it may have been due to sharpshooter firing from the college. Whatever the reason, the behavior took on appearances that would eventually become normal scenes in the March to the Sea and through the Carolinas. Seeing the shambles, Generals McPherson, Howard and Thomas expressed disgust at the destruction. To make matters worse, Wheeler’s Cavalry hit a wagon train near the town four days later enraging Federal authorities.
Sherman began planning the March to the Sea from Cassville issuing new orders to send back all of the sick and wounded to Nashville. Commanders were to lighten the numbers of dependents requiring supplies and to “stripped for action." Sherman also issued specific orders as to methods for foraging that were restrictive, at least for the moment.
Cassville became a “thorn” to Union forces as time wore on. Confederate guerrillas raided near the town and took over a camped Union ambulance, killed the driver along with nine other Union stragglers. The next morning, their bodies were discovered on the grounds of the partially burned Cassville Female College. It quickly was realized that guerilla activity gravitated to the town at the end of the long supply line. Tired of the activity, more residents homes and the college again was burned by the 98th IL of Wilder’s Brigade and three Ohio infantry regiments on October 12th. Problems continued.
A letter followed from Brigadier General Edward M. McCook, on October 30, 1864, to Sherman, “My men killed some of those fellows two or three days since, and I had their houses burned….I will carry out your instructions thoroughly and leave the country east of the road uninhabitable.”
Cassville was burned to the ground on 5 November 1864 by order of General John E. Smith (Sherman signed the order 8 November after it had already been burned.) The Fifth Ohio Cavalry burned the town with little notice to residents. “The women and children fled to the cemetery and hid among the tombstones to escape the burning town.”
“The morning was bright and clear, but in the
evening the smoke arose and formed a dark and threatening
clouds, which for a while suspended over the doomed spot
and then seemed to melt away in the tears of grief. It
seemed as if nature was weeping over the sad fate of old
Cassville.” - Mrs. B.B. Quillian, resident.
The burnings were considered that of military destruction by necessity; to quicken the war’s end. That was the way Sherman saw it. Southerners at the time, wholeheartedly disagreed and state that it was an act of inhuman barbarity on innocents. Today, many Southerners, still maintain the position.
Cassville was off of the beaten track in 1864 and after the burnings, when nothing was left, the town was not rebuilt. It was three miles off the beaten track to be exact and the county seat was relocated to Cartersville.
There remains one beautiful home, a Confederate Cemetery and an historical marker where the Courthouse once stood. Cassville became a simple footnote in time.
"Bartow Burns and an Old Flame Remembered," by Scott Cooper, 12/13/2016, Etowah Historical Society.
Decision in the West, by Castel Albert, University Press of Kansas, 1992, Pp214-216.
Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.