This article, written by Todd Hudson

On Nov. 13, 1864, Sherman himself watched the city burn.
Gen. William T. Sherman to Gen. Oliver O. Howard, 12 November 1864:

"I start this morning."

With this dispatch to the commander of his army’s right wing, Sherman began his infamous march of destruction, laying waste to everything from Etowah to the coast, sparing only Savannah.

Sherman described his plans well enough in a dispatch dated Nov. 1, in which he declared that he would “sally forth and ruin Georgia,” and in another that he would “make a hole in Georgia that will be hard to mend.”

Simply put, Sherman meant to deprive the Confederacy of both the means and the will for continuing the war by striking deep into the heart of Georgia, leaving horrific devastation.

The Union Army had been in possession of Marietta since July 3 and had captured Atlanta on Sept. 2. These, along with other towns in the area, had been garrisoned with federal troops.

For citizens like Matthew J. Williams, who had remained behind when Marietta was evacuated, the months of occupation had been a monotony of surreal quiet during which they felt cut off from the rest of the world.

Then, in early November, trains began running around the clock, roaring north through Marietta and Big Shanty, carrying wounded men and everything else not of immediate use to the rear of the Union line in Tennessee. The reason for the urgency was that, once the last train north had run, the railroad would be demolished.

On Nov. 10, Sherman ordered that Rome be destroyed. His dispatch read: “You will destroy tonight all public property not needed by your command, all foundries, mills, workshops, warehouses, railroad depot, or other storehouses convenient to the railroad, together with all wagon shops, tanneries, or other factories useful to our enemy. Destroy all bridges completely.”

As day broke the next morning, smoke was visible on the northern horizon. “The burning of the town of Rome,” Sherman said, “gives the enemy the clue to my intentions.”

The last train north ran through Marietta on the morning of the 12th. Once it had crossed the Etowah Bridge, the demolition began, and the great engineering feat of the 1840s was systematically and completely dismantled.

The entire length of track from Etowah to Atlanta was pulled up, the crossties piled and burned, and the steel railings wrenched and twisted beyond use.

Sherman’s full intention may not have been revealed to all of the Union’s officers in the field.

As Acworth went up in flames, Maj. James Connolly wrote: “Our soldiers burned the village of Acworth without orders and we went to camp at Big Shanty about dark. Acworth has been a thriving village, but tonight it is a heap of ruins. I was the only one of the general’s staff in the town when the fires began, and I tried to prevent the burning, but while I watched one house to keep it from being fired, another somewhere else would take fire, so I concluded to give up. I succeeded in saving a few houses occupied by ‘war widows’ and their families, but all the rest of the town went up in smoke."

On Nov. 13, the day Marietta burned, Sherman himself was present. Maj. Henry Hitchcock, who arrived in Marietta around midnight, saw the courthouse burning and Gen. Sherman looking on as a pumper truck tried to extinguish the flames.

Maj. Hitchcock used an abbreviated form of narrative in his diary, but his conversation with the general can be reconstructed as follows:

Hitchcock: 'Twill burn down, sir!

Sherman: Yes, can't be stopped.

Hitchcock: Was it your intention?

Sherman: Can't save it—I've seen more of this sort of thing than you.

Hitchcock: Certainly, sir.

Sherman: That courthouse was put out. It's no use. I dare say the whole town will burn—at least the business part. I never ordered any burning of any dwelling—didn't order this—but it can't be helped. I say, "Jeff Davis burnt them."

Hitchcock: Pardon me if I took liberty, but I only spoke because I was anxious that you not be blamed for what you did not order.

Sherman: Well, I suppose I'll have to bear it.

The Union Army departed Cobb County on Nov. 15, the day Sherman ordered the burning of Atlanta. No garrison was left behind, as there was no longer anything left to guard.

The afternoon before Sherman's troops departed Marietta forever, Hitchcock joined Sherman on a field outside the city for a review of Gen. Kilpatrick's cavalry.

"Ground, display, weather all superb," he wrote. "To look forward only fine show; but a mile off on the right lay Marietta, from which rose heavy columns (of) black smoke and lurid flame—terrible commentary on this display and its real meaning."