By Marc Wortman
Marc Wortman hasn’t so much written a book about the siege and burning of Atlanta as he has written a history of Atlanta covering approximately fifty years from its founding until its surrender to the army of William Tecumseh Sherman and its ultimate destruction. In doing so he has won the award for the most misleading book title of 2009, for his is not a book solely focused on “The Siege and Burning of Atlanta.” A full third of the book passes by before Mr. Wortman comes to the outbreak of the Civil War, and nearly another third of the book passes by before his narrative makes its way to the Atlanta Campaign, the siege of the city, its surrender and burning.
What Mr. Wortman has done very well is given us a very detailed look at the history of Atlanta, seen through the eyes of its citizens; its wartime mayor, James Montgomery Calhoun (a first cousin once removed of Senator and United States Vice President John C. Calhoun), Mrs. Cyrena Stone a diarist with Union sympathies, and Robert Gadsby, a slave in title only, who may or may not have been the illegitimate son of Daniel Webster. It is interesting that Mr. Wortman chose three Atlantans with Unionist leanings as the main characters in a book about the siege and burning of Atlanta; Margaret Mitchell’s Atlanta, this isn’t.
The military history of the Atlanta Campaign, the siege of the city, its surrender and burning, have taken a backseat in Mr. Wortman’s tome. Despite its title the siege and burning of Atlanta are not the main focus of this book. It’s narrative, rather, is driven by Atlanta’s Unionist inhabitants, which in and of itself is worthy of study. But in a book with a title, “The Bonfire: The Siege and Burning of Atlanta,” one would expect to find a book solely dedicated to military operations instead of only a third of its 361 pages of text.
Mr. Wortman’s book is well researched and written in an easily read style. It transitions easily from topic to topic, giving the book a nice narrative flow. “The Bonfire” is a great bargain for the book buyer, as it is several books all rolled up into one; a history of Georgia, the Indian removal (The Trail of Tears), the founding of Atlanta, an abbreviated genealogy of the Calhoun family, a biography of Robert Gadsby, and a history of the campaign for Atlanta, its siege and burning.
ISBN 978-1-58648-482-8, Public Affairs, © 2009, Hardcover, 464 pages, Photographs, Illustrations, Maps, Endnotes & Index. $28.95
READING AID: The Calhoun Family