Josh Calhoun had seen enough death and destruction to last a lifetime. At the outbreak of the War for Southern Independence, he had been the steadfast son of a farmer in Wilkes County, Georgia, looking forward one day to taking a piece of his father’s land and setting up his own household with a wife and kids and crops and maybe, if he worked hard enough and made enough money, even a slave or two in a few years.
When the war came along, Josh saw it as an opportunity for an incredible adventure. His expectations had been met beyond any of his wildest dreams and he had just about had enough. He was part of the 73rd Georgia Infantry, assigned to the Army of Tennessee now under General Hood and things had been consistently going from bad to worse. Josh had been part of the forces who had unsuccessfully defended Chattanooga under Bragg, and had retreated along with Johnston to Resacca, then Kennesaw Mountain, where most of the men felt confident about being able to hold that and when the orders came to fall back again, most weren’t sure if they’d heard right. But they were foot soldiers and it wasn’t up to them to make the orders, so they did as asked and fell back once again. Now they were defending Atlanta and General Johnston was out and Hood was in and things had changed drastically.
Under Hood the defensive war just wouldn’t work and Josh and his compatriots had been involved in one bloody skirmish after another, first at Peachtree Creek, then Decatur, and now he and his fellow soldiers had the important task of protecting the citizens of Atlanta as they were removed from their homes under orders of General Sherman. Stationed near Lake City, at the Rough and Ready Tavern, Josh had a good view of the city he and his fellow soldiers had tried to defend at all costs. In the end, just as with many battles Josh had seen action in the orders came to fall back and another Southern prize changed hands.
From that moment, Sherman fell silent, sitting, waiting, planning for his next move and the 73rd Georgia had little else to do but sit and watch the prominent citizens of Atlanta as they tried to sort out how they had gone from jewel in the crown to destitute rovers in a little over two months. Josh himself wasn’t one to reflect greatly on his past successes or failures, though. If the good Lord meant for him to know anything, he reasoned, he’d be the one running things and not someone else. So he stood by and took his orders and wished, somewhat in the back of his mind, that ol’ Billy Sherman would just go ahead and put an end to it all so Josh could go home.
By this time, no one entertained any falacies that the South could still win. They knew it was all over when Vicksburg fell the same day as Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg. Throughout the early campaigns, the South had prevailed, had fought like furies and yielded no ground to the accursed invaders but everything had changed. Still, no one at the top could say it and so they kept fighting, losing more ground, killing more men and watching their brothers in arms die and get wounded. Josh had wondered on more than one occasion if there was something he didn’t know, something the leaders weren’t telling them. Perhaps Lee had regrouped and was making a stand outside Washington — only a few months earlier, he sent an entire corps down to reinforce the Army of Tennessee.
Surely things couldn’t be all that bad if the greatest general of all time felt secure enough to release a whole corps for detached service. Maybe there was still a chance that no one had considered and that any day now Josh and his colleagues would receive their orders to retake Atlanta. As the days wore on, though, that possibility grew dimmer and dimmer, as it seemed that General Hood was just as inept at stopping the Northern invaders as Bragg and Johnston before him. At least under Johnston they weren’t always on the attack.
All in all, though, Josh had little to complain about. He was among the luckier of the soldiers. At least he had shoes, which his father had sent to him in a package some months before, while Josh’s unit was still stationed at Chattanooga. In this there had been a fortunate bit of providence as well, for the package arrived just as his unit was preparing for their move into Georgia. Had it taken a day or so longer for the package to make it, Josh may never have received it, so he was fortunate for that. The food supply had always been a worry, though, but many who had evacuated Atlanta brought supplies with them and some were even willing to share with the troops, so every now and again, a soldier might enjoy some fatback or a little bacon with his cornmeal and this was always welcome.
Josh had not taken stock of himself very often while in combat, but he knew that he, like those around him, had lost a lot of weight since first signing on. All they did was march and fight, so he wasn’t surprised by this fact, but still there were surprises. A few months earlier, Josh ran into an old compatriot of his from Wilkes County and the fellow hadn’t even recognized Josh at first. In fact, Josh barely recognized the friend until he heard the man’s name. Much had changed and Josh frequently wondered if, when it was all over and he could return home, if there would even be a home for him to return to.
Then one evening, while he was on picket duty, a noticeable wail went up among the crowd of townsfolk and Josh rushed over to see what was happening. Through the darkness, the scene was unmistakable, flames were rising from the direction of Atlanta. It wasn’t a small fire, though, it was huge, the entire town it seemed.
It took a moment for Josh to comprehend exactly what it meant but it came to him in a rush of emotion: Sherman was leaving and had set the whole town on fire. Logically, Josh reasoned, his unit would soon receive orders telling them to move out as well. The only question was whether they’d try to stop Sherman’s advance or whether they’d flank him and attempt to disrupt his supply line.
Now, though, Josh was transfixed by what he saw. All his life he’d heard stories about Atlanta. Some nearby neighbors had lived there when it was still known as Terminus and talked about the bustling center of commerce that was growing in Northwest Georgia. Josh had thought it might be a nice place to visit, maybe even live. After Vicksburg had fallen, Josh had heard it repeated that if Atlanta fell, the Confederacy would soon follow, so now, watching the town the army had worked so hard to save go up in flames, Josh finally knew that there would be no surprise orders, no last minute victory to turn the tide of the war back into Rebel favor. Now, Josh knew, just as everyone knew, that it was only a matter of time.