Wendy Hamand Venet. A Changing Wind: Commerce and Conflict in Civil War Atlanta. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. Illustrations. x + 280 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-19216-2.
Reviewed by Rebecca E. Powell (Auburn University)
Published on H-War (December, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
In A Changing Wind: Commerce and Conflict in Civil War Atlanta, Wendy Hamand Venet provides an expansive study of the shifting character of Atlanta from its founding to the Reconstruction era. Venet begins and ends her narrative in the historic Oakland cemetery. Between these symbolic bookends, she explores the changing experiences of a host of overlapping groups, including slaves, the free black community, poor women and children, elite families, entrepreneurs, nurses, Unionists, and secessionists. She also addresses several themes: commerce, the experiences of the “underclass,” the role of newspapers, the railroad, urban Unionism, arts and leisure, Atlanta’s relationship to the battlefield, the city’s destruction, and the city’s struggle to rebuild in the aftermath of war. Venet also purposely alludes to Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind (1936) to render stark the differences between fictional Civil War Atlanta and the real story of the people who experienced its “changing wind.”
Venet moves chronologically as she traces Atlanta’s development. She begins with the transformation of Atlanta into the “Gate City of the South.” Its rail lines connected it to other important Southern cities and ports, while its position as a railroad hub facilitated business development. The commercial nature of Atlanta ultimately shaped the way in which the city faced the possibility of war. Financial interests motivated many Atlanta Unionists to criticize secession, but their voices were not enough to overcome such secessionist voices as that of its outgoing mayor, William Ezzard, and delegates who voted to secede at the Georgia Secession Convention. The spring of 1861 saw a swelling of Confederate nationalism, illustrated by farewell ceremonies for departing units. Venet argues that by the second year of the war, Atlanta had become a “wartime metropolis” owing to its growing manufacturing sector and the relocation of the Confederate arsenal from Nashville (p. 67).
By the spring of 1863, however, Atlanta’s white residents had become increasingly disillusioned, as they faced inflation, intrusive Confederate policies, the constant presence of death and suffering, and defeats at Vicksburg and Gettysburg. At the same time, Emancipation emboldened Atlanta’s African American community. In 1864, the concerns of most Atlanta residents shifted to survival, as the region endured its coldest winter in thirty years, and because the arrival of William Tecumseh Sherman’s army loomed. As the city fell to Union forces, many residents fled, taking refuge in Macon and elsewhere. Only with the end of the war in 1865 did those in exile begin to return to the city.
Venet maintains that railroads continued to be central to the nature of Atlanta. Just as they brought prosperity before the war and provided a path into the city for Sherman near the war’s end, they also pulled Atlanta out of its postwar ashes by reconnecting the city to Northern commerce. While merchants again prospered, many civilians, notably including African Americans and poor single women, suffered. Venet concludes with a chapter on memory, emphasizing efforts that included the building of Confederate monuments and the establishment of Confederate Memorial Day and Emancipation Day. On Emancipation Day, African Americans celebrated the anniversary, held meetings to discuss such concerns as education, and drafted petitions to white churches and newspapers imploring them to condemn racial violence.
What sets Venet’s work apart from previous efforts is how she tells the story of Atlanta’s transformation through civilian eyes, charting the way that myriad groups experienced its early growth, the Civil War, and the Reconstruction era. Particularly important to Civil War historiography is her inclusion of the experiences of the women of the “underclass” (p. 102). She argues that as the war continued, Atlanta became a “city of women,” and she uses mayor’s court records, newspapers, and correspondence to demonstrate this not only through the stories of elite women and nurses but also through the stories of both enslaved and poor white women (p. 4). For example, on March 18, 1863, a dozen women stormed into a butcher shop on Whitehall Street in protest of bacon prices. The group took two hundred dollars worth of meat at gunpoint when the butcher refused their demands. This incident reflects some women’s willingness to mobilize to express their hunger and to circumvent mainstream political avenues to declare their discontent with Confederate conditions and policies.
Venet also includes the experiences of enslaved women in her narrative. For example, a slave named Ellen repeatedly stole cologne, thread, and other items despite inevitable punishment. Another slave woman, Beckie, when sent out to run errands, took extra time to visit friends and family, again despite punishment. Both of these stories reflect the violence and surveillance endured by enslaved women in Atlanta, but also the ways in which they created moments of independence, expressed identity, and reflected their understanding of the war as one for freedom.
One of the many strengths of Venet’s work is her consideration of the transformation of Atlanta from diverse perspectives. Yet her work also highlights the need for more scholarship centered on the wartime experiences of lesser-studied groups, such as enslaved women, poor white women, and urban workers. Studies focused on the meaning of the experiences and actions of such groups are critical to a full understanding of the Confederate home front. Nevertheless, Venet’s work is an excellent example of an exhaustive, inclusive study of a Southern city during the Civil War era.
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Rebecca E. Powell. Review of Venet, Wendy Hamand, A Changing Wind: Commerce and Conflict in Civil War Atlanta.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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