History has the capability to intrigue, but in regards to the Civil War, most likely a certain amount of morbid curiosity is responsible for people’s fascination. The allure of self-destruction permeates the atmosphere of insurrections, never ceasing to amaze at the fact that fellow countrymen can battle with each other. Thus, it is no wonder that one of the most notable incidents of the American Civil War would capture the interest and imagination of so many Americans almost one hundred and fifty years later. In The Bonfire: The Siege and Burning of Atlanta, Marc Wortman writes about the fall of Atlanta, an incident of the American Civil War that has gained legendary status. The destruction of Georgia’s capital makes for an interesting tale, rivaling perhaps only the White House burning during the War of 1812 in terms of American icons destroyed in the course of American history.
Yet it is not only in the action-packed final moments of Atlanta’s fall where the book becomes interesting. The backstory about Atlanta’s development as a city is absolutely fascinating. Wortman intrigues the reader with details about the place which became a thriving metropolis through urban development, and he explores the city in fascinating historical detail. As Wortman shows, Atlanta embodied several elements that made it different from other Southern locales, most notably in its progressive ideals. Wortman evidences how Atlanta was actually one of the least radical Southern cities, but how, because of location and new development, it (rather ironically) became one of the most vital cities to the Confederacy and thus a key target for the Union army.
Wortman, by telling their stories, also resurrects the many fascinating historical figures who were torn between allegiance to their home and the love of their country. He skillfully weaves the personal stories of various Atlanta citizens with the historical accounts of more prominent and familiar figures like Mayor Calhoun of Atlanta and General William Sherman of the Union Army. What develops through the multitude of these back-and-forth accounts is a narrative that keeps the reader enthralled by creating interest in the people Wortman writes about. The glimpses into their lives offer personal complexities that make these real-life figures riveting characters who bear further study.
While most of Bonfire’s focus is naturally on Atlanta’s destruction, Wortman includes other historical details about the Civil War. These glimpses of history never detract from his main idea but instead promote knowledge. After finishing this, readers will likely have a desire to learn more about all aspects of the conflict. As the book draws to a close, the latter half of the narrative builds suspense by making the reader wait along with the inhabitants of Atlanta as the Union army grows ever closer to the city. Reading The Bonfire excites, as if what is going to happen is still a fate to be decided instead of knowledge already written in the pages of history.
There is hardly ever a dull moment in The Bonfire. With excellent prose, Wortman delivers a story that is both rich in history and very well-written. This book will captivate any reader: from the North to the South, and both serious history enthusiasts to those with only the vaguest curiosity about the past.