Actual Factual Georgia: Who saved part of Atlanta from Sherman?

Q: I heard a story about a man who helped save some of the buildings in Atlanta from being burned by Gen. Sherman’s soldiers during the Civil War. Is that true? If so, who was he?

A: A Catholic priest’s words fell on the right ears as Union troops began torching Atlanta in November 1864.

As the story goes, Father Thomas O’Reilly, the pastor of Immaculate Conception, the first Catholic church in Atlanta, told Union Gen. Henry Slocum that the many Catholic and Irish soldiers in the Union Army would mutiny if the church was burned.

Immaculate Conception had been damaged during the Union’s siege of the city and had served as a hospital for both sides.

The building was still standing as flames raged across the city.

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O’Reilly, a native Irishman, obviously said something persuasive — he “argued with passionate eloquence that burning the churches would be an affront to heaven,” gacivilwar.org states – because Sherman soon posted guards around the church.

His message also saved St. Philip’s Episcopal, Trinity Methodist, Second Baptist and Central Presbyterian, in addition to City Hall/Fulton County Courthouse, which was where the Capitol now stands.

The churches were shelters for Atlanta citizens who were burned out of their homes and those who returned to the city after the fire.

O’Reilly died in 1872 and is buried in the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which was completed in 1873 to replace the original church.

Services are held in the magnificent Gothic building at 48 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

A monument honoring O’Reilly is outside Atlanta City Hall.

Q: Who was Carl Vinson? I’ve seen some things named for him and I’m wondering who he was and what he did.

A: Vinson never learned to drive a car, but he was the driving force behind military affairs in Washington for half of the 20th century.

He grew up in Milledgeville and began serving as a U.S. Representative when he was only 31 in 1914.

Vinson then served 26 consecutive terms, rising to chair the House of Representative’s Naval Affairs Committee and later the Armed Services Committee during the critical years of World War II and the Cold War.

When he retired to his farm in Milledgeville in 1965, Vinson had set the mark for Congressional longevity, at 50 years.

He was 97 when he died in 1981, but not before the USS Carl Vinson, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, was named for him.

If you’re new in town or have questions about this special place we call home, ask us! E-mail Andy Johnston at q&a@ajc.com or call 404-222-2002.

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