"We rode out of Atlanta by the Decatur road, filled by the marching troops and wagons of the Fourteenth Corps; and reaching the hill, just outside of the old rebel works, we naturally paused to look back upon the scenes of our past battles. We stood upon the very ground whereon was fought the bloody battle of July 22d, and could see the copse of wood where McPherson fell. Behind us lay Atlanta, smouldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city." (William Tecumseh Sherman)
William Tecumseh Sherman has earned fame and infamy for being the one to bring total war to the South, and it started at Atlanta. Once his men entered the city, Sherman ordered the 1,600 citizens remaining in Atlanta to evacuate as he, in Grant's words, set out to "destroy [Atlanta] so far as to render it worthless for military purposes," with Sherman himself remaining a day longer to supervise the destruction himself "and see that it was well done." Then, on November 14, 1864, Sherman abandoned the ravaged city, taking with him 13,000 mules and horses and all the supplies the animals could carry.
One of the most famous movies of all time, Gone with the Wind, depicts the burning of Atlanta after Sherman occupied it in 1864. Over time history came to view Sherman as a harbinger of total war, and in the South Sherman is still viewed as a brutal warmonger. Considerable parts of Atlanta and Columbia did burn when Sherman occupied them in 1864 and 1865, respectively, but how responsible was Sherman for the initial fires?
To this day, there is no definitive answer.