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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Campaign for Atlanta



"God help my country!" So wrote Mary Chesnut of South Carolina in her diary on New Year's Day 1864: She expressed the feeling of the vast majority of her fellow Southerners. Their expectation of victory, so high at the beginning of 1863, had by the end of that year been transformed into a dread of impending doom by the disastrous defeats at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga. Powerful Northern armies now dominated vast areas of the South and stood poised to overrun still more against badly depleted Confederate forces. The South's economy was close to collapse, thousands of its people were homeless refugees, its ramshackle rail system barely functioned, the Northern blockade was growing evermore effective, and any chance that Britain would recognize and aid the Confederacy had disappeared with the Emancipation Proclamation and the failure of Robert E. Lee's second invasion of the North at Gettysburg.


Yet, in spite of all of this, the South retained, as 1864 got under way, one last hope of victory. Paradoxically, this hope came from the North. There the Democratic party contended that the nation never could be reunited by war but only through peace, a peace to be achieved by giving the seceded states an opportunity to return to the Union with the same rights—among them the right of slavery—that they had held when they left it. Accordingly, the Democrats based their strategy, which they made no attempt to conceal, for the North's 1864 presidential election on two assumptions: (1) that notwithstanding their 1863 setbacks the Confederates would be able to defy all efforts to subdue them through the spring, summer, and fall of 1864; (2) that as a consequence war-weary Northern voters, realizing the futility of trying to suppress the rebellion by military means, would repudiate the pro-war and antislavery policies of the Republicans by replacing Abraham Lincoln in the White House with a Democrat pledged to a suspension of hostilities and the negotiation of a voluntary restoration of the Union.


The assumptions of the Democrats gave Southerners their hope of victory in 1864. They believed that if they could hold out long and well enough against the Yankee armies they would break the will of the North to go on with the war and so open the way for the Democrats to take power in Washington, an event that would lead—not to the South returning to the Union, for it had fought too hard and suffered too much to do that—but rather to Northern acceptance of Southern independence: once the North stopped the war it would be impossible for it to resume it.


What brought hope to Southerners inspired fear among Republicans. They too realized that should the Federal armies be bogged down in stalemate come election time, the North indeed might turn to the Democrats with their specious but seductive promise of Union through peace. To prevent this from happening it would be necessary either to defeat the Confederacy before the voters went to the polls in the fall or else to score such military successes as to convince the majority of those voters that victory was on the way. That was why on February 1, 1864, Lincoln issued a call for 200,000 more troops in addition to the 300,000 he had summoned to the colors in October: these 500,000 new soldiers would be twice the number the Confederacy could muster altogether. It also was why Lincoln on March 9, 1864, appointed Ulysses S. Grant to the newly created rank of lieutenant general and placed him in command of all Union armies. If Grant, who had captured whole Rebel armies at Fort Donelson and Vicksburg and routed another at Chattanooga, could not lead the North to victory in 1864, who could?

Such, then, were the grand strategies of North and South as the war entered its fourth year. In the case of the South, it sought to win by not losing, in the hope that the North, finding itself unable to win, would lose its will to continue the war. As for the North, Lincoln and the Republicans needed and therefore would endeavor to win by winning, thus maintaining the support of the Northern people for the war and for themselves. Which strategy prevailed and which failed would be decided on the battlefields.


If the South was to win by not losing, there were two places where it was absolutely essential to deny the North victory: Virginia and Georgia. Confederate President Jefferson Davis was confident that Lee could hold the Yankees at bay in Virginia, preventing them from taking Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy and the symbol of its independence.

He lacked the same confidence in General Joseph E. Johnston, commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee in north Georgia. He considered Johnston to be vain and selfish as a man and as a general more inclined to retreat than to fight, to defend rather than to attack, and so recalcitrant in implementing the wishes of the government with regard to military operations as to border on the insubordinate. Therefore, he had appointed Johnston to command the Army of Tennessee, following its debacle at Chattanooga in November 1863, most reluctantly and solely because no other general of the requisite rank was available who could be depended on to do better or even as well. He could only hope that Johnston, now that the fate of the Confederacy hung in the balance, would be more cooperative, more aggressive, and above all more successful than he hitherto had been.

It would be a vain hope. Johnston's dislike and distrust of Davis matched, indeed exceeded, the president's dislike and distrust of the general. Johnston knew, too, that Davis had named him to head the Army of Tennessee out of necessity, not preference, and suspected that Davis would not be altogether unhappy should he fail in that post. Accordingly, although he would do his best, by his lights, to defend Georgia, as always he would take care while doing so to preserve his public reputation for high military skill, a reputation that literally was more precious to him than life itself.

How difficult it was for Davis and Johnston to work in harmony became evident from the start. Soon after Johnston took command of the Army of Tennessee at Dalton, Georgia, on December 27, 1863, he received a letter from the president urging him to attack and defeat the Federal army at Chattanooga, thereby forestalling an invasion of Georgia by delivering what in effect would be a pre-emptive strike. In theory it was a good plan but in fact utterly impracticable. As Johnston promptly and correctly pointed out in reply, the Army of Tennessee lacked the strength, supplies, and transport to conduct a successful offensive. The only way it could reasonably hope to do so, Johnston argued, was to repel the Federals when they attacked, then launch a counterattack. To that end he asked that he be reinforced by Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk's army in Mississippi and Alabama.

Davis, who had received contrary information from other sources, refused to believe Johnston's assessment of the Army of Tennessee's offensive capability. To him it seemed that Johnston was being his usual uncooperative and unaggressive self. Hence for the next four months he endeavored to persuade Johnston to go after the Yankees before the Yankees came after him. Just as persistently Johnston refused to do anything of the kind. Since Davis, for political reasons, dared not remove Johnston or order him to attack, by default Johnston's strategy for meeting and defeating the Union invasion of Georgia became the Confederate strategy.


More than any other Southern city that flourished before the Civil War, Atlanta was a creation of the railroad. It lay perfectly uninhabited in 1840, when survey crews began marking the location of three rail lines that would connect there. The Georgia Railroad extended from Augusta to the east, while the Macon & Western worked its way up from the south. These lines led into the wilderness from the more populated coast, but a third railroad, the Western & Atlantic, snaked its way south through the mountains from Chattanooga, on the Tennessee border. Engineers opted to join these roads a few miles south of the Chattahoochee River, and they named this arbitrary junction "Terminus." Colonel Stephen Long, the chief engineer of the Western & Atlantic, reportedly refused a chance to buy 200 acres in Terminus because he doubted the place would ever amount to anything.

In 1843 the site was incorporated under the name of Marthasvllle. Two years later its name was changed again, to Atlanta. Colonel Long's disdained 200 acres formed the center of the city, which blossomed rapidly. By 1860 Atlanta could boast a population of more than 10,000, and it was still growing.

The city was recognized early in the war as a vital link in Confederate communications. The Western & Atlantic Railroad, in particular, served as an umbilical between the Upper South and the Deep South, connecting with the equally important rail center at Chattanooga, about 140 miles to the north. As early as April of 1862 Union authorities had attached enough significance to the Western & Atlantic that Federal soldiers infiltrated northern Georgia in civilian clothing and stole a locomotive with the intention of cutting the line. That incursion ended in disaster, as did Union Colonel Abel Streight's cavalry raid in the spring of 1863, which culminated in the capture of Streight's command by Confederate cavalry under General Nathan Bedford Forrest.


The Western & Atlantic proved even more crucial as a supply line as Federal armies pushed the Confederate Army of Tennessee eastward in the summer of 1863. When Union troops occupied Chattanooga and Knoxville that fall, however, they interrupted all rail traffic north of Dalton, Georgia. The Western & Atlantic thereafter ceased to hold its former strategic value for the South: as 1864 opened, the only major rail link between the two major Confederate armies was the overburdened coastal route.

Atlanta itself remained vital to the Confederacy, despite the diminished importance of the Western & Atlantic. The city still served as a terminus for three rail lines that led to the unoccupied portions of the besieged nation, and it rivaled Richmond in its industrial importance to the South. Its railroad heritage had spawned machine shops, mills, and foundries that supplied demands from Mississippi to the Carolinas, and if it were lost those demands would be thrown upon the distant Richmond factories that were already falling behind in production, from which goods would have to be transported hundreds of additional miles over railroads that were already too taxed.

As William Sherman's troops prepared to move south in the spring of 1864, Atlanta had doubled in population as its industrial base expanded to support the machinery of war. Warehouses bulged with materiel for the Army of Tennessee, while trains steamed hourly out of the city to the east, west, and south with military or mechanical provisions and equipment. Meanwhile—just in case—Confederate engineers were putting the finishing touches on a series of artillery redoubts and rifle pits that partially surrounded the city.

—William Marvel

While Johnston and Davis wrangled, Grant formulated a plan for winning the war for the North.

While Johnston and Davis wrangled. Grant formulated a plan for winning the war for the North. Basically it called for Grant, who had decided to take personal charge of operations in Virginia, to smash Lee and/or take Richmond, and for the Union forces at Chattanooga to crush Johnston and/or take Atlanta, a vital railroad and manufacturing center with a strategic and symbolic importance second only to that of Richmond. Should either city fall, then it would merely be a matter of time before the Confederacy itself fell—and both Northerners and Southerners realized this.

To conduct the campaign against Johnston and Atlanta, Grant chose Major General William Tecumseh Sherman. His choice was based on friendship, not on Sherman's generalship. So far that had not been impressive. Early in the war, while commanding in Kentucky and Missouri, Sherman has so greatly exaggerated the strength of and danger from the enemy that he had suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be relieved. Returned to duty, he went to the opposite extreme by denying that the Confederates posed any threat at all, with the result that he was primarily to blame for the surprise and near destruction of Grant's army at Shiloh. In December 1862 his assault at Chickasaw Bluffs in Mississippi failed terribly, and during the subsequent Vicksburg campaign, although he ably did all that Grant told him to do, in truth he did not have to do very much. Assigned by Grant the starring role in the Battle of Chattanooga, his performance was so inept that only an impromptu attack by the troops of Major General George H. Thomas's Army of the Cumberland saved Grant from defeat and gave him victory.


Yet, despite this lackluster record, Grant deemed Sherman to be the best man to command in the West while he himself commanded in the East. He admired Sherman's brilliant intellect, boundless energy, and persistent enter rise. Above all he knew that Sherman was totally devoted to him personally and so could be trusted to make every effort to assist him in defeating the Confederacy in 1864.

On April 4,1864, Grant sent Sherman his instructions. He was to "move against Johnston's army, to break it up, and get into the interior of the enemy's country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources." The specific method by which Sherman accomplished this assignment, Grant added, he left to him, but he did ask Sherman to submit a broad "plan of operations." This Sherman did on April 10. After defining his mission as being to "knock Jos. Johnston, and to do as much damage to the resources of the enemy as possible," Sherman stated that he would compel Johnston to retreat to Atlanta, whereupon he would use his cavalry to cut the railroad between that city and Montgomery, Alabama, then "feign to the right, but pass to the left and act against Atlanta or its eastern communications, according to developed facts."



Superficially Sherman's plan seemed to comply with Grant's instructions. Actually it did not. Contrary to the clear implication of those instructions, Sherman proposed to make the capture of Atlanta and not the destruction of Johnston's army his prime objective. Several reasons, among them Sherman's personal distaste for battles with all of their uncertainties, explain this reversal of priorities, but the main one was that Sherman assumed that it would not be necessary for him to defeat Johnston because Grant soon would win the war by defeating Lee. Consequently, Sherman conceived his main task to be that of assuring Grant's success by preventing Johnston from sending reinforcements to Lee.

Grant took the same view of the matter. When he replied on April 19 to Sherman's April 10 letter he emphasized the need to forestall Johnston from aiding Lee. "If the enemy on your front," he cautioned Sherman, "shows signs of joining Lee, follow him up to the full extent of your ability."

To "knock Jos. Johnston" Sherman assembled at and near Chattanooga about 110,000 troops. By far the largest portion of them, nearly 65,000 infantry and artillerists, belonged to Major General George H. Thomas's Army of the Cumberland, which consisted of three corps: the IV, XIV, and XX, headed respectively by Major Generals Oliver Otis Howard, John M. Palmer, and "Fighting Joe" Hooker, who as commander of the Army of the Potomac in Virginia had come to grief against Lee at Chancellorsville in May of 1863. Thomas, because of his massive build, gave some the impression of being slow, and he was called the "Rock of Chickamauga" because of his stalwart defensive stand at that battle; yet his mind moved with lightning speed and at Nashville in December of 1864 he would deliver the most devastating attack of the entire war. On the basis of both record and talent he, not Sherman, deserved to command the campaign in Georgia, but he lacked what Sherman so amply possessed: the friendship and trust of Grant.


The next largest part of Sherman's host was Major General James B. McPherson's Army of the Tennessee (the Federals usually named their armies after rivers, hence the Army of the Tennessee, whereas Confederate practice was to name armies after states or portions thereof, thus the Army of Tennessee), about 23,000 soldiers organized into Major General John A. "Black Jack" Logan's XV Corps and the two-division XVI Corps and the two-division XVI Corps of Major General Grenville M. Dodge. It was Sherman's favorite army, for until recently he had commanded it, as had Grant before him. McPherson, its new commander, was intelligent and conscientious but, as events would reveal, deficient in initiative and enterprise.

Least among the major components of Sherman's invasion force was the so-called Army of the Ohio. Although Major General George Stoneman's cavalry division nominally formed part of it, for all practical purposes it consisted merely of the 11,000-man XXIII Corps, and its commander, Major General John M. Schofield, hitherto had seen little field service. But he was capable as well as ambitious, and during the campaign his small corps would accomplish much.

Sherman's artillery numbered 254 cannons, his cavalry about 11,000 troopers. The former was superior to its Confederate counterpart in all except the valor of its gun crews, having more rifled pieces and better ammunition. The latter, on the other hand, suffered from the poor leadership of its four division commanders, a situation made worse by the fact that the sole central control over its operations came from Sherman himself, and he lacked a realistic understanding of the limitations and potentialities of the mounted arm.

Sherman's chief concern was supplying his army as it marched and fought its way through northern Georgia. To do so he had to depend mainly on the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad. When he assumed command in March it was delivering enough supplies to maintain the forces around Chattanooga but not enough to sustain an offensive. Therefore, he issued orders designed to remedy this situation. By the end of April an average of 135 freight cars a day were coming into Chattanooga—more than the minimum required. Sherman also collected 5,000 wagons and 32,000 mules to haul what the trains delivered, giving himself the means to operate away from the railroad whenever that proved necessary or desirable.



To meet and, he hoped, defeat Sherman when he advanced, Johnston by the end of April had about 55,000 troops present for duty, backed by 144 cannons. The infantry and most of the artillery were organized into two corps, those of Lieutenant Generals William J. Hardee and John Bell Hood, and the cavalry, which numbered approximately 8,500 and was commanded by Major General Joseph Wheeler.

Known as "Old Reliable," Hardee was a veteran of virtually all of the Army of Tennnessee's battles.

Known as "Old Reliable," Hardee was a veteran of virtually all of the Army of Tennessee's battles. Following that army's humiliating rout at Chattanooga, he had become its acting commander, but when President Davis offered him the post on a regular basis he had declined it.

Hood, who was only thirty-two, had compiled a brilliant combat record as a brigade and division commander in Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, and at Chickamauga his de facto corps's exploitation of a gap in the Union front produced the Confederate victory. His military success, however, had come at a high personal cost: at Gettysburg shrapnel paralyzed his left arm, at Chickamauga a bullet shattered his right thigh bone, necessitating amputation near the hip. As a result, he could not, despite an artificial leg, walk without the aid of crutches, and to ride he had to be strapped to his horse. Even so, his fighting spirit remained intact, and Johnston sought and welcomed his assignment to a corps command in the Army of Tennessee, calling it "my greatest comfort." He did not know that Hood had written Davis on April 13 deploring Johnston's failure to take the offensive: "When we are to be in a better condition to drive the enemy from our country I am not able to comprehend."

Wheeler had headed the Army of Tennessee's cavalry since the fall of 1862 and was energetic, aggressive, and resourceful. Unfortunately, he also (like most Civil War cavalry leaders) was unable to exercise effective control over units not under his personal supervision and had a penchant for exaggerating his successes and minimizing or concealing his failures. Nevertheless he gave Johnston's army what Sherman's lacked—a capable, experienced commander for its horsemen, who throughout the campaign would more than hold their own against the Union troopers.


Under the Confederate conscription laws, all able bodied males between the ages of eighteen and forty-five were subject to military service except an assortment of exempted classes. Among those who were exempt were civil officials and officers in the state militia organizations. In Georgia, so many men of military age had gained exemption through state or county offices that they came to be called "Joe Brown's pets," after the controversial wartime governor. Howell Cobb, a political rival of Brown's, complained of districts that had gone without justices of the peace for years before the war that were served by several once hostilities began, and county courts suddenly saw flocks of clerks and deputy sheriffs although the war had virtually suspended all court business, These men were all fit for duty, Cobb said, as were the 2,726 militia officers who had only themselves to command, their enlisted members having all gone into the army.

Once Sherman invaded Georgia, Brown called out the civil servants and militia officers, directing their formation into companies and regiments. He ordered them to report to Atlanta, where they were organized into two brigades of three regiments apiece and a battalion of artillery: more than 3,000 men, altogether. Those militia officers who were not elected for commissions in this new organization took up arms as enlisted men.


Major General Gustavus W. Smith took command of them in June, when they were assigned to guard the crossings of the Chattahoochee River, When Johnston anchored his army on Kennesaw Mountain, he ordered the militia north of the Chattahoochee to support the cavalry on his left. Under Smith the militia twice found itself within skirmishing distance of Federal forces, and it was among the last troops to fall back across the river. Johnston assigned the little division, which was now reduced to about 2,000 muskets, to the trenches east of Atlanta, along the Georgia Railroad.

In the Battle of Atlanta on July 22 the militia occupied works opposite the apex of the folded Union line and advanced against the XVII Corps when it retreated from Hardee's attack. The militia division was not heavily engaged, however, and only lost about fifty men in that engagement.

Early in August, as Sherman tightened the noose around Atlanta, Governor Brown called out the "reserve militia"—men between forty-six and fifty-five and boys aged sixteen or seventeen. Eventually some 2,000 such reserves reached General Smith, who noted that his division never exceeded 5,000 men. The militia suffered from a lack of both training and equipment. The first regiments of military and civil officers were armed from surplus army muskets, but most of the old men and boys came with their own flintlocks, hunting rifles, and shotguns. More than two-thirds were never issued cartridge boxes, according to Smith.


In the final month of the siege the militia held the defenses west of the road to Marietta, and when the army retreated from Atlanta Smith's men acted as rear guard to Hood's reserve artillery train. The original regiments of civil and military officers had spent about a hundred days under arms by the time Atlanta fell, and for half that time they had been under fire. Smith and Hood both praised the militia men for their performance during the campaign, but straggling on the retreat caused Smith to observe the imprudence of putting men over the age of fifty in the field. When the army had reassembled outside the city, Smith recommended a thirty-day furlough for his entire command, which was granted. In October the militia reassembled to contest Sherman's March to the Sea.

—William Marvel

The vast majority of the soldiers of both armies were battle-hardened veterans. This meant that they knew how to fight—and also when it was best not to fight. In particular, they took a dim view of charging a fortified enemy: "It don't pay." Owing to the almost total tactical dominance that the rifled musket gave the defense over the offense during the Civil War, rarely did frontal assaults succeed, and when they did the price usually was excessive, as witness Chickamauga, where the Confederates lost one-third of their total number in what proved to be a strategically barren victory. The reluctance of Billy Yank and Johnny Reb at this stage of the war to attack except when the foe was thought to be weak, or in the open, or to have an exposed flank would have a lot to do with what happened and did not happen once the campaign for Atlanta got under way.

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