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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Campaign for Atlanta



On August 23, the day after Sherman definitely decided to swing the bulk of his army to the south of Atlanta, Lincoln had the members of his cabinet sign, unseen, a memorandum stating that "it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be reelected. Then it will be my duty to so cooperate with the President-elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterward."

On August 31, even as Sherman's army repulsed Hardee's attack at Jonesboro and reached the Macon railroad, the Democratic national convention, meeting in Chicago, nominated General George B. McClellan for president on a platform that declared the war a failure and called for "a cessation of hostilities, with a view to an ultimate convention of the States or other peaceable means, to the end that at the earliest practicable moment peace may be restored on the basis of the Federal Union of the States."


Thus as August drew to an end both Lincoln and the Democrats expected that a war-weary North, despairing of victory, would elect a president committed to restoring the Union by means of peace rather than force. And the same expectation prevailed in the South, where on August 20 the Richmond Sentinel, which reflected the views of Jefferson Davis, predicted that if the Confederate armies continued to hold Grant and Sherman at bay for just six more weeks, "we are almost sure to be in much better condition to treat for peace than we are now" for the North no longer would be willing and therefore able to go on with the war.

Sherman's capture of Atlanta immediately and decisively reversed the mood of the North and the expectations of Lincoln, the Democrats, and the South. To the majority of Northerners it meant that the war was being won and so should be continued until the Union was restored and slavery, the thing that had caused the war, was totally eradicated. Likewise, Lincoln's pessimism about his election prospects, which other Republican leaders shared, turned to optimism, an optimism that proved fully justified when he was reelected by a landslide majority. On the other hand, the fall of Atlanta wrecked both the Democratic platform and McClellan's candidacy. And in the South it became clear to all except the most fanatical that the North would go on with the war until its superior might prevailed, as it did, even though the dwindling remnants of the Confederate army struggled on desperately for six more months before Lee mounted the steps of the McLean house at Appomattox Court House.



Johnston blamed Davis and Hood for the loss of Atlanta and they in turn blamed Johnston. Actually all three of them shared the responsibility. Davis badly overestimated the military potential of the Army of Tennessee and underestimated the power of the Federal forces arrayed against it. Yet he furnished Johnston with more troops than Lee had to oppose Grant (about 75,000, whereas Lee had about 60,000); he retained Johnston in command until it became manifest that he could not be relied on to make a whole-hearted effort to defend Atlanta, the sole thing Davis asked of him; and he was justified in not sacrificing Mississippi and Alabama by sending Forrest to attack Sherman's supply line, for not only would this have deprived the Army of Tennessee of its logistical base, it also probably would not have achieved any decisive result: not once during the Civil War did cavalry raids on railroads turn back the advance of a major army and it is extremely doubtful that Forrest, military genius that he was, could have provided an exception.

Johnston, as he was throughout his Civil War career, was more concerned during the Atlanta campaign with avoiding defeat than gaining victory. For this reason, and because of his inferior numbers, he for the most part adhered strictly to the defensive. Later he claimed that by so doing he preserved the strength of his forces while wearing down that of Sherman's to a point where he could and would have, when the Federals neared Atlanta, carried out a successful offensive had he not been removed from command. In truth, however, the Confederate army during May, June, and early July suffered a higher percentage of loss from all causes (killed, wounded, sick, captured, and desertion) than did the Union army, with the result that Sherman was proportionately stronger when he crossed the Chattahoochee than he was when he advanced from the Etowah. Furthermore Johnston's postwar assertions that he could have, had he remained in command, held Atlanta "forever" or "indefinitely" (whatever that means) are more than dubious, they are fatuous. If Johnston could not effectively counter Sherman's flanking maneuvers in the mountains of northern Georgia, what good reason is there for believing he would have done so in the relatively flat terrain around Atlanta? None. The most likely outcome of Johnston having remained in command is that Sherman would have entered Atlanta in late July instead of early September.


The hour of 4:30 on the afternoon of Friday, July 22, 1864, is forever preserved on the half-acre canvas of the Atlanta Cyclorama at Grant Park, on Boulevard in southeastern Atlanta. Even more impressive than the better-known Gettysburg Cyclorama, which depicts the acme of Pickett's Charge, this magnificent rendering of the Battle of Atlanta stands fifty feet tall inside a marble pantheon not far from the actual scenes portrayed.

The painting was begun in Milwaukee two decades after the battle and was the collective creation of ten German artists who labored for a year and a half to include every possible detail of the action. The best-recognized feature of the painting is the brick, hip-roofed Troup Hurt house, an unfinished structure standing near the Georgia Railroad—a little nearer in the painting than it was actually situated, in fact. Around the house swarm Alabama and South Carolina troops belonging to the brigade of Brigadier General Arthur Manigault, engaged with Midwesterners (mostly from Illinois and Ohio) under Brigadier General Joseph Lightburn. To the right of this, the Mississippians of Colonel Jacob Sharp's brigade can be seen moving against the newly arrived brigade of Colonel Augustus Mersy, whose men also hailed from Illinois and Ohio. Over the carnage soars an eagle, said to represent "Old Abe," the mascot of the 8th Wisconsin Volunteers, which took flight whenever its regiment went into action; if that is the intention, the bird represents a flaw in the painting's accuracy, for Old Abe and the 8th Wisconsin were hundreds of miles to the west, in Mississippi, during the Battle of Atlanta.


Lightburn's Federals fell back in disorder when Manigault's and Sharp's Confederates pierced their line: the Southerners poured through, overrunning two Illinois batteries and rolling up the Union trenches. They threatened to force the Federal XV Corps backward onto the rear of the XVI and XVII Corps, which were already under attack from the front by William Hardee's corps, but General Sherman ordered up additional artillery and John Logan shifted Mersy's fresh brigade from the Union left to help patch the breach. With rallied troops of Lightburn's, Mersy's brigade swept forward to regain their lost works. It is at this juncture that the action of the cyclorama is frozen. Battery horses lie dead or dying between the lines, killed so the Confederates could not carry away the artillery pieces they had overrun; Southern sharpshooters have taken refuge in the brick house; a cleated tree that served as an impromptu Union signal tower stands abandoned; an ambulance carries away the grievously wounded Union general, Manning Force, who survived a hideous wound to the upper part of his face; soldiers fight hand-to-hand for the entrenchments.

Originally housed under a dome on Edgewood Avenue more than a century ago, the cyclorama was later moved to Grant Park, where it was extensively renovated in the early 1980s.

>—William Marvel

Hood attempted to do what Davis wanted done: shatter Sherman's army or at least damage it so badly that it would be compelled to retreat. Obviously he failed. Although excellent in concept, his battle plans were unrealistic in practice, for they required too few troops to do too much without a sufficient margin for time and error. Consequently, it might have been better if Hood, while fighting aggressively, had sought less ambitious objectives that were more suited to the limited offensive capability of his army, with the purpose of throwing Sherman off balance, putting him on the defensive, and thus denying him Atlanta as long as possible—mayhap until after the North's presidential election. But Hood could not have done this and still be Hood; he would have had to been Lee. And that he was not, even though he tried his best to be.



On the Union side the campaign for Atlanta was, as Grant declared in a telegram of congratulations to Sherman, "the most gigantic undertaking given to any general in the war." Sherman owed his success mainly to Confederate mistakes, to not making any irreparable blunders of his own, and above all to the superior power and high quality of his army, which he maintained by not, like Grant in Virginia, repeatedly engaging in bloody offensive battles designed to knock out the enemy with one mighty blow but instead employing flanking moves to compel the Confederates to abandon one strong position after another and finally Atlanta itself. His sole major failure, one stemming from his concept of warfare and a fixation with capturing Atlanta to the near exclusion of all other objectives, was not to take advantage of the numerous opportunities he had to destroy the opposing army in Georgia or mangle it so badly as to render it strategically impotent. As a consequence, Hood's forces, although badly battered, remained a source of danger and trouble until Thomas finally smashed them at the Battle of Nashville in December 1864.

But if Sherman failed to do as much as he could and should have done, he accomplished what he set out to do and had to do: take Atlanta. And in doing that he guaranteed the North's victory by depriving the South of its last chance of winning—of winning by not losing.

On January 1, 1864, Mary Chesnut of South Carolina had written in her diary: "God help my country!" Nine months later, on learning of Atlanta's fall, she wrote: "No hope." Those two words said it all.

Back cover: Federal Attack on Kennesaw Mountain, by Thure de Thulstrup. Courtesy of The Seventh Regiment Fund, Inc.
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