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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Campaign for Atlanta



Assuming that Johnston would retreat beyond the Chattahoochee and hoping to catch him before he did, Sherman ordered a vigorous pursuit. As usual when it came to assessing Johnston's intentions, he was wrong. Two weeks before Johnston, at the urging of his chief of artillery, Brigadier General Shoup, had authorized the construction of a fortified line along the north bank of the Chattahoochee where it would cover the railroad bridge. After a halt at Smyrna Camp Ground on July 3-4, he withdrew to this position on July 5. Although Johnston had done the same at Resaca, Sherman at first refused to believe that "such a general as he" would fight with a river to his back. Not until Sherman made a personal reconnaissance did he admit that indeed this was the case. He also concluded that the new enemy line could not be carried by assault and so, like all of the previous ones, it would have to be outflanked.


There were two ways that could be done. One was to cross the Chattahoochee downstream from the fortifications (to the southwest), the other was to cross upstream from there (to the northeast). Johnston expected Sherman to adopt the first approach: not only would this place him closer to Atlanta but hitherto all of his large-scale flanking maneuvers had been to his right. Instead, Sherman chose the second option, for unlike the first it would enable him to keep his army between the Confederates and the vital railroad.

Accordingly, on July 8 Schofield, acting on Sherman's instructions, secured a bridgehead on the south (actually west) side of the Chattahoochee at Isham's Ford, and on the following day Brigadier General Kenner Garrard's cavalry division did the same further north at Roswell. Neither Schofield nor Garrard encountered serious resistance because none was present owing to Johnston's assumption that Sherman would attempt to cross downstream. On the night of July 9 Johnston, realizing that he had been outgeneraled and that his position now was untenable, withdrew his army to the other side of the river, burned the railroad bridge, and then established his headquarters at the Dexter Niles house, a mere three miles from the center of Atlanta. In the city, when they learned of the retreat, hundreds of the inhabitants fled, and the evacuation of military hospitals and machinery, already under way, accelerated.



Sherman refrained from an immediate pursuit. His troops needed to rest and catch their psychological breath before making a final lunge at Atlanta. Besides, he no longer felt compelled to maintain constant pressure on Johnston. On June 28, just one day after his bloody, futile assault at Kennesaw, he had received a telegram from Halleck in Washington. It read:

Lieutenant General Grant directs me to say that the movements of your army may be made entirely independent of any desire to retain Johnston's forces where they are. He does not think Lee will bring any additional troops to Richmond, on account of the difficulty of feeding them.

Behind these words lay the story of the campaign in Virginia. There Grant had engaged Lee in a series of titantic battles, seeking to deliver a knockout blow. Each time Lee had held his own, inflicting ghastly casualties on the Federals, who usually did the attacking. Only by means of flanking moves had Grant been able to force Lee back to the defenses of Richmond. But there he had been stopped. Worse, in the fighting his army lost over 60,000 men and with them its offensive capability: the survivors simply were unwilling to charge the Confederate trenches, fearful of another slaughter such as the one on June 3 at Cold Harbor where 7,000 Federals were mowed down in less than ten minutes in a vain effort to pierce Lee's thin line. Grant realized this, and though he would keep trying, he also realized that it was unlikely that he would defeat Lee or take Richmond in the near future.

That is why he had Halleck send the message to Sherman that he did. In effect, he told Sherman that it was up to him to achieve in Georgia what he, Grant, had failed to accomplish in Virginia—a war-winning victory or a victory that would cause the Northern people to believe that the war was being won. This meant that Sherman, not Grant, henceforth had the star role in the strategic drama of 1864.

Even as Sherman moved to the center of the military stage, Johnston was about to be removed from it. Jefferson Davis was dismayed by Johnston's failure to try to defeat Sherman in an all-out battle, alarmed by his incessant retreats, and unconvinced by that general's explanation for both, namely that he was too heavily outnumbered either to attack Sherman successfully or to block his flanking moves. Moreover, to urgings from Davis's chief of staff, General Braxton Bragg, that Wheeler's cavalry be used to cut Sherman's supply line, Johnston answered that he needed it to protect his flanks and that therefore cavalry from elsewhere—in particular Nathan Bedford Forrest's in Mississippi—should be sent to perform this mission. Were that done, Johnston contended, Sherman would be compelled to retreat and the Army of Tennessee could go over to the offensive.

From Kennesaw Johnston withdrew to a fortified line covering the railroad on the northwest bank of the Chattahoochee. Knowing that a direct attack on this position merely would repeat the Kennesaw slaughter, Sherman outflanked it by sending detachments across the Chattahoochee at Isham's Ford and Roswell. Johnston, who had expected Sherman to attempt to turn his left rather than right flank, thereupon retreated on the night of July 9 to the other side of the Chattahoochee and within a few miles of Atlanta. Sherman, wishing to rest and resupply his troops before entering into what he believed would be the final phase of the campaign, made no attempt to follow with his full force until July 17. On that very same day Confederate President Jefferson Davis, having decided that Johnston could not be trusted to make a determined effort to hold Atlanta, replaced him as commander with Hood.

Whether he realized it or not, Johnston in effect was saying that he could not stop Sherman through his own efforts. To Davis, this was intolerable. For if Sherman was not stopped—that is, if Atlanta was not held—then all that had been achieved by Lee stopping Grant and holding Richmond would be wasted and the Confederate strategy of winning by not losing foiled.

There were three things Davis could have done. The first was to send Forrest, as Johnston insisted, against Sherman's supply line. The problem with that was that Forrest was needed to defend Mississippi against Union incursions that Sherman had ordered for the precise purpose of keeping him pinned there. For him to go into Tennessee or Georgia would be to abandon both Mississippi and Alabama, and that in turn would deprive the Army of Tennessee of its main source of supplies. Forrest, therefore, had to stay where he was.

Davis's second option was to remove Johnston from command. He very much wanted to do so. But militarily and politically it would be a risky step. Besides, with whom could he replace him? Hence he perforce followed the third course open to him, namely to hope that Johnston ultimately would fight and defeat Sherman, or at the very least prevent him from taking Atlanta.


This hope all but disappeared when Johnston retreated across the Chattahoochee to the very outskirts of Atlanta. As soon as he learned of it Davis sent Braxton Bragg to Atlanta to ascertain what plans, if any, Johnston had for defending the city and whether it would be best to replace him with Hardee or Hood. Bragg arrived in Atlanta by train on July 13 and spent two days conferring with Johnston and his generals, especially Hood, from whom he obtained a memorandum criticizing Johnston's conduct of the campaign and claiming that he was the sole top commander in the Army of Tennessee to have favored an offensive policy. On July 15 Bragg telegraphed Davis that he could not learn that Johnston "has any more plan for the future than he has had in the past," and that to replace him with Hardee "would perpetuate the past and present policy of retreat" that Hardee "has advised and now sustains."

Bragg's statement about Johnston was true. His assertion concerning Hardee was a lie motivated by a personal grudge against him going back to the time when Bragg commanded the Army of Tennessee. Perhaps Davis, on reading it, suspected that it was false, for he had a letter from Hardee complaining about Johnston's passivity. In any event he decided to give Johnston one last chance. On the morning of July 16 he telegraphed him: I wish to hear from you as to present situation, and your plan of operations so specifically as to enable me to anticipate events." That evening Johnston answered:

As the enemy has double our number, we must be on the defense. My plan of operations must, therefore, depend on that of the enemy. It is mainly to watch for an opportunity to fight to advantage. We are trying to put Atlanta in condition to be held for a day or two by the Georgia militia, that army movements may be freer and wider.



When, on the morning of July 17, Davis read these words he hesitated no longer. Johnston, it was obvious, could not be depended on to make a determined, all-out effort to hold Atlanta. As for Hardee, even if what Bragg had said about him was untrue, the fact remained that back in December he had declined the permanent command of the Army of Tennessee, an indication of a fear of responsibility that could be fatal given the present circumstances of that army. Thus Johnston's replacement had to be Hood: only he could be trusted to fight, and to fight hard, for Atlanta. That afternoon the Confederate War Department transmitted telegrams to Johnston and Hood notifying the former that he was relieved of command and the latter that he now commanded, with the temporary rank of full general, the Army of Tennessee.

As these telegrams made their way from Richmond to Atlanta, Sherman's army crossed the Chattahoochee with McPherson and Schofield heading for Decatur, east of Atlanta, and Thomas moving directly on the city from the north. Sherman thought it probable that Johnston would give battle, but he also deemed it possible he would again retreat. Either way, Sherman was confident that soon Atlanta would be his.

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