The Campaign for Atlanta
In the summer of 1864, it made the Confederacy’s defeat inevitable.

Lithograph of the capture of Atlanta (Currier & Ives)


Mackubin Thomas Owens

Major General U. S. Grant’s victory at Chattanooga in the fall of 1863 was critically important to the Union cause and devastating to the Confederacy. The way to Atlanta was now open, and had that city not fallen when it did, the following summer, it is very possible that Lincoln would not have been reelected and there would have been a negotiated settlement. Grant’s victories at Vicksburg and later at Chattanooga made clear to Lincoln that he was the right man to orchestrate a final victory. The president was dissatisfied with the current commander-in-chief of the Army, Henry Halleck, and replaced him with Grant in March of 1864. Congress also reauthorized the rank of lieutenant general, making Grant the second officer since George Washington to hold that rank (the first was Winfield Scott, promoted in 1855 with the rank retroactive to his victory at Vera Cruz in 1847).

When Grant assumed his new post, William Tecumseh Sherman replaced him as the commander of Union forces in the West. With a force of 100,000 soldiers, Sherman was essentially an army group commander, comprising the Army of the Tennessee, his previous command, now led by Major General James McPherson; the Army of the Cumberland, under Major General George Thomas, the “Rock of Chickamauga” and hero of Chattanooga; and XXIII Corps, designated the Army of the Ohio, under Major General John Schofield.

After the Confederate disaster at Chattanooga, Jefferson Davis had finally relieved Braxton Bragg, “kicking him upstairs” to be his military adviser. Davis reluctantly replaced him with Joe Johnston, with whom he had feuded since the beginning of the war. Johnston, of course, had almost lost Richmond to General George B. McClellan in the spring of 1862. When he was wounded at Seven Pines in May, he was replaced by Robert E. Lee, who changed the complexion of the war. In the spring of 1863, Johnston was given command of a force that was supposed to help relieve Vicksburg, but Grant brushed him aside at Jackson, Miss., and Johnston’s army was never a factor in the campaign.

The historian William Davis relates a story, perhaps apocryphal, that nonetheless provides some insight into both Johnston’s character and his generalship. Johnston was reputed to be a great bird hunter, but whenever he went hunting, he never actually took a shot. The birds were always too high or too low. Davis concludes that Johnston never actually took a shot because he didn’t want to endanger his reputation as a great bird shot. His performance as a military commander, both on the Virginia Peninsula and during the Atlanta Campaign, suggests that he never wished to place his reputation as a general on the line either.

Dalton and Resaca
As campaigning resumed in May of 1864, Johnston’s Army of Tennessee faced Sherman at Dalton, Ga., about twelve miles southeast of Chattanooga. The army consisted of 55,000 troops organized into two infantry corps under William Hardee and John Bell Hood and a cavalry corps led by Joe Wheeler. (To avoid confusion, it is important to recognize that the Confederates normally named both their armies and their battles after locations, while the Union frequently named theirs after rivers<. Thus in this campaign, one of Sherman’s armies was designated the Army of the Tennessee [River], while Johnston commanded the Army of Tennessee.)

Johnston held a strong position at Rocky Face Ridge that was unlikely to be carried by frontal assault. Sherman chose to maneuver him out of position by sending McPherson around Johnston’s left flank via Snake Creek Gap, south of Dalton, in hopes of cutting the Rebels’ only supply line, the Western and Atlantic Railroad, at Resaca.

The move obliged Johnston to withdraw to Resaca, where he repelled several Union attacks on May 14 and 15. But Sherman flanked him again, sending a force across the Oostanaula River above Resaca, forcing Johnston to retreat toward the Etowah River. On May 19, hoping to take advantage of the fact that Sherman had dispersed his force into four separate columns, Johnston, now numbering 70,000 troops after being reinforced by Leonidas Polk’s Army of Mississippi, concentrated his forces near Cassville in an effort to crush the Union left wing. But the appearance of Yankee cavalry to his rear led Johnston to abort the attack and retreat to a ridgeline southeast of Cassville. When that position was enfiladed by Federal artillery, he withdrew again south of the Etowah.


The Atlanta Campaign
This May marks the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Atlanta Campaign, a crucial phase of the Civil War that saw Union forces strike deep into the heart of the Confederacy. Here’s a look at images of the campaign from the Library of Congress. Pictured, The Battle of Atlanta.
Fought from May through September, 1864, the Atlanta Campaign saw three Union armies comprising some 100,000 troops push relentlessly into Georgia, repeatedly flanking the retreating Confederate forces as they fell back towards Atlanta. Pictured, Battle of Resaca (Kurz & Allison)
The toll of the campaign was heavy on both sides — around 31,000 Union casualties and nearly 35,000 Confederate dead and wounded — but by that point in the conflict the superior Union forces could better withstand the losses. Pictured, depiction of the Battle of Atlanta at the Atlanta Cyclorama.
The capture of Atlanta was an important boost for the reelection campaign of President Abraham Lincoln, and set the stage for General Sherman’s historic “March to the Sea” campaign. Pictured, The Capture of Atlanta (Currier & Ives)
THE UNION: With his longtime friend Ulysses S. Grant now in overall command of all Union forces, General William Tecumseh Sherman was made commander of Union forces in the West, where he oversaw the Army of the Cumberland, the Army of the Tennessee, and the Army of the Ohio.
Major General George H. Thomas, nicknamed the “Rock of Chickamauga” for courage under fire, commanded the Army of the Cumberland.
Major General John M. Schofield commanded the Army of the Ohio, previously known as XXIII Corps.
Major General James B. McPherson commanded the Army of the Tennessee, which had been Sherman’s previous command. McPherson was killed at the Battle of Atlanta.
THE CONFEDERACY: With General Robert E. Lee overseeing the Southern war effort, a reluctant President Jefferson Davis placed General Joe Johnston in command of the Army of Tennessee.
Lieutenant General John Bell Hood eventually replaced General Johnston as Union forces pressed towards Atlanta. But his declining health and recklessness did not serve him well as commander.
BATTLE OF RESACA (May 13-15) — Pictured, The Battle of Resaca Georgia by A.R. Waud for Century Magazine.
“Come On Boys!”, Union General Benjamin Harrison at the Battle of Resaca.
Site of the Battle of Resaca
Confederate earthworks overlooking the battlefield at Resaca.
BATTLE OF DALLAS (May 26-June 4) — “General Sherman’s Campaign: The Rebel Assault on Logan’s Position in the Battle of Dallas” by Theodore R. Davis for Harper’s Weekly
BATTLE OF KENNESAW MOUNTAIN (June 27) — Pictured, Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (Kurz & Allison)
“General Sherman’s Advance: Attack on the Enemy’s Center Near Marietta, Ga.” by Theodore R. Davis for Harper’s Weekly
“Battle of Ezra Church” by Theodore R. Davis for Harper’s Weekly.
Confederate position at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain
Federal entrenchments at the foot of Kennesaw Mountain
BATTLE OF ATLANTA (July 22-September 2) — Pictured, The Siege of Atlanta by Thure de Thulstrup.
General Sherman (at base of cannon) with his officers on the front lines in Atlanta. Upon General Hood’s retreat, Sherman telegraphed Washington with news of the victory: “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.”
Union officers stand in front of a house formerly used as Confederate General John Bell Hood’s headquarters.
Photographers captured these images of battle sites and Confederate Army fortifications after the city fell. Pictured, palisades and chevaux-de-frise (anti-cavalry defenses) in front of the Potter House.
Artillery emplacements overlooking Peachtree Street covering the approaches to Atlanta.
Potter’s House in Atlanta, where Confederate sharpshooters held out until it was taken out by Union artillery.
Fortifications east of Potter’s House.
Rebel lines northwest of the city.
Union troops posed in former Confederate casements.
A Confederate fort on Peachtree Street.
Federal troops a Confederate fortification.
Interior of a Confederate fort.
Union engineers and mechanics destroy railroad tracks.
Destroying railroad
Union troops destroying the railroad before the evacuation.
Ruins of a train depot in Atlanta after burning by Union troops.
Atlanta’s railroad roundhouse shows extensive damage from the fighting.
Updated: Jun. 02, 2014