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.