Politics & Policy

The Campaign for Atlanta

Lithograph of the capture of Atlanta (Currier & Ives)
In the summer of 1864, it made the Confederacy’s defeat inevitable.

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.


Both commanders lost opportunities during this phase of the campaign. Johnston, whose forte was defense, did not take advantage of the mountainous terrain to keep Sherman at bay. For his part, Sherman missed an opportunity to push a larger force through Snake Creek Gap and seize Resaca before Johnston could reach the town.

From the Etowah to the Chattahoochee

Johnston retreated to Allatoona, and once again Sherman attempted to force the Rebels back by swinging his forces to the south and west of the town. But Johnston did not withdraw to the Chattahoochee, as Sherman expected, instead attacking the Yankees at New Hope Church on May 25 and Pickett’s Mill on May 27. Although Johnston suffered a reverse at Dallas on May 28, Sherman fell back to Acworth to await resupply.

Having been reinforced and resupplied, Sherman began moving again on June 10 toward the Chattahoochee. Johnston withdrew slowly to Kennesaw Mountain, near Marietta. With Johnston occupying a very strong defensive position, Sherman feared that if he didn’t attack, the result would be a stalemate in Georgia, enabling Johnston to reinforce Lee in Virginia. Accordingly, he ordered a frontal assault on June 27 that was bloodily repulsed. But then Schofield’s Army of the Ohio succeeded in turning Johnston’s left flank south of Kennesaw, forcing the Rebels to withdraw to the Chattahoochee.

This final natural barrier was also penetrated over the two-day period of July 8–9, and Johnston now fell back to the outskirts of Atlanta. Davis had had enough, and on July 17 he relieved Johnston, replacing him with Hood.

In Johnston’s defense, it seems clear that his operational plan reflected a concept articulated by the Prussian “philosopher of war,” Carl von Clausewitz: the “culminating point of victory.” This concept holds that the strength of the attacker diminishes over time and space as the attack moves farther and farther from the attacker’s base of operations, relative to the strength of the defender, who actually may gain strength by being forced back on his base. As Clausewitz wrote in Book VII, Chapter 5 of On War:

The success of an attack results from an existing superiority of forces, physical and moral forces included, of course. . . . If this superiority of forces in the attack, which diminishes daily, leads to peace, then the objective will have been achieved. There are strategic attacks that have led directly to peace, but very few are of this sort; most lead only to a point at which the forces are adequate only for maintaining a defense and waiting for peace. Beyond that lies the turning point, the rebound. The strength of that rebound is commonly much greater than the force of the initial strike. We call this the culminating point of the attack. Since the purpose of the attack is to occupy the enemy’s country, it follows that the advance must continue until the superiority of forces is exhausted. This, then, drives us to our goal and can easily lead us beyond it.

Johnston never read Clausewitz, but he understood the underlying principle. As he later wrote, “I therefore decided to remain on the defensive,” based on the expectation that “due to its lengthening lines the numerical superiority of the Federal army would be reduced daily so that we might hope to cope with it on equal terms beyond the Chattahoochee.”

Of course, exploiting an attacker’s culminating point requires strategic depth — basically, a long distance between the enemy and the place that the defender needs to protect, in this case Atlanta. This is something that Johnston did not possess in Georgia. Nor did he possess the military skill to make Sherman pay for his gains in territory.

Hood Takes Command

Davis believed that holding Atlanta was critical to the survival of the Confederacy. The longer the city could hold out and the longer Lee was able to hold the Richmond-Petersburg front, the more likely it was that the Union might be willing to abandon its military actions against the South. Hood provided hope. Davis knew that he would seek battle and not give up the city, as Johnston had nearly given up both Richmond in 1862 and Atlanta in June.


Unfortunately for the Southern cause, Hood seems to have been an example of the Peter Principle at work. He was an outstanding brigade and division commander, but the aggressiveness and bravery he displayed at those levels of command often became recklessness at higher levels. In addition, Hood was not in good health. He had lost the use of his left arm on the second day at Gettysburg. Two months later, he was badly wounded at Chickamauga, resulting in the amputation of his left leg just blow the hip. Some historians believe his judgment was adversely affected by the large doses of laudanum he took for the pain he suffered from his wounds.

In any event, during his convalescence in Richmond in the fall of 1863, Hood became friends with Davis. Later, as a corps commander in the Army of Tennessee during the retreat to Atlanta, Hood routinely sent letters extremely critical of Johnston to the government in Richmond. Given his reputation as an aggressive commander, his criticism of Johnston, and his friendship with Davis, he seemed the logical choice to succeed Johnston.

There was a better choice: Patrick Cleburne, the “Stonewall of the West,” arguably the best Confederate general outside Virginia. An Irish immigrant to the South who had served in the British Army, Cleburne had performed magnificently in all the actions in which he was engaged. Most notably, it was Cleburne and his division that repulsed the main attack by Sherman at Chattanooga. It was said that Yankees dreaded seeing the blue flag of his division across the battlefield. But choosing Cleburne would have required Davis to promote him over more senior officers. Given his reputation, this might have been possible, but for one thing: Cleburne’s heretical views on slavery.

By late 1863, it had become obvious to Cleburne that the Confederacy was losing the war because of limitations of manpower and resources. Also by this time, the Union was enlisting black soldiers. So in 1864 he addressed the leadership of the Army of Tennessee, calling for emancipating slaves and enlisting them in the Confederate Army to secure Southern independence. The question, he said, was essentially this: Which does the South desire more — independence or slavery?

His proposal was met with stunned silence. Those present agreed that it would go no further, but word leaked out. Members of the government were made aware of the letter he wrote outlining the proposal:

Every man should endeavor to understand the meaning of subjugation before it is too late. . . . It means the history of this heroic struggle will be written by the enemy; that our youth will be trained by Northern schoolteachers; will learn from Northern school books their version of the war; will be impressed by the influences of history and education to regard our gallant dead as traitors, and our maimed veterans as fit objects for derision. . . . It is said slavery is all we are fighting for, and if we give it up we give up all. Even if this were true, which we deny, slavery is not all our enemies are fighting for. It is merely the pretense to establish sectional superiority and a more centralized form of government, and to deprive us of our rights and liberties.

General Howell Cobb of Georgia provided the official position of the Confederacy: “The day you make soldiers of [slaves] is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” Cleburne’s proposal effectively killed his prospects for further promotion.

Beyond the Chattahoochee: The Battles for Atlanta

Hood wasted no time before attacking Sherman. Attempting to exploit Sherman’s division of his force into two wings after crossing the Chattahoochee, Hood attacked the northern column under Thomas at Peach Tree Creek on July 20. Although he initially achieved surprise, the Federals repulsed the attack, inflicting some 2,500 casualties on the Rebels.


Undaunted, Hood now turned his attention to McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee, which was approaching Atlanta from the east. On the night of July 21, Hood sent Hardee’s corps around McPherson’s left flank on Bald Hill, intending to take the Union line from the rear, but the XVI Corps had refused the flank and were able to prevent what would otherwise have surely been a Union disaster. Nonetheless, two Rebel divisions, including Cleburne’s, achieved a breakthrough, bending back the Union right. During the battle, McPherson was killed; he was replaced temporarily by John Logan. And despite the early successes, the Confederates eventually were forced to fall back.

After the battle, Sherman replaced Logan with O. O. Howard, best known before he joined the Army of the Tennessee for commanding the XI Corps of the Army of the Potomac, which had the misfortune to be routed by Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville and by Richard Ewell on the first day of Gettysburg. But Sherman thought highly of Howard, even designating him to be his replacement as army group commander in the event of his death.

Sherman’s appointment of Howard as permanent commander of the Army of the Tennessee miffed Logan, who was a volunteer general. The former’s action ripped the scab off of the volatile issue of Union “army politics”: Logan believed that Sherman and other high-ranking generals favored West Pointers over volunteers, no matter how competent the latter were. To soothe Logan’s ruffled feathers, Sherman later arranged for him to lead the Army of the Tennessee during the Grand Review in Washington at the end of the war.

On July 26, Sherman sent Howard west of the city in an attempt to cut the Macon and Western Railroad to the south. Hood responded by sending two corps under Stephen D. Lee and Alexander P. Stewart to block Howard’s way near Ezra Church. Once Howard had been halted, the two were to strike his rear. Instead, Lee and Stewart disregarded Hood’s orders and attacked frontally, suffering heavy losses.

But Hood held on. At the end of July, his cavalry corps commanded by Wheeler essentially destroyed two Union cavalry divisions that raided the Macon and Western Railroad. Following up, Hood sent Wheeler across the Chattahoochee to destroy Sherman’s railroad supply lines, but he accomplished little, finally being forced to flee into Tennessee.

Sherman made another effort to turn Hood’s left flank west of Atlanta but was repulsed at Utoy Creek on August 6 and 7. Sherman now decided to carry out a wide flanking movement. Leaving a corps to guard the bridge over the Chattahoochee River, Sherman withdrew the rest of his force from the Atlanta trenches and swung south toward Jonesboro. When he divined Sherman’s intentions, Hood counterattacked on August 31, but was repulsed. The next day the Rebels fell back on Lovejoy’s Station, south of Jonesboro.

The City Falls

With his supply line to the south now severed, Hood gave orders to evacuate Atlanta, which XX Corps quickly occupied. When he received word that the city had fallen, Sherman telegraphed Washington: “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.”

The fall of Atlanta was a godsend for Lincoln. Without its capture, he might well not have been reelected. Buoyed by disaffection with the war, Copperheads (anti-war Democrats) had written the Democratic platform of 1864, and one of their own, Representative George H. Pendleton of Ohio, was the party’s candidate for vice president. Although the Democratic presidential candidate, George B. McClellan (who had been general-in-chief of the Union Army early in the war), was not himself a Copperhead, he reportedly said, “If I am elected, I will recommend an immediate armistice and a call for a convention of all the states and insist upon exhausting all and every means to secure peace without further bloodshed.” Lincoln certainly believed that this was what McClellan would do.

It is clear that the Confederates were counting on Lincoln’s electoral defeat. As the Charleston Monitor editorialized, McClellan’s election on a peace platform “must lead to peace and our independence . . . [provided] that for the next two months we hold our own and prevent military success by our foes.” But with the fall of Atlanta, this hope was wrecked.

— Mackubin Thomas Owens is a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport. He also teaches in the master of arts program in American history and government (MAHG) at Ashland University in Ohio. He wrote this campaign description, among others, for his MAHG course on the Civil War and Reconstruction.

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