The Atlanta Campaign

ECWC TOPIC Atlanta Campaign Dalton to Chattahoochee PIC Battle of Kennesaw Mountain
Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. By: Thure de Thulstrup. Courtesy: U.S. Department of the Interior.

After over four years of fighting, the North and the South had become increasingly fatigued with the war and anxious for its resolution. Throughout the Confederacy, hope was growing that the Union, rather than continue to tighten its grip at the expense of casualties on both sides, would agree to a negotiated peace. Standing in the way of that result was President Abraham Lincoln who had expected nothing less than a total victory. While the Union generals led by Ulysses S. Grant had achieved progress by taking territory in the west and cutting off resources to the Confederate capital, for each of the past four years, momentum had stalled whenever any general, including Grant, had come within earshot of Richmond. With the election of 1864 approaching, the rebels saw the potential for the northern electorate to oust Lincoln and bring a president to Washington that would negotiate an end to the war.

William Tecumseh Sherman. Courtesy: National Archives.

If Lincoln needed a boost in his chances for re-election, he needed some form of victory in the months leading up to the election. With Grant grappling with Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Virginia both by sieging Petersburg and attempting to maneuver the rebels into a fight outside the trenches, the likelihood for a victory would have to come from someone and somewhere else. The second most capable Union general at this stage in the war, William Tecumseh Sherman, provided the best hope: by June, he had found himself locking horns with the ever-defensive Confederate General Joseph Johnston in Georgia.[i] Despite Confederate President Jefferson Davis urging Johnston to mount an attack on Sherman and his men, he opted to stay in his defensive works which gave credence to a story being told during the war about Johnston duck hunting before the war: “The bird flew too high or too low—the dogs were too far or too near—things never did suit exactly. He was . . . afraid to miss and risk his fine reputation.”[ii]

Thus, it fell to Sherman to attack with his three armies: the Army of the Cumberland, a force of 60,000 led by General George Thomas, the Army of the Tennessee with its 25,000 men (which was Grant’s first army but given his transfer to the east became James McPherson’s to command), and the Army of the Ohio with its 13,000 soldiers led by John Schofield.[iii] Johnston’s army consisted of 50,000 rebels perched on Rocky Face Ridge daring the Yankees to make an advance.[iv] Sherman, or “Uncle Billy” as he was known to his men, chose to sidestep the entrenched Confederates and make his way through the “rugged mountains interlaced by swift rivers” to Resaca, fifteen miles in the rebel rear.[v] Johnston retreated his entire army to Resaca before the Union men could take the town, and when the federal troops tried to dismantle the railroads that served as a lifeline for Johnston’s men, the Confederates broke out of town and made another retreat to Cassville, wrecking the railroad as they retreated.[vi] Following them were Union repairmen that had the railroads up and running for their own benefit within hours.[vii] In a matter of twelve days, Sherman had moved the northerners halfway to Atlanta and caused panic for southerners: one Confederate private wrote his wife, “The truth is we have run until I am getting out of heart & we must make a Stand soon or the army will be demoralized, but all is in good spirits now & beleave Gen. Johnston will make a stand & whip the yankees badley.”[viii]

Joseph Johnston. Courtesy: National Archives.

At Cassville, Johnston found his heart and ordered to his men, “You will now turn and march to meet his advancing columns. . . . Soldiers, I lead you to battle.”[ix] With his soldiers jubilant, Johnston was prepared to attack when reports came in that the Union men were on the move to the rebel flank causing John Bell Hood to call off the Confederate assault.[x] With the advantage of surprise gone, the rebels had no choice but to dig into their defensive position and then retreated another ten miles that night.[xi] The inability of Johnston and his men to take on Sherman had its effects: while Johnston’s chief of staff wrote, “I could not restrain my tears when I found we could not strike,” one Georgian wrote that “[n]early the whole Population is moving off, taking their negroes south.”[xii] While Johnston moved on to Allatoona and sought to take a fight on his terms, Sherman continued his pattern: his men moved past Johnston’s left and into the rebel flank causing Johnston to take up a position on Kennesaw Mountain.[xiii] Sherman noted, “We are on the offensive, and . . . must assail and not defend,” and he ordered an assault on the center of Johnston’s line.[xiv]

With temperatures near one hundred degrees in the shade, the Union men had to take on “breastworks that rivaled those at Petersburg.”[xv] After the dash across the Georgian countryside and the heat of summer bearing down on the men, their commanders were asking too much from the men. On the Confederate side, one soldier noted:

“I never saw so many broken down and exhausted men in my life. I was as sick as a horse, and as wet with blood and sweat as I could be, and many of our men were vomiting with excessive fatigue, over-exhaustion, and sunstroke; our tongues were parched and cracked for water, and our faces blackened with powder and smoke, and our dead and wounded were piled indiscriminately in the trenches.”[xvi]

By the early afternoon, Sherman called off the attack already having lost 3,000 killed and wounded “while inflicting only a fifth as many on the enemy.”[xvii] With Atlanta’s newspapers reading that Sherman’s army had been “whipped” and would soon be “cut to pieces,” and one woman reporting that “[e]veryone feels unbounded confidence in General Johnston,” the North did not appear to be making progress toward winning the war; particularly considering the Union had lost 90,000 casualties in the preceding two months.[xviii] The New York World asked its readers, “Who shall revive the withered hopes that bloomed at the opening of Grant’s campaign?”[xix]

[i] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 743.

[ii] See id. at 744 (quoting C. Vann Woodward, ed., Mary Chesnut’s Civil War [New Haven, 1981]).

[iii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 744.

[iv] See id.

[v] See id.

[vi] See id. at 745.

[vii] See id.

[viii] Samuel Carter III, The Siege of Atlanta, 1864 (New York, 1973), 125.

[ix] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 747 (quoting Gilbert E. Govan and James W. Livingood, A Different Valor: The Story of General Joseph E. Johnston, C.S.A. [Indianapolis, 1956], 274).

[x] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 747.

[xi] Id.

[xii] Id. (quoting Govan and Livingood, A Different Valor, 277; Carter, Siege of Atlanta, 130.

[xiii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 748-49.

[xiv] Id. at 749.

[xv] Id.

[xvi] Sam R. Watkins, “Co. Aytch”: A Side Show of the Big Show (Collier Books ed., New York, 1962), 160.

[xvii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 750.

[xviii] Id. (quoting Carter, Siege of Atlanta, 141; Atlanta Daily Intelligencer, July 3, 1864, quoted in A. A. Hoehling, Last Train from Atlanta [New York, 1958], 23).

[xix] New York World, July 12, 1864.


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