Atlanta Campaign Civil War

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The Atlanta Campaign: May 5, 1864, through September 1, 1864

The Atlanta Campaign
05/05/1864 to 09/01/1864

The Atlanta Campaign began on the 5th of May, 1864, and ended
with the evacuation of Atlanta by Hood, on the 1st of September-
four months, less four days. By skillful maneuvering, far more
than by his assaults at Dalton, Resaca, and Kennesaw, Sherman had
forced the Confederate army back ninety-odd miles, and had
captured the important city of Atlanta.

During the same time Grant, in Virginia, had forced Lee back from
the line of the Rapidan to the works in front of Petersburg and
Richmond; but it was not until the following April that the Union
commander-in-chief succeeded in capturing these two cities. The
armies of Grant and Sherman were of practically the same
strength, about 100,000 each; those of Lee and Johnston, also,
were about equal to each other, numbering some 60,000 each. But
Grant, by this time, had lost upwards of 60,000 men, while
Sherman had lost not many more than 20,000. Grant's was a
campaign of ''hammering,'' while Sherman's was one of maneuvering.
Both campaigns were made in difficult country; there were
heavy woods in both theaters; in Georgia the topography was
more broken by ridges and hills, while in Virginia the rivers,
especially the James, were more difficult to cross; the incessant
rains during the Georgia campaign made the roads as bad in
that theater as they were in the swamps of Virginia.

Though Sherman's operations were of the same general character as
those of Rosecrans in the Tullahoma Campaign, and the results
achieved were similar, far greater fame has attached to the
Atlanta Campaign than to the Tullahoma Campaign. The numbers
engaged on either side were greater in the Atlanta Campaign, and
its outcome was a far heavier blow to the Confederacy, no doubt,
than was that of the Tullahoma Campaign. Several modern American
and foreign writers on the subject of strategy have discussed it
as a typical campaign; and they have generally found little to
criticize, either in Sherman's offensive strategy or in
Johnston's defensive strategy. Hamley says of it with approval:
''Except in attacking the Kennesaw Mountain on the 27th of June,
the character of Sherman's operations was, throughout, the same.
To protect his main line from a counter-attack, he left a force
intrenched across it. He then reinforced his flanking wing to a
strength sufficient to cope with the whole army of the enemy,
and directed it by a circuit off the main line, upon the
Confederate rear. In every case the operation was successful,
obliging Johnston forthwith to abandon his strongest positions,
and to retreat.''

The only two mistakes General Sherman has usually been taxed with
were: first, his not sending Thomas, with the large Army of the
Cumberland, to turn Johnston's position by way of Snake Creek
Gap, at the outset of the campaign; and second, his assaulting
the strong position at Kennesaw Mountain, instead of turning it.
In the first case, however, McPherson's command was large enough
to accomplish the task assigned to it if McPherson had not made
the mistake, so often made by commanders, of overestimating the
strength of the enemy in front of him. Sherman criticizes him in
these words: McPherson ''had not done the full measure of his
work. He had in hand 23,000 of the best men in the army, and
could have walked into Resaca (then held only by a small
brigade), or he could have placed his whole force astride the
railroad above Resaca, and there have easily withstood the attack
of all of Johnston's army, with the knowledge that Thomas and
Schofield were on his [Johnston's] heels.'' General Johnston also
testifies that Resaca was held by a very small force of
Confederates at that time. The two commanders, however, are not
at all agreed upon what would have been the consequences if
McPherson had taken Resaca and made a lodgment upon the
railway. Sherman says it would have forced Johnston to
retreat eastward, ''and we should have captured half his army and
all his artillery and wagons. . . .'' Johnston says all his army
''would have been upon'' McPherson ''at the dawn of the next day . .
. making a most auspicious beginning of the campaign for the
Confederates.'' The student is not obliged to accept either of
these views wholly. Judging from the skill Johnston displayed in
all of his withdrawals in this campaign one can believe it quite
possible he might have escaped without great loss; but he would
have been thrown off his communications with Atlanta, his base.
Judging, however, by all that General Johnston did in the Civil
War, both before and after this time, we have no reason to
believe that he would have inflicted much damage upon McPherson.
General Johnston commanded in only one offensive battle in the
whole war; that was the battle of Seven Pines, which was, as
General Alexander remarks, ''phenomenally mismanaged.''

Sherman apparently had an opportunity to destroy Johnston's army
at Resaca, but neglected to take advantage of it. In the first
place, after McPherson failed to take Resaca, Sherman marched the
rest of his army, except the Fourth Corps and Stoneman's Cavalry,
to McPherson's position at the mouth of Snake Creek Gap, within
three or four miles of Resaca. He had his army assembled there
by the 12th of May. Johnston did not withdraw from Dalton to
Resaca until the 13th. Why Sherman did not attack Resaca at once
himself is not understood. He does not appear to have deployed
before Resaca until the 14th, and then he let Johnston get away
on the night of the 15th instead of destroying him. ''When two
armies are in order of battle, and one has to retire over a
bridge, while the other has the circumference of the circle open,
all the advantages are in favor of the latter. It is then a
general should show boldness, strike a decided blow, and maneuver
upon the flank of his enemy. The victory is in his hands.'' This
was the case at Resaca, where Johnston's army was in a plight
similar to that of Napoleon's at Leipzig. If Sherman had
shown boldness and attacked Johnston with the whole strength
and vigor of his army on the 14th, or even on the 15th, he must
have captured a large part of Johnston's army before it could
have gotten across the river. But, instead of trying to
destroy Johnston's army, Sherman simply maneuvered it out of
its position. That he made no real fight there is shown by his
own words: ''May 13th-16th our loss was 2,747 and his 2,800''-
that is, Sherman's loss was less than three per cent. of his

Another opportunity that Sherman had to strike the Confederate
army a terrible blow, but failed to take advantage of, occurred
during Hood's retreat from Atlanta to Lovejoy. Hood had to make
a flank march by the heads of Sherman's three armies, and he was
allowed to do so unmolested. The only part of Hood's army that
was attacked during this hazardous march was Hardee's corps
behind intrenchments near Jonesboro. Hood says himself, in his
account of this campaign in Battles and Leaders: ''I have often
thought it strange Sherman should have occupied himself with
attacking Hardee's intrenched position instead of falling upon
our main body on the march round to his rear.''

''The attack at Kennesaw has been much criticized, and General
Sherman, himself, apologizes for it in his report. However,
circumstances all favored it. It was a choice between an assault
and a turning movement. The army was tired of marching, and
wanted to fight. The incessant rains had produced a state of
roads and stage of streams that would make the next turning
movement especially hard. If the assault succeeded, all well and
good; if it failed, hard marching would not appear so
unattractive.'' The assault was tactically well made, and it was
gallantly delivered; but the position proved to be too

While Johnston's retreat was carried out with the greatest skill,
and with the least loss of men and materiel; while with an army
of 60,000 he kept an army of 100,000 two months and a half (May 5
to July 18) making eighty-five miles, hardly more than a mile a
day; his operations, nevertheless, amounted merely to a passive
defense. And the great length of time taken by Sherman in
gaining the distance from Dalton to the works about Atlanta was
due more to the difficulty of the weather and roads and transport
than to the direct resistance made by Johnston.

If, instead of falling back directly upon his line of
communications, from one position to another, in his retreat from
Dalton, Johnston, having made arrangements beforehand, had taken
advantage of the Oostanaula River to cover his flank, and had
retreated to Rome, instead of Cassville, he might then have taken
up a flank-position, facing the railway from Dalton to Atlanta.
Near Rome he could have taken a position behind the Etowah, with
his left flank protected by the Coosa, and with the whole State
of Alabama, as yet untouched by the enemy, as his base, and the
railway from Selma, Alabama, to Blue Mountain as his line of

If Johnston had done this, Sherman's main army would have had to
turn away from the line of the railway and the geographical and
political objective of the campaign, Atlanta, to follow him.
For, if Sherman had continued his march on Atlanta, he would have
exposed his communications to attack by Johnston. In the
meantime the governor of Georgia would have had to assemble all
the State militia at Atlanta, in order to fortify that city and
guard it against capture by detachments from Sherman's army.

The adoption of a flank position like this was the favorite mode
of an active defense advocated by Clausewitz, and it was the plan
proposed by Moltke on three different occasions, to protect
Berlin, in case of an invasion of Prussia. It is, also,
the method most highly recommended by von der Goltz, for an
active defense.

From Rome Johnston could have continued to fall back to
the southwest, toward Montgomery, 150 miles away, drawing Sherman
after him, farther and farther away from his line of railway.
Sherman has given it as his opinion that his army could not have
operated a hundred miles distant from a railway. In all this
retreat Johnston would have had excellent ground for defensive.
operations. His left flank would have been protected all the way
by the Coosa, a very formidable obstacle; while parallel to the
Coosa and just thirty miles east of it was the Tallapoosa; and
the numerous branches of these two streams traversed the wooded
space between, forming at every few miles good lines to defend.

As we have learned, Johnston saw ''no other mode of taking the
offensive than to beat the enemy when he advances, and then move
forward.'' This he might possibly have done if his enemy had been
rash enough to dash himself to pieces against his impregnable
positions; but this ought not to have been expected of so cunning
a soldier as Sherman.

In Sherman's wide turning movements or the frequent shifting of
his armies from one flank to the other, it should seem that
Johnston ought to have found some chance to strike in between the
far-separated Federal columns, or to attack them at a
disadvantage while moving by the flank. In the advance from the
Etowah to Dallas the Union columns started upon a front reaching
from Cartersville to Rome, sixteen miles in an air-line; the
country was thickly wooded, and the roads were of the worst kind,
and wholly unknown to the Union commanders. The result was
considerable confusion. For example, Hooker crossed the river by
the bridge assigned to Schofield, and later got into the road in
front of Thomas and blocked his column. The Union army for a day
or two was simply groping in an unknown wilderness. Then, if
ever, was Johnston's chance to take advantage of the better
knowledge of the roads and mountain trails that many of the men
of his army must have possessed, to strike a blow at his enemy's
columns; but he only took up positions and intrenched to stop
them. Indeed, one cannot study this campaign without being
persuaded that both General Sherman and General Johnston were
trying to carry on war with as little fighting as possible. Yet
even when General Johnston would make up his mind to fight, as he
says he did at Adairsville and at Cassville, he would be stopped
by the mistakes or the arguments of his corps commanders.

Had Johnston not been relieved of command, he, like Lee
at Petersburg, might possibly have kept Sherman at bay in front
of Atlanta, and protected his communications with Macon and
Montgomery, for many months. Hood, however, ''was forced to an
aggressive policy by the mere fact of his appointment.'' He was
also, like Bragg, naturally aggressive. His attacks at Peachtree
Creek on the 20th of July, and in the battle of Atlanta on the
22nd, were both well planned and promised to be successful. Hood
charges the failure in each case to Hardee. He says that Hardee,
as his small losses proved, did not attack vigorously on the
20th; and that on the 22nd he did not carry his turning movement
far enough round to reach the rear of McPherson's line, but
shattered his command against Federal intrenchments. Hardee's
losses were very heavy. General Alexander says, to trace the
cause of Hood's failure ''further would bring it home to himself
for failure to supervise the execution of important orders-a sort
of failure from which even the most eminent commanders have never
been exempt.''

Johnston made a serious mistake at the outset of the campaign in
not occupying and fortifying Snake Creek Gap. Had he taken this
precaution, ''the problem confronting General Sherman at the
beginning of the campaign would have been more difficult than any
he had to face later. . . . There would have been nothing left
but a dangerous turning movement, probably north of Dalton, to
open the campaign.'' This would have exposed Sherman's
communications, and required a wide circuit to reach Johnston's,
which, from that side, were covered by the Connasauga River and
its branches.

It is rather curious to note that Johnston made no effort to
defend the rivers across his line of retreat, by taking positions
behind them; and that he appeared rather to prefer having a river
at his back, as at Resaca and at the Chattahoochee. He was
careful to provide plenty of bridges for his retreat, and, by
destroying them at the right time, he hindered the pursuit.

Both hostile armies in this campaign made constant use of
fieldworks. It was only by means of intrenching that Sherman was
able to hold Johnston with a small force in front, while he
dispatched the bulk of his command upon the wide turning-
movements. Both armies marched, and maneuvered, and fought like
trained soldiers; and such they were, for, in the two years since
the battle of Shiloh, where both sides fought like raw militia,
these troops had passed through the best of training schools.

Source: American Campaigns Vol. I, p. 547

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