Dalton to Atlanta
Sherman vs. Johnston
by Allen Parfitt
On November 28, 1863 the Confederate Army of Tennessee lay in camp at Dalton,
Georgia, discouraged and defeated. It had been only 76 days since the army,
reinforced by Longstreet's Corps from the Army of Northern Virginia, had
finally won a long-sought victory over the Yankees at Chickamauga Creek. But
their enigmatic commander, General Braxton Bragg, had frittered away the
victory, electing to besiege rather than assault the beaten Federals in
Chattanooga, then with President Jefferson Davis' misguided encouragement,
sending General Longstreet and his corps away on a fool's errand to capture
Knoxville. President Abraham Lincoln sent his beleaguered and starving army in
Chattanooga a reinforcement of one. It was enough: General Ulysses S. Grant,
fresh from his triumph at Vicksburg. Grant moved in like a whirlwind, exploited
Braggs' faulty dispositions to open up a supply line, brought in
reinforcements, then won a stunning victory over the Rebels on November 25th,
featuring an "impossible" assault by General George Thomas' Army of the
Cumberland up the slopes of Missionary Ridge.
One thing every Confederate in Dalton knew was the Bragg had to go. He had been
on the edge of dismissal for months; the main reason Jefferson Davis kept him
on was that Davis could not think of a good replacement. But this catastrophe
was too much. Bragg submitted his resignation. "I fear that we both erred in
the conclusion for me to retain command here after the clamor raised against me
.....", he wrote, and he was probably right. After some hesitation Davis named
in his place General Joseph E. Johnston. It was a very odd choice.
It's not as though Johnston was an unknown quantity. On the contrary; he was
the third ranking officer in the Confederate Army, the second ranking field
general behind Robert E. Lee. His experience went back to the First Battle of
Bull Run in 1861, those golden days of the South when everything seemed
possible, and beating those Yankees would be a piece of cake. He had arrived in
time to take command at Bull Run, but had wisely left the direction of the
battle to General P.T. Beauregard, who had posted the troops. Johnston had done
what he could to help the Southerners to victory, and shared in the glory of
that first triumph. In 1862 he been in command of the Army of Northern Virginia
as it confronted General McClellan's attempt to seize Richmond by the back
door. The battle had just begun when a Federal sharpshooter put a minie ball
into Johnston's shoulder. Robert E. Lee took his place. When Johnston recovered
late that year there could be no question of resuming his place; the Army of
Northern Virginia was Lee's, all the way to Appomattox. Johnston was sent west
to exercise some vague overall command over the scattered Confederate armies
that were trying to stem the Union tide in the west. The assignment was not a
success. Johnston was reluctant to interfere with the various field commanders,
and everything he tried to do was subject to Davis' approval. Jefferson Davis
interpreted his status as Commander-in-Chief of the Confederate armies very
literally. He had a strong military background, and had served as Secretary of
War under President Franklin Pierce. He exercised tight control over all
military appointments and transfers of troops, and did not hesitate to tell his
generals where they should be going and what they should be doing. He viewed
his Secretaries of War as errand boys and office managers (which probably
explains why he had to keep finding a new one). Davis wore himself to a frazzle
running both the civil and military side of the Confederacy, and making long
and exhausting journeys to the front to visit and confer with his generals.
When he was in Richmond he wanted to be kept closely informed of what was going
on in the various armies. Davis was comfortable with Lee. Lee kept him
informed, Lee listened to his ideas, Lee won great victories, Lee was very
aggressive. Davis was not comfortable with Johnston. In fact, the two men hated
There was a dispute about rank. The Confederate Congress decided, with Davis'
encouragement, that previous rank in the United States army would determine
rank in the Confederate army. On this basis Johnston expected to be the
highest-ranking officer in the Confederate army. But when the list came out, he
was fourth, behind Samuel Cooper, the Adjutant General, who turned out to be a
complete cipher, A.S. Johnston, who was killed at Shiloh, and Lee. Joe Johnston
was very rank-conscious, and quick to resent any real or imagined slight. He
was livid and wrote Jefferson Davis a long nasty letter. Davis gave him a
brusque reply. Their relationship never recovered. (For an intelligent
discussion of the logic, rights, and wrongs of this controversy, see William C.
Davis' biography of Jefferson Davis.) It was not that Johnston was a bad
general. Actually, he was a good general. He understood logistics, training,
army management, and was popular with his officers and men, so popular that his
mystique lives on to this day, in spite of his undistinguished record. But he
was not a fighting general. He would no doubt have loved to have won a huge
victory and been the Hero of the Confederacy, if for no other reason than to
have seen the look on Jeff Davis' face as he rode down Broad Street on his big
white horse. But he was waiting for that magic moment when he was almost sure
he could win that victory without any risk of an ugly defeat. Moments like that
don't come very often in war. Robert E. Lee pursued the Goddess of Victory,
grabbed her by the wings and forced her to give him what he wanted. And when
she turned around and smacked him in the mouth, well, he took his lumps, took
the blame, and went on to the next battle. Joe Johnston preferred to
wait....maneuver...wait....then retreat, always looking for the moment that
never came. And while he was doing this he played his cards close to the vest,
being especially careful not to tell That Man In Richmond too much, for fear of
being ordered to do something--like, attack!--that he had no intention of
doing. Davis knew all this. He had been round and round with Johnston back in
1862. He had been round and round with him again out west in ‘63. Johnston
himself had expected never to be offered a significant command again. Davis was
pining, unrealistically, for an aggressive campaign in 1864 with the Army of
Tennessee that would succeed where Bragg had failed. So why on earth did he
pick Joe Johnston?
The truth is that for all Davis' military knowledge he had boxed himself into a
corner. As an old military man, he had tremendous respect for experience,
formal military training, and rank. Lincoln had no such respect. Lincoln's
policy was simple: win or leave. McDowell, McClellan, Fremont, Pope, Rosecrans,
Buell were all put out to pasture. Hooker and Burnside were returned to the
subordinate positions where they belonged. The fact that men like Grant,
Sherman, and Sheridan were total nobodies in 1861 didn't bother him a bit. But
Davis could never quite get over the fact that he had two very high-ranking
generals kicking around with little to do, in spite of the fact that he
detested and distrusted both of them! He might have promoted a major general
commanding a corps to command an army. There were two such in the Army of
Tennessee. One was General John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. One of the great
men of the Confederacy, Breckinridge was more politician than soldier, but had
served on numerous western battlefields. He and Bragg did not get along--a lot
of people didn't get along with Bragg--and it was Breckinridge's Corps that had
given way on Missionary Ridge. Bragg's final report asserted that Breckinridge
had been drunk at the time, and Davis felt the Kentuckian needed a change of
scene. He was sent to take command of a little army in the Shenandoah valley,
where he erased any cloud over his head by winning one of the best managed
little battles of the war at New Market, Virginia, then went on to be Davis'
last and most successful Secretary of War. The other was General William
Hardee. Hardee had written a standard book of tactics before the war, and was
considered competent and reliable. When tentatively offered the command he
absolutely refused. He did not want the responsibility, did not feel himself
equal to the responsibility, and besides, he was planning to marry a young lady
twenty years his junior, and could he have some leave? It might have been
possible to promote a corps commander from Lee's army, but with the prospect of
a Union offensive as soon as the weather broke, Lee was going to need all his
veteran generals, and the only one with western experience, Longstreet, had
made so many enemies in his time with the Army of Tennessee that there could be
no question of giving him the command.
There were several very promising generals in the west. Three of them deserve
mention: A.P. Stewart, Patrick Cleburne, and Nathan Bedford Forrest. The first
two were commanding a division; the latter a detachment of cavalry in
Mississippi. Stewart was a West Pointer, in the same class with Longstreet and
Earl Van Dorn, and had a good reputation as an military administrator and a
combat leader. Not flamboyant, he was the epitome of the solid general who was
perfect for promotion. Cleburne had been born in Ireland, had enlisted as a
private in the British army, had come to America and made good, and was widely
considered to be the best fighting general in the army. When Bragg had looked
in desperation for a man and a division to cover his retreat into Georgia after
the Battle of Chattanooga, he had turned to Cleburne, and Irishman and his men
had done the job, as they always did. Forrest was the most interesting of the
three. A born fighter and leader, Forrest was equally famous for his hot temper
and his military acumen. After the fact many military historians, starting with
Jefferson Davis, have felt that his talents were underutilized. How would he
have done in command of a large army? Who knows? Perhaps he didn't have the
temperament for paperwork and sending orders down the chain of command.
Of course, none of these three were considered for command of the Army of
Tennessee. The idea of taking a division commander and leaping him over the
heads of senior officers was anathema to Davis' orderly mind. There was one
other possible candidate: P.T. Beauregard, the hero of Bull Run, the other
high-ranking officer who was available. But if there was one man that Jefferson
Davis thought less of than Joe Johnston, it was Beauregard. Nope, he couldn't
do it. So Davis held his nose and offered the command to Johnston. Johnston was
under no illusion that he and Davis were going to start getting along, but he
liked commanding armies, felt that he was both qualified and entitled to the
job, and took it.
The Army of the Tennessee had one other piece of unfinished military business.
The departure of Breckinridge meant that there was a vacancy for a corps
commander. Actually, Johnston wanted to create three corps in the army but
Davis, perhaps exhausted from picking generals, did not agree. Nor did he like
any of Johnston's choices for the job. Nor did he promote Stewart or Cleburne.
Instead he sent a veteran from the Army of Northern Virginia, John Bell Hood, a
Texan. Hood, who succeeded to the command of the Army of Tennessee after Davis
inevitably got fed up with Johnston and sent him packing, has gotten terrible
reviews from military historians. This might have something to do with the way
Hood led the Army of Tennessee into several major and minor battles in the last
half of 1864, and lost every one of them. However, this author is among those
who feel that Hood has gotten a raw deal.
The matter might be put this way: Jefferson Davis asked Joe Johnston, "Give me
Johnston replied, "We don't have any miracles here."
Jefferson Davis asked "Sam" Hood, "Give me a miracle."
Hood said, "I'll try.", and failed. Who was the lesser man?
But having said that, it's not clear that Hood was the man for the job. He was
available because he had just recovered from losing his leg at Chickamauga,
where he had commanded a division under Longstreet. He had also been badly
wounded at Gettysburg. His resulting disabilities certainly limited his
physical stamina, although they didn't curb his fierce and aggressive spirit.
He was ambitious, saw himself as auditioning for Johnston's job, and was not
adverse to sending reports back to Richmond that might help him get it. He
probably would have been happier in the long run, and contributed more to the
Confederate cause if he had been posted back to Lee's army, where he learned
his swashbuckling style of leadership, and where he no doubt would have felt
more at home.
In Chattanooga there was a Union army, poised to move against the Army of
Tennessee. It was also having a change of command, but without the turmoil and
heartburn that had accompanied Johnston's appointment. Grant was gone, gone
east to take command of all the Union armies. Lincoln had found his general,
gratefully turned all the military responsibilities over to him, and
concentrated his considerable powers on his civil duties. But before he left
Grant elevated his right hand man, General William T. Sherman, to command the
west. This was Sherman's big chance. He had been given and had carried out
heavy responsibilities under Grant, but this was his first opportunity to
command a large army on his own. He was confident and eager. Sherman's forces
were rather oddly organized into three "armies" of unequal size. The largest
was the "Army of the Cumberland" under General George Thomas. Thomas was a
Virginian who stuck with the Union. He had a reputation for calm reliability.
He had became a national hero when troops under his command made a desperate
stand at Chickamauga, preventing a severe defeat from turning into a total
rout. It was also his men who went charging up Missionary Ridge--without
orders!--and won the Battle of Chattanooga. However, Grant never really liked
Thomas. He was not Grant's man. Thomas and Sherman got along well enough.
Thomas was a very good general. Had he gone with his state, he would have been
a perfect choice to be commanding the gray legions on the other side. The
second army under Sherman's command was the "Army of the Tennessee". This was
Sherman's old command, and had been given to General James McPherson. McPherson
was a favorite of Grant and Sherman, and Sherman would tend to use his troops
as the leading edge of his advance. He was also very competent. The third army
was the "Army of the Ohio" This army was much smaller than the other two,
actually just a corps. Its commander was General John Schofield. Schofield had
just come from Missouri, where his duties revolved mostly around the political
infighting that plagued that sorely divided state. In his memoir he expresses
delight in being transferred to a purely military command. But after a few
fulsome paragraphs telling us how much he respected Sherman and how well they
got along, he proceeded to second-guess him all the way to Atlanta. He gave the
impression that even thirty years later (the memoir was published in 1897), he
was still very conscious of having been the new boy in command, and of having
been on trial before the much more experienced Sherman, Thomas, and McPherson.
The ensuing campaign was one of the most controversial of the Civil War. Many
of the participants: Johnston, Davis, Hood, Schofield, Sherman, had something
to say about it after the war. Modern historians have also had a variety of
opinions. Perhaps one reason why that spring and early summer in northern
Georgia is so perplexing is that everyone expected a huge battle that would
decide the campaign. It never materialized. Even when the armies were in the
suburbs of Atlanta and Hood had replaced Johnston the battles that occurred
were limited in scope. When Davis wrote his strangely impersonal history--it's
hard to call it a memoir--of the war he begins a chapter called Atlanta:
Sherman's March to the Sea by asserting that after appointing Johnston "[my]
information led me to believe that the condition of that army, in all that
constitutes efficiency, was satisfactory....". He continued, "I was also
informed that the enemy's forces....were weaker in numbers than at any time
since the Battle of Missionary Ridge." Then, in a procession of stately
sentences, he claims that the best thing for the Army of the Tennessee to have
done was to march north immediately, somewhere between Chattanooga and
Nashville, and that "by rapid concentration of our troops between the scattered
forces of the enemy, without attempting to capture his entrenched positions, we
could compel him to accept battle in the open field and that, should we fail to
draw him out of his entrenchments, we could move upon his line of
communications.....Of the practicability of this movement I had little doubt;
of its expediency, if practicable, there could be none."
Joe Johnston read this and no doubt laughed bitterly. He started his account of
the campaign by asserting that the army lacked men, guns, shoes, "subsistence
stores", forage, a bridge equipage, and fresh artillery horses. He thought,
both in 1864 and later, than an advance into Tennessee was total nonsense. He
felt that the army needed a rest and a total overhaul. One odd feature of the
Confederate soap opera that was about to be enacted was that Braxton Bragg, the
same General Bragg who had just been fired as commander of the Army of
Tennessee, was now President Davis' military advisor. Davis certainly needed
help, and Bragg had lots of experience. But Davis was relying on Bragg for
advice, and it's hard to be objective about the handling of an army you once
commanded. Bragg was also just beginning to realize how many of his former
subordinates had connived to undermine him, and he was understandably bitter.
So the Army of Tennessee stayed firmly camped in Dalton, and Johnston set about
energetically putting it in order. Everyone agrees that he did this admirably.
This was a job that perfectly suited his talents. Oddly, Bragg's strength was
also in training, organizing, and supplying an army. Between the two of them,
the Army of Tennessee was quite formidable. It needed to be, since the Yankees
that were about to come down on them were also a bunch of experienced veterans,
strongly led. But it's worth noting that in spite of the catastrophes that were
to befall the Army of Tennessee over the next year, there was still remnant of
this army to be surrendered near Durham, North Carolina on April 17th,
1865--after Appomattox--by none other than Joe Johnston!
In order to put this campaign in context, it's also necessary to look at the
state of the war in 1864. The time had passed when the Confederacy had any hope
of gaining its independence through force of arms. The Union was holding the
Mississippi River, cutting the infant country in half, virtually every possible
white male had been drafted or was dodging the draft, and law and order were
breaking down in many parts of the south. The only reason they weren't all
starving to death was that thousands of slaves were still working the fields.
But the Confederates had one hope remaining, a political one. Although Abraham
Lincoln was not adverse to high-handed behavior in support of the Union, he had
no intention of postponing the election of 1864. Jefferson Davis was not facing
election because the Confederate constitution provided for a president serving
one six-year term. Many people in the north had not supported the war in the
first place, and others had gotten weary of endless battles and casualty lists.
The election would be a referendum on the war, and if a Democrat could win it,
perhaps the new president would negotiate a compromise peace, yielding the
Confederacy's single non-negotiable demand: sovereignty. The best thing the
Rebels could do to help the Democrats would be to administer a sharp check to
both Grant and Sherman. The North would have the resources to try again in
1865, but would it have the will? Lee would do his part. He was not, in the
end, successful, but the casualty lists from the Army of the Potomac in the
summer of 1864 were horrendous, and Richmond did not fall until months after
the election. But would Johnston?
On May 4, 1864 Sherman moved south with about 110,000 men. Johnston's army was
as ready as it could be, occupying a strong position north of Dalton. How many
men did Johnston have? Good question. He estimated that he was outnumbered
about 10 to 4. Immediately after his article in "Battles and Leaders" is
another article by a Colonel W.C.P. Breckinridge, putting the numbers at
something like 10 to 7, and yet another by Major E.C. Dawes also questioning
Johnston's figures, and claiming that at one point the numbers got as close as
93 to 75. No matter. It is often the case that the number of men a general
thinks he has relative to the enemy is more important than the number he
actually has. General George McClellan managed to convince himself on the eve
of his Peninsular campaign in 1862, with the help of the Pinkerton boys, that
he was outnumbered. So he planned his campaign as though he was outnumbered, he
fought his campaign as though he was outnumbered, and when attacked he
retreated as though he was outnumbered, even though his soldiers were doing
fairly well in the individual battles. Today there is solid evidence that
McClellan had a decided numerical advantage, but with his mind-set, it did him
no good at all. On the other side Robert E Lee was almost invariably
outnumbered, but he fought his battles as though it didn't matter. And although
things got a little dicey at Antietam, he generally made it work. Stonewall
Jackson's flank march at Chancellorsville was madness! You'd never catch Joseph
E. Johnston doing something crazy like that! But it was inspired madness, and
it enabled Lee to win a battle than couldn't be won. But Johnston was conscious
of his numerical inferiority, conscious that every soldier he lost was
irreplaceable, and determined to put the welfare of his army above all. If that
meant he had to retreat through a hundred miles of Georgia, so be it. If it
meant that Atlanta would have to be given up, so be it. The effect of his
policies on Jefferson Davis, the people of the South and the voters of the
North meant nothing to him at all.
Johnston's army was occupying a strong L-shaped position in front of Dalton.
The immediate flanks were not vulnerable. His veteran troops had thrown up
field fortifications. By this time in the war, soldiers on both sides had
learned the value of improving their positions A little digging, a few fence
rails, maybe some rocks, in a pinch the bodies of their fallen comrades often
meant the difference between life or death. Johnston approved of this. His only
regret, which he mentions a couple of times, was that the army was short of
entrenching tools. In Johnston's fondest dreams Sherman would have battered his
army's brains out attacking this position head on. But Sherman had no such
intentions. Using Thomas' troops to hold the Confederates in place, he sent
McPherson five miles south to a gap in the hills, toward the town of Resaca.
Movements like this would be the theme of the campaign. There was danger for
both sides. If McPherson could get on Johnston's rear, and Thomas followed
Johnston up too closely to allow the Confederates to dislodge him, Johnston's
army would be caught between the hammer and the anvil, and shattered. On the
other hand, if Johnston could find an advantageous chance to attack either
Thomas or McPherson while they were separated he might win a decisive victory
over one wing of the Union army. As indicated above, numbers are difficult, but
it would seem that Johnston had almost as many men as Thomas, and about twice
as many as McPherson. Of course Sherman also had Scofield's little army to put
where he wished.
One has the impression that both Johnston and Sherman rather enjoyed the next
few months, part war, part chess match. The armies were in almost constant
contact, and there was a steady undercurrent of skirmishing and artillery fire.
Sometimes pickets shot at each other, sometimes they threw rocks, sometimes
they got together to exchange food, tobacco, and information. At one point this
practice of picket fraternization got so bad that special field order 47 of the
Second Division, XVII Corps of the Federal army was issued warning officers to
prevent it. Unlike Grant vs. Lee, which was marked by bitter and bloody combat
in the roadless scrub forest of central Virginia, both commanders tried to gain
their ends by maneuver; Sherman by strategic flanking movements like
McPherson's thrust toward Resaca, Johnston countering them, mainly by
retreating to the next defensible position.
Johnston's first experience with this style of warfare was almost his last. He
was tardy in countering McPherson's attack. He wasn't quite sure what was going
on, he was waiting for reinforcements from Mississippi, he liked his position
above Dalton. But McPherson was also cautious, knowing that his army could not
take on Johnston by itself, and a little nervous about being out of touch with
the rest of the Union army. In his memoir Johnston poo-poo's the danger: saying
that had McPherson advanced he would have ".....overwhelmed him, making a most
auspicious beginning of the campaign for the Confederates." But most modern
historians think Johnston was a little slow on the uptake, and a more
aggressive advance by McPherson would have left him in a very tight spot.
Johnston's position around Resaca was also quite good, and his strategic
western flank was protected by the Oostanaula river. There was actually quite a
bit of fighting here, enough to create the "Battle of Resaca". Sherman's idea
was that Schofield and Thomas would attack Johnston's right center, while
McPherson slipped a division or so across the Oostanaula about five miles
downstream. The attacks got nowhere, and Johnston even launched a
counterattack, which was also repulsed. But he was looking over his shoulder,
bothered by reports Yankees crossing the river to the southwest. Both his army
and Sherman's were still north of the river, and he did not want another close
call. But General Sweeny, commanding a division in McPherson's army, was also
moving carefully, conscious that he was all by himself south of the river, and
worried about being overwhelmed by the Confederates. The question is: why
wasn't he? Johnston had just been reinforced by a corps of 15,000 soldiers from
Mississippi, commanded by General Leonidas Polk. He was holding a strong
position and had no trouble repulsing Schofield and Thomas. Why didn't he take
a couple of divisions, go down there and throw Sweeny and his men back into the
river? This type of hard-hitting counterattack was Lee's trademark, and he was
giving Grant all he could handle in the Wilderness of Virginia. But Johnston
pulled his army out and headed south to Cassville.
On the morning of May 19th the Army of Tennessee received an electrifying call
to arms. "Soldiers.....you will now turn and meet his advancing columns. Fully
confiding in the conduct of the officers, the courage of the soldiers, I lead
you into battle!" Could it be? Was Joe Johnston actually going to turn on the
Yankees? He certainly had the chance. Sherman and his generals had been lulled
to sleep by the passive behavior of the Confederate army, and were advancing in
separated columns to take advantage of the road system. If they moved quickly
and aggressively, the Rebels could maul one of these columns severely before
Sherman could concentrate his troops. It does not appear that Johnston had a
very specific plan. He met with his corps commanders, but no written orders
exist. Apparently the idea was for Polk's corps to hold an enemy column
somewhere on the eastern side of the Union advance, and for Hood's corps to
strike them on the eastern flank. Meanwhile, Hardee was shielding this
operation from the rest of Sherman's army. Had this attack been successful, it
would have had a number of beneficial effects for the Army of Tennessee. First,
it would have killed and wounded a whole bunch of Yankees. Second, it would
have given the Army confidence that Johnston knew what he was doing, and that
he meant what he said that he was just waiting for the right moment to strike
back. Third, it would have inhibited Sherman from making those wide ranging
flanking movements that involved splitting up his army. Grant had already
learned in Virginia that it didn't pay to take liberties with Bobby Lee, but
Sherman, in spite of what he kept saying after the war, did not really respect
But unfortunately for the Confederates and General Johnston, the attack did not
come off. Just before Hood was about to unleash his corps on Schofield's
unsuspecting troops, a staff officer came rushing up to him to report that
Yankees had been sighted out to the east, beyond Hood's flank. Hood immediately
halted the attack and sent word to Johnston that he was outflanked. Johnston
was skeptical, but decided the time had passed for a successful stroke and
eventually canceled the whole thing. He remained skeptical. He late wrote:
"After going some three miles, General Hood marched back about two, and formed
his corps facing our right and rear. Being asked for an explanation he replied
that an aide-de-camp had told him that the Federal Army was approaching on that
road. Our whole army knew that was impossible. It had been viewing the enemy in
the opposite direction every day for two weeks. General Hood did not report his
extraordinary disobedience--as he must have done had he believed the story on
which he professed to have acted. The time lost frustrated the design, for
success depended on timing the attack properly."
Whew! This is strong stuff! When Hood read it, he was understandably upset. The
"extraordinary disobedience" and the "professed to have acted" is pretty bad,
but the implications are even worse. Did Johnston mean to imply that Hood was
too chicken to attack? Or since Hood later showed no hesitation about ordering
attacks in sometimes unpromising circumstances (Franklin!) maybe he is implying
that Hood deliberately funked the attack to make Johnston look bad, so Hood
could take over the army. Historians have puzzled over this incident, and tried
to figure out whether there were any blue-coats out there on Hood's flank. The
consensus is that Hood's staff officer saw some of McCook's Federal cavalry,
which was feeling its way around the flank of the Confederate army looking for
Two questions come to mind. First, Hood's behavior seems uncharacteristically
timid. He commanded an entire corps and was ordered to attack--something he
notoriously liked to do. Couldn't he have detached a regiment or two, or even a
brigade or two to see what was going on out there on the flank and continued
his advance? Second, where was Johnston? Having issued his grandiloquent
proclamation, he had a lot riding on this attack. Shouldn't he have been
standing right at Hood's elbow "leading" his troops into battle? Perhaps he was
imitating Lee, who famously preferred to give the orders and stand back and let
his subordinate commanders do their jobs. Perhaps he thought it was unseemly to
be jostling Hood and was counting on the Texan's reputation for aggressive
action. Perhaps he was just more comfortable at headquarters. One thing is
certain: neither Hood nor Johnston lacked personal courage; both had been
wounded several times.
There was an unpleasant little coda to this affair. That evening Polk and Hood
came to talk to Johnston. They told him they didn't like their position. Here's
Johnston's version of what happened. "During the evening Lieutenant-Generals
Polk and Hood, the latter being spokesman, asserted that a part of the line of
each would be so enfiladed by the Federal batteries.....that they would be
unable to hold their position. .....The matter was discussed perhaps an hour,
in which I became apprehensive that as the commanders of two-thirds of the army
thought the position untenable, the opinion would be adopted by the troops,
which would make it so. Therefore I yielded" And the army retreated again. This
is just dumb. Can you imagine two corps commanders coming to see Grant, and
whining about their position that way? Can you imagine him discussing it for an
hour and then giving way? Not likely! They'd be on their way to Minnesota to
fight Indians by the next morning! It's vintage Johnston; indecision,
apprehension, retreat. And thinking it over later, resentment against Hood. Was
the position really defective? At this distance it's a little hard to tell.
However, everyone agrees that Johnston's chief of artillery, General Francis
Shoup, pointed out to Johnston as they had ridden along the line together
earlier that the right flank was vulnerable to Federal artillery, and that
Sherman ordered a brief barrage late in the day, confirming Shoup's concerns.
Johnston's solution for this problem was to suggest that Hood's troops shelter
to the rear, or in lateral trenches, and come out to repel an attack when the
Union artillery fire lifted just as the hypothetical assault was nearing the
Confederate positions. This is not a formula that gives a corps commander a lot
of confidence in his position, and it suggests that maybe the lines around
Cassville were not quite as good as Johnston remembered them. Most military
memoirs are self-serving, and those of Civil War generals especially. But
Johnston more than most seems to suffer from selective memory concerning what
actually happened, and his reputation has suffered accordingly.
Late in 1862 General Grant had begun his first attempt to capture the
Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi at Vicksburg by advancing straight
south along the line of the Mississippi Central Railroad. However, a dashing
and aggressive cavalry raid led by General Earl Van Dorn had captured his
supply center at Holly Springs, Tennessee, and kicked the logistical
underpinnings from Grant's advance. He went scuttling back to his starting
place, and when he resumed his advance, it was down the Mississippi River,
where he ran into a host of difficulties. Grant eventually captured Vicksburg,
but it is entirely possible that Van Dorn's raid preserved that vital point for
six months or more. Could, perhaps, Confederate cavalry do the same thing to
Sherman? He was logistically dependant on a single track railroad running south
from Chattanooga to supply a hundred thousand men. He and his railwaymen had
acted ruthlessly to keep this railway, and the one from Nashville that supplied
Chattanooga, running at top efficiency Garrisoned blockhouses covered the
railroad, and damage by guerrillas and bushwhackers could be quickly repaired.
But if somehow the railroad could be cut off or damaged for a few weeks,
Sherman's men would starve, and be forced to retreat to Tennessee. Van Dorn was
dead, but there were still dashing cavalrymen in the Confederate army. Johnston
kept calling for such a raid. However, he was not anxious to send his own
cavalry. It's easy to understand why. In this war of move and countermove,
Johnston had to know what Billy Sherman was up to. His cavalry was his eyes.
The Confederates also had a successful formula for conducting their numerous
retreats. First, they would build fires and give the impression that they were
going nowhere. Then cavalry would leave their horses behind the lines, come in,
tend the fires, and keep up appearances while the infantry slipped away.
Finally the cavalry would fall back, mount their horses, and follow. The next
morning the Yankees would wake up to find out that Joe Johnston had sneaked
away again. So what Johnston kept screaming for was for some other cavalry to
make this great raid. There was Confederate cavalry in Mississippi. It was led
by that redoubtable cavalryman Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest would have liked
nothing better than to go charging into north Georgia making a mess behind
Union lines. But his forces were all that kept the Federals from overrunning
Mississippi. Although in the larger scheme of things perhaps supporting
Johnston was more important to the Confederates than holding Mississippi, the
Confederate commander there, General S.D. Lee, didn't necessarily see it that
way. Nor did the inhabitants of Mississippi. And Jeff Davis, who was himself a
Mississippian, wasn't quite comfortable enough with abandoning his home state
to give the necessary peremptory orders. He kept asking Johnston, "Don't you
have cavalry?" Forrest was successful in turning back the Federals in
Mississippi, winning a striking victory over great odds at Brice's Crossroads,
but he could never get around to attacking Sherman's lifeline.
Johnston's next position was near Allatoona. Another in a succession of strong
positions, it was tough at first for Sherman and his generals to figure out a
way to outflank it. Sherman decided to move west, away from the railway, toward
New Hope Church and Pickett's Mill. Twice the bluecoats attacked, hoping they
had found the edge of Johnston's positions, and twice they were repulsed, as
Johnston's army was moving with them. By this time field fortifications were
becoming even more sophisticated. As trenches were dug, the red Georgia soil
was piled up in front of them, four to twelve feet thick. To protect the
defender's heads, a log was mounted several inches above the mound to provide a
firing slit. The head log rested on stout slanted poles, so if it received a
direct hit from artillery it would slide harmlessly to the rear of the trench.
From behind such a fortification the defenders could only be hurt by a very
lucky shot, and the attackers were exposed to heavy fire. Some soldiers
organized themselves into three man firing teams, with the best marksman doing
all the shooting, and the other two loading and handing him their muskets.
Here, deep in the Georgia woods, and also in the lines of Petersburg, a
sharp-eyed historian can see the dim outline of what would eventually become
the bloody stalemate of the Western Front, fifty years later. All that remained
to put the defense completely in the ascendant was the development of the
machine gun. It is notable that throughout the entire campaign in no case was
an assault on prepared positions by either side successful. On May 28th, near
Dallas, Georgia, Bates' division of Hood's corps attempted to flank the Yankees
in turn, ran headlong into McPherson's solid lines and was repulsed with heavy
This was fine, but Sherman had a problem. He needed to retain the initiative,
and away from the railroad, it was almost impossible to feed his men. And the
armies were so close and entangled that it was difficult for him to maneuver.
In particular, McPherson's army, which was somewhat separated from the rest of
his forces, needed to be pulled out and reunited with Thomas and Schofield, and
the whole army needed to go back east to the railroad. In the meantime
Sherman's cavalry had seized the pass at Allatoona, so if he could execute this
movement, Johnston would have to move aggressively or fall back once again.
Since McPherson's movement had already been delayed by Bates' attack, Sherman
issued detailed orders on May 31, and McPherson issued equally detailed orders
to his division commanders. The disengagement went without a hitch, Sherman
regained his supply line and freedom of movement, and Johnston fell back to the
area around Pine Mountain and Kennesaw mountain, only twenty miles from
But Sherman's problems were far from over. A new one intruded--rain. It rained
and rained, turning the roads and trenches to mud, thick Georgia mud. And, as
usual, Johnston's positions were strong and well chosen. The rain did not pause
until June 14, a welcome lull for the exhausted troops, although they didn't
like being wet all the time. That same day a famous incident occurred on Pine
Mountain. Johnston, Hardee and Polk went up the mountain together to look over
the Federal positions spread out below them. Although they could see very well
from there, the Yankees could also see them. As Colonel Dilworth of the Florida
brigade holding the position pointed out the sights, artillery fire came
whistling overhead. Time to leave! General Polk was too slow in taking cover,
was hit by an artillery shell and killed instantly. A brave and respected man,
although not necessarily a good general, his loss was deeply felt by
Confederates all the way to Richmond. A.P. Stewart was assigned to command the
suddenly leaderless corps.
Jefferson Davis was getting very, very impatient. Somehow he found it difficult
to believe that this army which had been assembled with such difficulty could
do nothing but fall back. And in truth, the rest of the Confederacy had been
stripped of troops to reinforce Johnston. Davis kept sending snide messages to
Johnston, both directly and through Bragg, talking about the disappointment he
felt that Johnston had been unable to make the attack which Davis so much
desired. Davis was also hearing bad things about Johnston's lack of
aggressiveness from Hood.
Sherman was still having trouble. The Confederates had fallen back from Pine
Mountain, leaving the site of the Polk's death in Federal hands, but Johnston
was occupying yet another strong position around Kennesaw Mountain. Sherman
could not see any way to flank this position without moving Thomas and
McPherson off the railroad to the west. He really didn't want to do that. He
remembered the problems he had a month previous around Pickett's Mill and New
Hope Church. So he decided to try a direct assault. Big mistake! Newton's
division from Thomas' army and Davis' division of McPherson's army jumped off
at 8 A.M. on June 27th against the left-center of Johnston's position. By 10:30
the attack had failed with almost 3000 casualties against 600 Confederates. The
Federal infantry never had a chance. The Rebels shot them down easily from
their strong earthworks. Sherman mumbled at the time about the assault needing
more vigor, but this was nonsense. In his memoirs he accepted responsibility,
but said something about needing to show Johnston that he would attack him
anywhere. This was nonsense, too. And Sherman knew it; he didn't do that again.
What he did do was to order the move to the west that he had hesitated to make
before sending Davis' and Newton's men to their doom. And, as usual, it worked
well. On the night of July 2 Johnston retreated to lines just north of the
Chattahoochee River, within sight of Atlanta. Nor did he stay there long. Two
days later he retreated to the river.
By now it was really too late for that big cavalry raid. Sherman was a wily
general, and he had been stockpiling food and supplies everywhere. Allatoona
was chock-full of rations and munitions. General Shoup had suggested fortifying
the crossings of the Chattahoochee, holding up the Yankees with a portion of
the army, and going on the rampage with the rest. Perhaps Johnston's biggest
failing was his total inability to visualize operations like this. Lee was now
holding the lines of Petersburg, and finding that they were impregnable, he
detached troops to resist Grant's attempt to work around his flank, and at the
same time sent a couple of divisions north with General Early, who marched up
the Shenandoah Valley to the suburbs of Washington! But Johnston, who was much
stronger relative to Sherman than Lee was to Grant, liked to keep his army
together in a nice compact mass. He also sent Davis two reports that drove the
president nuts. On July 11th, he suggested that the Federal prisoners of war in
the hell-hole camp at Andersonville, Georgia, a hundred miles south of Atlanta,
should be moved. On July 16th he told Davis that "...We are trying to put
Atlanta in condition to be held for a day or two by the Georgia militia, that
army movements may be freer and wider." The first memo rang all the alarm bells
in Davis' head, the second rang them again. Was Johnston going to give up
Atlanta without a fight? It sounded like it. On July 12th Davis sent Robert E.
Lee a message telling him that he might have to relieve Johnston, and asking
advice about a successor, specifically mentioning Hood. Lee replied that he
thought it was a bad idea to relieve Johnston, and that while Hood was a brave
fighter, he might not do so well in other areas necessary to an army commander.
Davis sent Bragg to Georgia to look over the situation. Bragg had a nice chat
with Johnston, but learned absolutely nothing about Johnston's intentions. He
had a another nice chat with Hood, and was favorably impressed.
If Davis was going to make a change, his options were again limited. Assuming
he still couldn't stand to put Beauregard in charge, it was either Hood or
Hardee. Hardee had already turned down the job once, and Bragg did not like him
at all. So Davis crossed him off the list, met with his cabinet, talked to Lee
again, and decided to make the move. On July 17th, a telegram went out from
Richmond. "General J.E. Johnston: Lieut. Gen. J. B. Hood had been commissioned
to the temporary rank of general under the late law of Congress. I am directed
by the Secretary of War to inform you that as you have failed to arrest the
advance of the enemy to the vicinity of Atlanta, far in the interior of
Georgia, and express no confidence that you can defeat or repel him, you are
hereby relieved from the command of the Army and Department of Tennessee, which
you will immediately turn over to General Hood."
So who was to blame for this debacle'? All the Confederate participants had the
same answer: "Not me!". In general, the author agrees. It's hard to blame
Johnston for anything. He delivered a perfectly characteristic performance,
doing the things he did very well, doing the things he couldn't do or didn't
want to do not at all. Is it possible that Johnston deliberately courted
dismissal? He didn't do anything to help Bragg give Davis a favorable report on
his intentions, and his memo of July 16th seems amazingly provocative if he
really wanted to keep his job. One senses that Johnston had his eyes more on
the future than the present, and getting fired when he did has served him very
well with posterity. His devotees still claim he was going to do "something" to
save Atlanta, and that Hood was just an attack-crazed bungler.
Likewise, given his mind-set, Davis seems to have had few alternatives at any
point. He was concerned about appointing Johnston in the first place but
preferred him to Beauregard. Later he liked Hood, wasn't sure about his
ability, felt he had to make a change and did so. Hood doesn't come down to us
as a very loyal subordinate. Back-biting and disloyalty was a long time
tradition in the Army of the Tennessee. Sure enough, after Hood took command,
he started complaining that his subordinate generals were letting him down.
Hardee, in spite of having rejected the job once, was miffed that he wasn't
asked again, and eventually requested and received a transfer. And meanwhile
the soldiers marched, fought, died.
Sherman deserves a great deal of credit for conducting a shrewd, aggressive,
and intelligent campaign. Some recent historians have found fault with some of
his decisions and movements, but no general is perfect. Just ask Napoleon!
Sherman took the measure of Johnston, adapted his campaign to take advantage of
his weaknesses and avoided playing to his strengths. After Hood took command
Sherman and his generals realized that the Confederates would take the
offensive. Hood did not disappoint them, striking at Thomas on July 20th, and
at McPherson on July 22. Both these attacks failed, although McPherson was
killed. Sherman still did not assault the defenses of Atlanta head-on, but took
a month to extend his siege to the south and west. In late August Hood was
unable to parry Sherman's movements, which cut the last railroad supplying the
beleaguered city. Atlanta fell on September 2, and Lincoln was easily
re-elected, receiving 212 out of 233 electoral votes.
With the perspective of a hundred and fifty years, is it possible to suggest
any improvement to Confederate strategy? Yes, It is! Here, much too late to do
Jefferson Davis any good, is how he should have saved Atlanta.
First, place General Joseph E. Johnston in command of the Army of Tennessee.
His orders are to avoid a major battle, retreat toward Atlanta slowly, preserve
his army. Since that's exactly what he did do, he should be able to carry out
his orders happily and successfully.
Second, leave General Leonidas Polk in Mississippi, with orders to defend. Polk
was not a great general, but the forces the Yankees sent to Mississippi were
not large or particularly well led, so he might be able to do this.
Third, gather up all the Confederate cavalry in the west, leaving maybe a
brigade for Johnston and a regiment for Polk, and concentrate it at some
strategic point. Put General Nathan Bedford Forrest in command, with orders to
attack Sherman's rear when he reached the vicinity of Allatoona.
Sounds simple, doesn't it? It might even have worked.
The problem with this campaign is not in finding information, but in sorting
through the large amount of sometimes contradictory information that exists.
All sources are listed in alphabetical order.
Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Castle Books Edition, 1956 pp. 260-277
Joseph E. Johnston "Opposing Sherman's Advance to Atlanta" pp277-281; W.C.P.
Breckinridge "The Opening of the Atlanta Campaign" pp281-283; E.C. Dawes "The
Confederate Strength in the Atlanta Campaign"
Castel, Albert "Decision in the West" University Press of Kansas 1992.
Detailed, well researched, objective, somewhat marred by the author's decision
to write in the historical present.
Davis, Jefferson "The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government" Collier
Davis, Stephen "Atlanta Will Fall" Scholarly Resources 2001. Well written,
Davis, William C. "Jefferson Davis" Louisiana State University Press 1991 A
good and objective modern biography of Davis.
Govan, Gilbert and Livingwood, James "A Different Valor: Joseph E. Johnston"
Bobbs-Merrill 1956 An older biography, sympathetic to Johnston.
Hirshson, Stanley P. "The White Tecumseh" John Wiley and Sons, 1997 A good
modern biography of Sherman
Kennett, Lee K. "Marching Through Georgia" HarperCollins 1995 A gem! The
campaign from the point of view of the soldier and the civilian.
Schofield, John M. "Forty-Six Years in the Army" University of Oklahoma Press
Stanley, David Sloan "An American General" Narrative Press Edition 2003
Woodworth, Steven E. "Jefferson Davis and His Generals" University Press of
Kansas 1990 Well written, very opinionated.
Copyright © 2007 Allen Parfitt.
Written by Allen Parfitt. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Allen Parfitt at:
About the author:
Allen Parfitt is a retired teacher. He has had a life-long interest in military affairs. He lives near Kalamazoo, Michigan with
his wife and four cats. He is continually adding to his library of books on military history.
Published online: 06/26/2007.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.