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Civil War Articles
The Third Day at Gettysburg
Colonel Patrick O'Rorke
Stanley at Shiloh: A Improbable 'Indiana Jones'
Ringgold Cavalry in Alleghenies
Special Order 191: Ruse of War?
15th Illinois Infantry
8th New Hampshire Infantry
Confederate Railroad
Shenandoah Campaign
Fredericksburg Campaign
Commanders and Censors
Unconventional Warfare
Sun Tzu and Overland Campaign
ACW Military Theory
Bear Creek Massacre
Nutmeggers on Antietam Creek
Nathan Bedford Forrest
The City Point Explosion
Dalton to Atlanta-Sherman vs. Johnston
The Maple Leaf Adventure
The Battle of Pea Ridge
History of 138th PA
The Battle of Franklin
Want of Nail: Confederate Ironclads
Battle of Wilson's Creek
Life and Death of the 10th NJ Inf
The Death of General Zook
Barrancas: The First Shots
Custer and the Battle of Waynesboro
Skirmish in the East Woods
The Battle Rainbow
The Mistake of All Mistakes
Stony Hill Tour
6th WI at Gettysburg
Witmer Farm
Barlow's Knoll
Wheatfield at Gettysburg

Allen Parfitt Articles
Dalton to Atlanta-Sherman vs. Johnston
A Path Across the Rhine: Remagen
The Battle of Cowpens
Popski's Private Army
The Battle of Pea Ridge
Bicycle Blitzkrieg: Singapore
Battles of Sparta: Mantinea
Battle of Franklin

Dalton to Atlanta - Sherman vs. Johnston
Dalton to Atlanta
Sherman vs. Johnston
May-June 1864
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 each other.

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 a miracle."

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. " 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 Johnston.

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 the railroad.

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 losses.

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 Atlanta.

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.

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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 Edition 1961

Davis, Stephen "Atlanta Will Fall" Scholarly Resources 2001. Well written, pro-Sherman.

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 edition 1998

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.

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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.
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