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Battle of Atlanta


A Tale of Three Generals
The Atlanta Campaign

By Joel Busenitz aka “Gen. Longstreet”

"We have beaten our enemy on every ground he has chose, and have wrested from him his own Gate City..." - L.M. Dayton, Aide-de-Captain to Major General W.T. Sherman Atlanta, GA Sept.8, 1864 (1)

What had started out as a hopeful Confederate effort to rid Tennessee of Yankees in September of 1863, ended in a defeat which marked doom for the Confederates a year later. It began with a rout of Federal forces along the banks of the Chickamauga Creek. But Confederate General Braxton Bragg refused to believe he had won, and, in spite of pleas from Longstreet and Forrest, let the enemy escape.

When Bragg finally did move, he took a position on Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain, and prepared to besiege General Rosecrans and his Federals. And for awhile it looked as though the siege may work. The Union army was down to quarter-rations and was in danger of capture. But before this happened, Grant was placed in command of the West, and things took a turn for the better. General Thomas, "The Rock" of Chickamauga, replaced Rosecrans as commander of the Army of the Cumberland, Sherman came from Memphis with two corps, and another two came from the Army of the Potomac, recent victors at Gettysburg. In addition, Grant secured a supply route, much to the relief of the troops in Chattanooga.

On November 25, Hooker attacked Missionary Ridge, and the Confederates, outnumbered six to one, were compelled to retreat. It ended up being a rout, and only Cleburne's Division kept Bragg from certain disaster. After Chattanooga, there was another change in command; on both sides. Joe Johnston took over Bragg's position, and Grant was promoted to command over all Union armies. Sherman was given control of the West.

Johnston's promotion to commander of the Army of Tennessee greatly increased morale among the Southern troops; not excluding the officers, many who had not gotten along well with Bragg. The Union army under Sherman also was well prepared for the upcoming campaign. W.P.C. Breckenridge, a colonel for the South described-

"General Sherman had in hand for attack nearly 100,000 men and 254 guns, divided into three armies-the Army of the Cumberland, commanded by General Thomas, numbering 60,773 ; the Army of the Tennessee, General McPherson, 24,465 ; the Army of the Ohio, General Schofield, 13,559. It was a superb army, admirably equipped, abundantly supplied, and excellently led. It was veteran, and had known victory. It had pushed its antagonist out of Kentucky with the surrender of Donelson; had captured Tennessee; captured Vicksburg; repossessed the Mississippi River; driven its foe over Missionary Ridge in flight. It knew how to fight, and was willing to fight." (2)

It was May now of 1864, and both armies had enjoyed about as much rest as they needed. Sherman's army was numerically superior to its foe, a common trait throughout the war, and even more so at this time. Johnston was a defensive minded general; but was not over cautious. He was known for his quick strikes at an exposed enemy flank, and would make the enemy pay for mistakes. Nor was Johnston stupid. He knew that Lincoln was up for re-election in the fall, and if he could fight a delaying action long enough to keep Sherman from producing any positive results, then perhaps Lincoln would not be re-elected and the South might gain their freedom as a result. This attitude would get him in trouble with Jefferson Davis a little later.

Johnston had fallen back to the valley in which Dalton was located. It was not a good defensive position because the valley was so wide. According to Johnston, the valley was, “so broad as to give ample room for the deployment of the largest American army." Guarding the western border of this valley was a ridge known as "Rocky face." Johnston prepared his defenses in this area. On the afternoon of May 7, Confederate cavalry was driven off by Yankees moving toward Dug Gap, which is located west of Rocky-face. Johnston describes the actions around Dalton the following day,

"About 4 o'clock P. M. of the 8th, Geary's division of Hooker's corps attacked two regiments of Reynolds's Arkansas brigade who were guarding Dug Gap, and who were soon joined by Grigsby's brigade on foot. The increased sound of musketry indicated so sharp a conflict that Lieutenant-General Hardee was requested to send Granbury's Texan brigade to the help of our people, and to take command there himself. These accessions soon decided the contest, and the enemy was driven down the hill. A sharp engagement was occurring at the same time on the crest of the mountain, where our right and center joined, between Pettus’ brigade holding that point and troops of the Fourth Corps attacking it. The assailants were repulsed, however. The vigor of this attack suggested the addition of Brown's brigade to Pettus’.

“O(sp) larger force assailed the troops at the angle, and with great determination, .but the Federal troops were defeated with a loss proportionate to their courage. Assaults as vigorous and resolute were made at the same time on Stewart and on Bate, and were handsomely repulsed. The Confederates, who fought under cover, had but trifling losses in these combats, but the Federal troops, fully exposed, must have lost heavily-the more because American soldiers are not to be driven back without severe losses." (3)

Major General O.O. Howard, commander of the 4th Corps in the Atlanta campaign, had the following description of the fighting around Dalton,

"General Thomas was directed to threaten the enemy in front on the 8th of May, while General McPherson was moving through Villanow in order to seize and occupy Snake Creek Gap. My part of this movement was to endeavor to put a force on Rocky Face Ridge, and make a demonstration toward Buzzard Roost Gap in conjunction with the Fourteenth Corps. General Newton's division on the morning of the 8th of May moved to the north end of Rocky Face, some two miles above Buzzard Roost Gap, where he pushed up a small force at first, driving the enemy along the crest. He succeeded in taking about one-third of the height from the enemy, and establishing a signal station upon a prominent point. He had attempted to get possession of-a rebel station, but owing to the rugged nature of the heights, and the ability of the enemy to defend so narrow a path, he could not reach it. In the mean time Generals Stanley and Wood pushed strong skirmish lines, well supported, as far up the western slope as possible. During the night following. General Newton succeeded in getting two pieces of artillery upon the ridge. The next morning, May 9, he attempted to make farther progress and succeeded in driving the enemy from 50 to 100 yards. General Stanley during the afternoon of the 9th made a reconnaissance into the pass of Buzzard Roost, developing a strong musketry and artillery fire, while General Wood's division continued the same operations as the day before. The casualties in my command resulting from these operations were between 200 and 300 killed and wounded." (4)

Unfortunately for the Confederates, they had been outmaneuvered by Sherman's men, and Johnston realizing his tenuous position with McPherson's Corps coming from the left, and Schofield from the right, shortly thereafter retreated towards Resaca. This was a pattern that was seen repeatedly while Johnston was in command. He would set up a strong defensive position, and Sherman would either attack him straight up, or try to maneuver around him as he did here. More often than not, Johnston's defensive position would be too strong for Sherman's liking, so Sherman would just move around the flank.

Somewhere in Johnston's retreat to Resaca, Polk's corps had joined in giving some badly leaded strength to the Confederate army. Yet, here again, we saw the example of Sherman outmaneuvering Johnston. Sherman describes his action here as follows,

"My purpose was that General McPherson should reach the railway at Resaca, destroy it to Johnston's rear, and then take up a strong defensive position near the mouth of the gap, and to operate on the flank of the enemy as he retreated. General McPherson reached Resaca with little difficulty but did not break the road. As soon as I learned this I left General Howard's corps (the Fourth) with cavalry to watch the Buzzard Roost Pass and moved the whole army to Resaca. From the Rocky Face Ridge the enemy had a full view of our movement and a shorter and better line to reach Resaca, so that when on the 13th May I reached Resaca the enemy had evacuated Dalton and occupied Resaca in force. I did not hesitate to attack him though strongly entrenched. Sending a division (General Sweeny's) of the Sixteenth Corps with a pontoon train to Lay's Ferry with orders to cross the Oostenaula, there to threaten and if necessary attack the enemy's line at Calhoun, I gradually enveloped the enemy in Resaca, and pressed him so hard that he evacuated in the night of May 15 and retreated by the good roads south." (5)

From Resaca, Johnston fell back to Adairsville where he finally saw an opportunity to go somewhat on the offensive. The Yankee army had been following Johnston sort of piece meal, so that when on the 19th, when, according to Johnston, half of the Union army was at Kingston, he decided to take the two corps that he had left in nearby Cassville and attack. What followed was more hard luck for the South. I quote again from Johnston, with,

"......Hood's (corps) leading on the right. When this corps had advanced some two miles one of his staff officers reported to Lieutenant-General Hood that the enemy was approaching on the Canton road, in rear of the right of our original position. He drew back his troops and formed them across that road. When it was discovered that the officer was mistaken, the opportunity had passed, by the near approach of the two portions of the Federal army." (6)

From there, Johnston pulled the army back to Cassville, to a defensive line which he initially thought was quite formidable. But after discussing the line with Hood and Polk, it was decided that the Yankee artillery, which had been barking at them ever since they had pulled back, would make the position "untenable" the next day. So on the 20th, Johnston retreated across the Etowah, a decision he would later say he had regretted ever since. By the 24th, Hood was four miles from New Hope Church, and the rest weren't too far from him. On the evening of the 25th, fierce fighting took place around this area. Stewart's division was attacked by Hooker's corps, but was unable to capture the desired ground. This repulse by the Confederates allowed them to dig in and once again Sherman had to change his plans. McPherson shifted to Dallas, Thomas stayed at New Hope Church, and Schofield moved toward the left. This movement brought on another engagement on the 28th around New Hope Church. Sherman said of it,

"On the 28th General McPherson was on the point of closing to his left on General Thomas, in front of New Hope Church, to enable me with the rest of the army to extend still more to the left, and to envelop the enemy's right, when suddenly the enemy made a bold and daring assault on him at Dallas (near New Hope Church). Fortunately our men had erected good breast-works, and gave the enemy a terrible and bloody repulse." (7)

Sherman continued moving to the left, and finally on the 4th of June Johnston withdrew from New Hope Church, and Sherman quickly moved and soon occupied the railroad station around Acworth. This was a vital supply line because once he was able to rebuild the bridge over the Etowah that the Confederates had burned, he could bring in his supplies via rail.

Johnston fell back to Lost Mountain, and extended his line to the Marietta road on the 7th, basing it at Kennesaw Mountain. Constant skirmishing was taking place at this time, and continued until the 18th. On the 14th of June General Polk was killed by an artillery shell while reconnoitering on Pine Mountain. General Loring replaced him as corps commander. Johnston had erected an impressive defensive line around Kennesaw Mountain, albeit a mere 20 miles from Atlanta.

Sherman, upon seeing the latest line of defense of the enemy thought they were spread too thin. Thinking along these lines he ordered McPherson to move to Marietta, Thomas to attack Kennesaw and Pine Mountain, and placed Schofield near Lost Mountain.

At 8 a.m. on the 27th of June Sherman attacked. The following is the correspondence between Sherman and Thomas during the fight:

Thomas - The movement of my troops against the enemy's works has commenced.

Sherman - Everything moving well on this flank. Schofield reports the same. Push your troops with all the energy possible.

Thomas - General Howard reports that he has advanced and is doing well. I have not yet received report from Palmer.

Sherman - All well. Keep things moving.

Thomas - Yours received. General Harker's brigade advanced to within twenty paces of the enemy's breast- works and was repulsed with canister at that range, General Hooker losing an arm. General Wagner's brigade, of Newton's division, supporting General Harker, was so severely handled that it is compelled to reorganize. Colonel Mitchell's brigade, of Davis' division, captured one line of rebel breast- works, which they still hold. McCook's brigade was also very severely handled, nearly every colonel being killed or wounded. Colonel McCook wounded. It is compelled to fall back and reorganize. The troops are all too much exhausted to advance, but we hold all we have gained.

Sherman - McPherson's column reached near the top of the hill through very tangled brush, but was repulsed. It is found almost impossible to deploy, but they still hold the ground. I wish you to study well the position, and if it be possible to break the line do it; it is easier now than it will be hereafter. Hold fast all you make. I hear Leggett's guns well behind the mountain.

Sherman - McPherson and Schofield are at a dead- lock. Do you think you can carry any part of the enemy's line to- day! McPherson's men are up to the abatis and can't move without the direct assault. I will order the assault if you think you can succeed at any point. Schofield has one division close up on the Powder Springs road, and the other across Olley's Creek, about two miles to his right and rear.

Thomas - Davis' two brigades are now within sixty yards of the enemy's entrenchments. Davis reports that he does not think he can carry the works by assault on account of the steepness of the hill, but he can hold his position, put in one or two batteries to- night, and probably drive them out to- morrow morning. General Howard reports the same. Their works are from six to seven feet high and nine feet thick. In front of Howard they have a very strong abatis. Davis' loss in officers has been very heavy. Nearly all the field officers in McCook's brigade, with McCook, have been killed or wounded. From what the officers tell me I do not think we can carry the works by assault at this point to- day, but they can be approached by saps and the enemy driven out.

Sherman - Secure what advantageous ground you have gained; but is there anything in the enemy's present position that if we should approach by regular saps he could not make a dozen new parapets before one sap is completed! Does the nature of the ground warrant the time necessary for regular approaches!

Thomas - Your dispatch of 2.25 received. We still hold all the ground we have gained and the division commanders report their ability to hold it. They also report the enemy's woks exceeding strong; in fact, so strong that they cannot be carried by assault except by immense sacrifice, even if they can be carried at all. I think, therefore, the best chance is to approach them by regular saps, and if we can find a favorable position to batter them down. We have already lost heavily to- day without gaining any material advantage; one or two more such assaults would use up this army.

Sherman - Your dispatch of 2.25 received. We still hold all the ground we have gained and the division commanders report their ability to hold it. They also report the enemy's woks exceeding strong; in fact, so strong that they cannot be carried by assault except by immense sacrifice, even if they can be carried at all. I think, therefore, the best chance is to approach them by regular saps, and if we can find a favorable position to batter them down. We have already lost heavily to- day without gaining any material advantage; one or two more such assaults would use up this army. (8)

Sherman had learned at Kennesaw Mountain what Grant had at Cold Harbor: full frontal assaults against well entrenched positions were not likely to succeed. Upon realizing this, Sherman again started his flanking movements, forcing Johnston back to the Chattahoochee River, which was less than 10 miles from Atlanta. It is my belief that Johnston's entire strategy was to delay Sherman until elections in the North in November. He had done this to a point, but now he was less than 10 miles from Atlanta, a city that was absolutely vital to Southern existence. It was a good strategy, but President Davis couldn't see the good in it. To make matters worse, shortly after the retreat to the Chattahoochee, Johnston had made his first real tactical mistake of the campaign in allowing Sherman to finally succeed in his flanking maneuvers. Sherman had sent McPherson east to cross the Chattahoochee, and Johnson had not picked up on this. This move by Sherman forced Johnston to retreat to the fortifications of Atlanta. On July 17, Davis had had enough and replaced him with General Hood.

This move by Davis swung the shifty morale of the South down once again. Hood was known for his aggressiveness and would show it in the days to come in the battles for Atlanta.

So here was the situation: Sherman had crossed the Chattahoochee and was approaching Atlanta from the north and east. Atlanta was surrounded by various assortments of fortifications, but it also had four different railroad tracks coming into it. Sherman desired to cut these, and force the Confederates to either retreat or come out and fight.

On the 17th, Sherman got the army moving again. McPherson reached the Augusta railroad on the 18th, with Schofield occupying the town of Decatur, 7 miles to the west. On the 19th, McPherson turned toward Decatur and Schofield took a road heading into Atlanta. On the 20th of July, Sherman had centered his forces in the Peach Tree Creek area. But a gap had developed between Schofield and Thomas, so Thomas moved two divisions of Howard's Corps to the left to connect with Schofield's right. It was here that Hood made his first attack. He lined up with Stewart's Corps on the left, Hardee's in the center, and Cheatham's on the right, desiring to hit Sherman's army as it crossed the creek; specifically Thomas' Army of the Cumberland. But once again, the South's battle plans went awry. Hood describes,

"The attack was to begin at 1 p.m., the movement to be by division in echelon from the right, at the distance of about 150 yards, the effort to be to drive the enemy back to the creek, and then toward the river into the narrow space formed by the river and creek, everything on our side of the creek to be taken at all hazards, and to follow up as our success might permit. Each of these generals was to hold a division in reserve. Owing to the demonstrations of the enemy on the right, it became necessary to extend Cheatham a division front to the right. To do this Hardee and Stewart were each ordered to extend a half division front to close the interval. Foreseeing that some confusion and delay might result, I was careful to call General Hardee's attention to the importance of having a staff officer on his left to see that the left did not take more than half a division front. This unfortunately was not attended to, and the line closed to the right, causing Stewart to move two or three times the proper distance. In consequence of this the attack was delayed until nearly 4 p.m. At this hour the attack began as ordered, Stewart's corps carrying the temporary works in his front. Hardee failed to push the attack, as ordered, and thus the enemy, remaining in possession of his works on Stewart's right, compelled Stewart by an enfilade fire to abandon the position he had carried." (9)

Hood, blaming the failure of the attack on the time delay, fell back to his original positions around Atlanta.

McPherson, who had not been involved in the battle of Peach Tree Creek, had been moving toward Atlanta from Decatur, and now took up a commanding position overlooking the Augusta Railroad and the entire city of Atlanta. Hood saw McPherson's position as a threat to his communication line and decided to attack again, stating that the only alternative was to abandon Atlanta. Hood's plan was to turn McPherson's left with Hardee, and Cheatham and Stewart join in once Hardee was able to do so. What ensued came to be known as the Battle of Atlanta. Hardee had initial success in turning McPherson's left, even managing to kill McPherson himself, who was downed by a volley while heading toward one of his divisions. Command of the Army of the Tennessee was given to General Logan. Blair's Corps, which held the extreme left of the Union line was turned back. There was a gap of about a half-mile between his lines and Dodge's Corps. Here Hardee's men poured through. Fortunately for the North, the last order McPherson gave was for this gap to be filled, and it was done so by a brigade under Colonel Wasneglin, and Hardee was stopped.

Stewart attacked the front of Logan, capturing a pioneer company and pushed up to the hill that overlooked the Augusta Railroad. Here, two Union divisions finally stopped them after nearly four hours of fighting. General Hood's views of the Battle of Atlanta were, “While the grand results desired were not accomplished, the movements of McPherson upon my communications were entirely defeated, and no further effort was made in that direction at any time. This engagement greatly inspired the troops and revived their confidence. Here, I regret to say, the brave and gallant Maj. Gen. W. H. T. Walker was killed. The enemy withdrew his left to the Georgia Railroad and strongly entrenched himself, and here properly began the siege of Atlanta." (10)

A few leadership changes took place around this time with General S.D. Lee taking over Cheatham's corps for the South, and Howard promoted to commander of the Army of the Tennessee, McPherson's former command. Apparently General Hooker thought he should have gotten this position because he resigned shortly after Howard's promotion. Taking Hooker's place was General Slocum.

On the night of the 26th, Howard's Army of the Tennessee pulled out of its lines and took up position behind the rest of the army extending the line south. On the 28th of July Hood tried one more time at the Union flank. This time he attacked around Ezra Church, but was repulsed with heavy losses again. From then until late August Sherman continued to shift his army to the right, and Hood followed until he made his final attempt to stop Sherman around Jonesboro. Hood determined,"

"On the 30th it became known that the enemy was moving on Jonesborough with two corps. I determined upon consulting with the corps commanders to move two corps to Jonesborough during the night, and to attack and drive the enemy at that place across Flint River. This I hoped would draw the attention of the enemy in that direction, and that he would abandon his works on the left, so that I could attack him in flank. I remained in person with Stewart's corps and the militia in Atlanta. Hardee's and Lee's corps moved accordingly, Hardee in command. It was impressed upon General Hardee that the fate of Atlanta depended upon his success. Six hours before I had any information of the result of his attack I ordered Lee to return in the direction of Atlanta, to be ready to commence the movement indicated in the event of success, and if unsuccessful to cover the evacuation of Atlanta, which would thus be compelled. As it turned out unsuccessful it allowed the enemy the opportunity either to strike us as we marched out of Atlanta or to concentrate on Hardee. Lee's corps constituted a guard against the former, and I did not fear the destruction of Hardee before Stewart and Lee could join him, as his position on a ridge between two rivers I thought strong in front, and want of time would prevent the enemy from attacking him in flank. The small loss in Hardee’s corps, and the much greater loss of the enemy, shows my views to have been correct. The attack at Jonesborough failed, though the number of men on our side considerably exceeded that of the enemy. The vigor of the attack may be in some sort imagined when only 1,400 were killed and wounded out of the two corps engaged. The failure necessitated the evacuation of Atlanta."11

On the night of September 1, Hood withdrew from Atlanta, destroying some "railroad stock" and retreated to Lovejoy's Station. On the 2nd, Sherman, with General Slocum's corps in the lead, took possession of Atlanta.

In the end, neither strategy had worked for the South. Delaying the enemy failed for Johnston when he didn't detect McPherson crossing the Chattahoochee, and attacking the enemy failed for several reasons for Hood: lack of coordination in the attacks, tough luck perhaps, and probably more than anything the lack of substantial firepower. On the Union side, Sherman's ability to outmaneuver the enemy went far in coming upon the desired results of this campaign. Keeping the Southern generals guessing and forcing them to spread their armies was what he needed to do. Sherman also realized he needed to change his goal from destroying the Southern army to destroying the South altogether, and did exactly that in his infamous "march to the sea."


(1) – Official Records of the War of the Rebellion
(2) – Battles & Leaders of the Civil War, vol. 4 pg. 278
(3) - Battles & Leaders of the Civil War, vol. 4 pg. 262
(4) - Battles & Leaders of the Civil War, vol. 4 pg. 262
(5-11) - Official Records of the War of the Rebellion

Copyright © 2002 Joel Busenitz