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8-08-2015, 23:54

The Atlanta Campaign

FROM CHATTANOOGA to Atlanta is a matter of some one hundred miles. For General William T. Sherman, now Ulysses Grant's chief lieutenant in the west, that hundred miles was the be-all and end-all of his existence. A rail line connected the two cities, and the Confederate Army of Tennessee drew its sustenance up that line, enabling it to maintain a precarious hold on northern Georgia. If the Federal forces could move down the line, and take Atlanta, then as now a hub of transportation and commerce, they would be well along in their aim of cutting the Confederacy in half a second time. This was easier said than done. Sherman had plenty of troops, nearly 90,000 men in three armies, but his supplies were a bit tenuous, and the weather was bad in the late winter and early spring of 1864. He was also, according to Grant's overall conception, supposed to have had assistance from Nathaniel P. Banks, in the form of some of the troops who had been sent off to aid that general in his Red River expedition, and also in the sense of Banks moving east to threaten Mobile, Alabama, and distract the Confederates as to the primary aim of Federal strategy. Instead, Banks had managed to get stuck up the Red River, and he kept the troops there with him. It was fortunate for the Confederacy that the Union was beset by difficulties of its own devising, for Confederate stock in this area was pretty low. Braxton Bragg was gone at last; even Jefferson Davis had finally to acknowledge that he had no more credibility as commander of the Army of Tennessee. Davis removed him in November of 1863, after the Chattanooga debacle, but he kicked him upstairs, moving him to Richmond, appointing him as Military Adviser to the President, and in name at least, making him a virtual general-in-chief of the Confederacy. In fact it was a paper position in which Bragg did very little at all. As its new commander the Army of Tennessee got Joseph Johnston; Davis and Johnston, of course, vigorously disliked each other, but Johnston was a senior general, and he had the support of the western Confederate politicians. He was considered an astute and careful strategist, but as he had demonstrated before, he was a man who wanted everything to be perfect before he took the initiative, and in war such conditions seldom pertain. In appointing him to command, Davis made it clear that he expected Johnston to take the offensive, recover recent losses, and re-establish the Confederate position in east Tennessee. As soon as he took up his command, Johnston immediately disregarded all such expectations. That was only sensible, as they were quite unrealistic anyway. Davis's repeated response to the west had been that if he could not solve the problem, he would change the man tasked with attending to it; hence the succession of Albert Sidney Johnstons, Joe Johnstons, Beauregards, Pembertons, Braggs, Kirby Smiths, and on and on, all of them asked to make bricks with no straw, none of them able to do it. So in December of 1863 Johnston had taken up his new command, about 50,000 men scratching out a bare subsistence in the hardscrabble hills of Georgia along Rocky Face Ridge, some twenty miles southeast of Chattanooga. It was not a good winter. The internal bickering in the upper officer levels of the army went on apace, and the men went hungry. Yet these were decent troops, in spite of what they had done or failed to do at Chattanooga, good soldiers hard used, and they were ready to fight yet, as would soon be shown. Rocky Face was the most eastern of several ridgelines, and about the last one that straddled the railroad from Chattanooga to Atlanta. The hills generally ran north and south, and paralleled the rail line, so that if Rocky Face were lost, the next really good defensive position would be away down near Cassville, forty miles south, and halfway to Atlanta. There were possibilities for maneuver in all of this, but Sherman, outnumbering Johnston almost two to one, was in a better situation to profit by them. Grant's instructions to Sherman were also more realistic than were Davis's to Johnston. Sherman was to follow and if possible destroy Johnston's army, and beyond that, to get into the interior of Georgia and do as much damage as possible. In this Sherman's mission paralleled that of Grant and Meade in Virginia; both intended to operate against the enemy army as their primary objective, but both had the secondary mission of moving against a major center. This meant that the opponent would be deprived of a certain degree of flexibility; Lee could not cut completely loose against the Army of the Potomac, indulging in, say, another end-run wide-flanking maneuver because, with Richmond at his back, he dared not try the kind of move against Grant and Meade that he had successfully employed against John Pope. Similarly Johnston, with Atlanta to defend, had only limited freedom of maneuver with respect to Sherman. Davis would have liked Johnston to move on Chattanooga, or even Knoxville, but faced with the Federal superiority, this was simply impracticable. The Union strategy of course had its own dangers, chief among them the possibility that the field commander might be so distracted by the physical prize that he neglected the primary mission, destruction of the opposing army. This would carry one back to the eighteenthcentury war of posts, where the aim was to amass counters to be used at the bargaining table, rather than to defeat the enemy in the field. Grant managed to avoid this, and even though he operated against Richmond, he always did so in such a way that Lee was forced to conform to his moves; thus when he finally brought Petersburg under siege, he also brought Lee's army to the same condition, and in this way managed to deprive it of its greatest asset, its mobility. Sherman, not entirely through his own fault, was less successful in this regard. Less his fault because Johnston, not nearly as aggressive a commander as Lee, was disposed to fall back toward Atlanta anyway, but even taking that into account, Sherman became preoccupied with the city. Unable to catch and defeat Johnston in the field, he increasingly looked to Atlanta as an objective in its own right. Ultimately the political advantages of having done so made this a correct decision, but it was a near-run thing, and for a while, it looked as if Sherman had gotten his priorities thoroughly mixed. In May of 1864, all this was still to be decided; by late summer, it looked as if the Union were on the verge of losing the war. Sherman's three armies began to move on May 7. They were somewhat misnamed, for McPherson's Army of the Tennessee and Schofield's Army of the Ohio, at 24,000 and 13,500 respectively, were really oversized corps. Only Thomas's Army of the Cumberland at 61,000 was truly of army size. Nonetheless, the command structure was a workable one, Sherman and his three subordinates understood each other and got along reasonably well, and this was in aggregate a fine army, as good as any on the continent, which meant at the moment as good as or better than any in the world. Though there were a few wandering eastern regiments, the army was made up mostly of westerners, men from Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana, with Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Kentucky thrown in as well. They prided themselves on their free and easy manners, their long, loping marching stride, their slouch hats, and the absence of the military punctilio they associated with the eastern armies of the Republic. Big, rawboned men from the farms, canal boats, and lumber camps of what was then the west, they were fiercely independent and conscious of their tough reputation. And rightly so. Yet the Southerners they faced, if there were fewer of them, were no less determined than they were. The poor settlements of northern Georgia did not look like much to Yankees from the prosperous Midwest states, but they were home to these men, Georgians, Alabamians, Mississippians, and they would fight and die to save them. Poorly dressed, roughly shod, their wives and children often existing on little more than charity, these men were no strangers to sacrifice, and they did not have to be educated or even literate to know that the climax of the war was upon them. They were prepared to give it all they had; if that was not a great deal in physical resources, heart and courage would have to make up the difference, and they had all of that that anyone could possibly ask or expect. In the days of mythology this contest, like the one taking place concurrently in Virginia, would have excited the interest of the gods. With his comfortable numerical superiority, Sherman planned to press and then envelop the Confederates. Schofield's Army of the Ohio, the smallest of his three, would act essentially as his left flank guard, and Thomas's Army of the Cumberland, the largest, as the main force, moving down the railroad directly against the Confederates. Meanwhile, Sherman's favorite, the Army of the Tennessee, his own former command, now under the able James McPherson, would function as the maneuver arm on the right flank; using the hills and ridges to the west, McPherson would attempt to get past Johnston's left flank and cut off his line of retreat. The whole army was occasionally forced to move beyond mutual supporting distance, but given its strength, and considering Johnston's tendency to be less than a bold commander, there seemed to be little risk in this. Johnston's problem was not that he was afraid to fight; his problem went deeper than that. It was that he could never find just the right opportunity. The position was always wrong, the lines of retreat too uncertain, the supports too distant—a general who always thinks there is a better position just a few miles back is not going to be very aggressive, and Joe Johnston was just such a general. He was as strongly entrenched on Rocky Face Ridge as he could well expect to be. He had Joe Wheeler's cavalry out scouting both his flanks, though it would not be able to accomplish much, as it was very heavily outnumbered by the Union horsemen. But his infantry positions were strong along the ridge, held by troops of Hardee's and John B. Hood's corps. Thomas levered his outposts off Tunnel Hill on May 7, and the next day the Federals attacked Rocky Face itself. This was supposed to be merely a pinning attack, that is, something to hold the Confederates in place while other, more important things were going on elsewhere, but they gave it a good try. In fact, they gave it three tries, and at one point the 33rd New Jersey even got onto the crest for a few minutes before being pushed back off. They tried again on the 9th, less seriously, and Johnston was able to report to Richmond that he was successfully holding his position. Just as Johnston was feeling fairly satisfied with his situation, who should appear but McPherson, pushing through Snake Creek Gap, ten miles south of the Confederate positions on Rocky Face and a mere five miles from their line of retreat at Resaca. Indeed, McPherson approached Resaca itself, and the rail line there, but he found it held in some strength, or so he thought; thus, instead of forcing his way in and taking the town, which should have been well within his capacity, he fell back to Snake Creek Gap. As soon as he heard this news, Johnston retreated. He left Rocky Face and hustled his divisions back to Resaca, where he took up another defensive line north and west of the town, with Hood on his right, Hardee in the center, and reinforcements, Polk's corps, on the left. Thomas and Schofield followed him down the rail line, and on the 14th there was heavy fighting as the Federals tried, again unsuccessfully, to assault the Confederate lines. That day and the 15th, through more desultory skirmishing, Johnston held his lines, and even mounted a nasty counterattack on Hood's front. But Sherman had enough men to spare for this kind of work, and as he fought at Resaca, he sent some cavalry and an infantry division from Thomas south again, toward Rome, twenty-five miles southwest of Resaca. When Johnston heard of this, even though he was holding his own on the immediate battlefield, he had no choice but to go back once more. His troops hastily packed up and decamped for Cassville. Here he stopped again, and waited for Sherman's advance to catch up. When his scouts brought in word that Schofield, leading the Union advance, was somewhat isolated, he thought to trap and destroy him, with Polk in front and Hood striking the Federal flank. But Hood got his orders mixed up, and faced the wrong way, and by the time it was all sorted out, the other Union forces were closing up on Schofield. So now the missed opportunities were about equal on both sides—Sherman had said to McPherson at Resaca, "Well, Mac, you just missed the chance of a lifetime"—but the difference was still that Sherman had advanced more than halfway to Atlanta, and Johnston had still significantly failed to stop him, or even to slow him down. Nor was he through yet. He consulted his corps commanders about fighting at Cassville; they, however, conscious as he was that the Etowah River was only a few miles back, recommended retreating again, to Allatoona Pass, where surely they could put up a good fight. Off they went again. None of this was happening in a vacuum. Sherman had his cavalry out, burning, disrupting, and destroying supplies anywhere he could find them. His troops wrecked large amounts of rolling stock and mills at Rome, and generally raised hell through the countryside. The interior of Georgia was not naturally prosperous, but a fair amount of Confederate war industry had been relocated to the towns there in the course of the war. Atlanta itself, a town of only about eight thousand before the war, was now inhabited by about twenty thousand people; a lot of them were war refugees, but many were there because of railroad works, iron foundries, and other industries essential to the Southern war effort. If Sherman were not stopped, and soon, he was capable of doing real damage. Johnston was as aware of all this as the next man. Unfortunately he was also aware of the reality of his situation. Southern editorial writers might slay entire armies with the stroke of a pen, and, as one wag sarcastically remarked, politicians could perform biblical feats, and overwhelm enemies with the jawbone of an ass, but all of that was a little more difficult to accomplish in northern Georgia, where the enemies actually were. As he went back yet again, Johnston was ever more conscious of the chorus of criticism rising behind him. Surely he would fight—if only he could find the right spot to do it. He thought he had that at Allatoona. About five miles below Cassville, it gave him a good range of hills for his line, with the Etowah River in front of him. If Sherman tried to force that position, he would face a very difficult prospect indeed, and it seemed he had little choice, for the rail line ran right through it, and so far, the Federal forces had had to utilize the rails for supplying their army. Unfortunately for Johnston, Sherman agreed perfectly with that assessment, so he decided once again upon a wide maneuver. He gave his troops three days' rest, while filling his wagons with everything they could carry, and then, like his mentor Grant at Vicksburg, he cut loose from the rail line. Instead of following Johnston and banging his head against the Etowah- Allatoona line, he headed off southwest, crossed the Etowah unopposed around Kingston, west ofJohnston, and moved toward Dallas. Flanked again, Johnston shifted his army out of its prepared positions to meet the new threat, and hastily dug in around Dallas and New Hope Church. Here Sherman developed his line on May 26, but instead of attacking him, the wily Federal simply used his numbers to slide east, back toward the rail line at Big Shanty. The frustrated Confederates, tired of apparently useless digging and sick of marching back and forth — especially more back than forth—moved to conform once again. After several days, by the first of June, they were back straddling the rail line. Then it began to rain. The rain fell for a week, and rain meant trouble. Sherman was now out on a very long, thin limb, that one rail line leading all the way down, not only from Chattanooga, but in fact from his main supply depot away back in Nashville, a distance of some 250 miles. This entire distance was vulnerable to Confederate raiders, and there were numerous parties of them operating in the general area. The Federals used the first weeks ofJune, and the arrival of reinforcements, to strengthen their lines of communication, bring up supplies, and get ready for a further push. Even so, there was only so much Sherman could do, and only so tar he could maneuver away from the rail line. Mathematics kept intruding. It was a well-tested military fact, for example, that the largest army that could reasonably subsist in any given area on its own, in the days before mechanical transport, was about 20,000 men. This was the size of a Roman double consular army, the standard field army of the Roman Empire. If more than that number was gathered in a single area, they could not feed themselves on the countryside, and the limits of animal-drawn transport were such that they could not be fed effectively by wagon train. There had of course been armies much larger than 20,000 men before, but they had been kept together only by careful manipulation of conditions. For example, the eighteenth century developed the depot system, with stocks of supplies pre-positioned for armies operating out of their bases. When Wellington came up out of the Peninsula in 1812-13, he had 80,000 men, but he marched them in four separate detachments by four separate routes. Napoleon's army usually marched in a corps organization, and the standard corps was about 20,000. In his later years a sort of gigantism overtook Napoleon, but so did military disaster. Sherman, in 1864, was able to operate away from the rail line for a week or so, as he did in flanking Johnston's Allatoona position, but this was a risky proposition, and it strained his wagon transport to the limit. Thus when he was blocked around Dallas and New Hope Church, the logical thing to do was to sidle back east to the rail line. Indeed, he was lucky here, for had his army been caught by the week of rain when it was still out to the west, it would have been a very hungry army by the time the roads dried up and the wagons could work again. Northern Georgia's dirt roads quickly turned to mud under a week's rain and heavy wagon traffic. But now he put his rear areas in better shape, and prepared to move again. There was some heavy preliminary sparring, both sides working on their lines and trying to outflank and outdig each other, and Johnston gradually took up a solid position anchored on a high, abrupt ridge known as Kennesaw Mountain. By late June, with the weather still wet, the Confederates were thoroughly dug in on a front of more than five miles, north and west of Marietta. Even this so-called lull had its daily fights and losses. On June 14, Johnston, Hardee, and Polk were looking over a position at Pine Mountain, when a Federal battery opened up on them. Polk, who had come up to give his colleagues copies of a religious tract entitled "Balm for the Weary and Wounded," was hit by a three-inch solid shot and killed instantly, his body torn apart. Blizzards Loring took over his corps command. By the third week of June Sherman was again ready to act, and indeed had to do so. He now had McPherson and Thomas facing the Kennesaw Mountain position, and Schofield extending to his right, to the southwest. But Schofield had gone as far as his transport would allow him to move, under the road and weather conditions of the moment, and still had not forced Johnston to give up his lines. There was little left to do but try an attack, and this Sherman did, on the morning of the 27th. It lasted only about four hours, which was enough to demonstrate that the task was impossible. The Confederates were well dug in, the slope itself was formidable, and the Federal assaults were uncoordinated and unsophisticated, a standard example of Civil War butchery. The Union regiments lost any number of officers, leading from the front, including Dan McCook of the Fighting McCooks, who had led his brigade off by reciting Macauley's "Horatius at the Bridge," from the Lays ofAncient Rome: "Then how can man die better, than facing fearful odds / For the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his gods." And they also lost more than 2,000 casualties. The Confederates, actually outnumbering the attacking units, suffered only about 450 casualties, a measure of the one-sided nature of the battle. One of Sherman's reasons for attacking was psychological; he thought his men were sick of marching, and wanted a fight to finish things off. If that were indeed the case, Kennesaw Mountain quickly disabused both army and commander of such a silly notion. So now it was back to marching again. The rainy spell had ended just before the battle was fought, and the roads were drying quickly in the Georgia sun. It was possible to move once more. The Federals began sidling to the right again, moving out past Johnston's flank. In Richmond, and in Confederate newspapers generally, it was difficult to see why Johnston must fall back yet again, even after having won so clear-cut a tactical victory. But neither Richmond nor all those editors were trying to stop an invading army with an army less than half the invader's size, and Johnston, having skillfully preserved his force thus far, went back once more. He decided to hold the line of the Chattahoochee River, a mere six miles from Atlanta. Oddly enough, he took up his position this time on the north side of the river, though as it was well bridged behind him, this was not as dangerous as it might have looked. Nonetheless, it was enough to surprise Sherman, and it worked to the Federal advantage. The Yankees advanced on several diverging axes, hitting the river along a stretch of nearly thirty miles. Johnston could patrol that distance, but had no hope of holding it, and his own lines were soon compromised on both ends by cavalry forcing crossings both upstream and down. Schofield got across in some force on the 9th of July, and Johnston went back again, to a southern tributary of the Chattahoochee known as Peachtree Creek. Now he was only three miles from Atlanta. By this time President Davis, and virtually everyone else, was seriously alarmed. Apparently this general intended to retreat forever; he lost battles and he retreated; he won battles and he retreated; he did not fight battles, and he still retreated. Davis sent his chief military adviser, Braxton Bragg, out to see if Johnston ever intended to fight. Given the history of the Army of Tennessee, it might have been considered a poor choice of emissaries. By now that army was engaged in its usual game of letter writing on the matter of "Why the commander is incompetent and guess who would do a better job?" The chief contender for the top command this time was John Bell Hood, commander of one of the army's three infantry corps, and known throughout the Confederacy as "the gallant Hood of Texas." Tall, blond, full-bearded, a first-class combat leader, Hood was one of the Confederacy's darlings, an esteem he fully deserved. Badly wounded in an arm at Gettysburg, he lost a leg at Chickamauga. Convalescing in Richmond, he had become a faithful familiar of President Davis, and wooed and won the famous Richmond belle Sally Buchanan Campbell Preston, known to her friends as "Buck." Mary Chesnut knew Sally did not love him, but he was a wounded hero, and what could a young girl do? Hood was not quite the straightforward simple soldier he presented himself as being; he shamelessly used his connections with Davis to undermine Johnston, and repeatedly recommended Johnston's replacement, even for making moves that Hood himself had advised. In mid- July he got his wish, and he replaced Johnston on the 17th. Sherman was delighted: here was a man who would make mistakes. Both Hood's orders and his temperament dictated that he should fight, and he immediately moved to do so. On the 20th, as Thomas's Army of the Cumberland began forcing Peachtree Creek, Hood struck. His divisions came on in echelon, so the battle spread from right to left along the creek line, and everywhere the Federals stolidly turned back the oncoming Confederates. Hood failed to control his units' movements carefully, and at one point, he took Patrick Cleburne's division, the best in Hardee's corps, and sent it off on a tangent when it might have been more effective left where it was. None of this was particularly fatal, or indeed not to be expected; this was Hood's first battle as anything more than a corps commander, and it was reasonable that it might take him a while to get used to the job. Unfortunately, the Confederacy did not have a wide margin to allow for on-the-job training. By mid-afternoon, the battle was over, and the Federals were firmly south of Peachtree Creek, and another defensive position was lost to the Confederates. Sherman's corps immediately began extending around to the east of the city, cutting the rail line through which reinforcements from Virginia might reach their opponents, and after Peachtree Creek, Atlanta was closely invested on the northern and eastern sides. Closely invested but far from taken. The overcrowded little city was now ringed with formidable trench lines, and using them, Hood was able to conserve his forces and face Sherman with some hope of local equality. The two sides were now on the verge of a siege. For a month the two armies poked and prodded, looking for a weakness that might be exploited. Atlanta, unlike Vicksburg before it, was not on a river, so Sherman did not have the luxury of completely surrounding and cutting off the city; even his large army was not sufficient for that. Sherman was actually taken somewhat by surprise at this development. As the Confederates moved back into their entrenchments, he thought that they were beginning a withdrawal from the city, and he was far from pleased to find that Hood intended to stay and fight it out. On July 22nd, as he was moving his forces farther to the eastward, Hood hit him from the south, along the rail line that led from Decatur to Atlanta. Hardee's infantry and Wheeler's cavalry hit McPherson, whose flank was exposed to the south, and threatened to roll up his army. Fortunately, there were plenty of Federal troops around, and they quickly stabilized the line. It cost them McPherson, though. Caught out in the open and summoned to surrender, he tried to make a run for it, and was shot through the lungs by a Confederate private. Sherman, who had refused McPherson leave to go get married, wept like a child when the body of his friend was finally recovered. John A. Logan, a War Democrat pol- itician who made a very successful combat soldier, temporarily took over the Army of the Tennessee. Later, Sherman gave the command to Oliver Howard, who was a West Pointer, while Logan was only a politician, another example of the West Point Protective Association at work, even though Logan was almost undeniably a better field commander. This Battle of Atlanta, as it came to be called, demonstrated that Hood simply lacked the muscle to break up the Federal moves, and after it, Sherman gradually strengthened his grip on the city. Balked in his hope of taking Atlanta almost on the run, Sherman now resorted to a series of cavalry raids, while Hood, equally stymied in his intention of defeating the Federals in the open, sought the same remedy. Neither had much success. Sherman sent General George Stoneman and his cavalry off to cut the rail lines down near Macon, supported by McCook's cavalry as well. Stoneman separated his forces, got himself trapped and surrounded, and his command was broken up and captured, McCook managed to tear up some railroad stock and line, but the Confederates coalesced against him too, and he had to fight his way back to his own lines, losing several hundred troopers in the process, for only momentary gain. Meanwhile, Hood was sending his cavalry out against Sherman's supply lines, but their success was equally marginal. All of these operations demonstrated little more than the fact that cavalry by itself was insufficient to operate against any real opposition, and all the raids provided little more than nuisance value. Closer to home, Sherman began extending to his right, westwards, and moved McPherson's Army of the Tennessee, now under Howard, from one end of his line to the other. Hood tried to attack this extension around Ezra Church on July 28, and his advance, led by Stephen D. Lee's corps, ran into Howard's leading elements. These were XV Corps, with Logan back in command of it, and Logan gave the Confederates a sharp rap, amply demonstrating that if, as a political general, he could not have an army under Sherman, there was not much he did not know about handling a corps. For nearly a month after that, there was costly bickering to no real effect. By now every man in both armies fully understood the advantages of fighting from behind field entrenchments, as well as the disadvantages of trying to storm them. No matter how tired the soldiers might be after a march, the first thing they did upon stopping was scratch out a line of works, with picks and shovels, or bayonets and mess tins if necessary. They quickly threw up a parapet in front of their ditch, braced it with logs if they could find any, and propped up a "head log," with a firing slit beneath it. The men were rapidly becoming moles, quick to defend, nicely calculating the odds if called upon to attack. Now they were thorough professionals, willing to take the necessary chances of war, but doing everything in their power to lengthen the odds in their favor. This made for a very messy battlefield, dirt and junk everywhere, and over all the stench of human waste and dead bodies in the Georgia summer heat. And it was distressing to senior commanders, who then as now liked their troops to think offensively, but the troops were smart enough to realize that thinking offensively wasted lives, and as it was their lives that were being wasted, they clung tenaciously to their own views of how to make war, whatever the generals might think or want. For the troops, it was a matter of simple survival, life or death, which was after all pretty elemental. For the generals, there were other considerations. By mid-summer, the whole war appeared to hang in the balance. Grant, after an enormously costly campaign, was apparently stalled around Petersburg; on the surface, he appeared little farther ahead, at infinitely higher cost, than McClellan had been on the Peninsula more than two years ago. And now, it appeared as if Sherman too were stalled, unable to put the cap on a campaign which, though it had begun auspiciously, looked now like degenerating into another stalemate. The casualty lists were appalling. And there was a presidential election coming up; to Confederates and Union men alike, it began to look as if this war might be won or lost in the election booth.