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Civil War Trust

The Atlanta Campaign

A Strategic Overview

In early May 1864 Federal forces under Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman began battling the Confederate Army of Tennessee for possession of north Georgia. At stake was Atlanta, major manufacturing center and railroad hub. Sherman had 110,000 men and 254 cannon in three armies concentrated near Chattanooga. Facing them at Dalton, eighty miles north of Atlanta, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston had 53,800 officers and men present for duty with 154 field pieces. Within the month the Confederates received 15,000 reinforcements, making Johnston's army at the time the South's largest. Johnston's plan nonetheless hinged on taking a stronge defensive position and waiting for the enemy to attack him. 

Dalton Map
Johnston's Army of Tennessee used the hills around Dalton to create a defensive barrier. (Library of Congress)

Sherman enjoyed clear numerical superiority, but he did not use it in blunt frontal attacks as Grant was doing against Lee in Virginia. Rather, he used Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas' Army of the Cumberland and Maj Gen. John M. Schofield's Army of the Ohio to demonstrate against the Rebel lines, while he sent Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson's Army of the Tennessee to maneuver around Johnston's left flank and threaten his supply line, the Western & Atlantic Railroad. This worked repeatedly throughout the campaign, beginning at Dalton, from which Johnston retreated May 12-13. While the two armies traded short, sharp attacks at Resaca May 14-15, McPherson crossed the Oostanaula River and Johnston retreated again. After Johnston's failed attempt to attack Sherman's army at Cassville on May 19, the front shifted to the area of Dallas-New Hope Church, where fighting inconclusively occurred May 25-28. Johnston dug in at Kennesaw Mountain, repelling Sherman's assaults June 27 before being flanked again. Approaching the Chattahoochee River, Sherman feinted right but got troops across upstream. The Southern army retreated back toward Atlanta July 9-10. 

Resaca Earthworks
Earthworks at Resaca were not enough to hold off Sherman's forces as the armies clashed just 70 miles outside of Atlanta on May 14-15, 1864. (National Archives)

Alarmed at Johnston's loss of territory and failure to attack Sherman, President Davis relieved Johnston, and replaced him with Lt. Gen. John B. Hood. The change occurred July 18, by which time the Northern forces, numbering around 80,000, were five miles outside of Atlanta. 

Hood's army of 50,000, pinned in Atlanta's fortifications, faced difficult odds, but Hood fulfilled the administration's wish that Atlanta not be given up without a fight. On July 20, Southern infantry unsuccessfully attacked Thomas' army north of the city at Peach Tree Creek. Two days later, east of Atlanta, Hood sent Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee's corps in a flank attack every bit as audacious as Stonewall Jackson's had been at Chancellorsville. Although Hood came closer to victory than at any other time, the Confederates were ultimately repulsed. 

Peach Tree Creek
The battered landscape of Peach Tree Creek after heavy fighting between Hood and Sherman's forces (National Archives)

Sherman never assaulted the strong earthworks surrounding Atlanta, but planned to capture the city by cutting its railroads and starving Hood out. McPherson's troops had cut the line running east to Augusta, and Union cavalry in east Alabama had wrecked the line at Montgomery. Only the Macon & Western Railroad kept Hood's army supplied. Sherman's movements west of the city to cut the railraod led to battles at Ezra Church July 28 (Confederate repulse) and Utoy Creek August 5-6 (Union repulse). As Hood extended his lines towards East Point during August, Sherman's artillery bombarded the city and its several thousand remaining residents. In late July and August, Federal cavalry raise aimed at cutting the M & W failed dismally. Around this time, Hood then sent Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler and half of his cavalry into north Georgia and Tennessee to cut Sherman's rail lines; they failed. 

Finally, on August 25, Sherman sent six of his seven infantry corps on a wide swing toward Jonesboro, well south of Atlanta, determined to cut the railroad. Union troops reached it on August 31 in the vicinity of Morrow. With their arrival, the last life line to Atlanta was effectively cut. The ensuing Battle of Jonesboro was therefore inconsequential. Hood was forced to abandon Atlanta on the night of September 1-2. Federal troops entered the following morning. 

Battle casualties for the four-month campaign totaled approximately 34,500 for the North and about 35,000 for the South. Sherman's capture of Atlanta was a major blow to the Confederacy, all but assuring Abraham Lincoln's re-election two months later, and setting the stage for Sherman's March to the Sea. 

Battle of Atlanta (700)
Hood's vicious offensives at Peach Tree Creek and the Battle of Atlanta did not halt the Union advance. (Library of Congress)

 

Atlanta Campaign Battle AppThis content appears as part of the Civil War Trust's Atlanta Campaign Battle App®. To learn more about our Battle App guides, please visit www.civilwar.org/battleapps »

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