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Civil War Trust

The Grand Strategy of the Last Year of the War

Battles and Leaders Vol. IV

WILLIAM T. SHERMAN, GENERAL, U.S.A.

sherman
General Sherman in 1865. (Library of Congress)

I now turn with a feeling of extreme delicacy to the conduct of that other campaign from Chattanooga to Atlanta, Savannah, and Raleigh, which with liberal discretion was committed to me by General Grant in his minute instructions of April 4th and April 10th, 1864. To all military students these letters must be familiar, because they have been published again and again, and there never was and never can be raised a question of rivalry or claim between us as to the relative merits of the manner in which we played our respective parts.  We were as brothers--I the older man in years, he the higher in rank.  We both believed in our heart of hearts that the success of the Union cause was not only necessary to the then generation of Americans, but to all future generations.  We both professed to be gentlemen and professional soldiers, educated in the science of war by our generous Government for the very occasion which had arisen.  Neither of us by nature was a combative man; but with honest hearts and a clear purpose to do what man could we embarked on that campaign, which I believe, in its strategy, in its logistics, in its grand and military tactics, has added new luster to the old science of war.  

Both of us had at our front generals to whom in early life we had been taught to look up, educated and experienced soldiers like ourselves, not likely to make any mistakes, and each of whom had as strong an army as could be collected from the mass of the Southern people, of the same blood as ourselves, brave, confident, and well equipped; in addition to which they had the most decided advantage of operating in their own difficult country of mountain, forest, ravine, and river, affording admirable opportunities for defense, besides the other equally important advantage that we had to invade the country of our unqualified enemy and expose our long lines of to the guerillas of an "exasperated people.''  Again, as we advanced we had to leave guards to bridges, stations, and intermediate depots, diminishing the fighting force, while our enemy gained strength by picking up his detachments as he fell back, and had railroads to bring supplies and reinforcements from his rear.  I instance these facts to offset the common assertion that we of the North won the war by brute force, and not by courage and skill.

On the historic 4th day of May, 1864; the Confederate army at my front lay at Dalton, Georgia, composed, according to the best authority, of about 45,000 men, commanded by Joseph E . Johnston, who was equal in all the elements of generalship to Lee, and who was under instructions from the war powers in Richmond to assume the offensive northward as far as Nashville.  But he soon discovered that he would have to conduct a defensive campaign.  Coincident with the movement of the Army of the Potomac, as announced by telegraph, I advanced from our base at Chattanooga with the Army of the Ohio, 13,559 men; the Army of the Cumberland, 60,773, and the Army of the Tennessee, 24,465,--grand total, 98,797 men and 254 guns.  

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General Richard Johnson's headquarters, May, 1864. Johnson's cavalry led Sherman's armies into Georgia. (Miller's Photographic History)

I had no purpose to attack Johnston's position at Dalton in front, but marched from Chattanooga to feign at his front and to make a lodgment in Resaca, eighteen miles to his rear, on "his line of communication and supply."  The movement was partly, not wholly, successful; but it compelled Johnston to let go Dalton and fight us at Resaca, where, May 13th-16th, our loss was 2747 and his 2800.  I fought offensively and he defensively, aided by earth parapets.  He then fell back to Calhoun, Adairsville, and Cassville, where he halted for the battle of the campaign; but, for reasons given in his memoirs, he continued his retreat behind the next spur of mountains to Allatoona.  

Pausing for a few days to repair the railroad without attempting Allatoona, of which I had personal knowledge acquired in 1844, I resolved to push on toward Atlanta by way of Dallas; Johnston quickly detected this, and forced me to fight him, May 25th-28th, at New Hope Church, four miles north of Dallas, with losses of 3000 to the Confederates and 2400 to us.  The country was almost in a state of nature--with few or no roads, nothing that a European could understand; yet the bullet killed its victim there as surely as at Sevastopol.  

Johnston had meantime picked up his detachments, and had received reinforcements from his rear which raised his aggregate strength to 62,000 men, and warranted him in claiming that he was purposely drawing us far from our base, and that when the right moment should come he would turn on us and destroy us.  We were equally confident, and not the least alarmed.  He then fell back to his position at Marietta, with Brush Mountain on his right, Kenesaw his center, and Lost Mountain his left. His line of ten miles was too long for his numbers, and he soon let go his flanks ad concentrated on Kenesaw.  We closed down in battle array, repaired the railroad up to our very camps, and then prepared for the contest.  Not a day, not an hour, not a minute was there a cessation of fire.  Our skirmishers were in absolute contact, the lines of battle and the batteries but little in rear of the skirmishers; and thus matters continued until June 27th, when I ordered a  general assault, with the full cooperation of my great lieutenants, Thomas, McPherson, and Schofield, as good and true men as ever lived or died for their country's cause; but we failed, losing 3000 men, to the Confederate loss of 630. Still, the result was that within three days Johnston abandoned the strongest possible position and was in full retreat for the Chattahoochee River. 

thomasHenry Thomas, Army of the Cumberland (Library of Congress)

mcp James McPherson, Army of the Tennessee (Library of Congress)

scho John Schofield, Army of the Ohio (Library of Congress)

We were on his heels; skirmished with rear at Smyrna Church on the 4th day of July, and saw him fairly across the Chattahoochee on the 10th, covered and protected by the best line of field entrenchments I have ever seen, prepared long in advance.  No officer or soldier who ever served under me will question the generalship of Joseph E. Johnston.  His retreats were timely, in good order, and he left nothing behind.  We had advanced into the enemy's country 120 miles, with a single-track railroad, which had to bring clothing, food, ammunition, everything requisite for 100,000 men and 23,000 animals. The city of Atlanta, the gate city opening the interior of the important State of Georgia, was in sight; its protecting army was shaken but not defeated, and onward we had to go, illustrating the principle that "an army once on the offensive must maintain the offensive."

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