The summer of 1864 was the Civil War’s most momentous season. Two major military campaigns, one in Virginia and one in Georgia, were set against the backdrop of Abraham Lincoln's uphill re-election campaign, which culminated in November.
For much of the summer, Lincoln and his top advisers expected to lose the election to a candidate who would seek a negotiated peace with the Confederacy. As late as August 24, 1864, Lincoln announced to his cabinet that, “it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected” and that “[my opponent] will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save [the Union] afterwards.”
After three and a half years of war, Northern citizens were in mourning for hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded men. They were unsure if there was an end in sight. Military success would be necessary to sway the public back to Lincoln’s political banner.
In this way, the Civil War was not a “total war.” In the summer of 1864, the contending armies served as invaluable political tools. If the Confederate armies could continue to beat back Union offensives, they would strengthen the Northern desire for peace and bolster the candidates poised to sweep Lincoln out of office. Even with a losing hand, the Confederacy might still raise the stakes high enough that the Northern public would fold early.
To achieve this improbable victory, the Confederacy would need to prove its continued military viability. Its armies would need to hold on to as much territory as possible, inflict maximum damage on the Federals, and minimize damage to themselves.
In the summer campaigns, these goals were met in Virginia but missed in Georgia. The defeat in Georgia ruined the Confederacy. The essential difference in Confederate generalship between the two theaters was that between dynamism and inertia.
In Virginia, Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia began the summer in close contact with the Union Army of the Potomac. Lee’s headquarters was only 70 miles from the Capitol building at Richmond, the most politically important piece of territory in the Confederacy. Holding Richmond was essential to demonstrating the continued defiance of the South.
Lee’s army was bleeding from many wounds. Its ranks had been culled over and over by three years of bloody battle. Many of its most promising officers had been killed, and more than half of the men serving in the ranks had been shot or gashed at least once in prior campaigns. Nevertheless, the army’s long list of victories to this point proved its extraordinary effectiveness on the battlefield, and contributed to an extraordinary esprit de corps that was in many ways embodied by Lee himself.
By the end of the summer, General Lee’s ragged veterans had mounted a successful defensive campaign. The primary objectives of territorial defense, damage dealing, and force protection were largely achieved. Although the Southerners gave up some ground, Richmond remained standing and Union forces suffered very heavily throughout the summer. By November, the Confederates were locked in a desperate defense of Petersburg, Virginia, but Union operations against the city would not break the Confederate lines until April of 1865. At the time of the November election, the situation in Virginia remained sour in the eyes of Northern citizens.
In Georgia, the situation was different. Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Tennessee faced Union forces led by William T. Sherman. The countryside was wild and mountainous. Like Lee, Johnston was compelled to hold onto as much territory as possible while dealing significant blows to Sherman’s men. The chief territorial consideration was the industrial hub at Atlanta, 120 miles from Sherman’s starting position at Chattanooga, Tennessee. The city and its environs provided much of the Confederacy’s war material, rendering the area an important military and political prize.
The Confederates in Georgia were respected fighters, but they had struggled to find victory in the war thus far. Infighting among the officers, rising to the highest level, frequently dulled the army’s tactical capabilities. Johnston’s arrival came as a breath of fresh air to the frazzled Southerners. The neatly bearded Virginian was capable of efficiently and dispassionately directing his subordinates and the men appreciated his obvious concern for their well-being.
When it came time to fight, however, Johnston’s performance was sub-par. In more than 100 days of battle, Johnston continually retreated in the face of Northern attacks. Although he dealt a few sharp blows to the Federals and managed to keep his own army intact, he did not mount a counter-attack of any kind until he was pressed back to the outskirts of Atlanta. Again and again, Johnston would establish formidable defensive positions and Sherman would simply go around them, forcing Johnston to retreat further in order to stay between Sherman and Atlanta. These static defensive tactics resulted in the loss of most of the state of Georgia and finally the fall of Atlanta in September.
Johnston was removed days before Atlanta fell. He was excoriated in the Southern press and his defeat was savored by the North. The Atlanta Campaign was a repeat of a timid streak previously displayed at Nashville, Vicksburg, and in front of Richmond itself. The Union victory was heralded as a profound affirmation of the war effort, by far the greatest of the other Union victories that summer. Lincoln won re-election by sustaining the hope of perpetual Union throughout the bloodied Northern states and among the pivotal demographic of Union soldiers in the field. With the continuation of war ensured, the sagging Confederacy was doomed.
The fall of Atlanta can thus be considered one of the most pivotal moments of the war, if indeed not the very one in which the five years of bloody work were truly decided by one victory and defeat.
Joe Johnston and Robert E. Lee waged simultaneous campaigns. They were outnumbered by roughly the same margin. Both of their opponents were formidable. Extensive earthworks were employed by both sides in both theaters.
When Lee wanted to arrest Grant's progress, he hit him squarely on the nose. Confederate soldiers slammed into Union columns or scrambled to directly block paths at every opportunity. Johnston's style was more passive, blocking likely routes of advance from afar and constructing strong fortifications. With a two to one numerical advantage, however, Sherman could screen Johnston's entire unmoving front and still throw an unstoppable flanking force through any unprotected approach.
The only conceivable way for Johnston to prevent this would have been to at some point launch a counter-attack and try to seize the initiative, perhaps driving towards Chattanooga or Nashville. It would be a long shot, but sometimes war requires that long shots be attempted. The Confederacy was sustained by them. Lee had faced similar numerical odds in the Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville Campaigns and had still managed to win stirring victories.
In the summer of 1864, neither Lee nor Johnston turned back their Union foes. Lee's defense of Richmond, however, secured vital territory and exacted a heavy toll on the Northern conscience. Johnston's failure to defend Atlanta gave Lincoln a great political success at a time when his re-election seemed unlikely. This event spelled the difference between negotiated peace and total war.
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