The Atlanta Campaign: Background

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series The Atlanta Campaign: Part One

The Atlanta Campaign:


The Atlanta Campaign is considered by historians as one of the key campaigns of the American Civil War. Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, the Union commander, faced two different Confederate generals with diametrically opposing fighting styles.

General Joseph E. Johnston was a Virginian who had once commanded the Army of Northern Virginia. Wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines in June 1862, he had been replaced by General Robert E. Lee. Johnston was often criticized for his lack of aggressiveness and the Atlanta Campaign was a good example of this trait.

General Joseph E. JohnstonJohnston was replaced on July 17, 1864, as Sherman’s armies approached Atlanta, by Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood. An overly aggressive commander, Hood led the the Confederate Army of Tennessee to successive defeats during the balance of the Atlanta Campaign and the Franklin-Nashville Campaign.

Sherman had been promoted to the command of the Military Division of the Mississippi after its former commander, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had been appointed general-in-chief of all of the Union armies in March of 1864. His command consisted of the Army of the Tennessee, the Army of the Ohio and the Army of the Cumberland. Sherman’s three armies totaled between 98,500 to 112,000 men during the campaign.

The Army of the Tennessee was under the command of Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson and consisted of three corps. The Army of the Ohio was commanded by Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield and included his own XXIII corps and a cavalry division. Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas commanded the Army of the Cumberland with three infantry and one cavalry corps.

The Confederate Army of Tennessee numbered about 50,000 troops. It included three infantry corps plus one cavalry corps. The corps were commanded by Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee, Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood, Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk and Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler. The Confederates had a total of nine infantry divisions and four cavalry divisions.

Sherman had two objectives during the Atlanta Campaign. First and foremost, he wanted to destroy the Confederate field army. He was to come General John Bell Hoodclose to doing this but Hood was able to escape complete defeat. The Confederate Army of Tennessee would be dealt with after the Atlanta Campaign during the Franklin-Nashville Campaign by General Thomas.

Sherman’s secondary objective was the capture of Atlanta. Ultimately, Atlanta’s fall to the Union armies played a much larger role in the outcome of the war. It raised the morale of the North when Grant was bogged down around Petersburg. This in turn helped to get Lincoln reelected so that he could complete the job of defeating the Confederacy and preserving the Union.

Atlanta in 1860 was not a particularly large city. The total population at that time was 9,554 according to the 1860 United States Census. More importantly, the city was a vital transportation and logistics center, with several major railroads in the area, including the Western & Atlantic Railroad, which connected the city with Chattanooga, Tennessee, 138 miles to the north. A series of roads radiated out from the city in all directions, connecting Atlanta with neighboring towns and states.

Over the course of the war, Atlanta became a concentration point for military supplies. Warehouses were filled with food, forage, supplies, ammunition, clothing and other materiel critical to the Confederate armies operating in the Western Theater.

The Atlanta Rolling Mill, established before the war, was significantly expanded and provided a major source for armor plating for Confederate Navy ironclads, including the CSS Virginia. It also refurbished railroad tracks. A large number of machine shops, foundries and other industrial concerns were soon established in Atlanta. The population swelled to nearly 22,000 as workers arrived for these new factories and warehouses.

Map of the Atlanta CampaignIn the middle of 1863, Confederate authorities began to realize that Atlanta would be a target for the Union army in the West. Confederate Chief of the Engineer Bureau Jeremy F. Gilmer contacted Atlanta businessman and entrepreneur Lemuel P. Grant and asked him to survey possible enemy crossings of the Chattahoochee River, a broad waterway that offered some protection from an approach from the north.

Click Map to enlarge.

Grant surveyed the approaches to the city and despite the difficulty of defending it, proposed a plan of defensive forts and earthworks around the city. Grant planned a series of 17 redoubts forming a 10-mile circle over a mile out from the center of town. These would be interlinked with a series of earthworks and trenches, along with rows of abatis and other impediments to enemy troops.

Construction on the extensive defensive works began in August 1863. The defensive works were completed by December but because of how the subsequent Atlanta Campaign unfolded, much of these fortifications were never really put to the test.

The Atlanta Campaign began in early May of 1864 and lasted until September. There would be at least seventeen significant engagements during the course of the campaign. By its end, the Union armies would control vast parts of the Confederate heartland and Sherman was ready to begin his epic March to the Sea.


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