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The Capture of Atlanta


On September 3, 1864, a telegram from General William Tecumseh Sherman arrived in Washington: “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.” For the Northern people and President Abraham Lincoln, this news was astounding. Northern Morale had sunk to its lowest point during the summer of 1864 and Lincoln had good reason to doubt his re-election chances. Because of Sherman’s capture of Atlanta and other Union victories, Lincoln went on to win a second term in November. The war was far from over, but with Lincoln in the White House, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant directing all Federal armies, and unrelenting commanders in the field like Sherman, the Union would continue to push towards victory.

In March 1864, Ulysses S. Grant was given command of all Union armies and promoted to lieutenant general, a rank last held in wartime by George Washington. It was now up to Grant to save the nation that Washington and the Patriots of 1776 gave life to. General Grant was up to the difficult task, but he could not do it alone.

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. (Photo: Cincinnati.com)

At Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, General William T. Sherman had skillfully commanded large bodies of troops under Grant. He was more than a trusted subordinate to Grant; he was also a great friend. Through every challenge and setback, the two men had stood by each other. They understood what it would take to win the war, and together, Grant and Sherman put together the plan that would ultimately bring the Union victory. “He was to go for Lee, and I was to go for Joe Johnston,” said Sherman. The strategy was to attack the confederacy simultaneously on multiple fronts. As general-in-chief, Grant would make his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac and take on the Army of Northern Virginia under General Robert E. Lee. Sherman became supreme commander of the armies in the West and would fight General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee. The plan also called for other smaller Federal forces to strike at additional Confederate targets.

General William T. Sherman. (Photo: Cincinnati.com)

In early May 1864, the Union war machine began to roll out. The late historian Bruce Catton noted this to be “the first time in the war the Union would put on a really coordinated campaign under central control, with all of its armies acting as a team.” As operations got under way, the smaller Union forces did not fare well, meaning that Northern hopes would have to rest on the shoulders of Grant and Sherman as they set out to destroy the two principal Confederate armies.

The Army of the Potomac crossed Virginia’s Rapidan River at dawn on May 4, 1864, and relentless fighting with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia followed almost immediately. In the past, the Army of the Potomac’s commanders had lost their nerves and fallen back after fierce confrontation’s against Lee, but Grant was a different beast. Grant was a fighter and he was not going to let Lee have any space to breathe: “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” Historian James McPherson writes, “In the seven weeks from May 5 to June 22, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia experienced physical casualties (killed, wounded, and missing) equal to 60 percent of their original strength.” The intensity of the fighting and the sheer carnage stemming from the battles around Richmond, Virginia were unlike anything that many had ever seen. Lee’s strong defenses forced Grant to initiate a siege of Petersburg, Virginia, a railroad hub that Richmond and the Army of Northern Virginia depended on for supplies. While Grant tied down Lee at Petersburg, slowly wearing down the Army of Northern Virginia, Sherman was hard at work in the West.

Like Grant’s men in Virginia, Sherman’s troops in Georgia were never out of daily contact with the enemy for months. In May, Sherman’s force of some 100,000 men had left Chattanooga, Tennessee and moved out against General Joseph Johnston’s army of around 63,000. Johnston took up a series of strong defensive positions, but continually retreated each time after being outflanked by long, roundabout Union marches. Although wary of the opposing commander’s numerical superiority, Johnston made a stand on Kennesaw Mountain on June 27. After his flanking operations failed to break the Confederate center, Sherman’s men were repulsed with substantial losses. Like Grant however, Sherman was not deterred by setbacks and he continued to push forward. By the second week of July, Sherman’s force had reached the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia, a city that served as a vital rail hub and manufacturing center for the Confederacy. As James McPherson writes, “It had become a symbol of Confederate resistance second only to Richmond.”

Confederate defenses on Kennesaw Mountain. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Confederate President Jefferson Davis became fed up with Johnston’s constant withdrawals. Fearing that the general planned to yield Atlanta and believing him unwilling to strike Sherman a blow, Davis relieved Johnston of his command and put John Bell Hood in his place. Hood was a stand-up fighter and he had the wounds to prove it, suffering a permanently crippled arm at the Battle of Gettysburg and losing a leg at the Battle of Chickamauga. When General Grant received the news that Hood had replaced Johnston, he saw it as an advantage for the Union, knowing that the new Rebel commander would give battle and that Sherman would outgeneral him.

Confederate Generals Joseph E. Johnston and John Bell Hood. (Photo One, Photo Two: Wikimedia Commons)

Jefferson Davis wanted a more aggressive commander and he certainly got one with Hood, but it came at a severe price. Two days after taking command, General Hood went on the attack, striking part of Sherman’s army as it was crossing Peach Tree Creek just north of Atlanta on July 20. Union forces repulsed the attack, inflicting almost twice as many casualties as they suffered themselves and forcing the Rebels back into the defensive fieldworks ringing Atlanta. On July 22, Hood attacked again east of the city. Despite the loss of Major General James B. McPherson, one of the most highly skilled and respected soldiers in the Federal service, the Rebels were defeated at the Battle of Atlanta, again suffering losses more than twice their own. Hood tried once more on July 28, this time west of Atlanta. With the Confederates suffering seven times the number of Union casualties, Hood came up empty again and paid a very heavy price.

Part of the Atlanta Cyclorama, a cylindrical panoramic painting of the Battle of Atlanta. (Photo: tes teach)

Instead of assaulting the strong Confederate defenses, Sherman settled down for a siege. The determined Union commander eventually carried out one of his patented flanking movements, cutting the last open railroad into Atlanta at Jonesboro. Hood tried to counter the move, but his troops were defeated. After burning and blowing up everything of military value, Hood evacuated Atlanta on the night of September 1-2 to avoid encirclement of his army. On September 2, Union forces occupied the city. The next day, Sherman’s telegram arrived in Washington: “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.”

General Sherman (center, with arm on cannon) and his staff during the siege of Atlanta. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Grant sent a congratulatory dispatch to the victor of Atlanta, professing his belief that Sherman had “accomplished the most gigantic undertaking given to any general in this war, and with a skill and ability that will be acknowledged in history as unsurpassed, if not unequaled. It gives me as much pleasure to record this in your favor as it would in favor of any living man, myself included.” While Sherman’s triumph reignited hope in the North, it caused tremendous despair in the South. “We are going to be wiped off the earth,” wrote Confederate diarist Mary Chestnut. “Since Atlanta I have felt as if all were dead within me, forever.”

Just a few weeks before Atlanta’s capture, President Lincoln had seriously doubted his re-election chances, but Sherman helped turn the political situation around. His victory reversed the midsummer decline of Northern morale and combined with Admiral David G. Farragut’s earlier capture of Mobile Bay and General Philip Sheridan’s subsequent victories in the Shenandoah Valley to assure Lincoln’s re-election. Hood’s army still lived and Lee’s army remained under siege at Petersburg, but Union pressure would not slacken. After taking Atlanta, Sherman wanted to cut loose from his supply line and march 60,000 veterans from the city, 285 miles to the coast, “smashing his way to the sea.” In November, Sherman would set out on his March to the Sea, and he would make the South feel the hard hand of war.

Sources

American Battlefield Trust: Atlanta Campaign.

Cincinnati.com: Grant and Sherman Made Plan That Ended Civil War.

Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Civil War by James M. McPherson.

For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War by James M. McPherson.

Grant by Ron Chernow.

History.com: Atlanta Campaign.

History.com: Union Troops Capture Atlanta.

The Civil War by Bruce Catton.

Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson.

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