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Sherman the Savior: Atlanta Falls to the Union


After a summer of bloody battles, staggering casualties, and a seemingly stalled war effort against the Confederacy, morale among the Northern public plummeted. With spirits so low and many desperate for the Civil War to come to an end at any price, President Abraham Lincoln seriously doubted that he would win a second term in the election of 1864. “I am going to be beaten,” Lincoln told an army officer, “and unless some great change takes place badly beaten.” Lincoln and the Union needed a savior to deliver that great change, and right when it truly mattered, one emerged. That savior and deliverer was Major General William Tecumseh Sherman.

In the spring of 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the new General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States, rolled out his plan to win the war for the Union, unleashing five offensive movements to strike the Confederacy simultaneously along multiple fronts. The two most important parts of this grand strategy involved Sherman and the man he had so capably served under throughout many of the war’s most pivotal moments. “[Grant] was to go for Lee and I was to go for Joe Johnston,” Sherman wrote. Focused on destroying the two major Confederate armies in the field, Grant made his headquarters with Major General George G. Meade's Army of the Potomac, helping to guide that fighting force against General Robert E. Lee’s vaunted Army of Northern Virginia. Sherman was given command of Union forces in the West to tackle General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee. Once the grand Union war machine rolled out, however, Confederate resistance proved immensely difficult to overcome.

Union Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. (Photo Credit:

Plagued by poor leadership, weak execution, missed opportunities, and a host of other factors, the offensives launched by Union Major General Benjamin Butler along Virginia's Bermuda Hundred peninsula, Major General Franz Sigel in the Shenandoah Valley, and Major General Nathaniel Banks in Louisiana did not fare well. Although supremely better organized and led with Grant and Meade guiding the way forward, the Army of the Potomac also had a very hard going against Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. For several weeks, those two armies engaged in some of the most horrific and unforgiving combat of the war across several battlefields that came to resemble hell on earth. The fighting that took place around the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia between May 4 and June 15 was so relentless that the two sides suffered some 88,000 combined casualties, averaging out to about 2,100 casualties per day during that span. Following this unforgiving period of slaughter, Grant pulled off a daring maneuver, marching his forces around Lee’s army, crossing the James River, and driving his men toward the vital railroad hub of Petersburg. Lee was forced to rush his troops to save the city, and although the Union failed to capture the stronghold when it was still lightly defended, Grant did succeed in bottling up the Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg. With the enemy maintaining very strong defenses, Grant ultimately initiated a siege of the city that Richmond and Lee’s army depended upon for supplies. While Grant tied down Lee at Petersburg, Sherman faced a tough test of his own in Georgia.

In May 1864, Sherman led nearly 100,000 troops out of Chattanooga, Tennessee to take on Joseph Johnston’s army numbering around 60,000-strong. From their initial confrontation at Rocky Face Ridge in Northwest Georgia on May 7, both sides remained in daily contact with each other for months. Like a well-played chess match between two Grandmasters, Johnston would place his troops in strong defensive positions, which Sherman would outflank, forcing the rebel commander to give up ground, but never compelling “him to fight at a disadvantage,” as explained by the late historian Bruce Catton. It was a true war of movement. Although Johnston typically withdrew and repositioned in the face of the numerically superior Federals, he did make a stand on the slopes of Kennesaw Mountain, where Sherman’s flanking maneuver failed and his troops suffered a bloody repulse. Sherman, however, was not easily deterred by setbacks and continued to push forward, eventually driving Johnston into the defenses of Atlanta, Georgia and reaching the outskirts of that vital Confederate city by the middle of July.

As a rail hub, manufacturing center, and supply depot, Atlanta held tremendous importance to the Confederacy. Fed up with Johnston’s seemingly overcautious approach and fearing that he would yield Atlanta to Sherman, Confederate President Jefferson Davis replaced him with Lieutenant General John Bell Hood on July 17. Davis wanted a more aggressive commander and he certainly got one with Hood, a veteran of many major battles. With his left arm permanently crippled at Gettysburg and a leg lost from wounds suffered at Chickamauga, Hood's damaged body was a testament to his reputation as a fierce fighter. Within days of taking command, he launched three attacks against Sherman’s troops, all of which were bloodily beaten back. After the Confederates withdrew to their defensive earthworks ringing Atlanta, Sherman decided not to risk assaulting the enemy’s stout defenses and settled down for a siege.

General Sherman, standing center with his arm on the cannon, and his staff during the siege of Atlanta. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

For those in the North far from the battlefields, the military situation for the Union in the summer of 1864 seemed like a forlorn hope. Like Grant at Petersburg, it appeared to the public that Sherman faced a stalemate of his own in front of Atlanta. Preparing for the upcoming presidential election, the Democratic national convention met at the end of August, adopting a platform plank that deemed the war a “failure," and as historian James M. McPherson adds, essentially “made peace the first priority" and the restoration of the "Union a distant second.” The Northern public was desperate for peace, but President Lincoln did not waver in his commitment to seeing the war through to the end in order to restore the Union and emancipating the enslaved. Despite Lincoln’s resolve, without a breakthrough on the battlefield, he believed that the Democratic nominee, former Union General George B. McClellan, would be the next president of the United States. Amid this political crisis, the implications of which would determine the fate of the country’s future, Sherman delivered the “great change” that Lincoln needed.

On Saturday, September 3, 1864, a telegram from Sherman arrived in Washington: “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.” Unable to hold the city in the face of Sherman’s siege, especially after failing to prevent the Federals from cutting the remaining rail lines supplying his army, Hood abandoned Atlanta on the night of September 1-2, burning and destroying everything of military value before leaving. On September 2, Sherman and his victorious soldiers occupied Atlanta.

Sherman's troops moving in to capture Atlanta on September 2, 1864. (Photo Credit: Library Company of Philadelphia)

The significance of Sherman’s breakthrough changed everything in the North. As McPherson writes, news of the capture of Atlanta “turned around Northern opinion about the success or failure of the war by 180 degrees almost overnight.” The writings of Northerners such as George Templeton Strong of New York attest to this. “Glorious news this morning-Atlanta taken at last!!!” wrote Strong. “It is (coming at this political crisis) the greatest event of the war.” While Sherman’s triumph strengthened spirits 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.”

Sherman was the savior that Lincoln and the Union needed. When combined with Rear Admiral David G. Farragut’s victory at Mobile Bay earlier that August and Major General Philip Sheridan’s subsequent victories in the Shenandoah Valley, Sherman’s capture of Atlanta helped propel Lincoln to victory over McClellan that November in the presidential election of 1864. Lincoln’s reelection ensured that the war would be vigorously pursued to a victorious conclusion for the Union. In the months ahead, Sherman would play a major part in bringing that final victory to fruition.


American Battlefield Trust: Atlanta Campaign.

Grant by Ron Chernow.

The Civil War by Bruce Catton.

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