In the midnight mists on a red clay hill in northwest Georgia on May 11, 1864, a bizarre, almost Druid-like ceremony took place. There, in a candlelit tent, a man was baptized. It was unusual for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that at that moment in the hills and valleys around them, more than one hundred fifty thousand armed men slept fitfully, awaiting the dawn that would open the final and perhaps bitterest campaign of the American Civil War.
The man doing the baptizing was Leonidas Polk, the fifty-eightyear-old Episcopal bishop of the state of Louisiana, who also served his Lord as an infantry corps commander in the Army of Tennessee, the main Confederate battle force in the western theater of the war.
The candidate for confirmation into the church was also a lieutenant general, John Bell Hood, a gigantic young Kentuckian who, at thirty-three, was among the second generation of Confederate leaders to bear the weight of the national madness that had already cost more than half a million dead and nearly wrecked the fabric of American society. Using a horse water bucket and a tin washpan, Bishop-General Polk began to administer the solemn rites to his fellow general. When it proved awkward for Hood to kneel because of the horrible mutilations inflicted on him at Gettysburg, where his arm was mangled, and at Chickamauga, where just ten months earlier his leg was amputated at the hip, Bishop-General Polk gently suggested to the youthful and still handsome general that he remain in his chair. But struggling for his crutches, Hood declared that if he could not kneel, he could at least stand and, with the blue battle-light still flashing in his eyes, got to his feet to be received into the church.
Why Hood wished to be baptized at this odd juncture is not recorded. It might have been the wave of revivalism that had recently swept the Confederate winter quarters in those cold hills near the Tennessee border. Or it could have had something to do with Hood’s volatile love affair with a beautiful young socialite from South Carolina and the embarrassment of being unable to take communion with her in her church. Then again, it may have been some premonition or omen Hood had seen or felt, warning him of his destiny and telling him to get right with his God. In any event, within two months, grave changes were in store for the participants in this midnight baptismal rite. General Polk would be dead, blown nearly in half by a Union cannonball, and Hood, the young Christian soldier, would be poised to march the Army of Tennessee and, indeed, the Southern Confederacy itself, into the battles of Atlanta and Nashville and on into oblivion.
In spite of a disheartening string of military reversals during 1863, the Confederacy was not yet washed up, as some supposed. To be sure, its losses at Gettysburg and Vicksburg and Robert E. Lee’s bitter and bloody Forty Days retreat through Virginia to the Richmond-Petersburg salient were crippling. And now, with William Tecumseh Sherman’s Union army bracing to rattle the gates of Atlanta, a darkness was spreading across the South that foretold of ‘miserable anxiety.”
But in the North, many did not see it that way at all. In fact, many Northerners actually feared they were losing the war and wished to be rid of it.
In those grim days of spring and summer, a maelstrom of public and political discontent swirled over much of the United States. There were threats of a renewal of the vicious draft riots of the previous summer that left hundreds dead in New York. The price of gold had soared to an incredible $250 an ounce, reflecting an ominous lack of public confidence in the U.S. government. From the Midwest wafted unsettling rumors of something called the Order of American Knights, alleged to be a pro-Southern quarter-million-man clandestine group promising to overthrow the government. Many were so weary of the war and the mounting casualty lists and a wallowing economy it seemed nearly plausible that the South could succeed in freeing itself from the Union politically where it had so far failed militarily. Horace Greeley, the sanguinary editor of the New York Tribune, wrote that nine-tenths of all Americans were “anxious for peace–peace on almost any terms–and utterly sick of human slaughter and devastation.” Predicting that President Abraham Lincoln would be defeated in the elections that fall, Greeley railed, “We must have another ticket to save us from utter overthrow.” Not that the newspaperman wished to capitulate the Union and give up–in fact, he was calling for a sterner leader than Lincoln–but his articles summed up much of the mood of the North.
Lincoln himself was dodging fire not only from the opposition Democrats but also from prominent members of his own Republican party. At a cabinet meeting August 23, 1864, Lincoln wrote forlornly: “This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so cooperate with the President-elect as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration, as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterward.” The despondent president had each cabinet member sign the back of the note as a witness, and he put it away for future use, if necessary.
For their part, the Democrats nominated as president former general in chief George B. (“Little Mac”) McClellan, who had been fired by Lincoln not once but twice for getting whipped by Robert E. Lee. McClellan had expressed himself as being against the abolition of slavery and was considered to be a man who would treat with the South for peace. In fact, Lincoln had drafted a confidential document, in his “own peculiar style,” so he said, proposing that a “peace commission” be appointed to see if the Confederates would agree to a restoration of the Union, with or without slavery–and this after issuing his Emancipation Proclamation. Though nothing came of the peace commission, its very concept surely indicated the depths of the government’s despair over the course of the war.
Naturally, all this–at least what could be known of it–was being followed with great zeal in the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia. The leaders of that beleaguered cause probably read into it more than was there–after all, much of the Confederate intelligence respecting the Northern mood came from reading northern newspapers. But practically everybody south of the Mason-Dixon Line realized that a Confederate victory, an important one, was necessary somewhere soon if Lincoln and the war-stubborn Republicans were to be swept out of office. The man ultimately chosen to give them that victory was none other than the newly confirmed Episcopalian, John Bell Hood.
By the early spring of 1864 the military situation between the two warring powers had boiled down to a bloody stalemate. In the eastern theater–principally in Virginia–Ulysses S. Grant, latest of five generals in chief of the Union forces, had, by a series of crablike turning movements, forced Confederate general Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia from its entrenchments near Fredericksburg–some fifty miles from the capital at Washington–and into a defensive perimeter around Richmond and Petersburg. But those Forty Days, as the battles would come to be known, were costly for Grant in the extreme–not so much for the fifty-four thousand casualties he sustained; with a one-hundred-fifty-thousand-man army he could afford that–but rather because of the mounting horror and dissatisfaction in the North when the casualty lists began coming in. Most earlier Civil War battles had been fought as one-or two-day affairs–Bull Run, Gettysburg, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and so on–fangslashing dog fights in which the stronger dog quickly established himself and the loser ran off to fight another day. But Grant’s spring offensive introduced a new kind of war, a grinding nightmare of armed embrace in which the victorious dog never turns loose of his victim, but pursues him relentlessly, attacking whenever he can.
But Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was not finished yet. His forces were still intact, and Lee, even in retreat, was a cunning commander who picked and chose his battlefields shrewdly, making Grant pay for every inch of his new strategy. Cold Harbor, for example, cost Grant seven thousand men in a charge that lasted less than an hour. The new commander in chief of the U.S. armies was earning a reputation in certain quarters on both sides as a “butcher” or ‘murderer” rather than a general. Grant “had such a low idea of the contest,” bawled one editor, “that he proposed to decide it by a mere competition in the sacrifice of human life.” Deserved or undeserved as such sobriquets might have been, the fact was that the North was becoming war wearier by the day, prompting even such stalwart Unionists as Charles Francis Adams, Jr., son of the U.S. ambassador to England, to complain that while he felt confidence in the federal government’s ultimate ability to crush the Confederacy, “For all I can see, we must go floundering on indefinitely through torrents of blood and unfathomable bankruptcy.”
Anyway, that was back east. On the other major battlefield of the war, the western theater, things were looking somewhat rosier for the Union cause. Unlike the eastern theater, where fighting was confined mainly to Virginia, the western theater was a huge expanse of territory bounded on the west by the Mississippi River all the way from New Orleans nearly to St. Louis and stretching eastward to the Atlantic states–more than three hundred thousand square miles, much of it wilderness or farmland, badly connected by roads or rail tracks. Union strategy in this vast department was to strangle the Confederacy by blockading its southern ports and force the capture of the Mississippi, and at the same time to chew up Southern armies state by state. By midsummer, 1863, the Mississippi River had been retaken, and federal armies had pushed Confederate forces out of Kentucky and most of Tennessee. But in autumn of that year, the Confederate Army of Tennessee, then under General Braxton Bragg, won its first significant victory of the war by routing the Union army at Chickamauga, in north Georgia, and advancing back into Tennessee near Chattanooga. However, by winter of 1864, the Union army had shoved the Confederates out again in the battle of Missionary Ridge, and so the two hostile armies faced each other near the Georgia-Tennessee line, waiting for spring and a new offensive. From the halls of the U.S. capitol in Washington to the drawing rooms of Richmond and Charleston, those who had studied the war knew the next moves would probably spell the end of the conflict, one way or the other. And so did many in the two opposing forces, including the newly baptized general, John Bell Hood.
By this stage of the war, both Northern and Southern armies had become highly modernized in technology and refined in tactics and strategy. Both relied heavily on the telegraph, steamboats, and railroads for communication and transportation, although by mid-1864 the Confederacy had been depleted of many of those valuable tools. Still, the South’s practice of destroying Union-used rails, boats, and wires had evened things up to some extent.
At a first glance, the federal armies would appear to be much superior to the ragtag Confederates. Northern manufacturies had been churning out mountains of supplies ever since the war began–everything from uniforms to weapons to such accoutrements as saddlebags, frying pans, haversacks, shoes and boots, razors, wagons, ambulances, medical supplies, and field glasses–all the things that keep an army on the move. The Confederacy, on the other hand, had fewer and fewer of such manufacturies as the war progressed, less and less of necessary raw materials, and, owing to the Union blockade of its ports, even scantier ways to purchase them from abroad, now that its vast wealth of cotton lay rotting on its docks.
But until just before the end of the war, the Southerners made do. In its victories in the early years, the Confederates–especially the cavalry–captured vast stores of federal equipment, which they turned to their own use. In the east, Lee’s army somehow managed to keep many of its soldiers in “Confederate gray” uniforms, but in the west, where the clothing fashion was more relaxed, most enlisted troops dressed in “butternut homespun,” rough-weaved clothing dyed a sort of brownish yellow. Many men with captured Union blue overcoats boiled them in bleach and then again in a butternut or grayish dye. Shoes were a major problem, and the ill-shod Southerners often took the boots of dead federal soldiers after battle, as well as anything else they could use. As long as they obeyed the orders of their generals, kept their weapons well served and their battle morale high, these ragamuffins proved that uniforms do not make soldiers.
Except for manpower–in which the federals enjoyed a large advantage–the armies were about evenly matched. Confederate esprit tended to offset federal superiority in numbers and manufacturing. To cope with any disparities, the Confederates evolved a strategy of trying to strike with enough force to surprise, isolate, and destroy crucial segments of the Union armies and then exploit the ensuing confusion and panic into victory. Stonewall Jackson wrote the book on this technique. Northern armies, on the other hand, had come to rely on their overwhelming numbers to wreck the Confederates’ logistics system, then simply grind their armies down by attrition.
By 1864, it had increasingly become the practice of both armies to fight from behind entrenchments. After the first year or so of the war, troops concluded that entrenchments were rarely taken by assault, and that the attackers as opposed to the defenders usually suffered horrible casualties. Fredericksburg was a classic example of this; the assaulting federal army suffered nearly eleven thousand casualties, compared to less than half that for the defending Confederates. In Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, the reverse was true, with the Confederates being slaughtered. Still, the Confederate practice was almost always to assume the offensive, and the South bled itself nearly dry on this policy.
Most Confederate leaders still relied on the Napoleonic strategy of massed forces, rapid movements, and attacking the enemy. This offensive policy worked well enough in the first half of the war, for a number of reasons. First, the Southern soldier was more apt to be willing to face the greater danger of assault because he was fighting for his family’s very home and hearth, repelling what he considered to be an invasion of his sovereign country. He was also likely to be more experienced in shooting, horsemanship, and other arts of war. Furthermore, he believed his cause was just–that his people had the right to form their own government and be let alone by the North. Union soldiers often had vaguer motives to drive them and frequently disagreed among themselves on the merits of those motives–restoration of the Union, abolition of slavery, for example.
In fact, in what were then considered western states of the Union–Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Minnesota–there was a large body of public opinion very much opposed to the war, and it carried over to the sons who were fighting it. These westerners resented the powerful influence of the New England states–which they charged had started the war in the first place with their strident anti-slavery rhetoric. These westerners were further disenchanted by the hardships the war had placed upon their lives–in particular, the inability to use the Mississippi River to transport their crops and the concomitant price gouging by the Northern railways, most of which were owned by northeasterners–principally New Englanders. These feelings became so intense that by 1864 there was serious talk of a “western Confederacy” seceding from the Union, which would have fragmented the United States, instead of just splitting it. In any case, all these factors were very important in the individual soldiers’ lives, because, other things being even–or relatively even–in an infantry attack, where every second could be deadly, morale was always a critical element.
Identifications of Union and Confederate armies can be confusing, and were so at the time. Union armies were generally named after bodies of water–rivers mostly–thus, Army of the Ohio, Army of the Potomac, Army of the Cumberland, and Army of the Tennessee. Confederates named their armies after geographic terrain: Army of Northern Virginia, Army of Tennessee, for example. In these armies, the tactics of assault were formalized. Most times, a line of skirmishers was sent forward to “feel” the enemy positions and quickly retire to the main line when they encountered a large force. The main attack was carried out by a line of divisions abreast, the brigades of which were marched two deep toward a focal point in the enemy line. Regiments and companies in the brigades were also marched two deep, with “file closers’–lieutenants and sergeants–in the rear to prevent straggling. Rarely was an entire army thrown into the attack at one time; it was simply too unwieldy to control. A corps, consisting of perhaps fifteen to twenty thousand men in a line of battle about a half mile to a mile wide, was about the largest force that could be managed in a single assault.
Thus countless hours were spent on drill parade. The importance of drill–unlike in modern armies, where it is more a traditional formality than a useful practice–was therefore paramount. When the troops weren’t fighting or tending to other duties, they were drilling–obliques, half-steps, step-and-a-halfs, right turns, close-files, by the right and left flanks, and so on, all of it as intricately orchestrated as a French minuet. This was because on those large battlefields where thousands of men were marched shoulder to shoulder to mass their fire at an enemy, all were expected to arrive at a precise spot at a precise time and in a particular order to produce the desired effect, and the slightest variation in terrain–a hidden gully, a bramble thicket, or even a fallen tree–could throw the whole plan out of whack. The drilling and automatic obedience to an officer’s marching command were of great significance.
The firepower of an assault could be stunning. Both armies were equipped with the standard infantry weapon of the day, a .50 pluscaliber Springfield, Enfield, or similar percussion-cap rifle that could fire a conical lead slug a thousand yards at a rate of about two shots a minute. Thus, in the full fury of an assault, assuming that one corps had attacked another, it would not be inconceivable that during any given minute sixty thousand deadly projectiles were ripping through the air toward flesh and bone. The size and weight of the bullet were sufficient to disable most men no matter where it hit them, even the hand or foot.
Not only that, but attacks were accompanied and defended against by artillery fire, which the troops feared even more than rifle bullets because its effects were so ghastly. The standard artillery weapon of both armies was the smooth-bore twelve-pound Napoleon, but both sides had a variety of other guns, rifled Parrots that could throw a projectile up to a mile and a half, modern Whitworths that could crack a shell more than two miles with devastating accuracy, and an assortment of others. An assaulting column could soon expect to come under the fire of these mutilating weapons, which, like the rifle, could fire at a rate of about two rounds a minute. At that speed, the artillery of one corps–usually between eighty and one hundred guns–could hurl nearly two hundred shots a minute toward the assaulting column. The muzzle velocity of these guns was slow compared with twentieth-century weaponry; soldiers could often actually see the rounds arcing toward them like deadly black grapefruits. One veteran of the Atlanta campaign recalled a companion who, seeing one of the seemingly slow cannonballs bouncing over the ground near him, stuck his foot out as if to stop it, and in a split second the foot was ripped completely off his leg. In the Stones River battle, General Rosecrans was horrified when his chief of staff, riding beside him, had his head taken off by a cannon shot. Worse for attacking troops was the “canister” that defenders blew at them when they neared the lines of defense. This consisted of a load of iron balls the size of large marbles that turned the cannon into an enormous shotgun, mowing down whole ranks of men in one sweep. Sometimes the artillerymen even loaded the cannon with pieces of chain and other scrap metal.
If, however, the assaulting column got through these formidable obstacles, the defending troops would likely break and run. An assault carried an impetus of its own, with an unequivocal ‘shock value,” not unlike the tank attack of a modern armored unit. But few assaults launched by either side against a well-entrenched enemy ever succeeded in advancing much inside the lethal one-hundred- to four-hundred-yard killing ground where the full intensity of artillery canister and rifle fire could be brought to bear. When an assault did succeed, however, the result was often disastrous for the defenders; the line was pierced, or caved in, and defeat was in the air.
All through the winter of 1863 and most of the spring of 1864 the Confederate Army of Tennessee braced itself in the northwest Georgia mountains just south of Chattanooga, preparing for the attack it knew would come when the Union commander, General William Tecumseh Sherman, had fortified himself to his liking. For getting his army kicked out of Tennessee, General Braxton Bragg was replaced as Confederate commander by Joseph E. Johnston, a general quite popular with the soldiers, who had once commanded the Army of Northern Virginia before Lee. On the 4th of February, after recuperating from the loss of his leg, John Bell Hood joined Johnston and was promoted to lieutenant general and given command of an army corps.
Sherman, in coordination with Grant in Virginia, began his main offensive in north Georgia against Johnston May 12, the morning after Hood’s baptism, by engineering a huge attack against both Confederate flanks. It had taken the Union armies three years to drive the Confederates out of the upper South and retake the crucial Mississippi, but much of the Deep South, including Georgia and South Carolina, had scarcely been touched by the fighting. Now Sherman was preparing to give those states a taste of his theory of warfare, which, in both concept and execution exceeded even Grant’s harsh methodology. “All that has gone on before is mere skirmishing,” he told his wife in a letter on the eve of battle.
Like Grant, who was moving on Richmond, Sherman had a strategic goal: the city of Atlanta, the Deep South’s most important center for arsenals, foundries, warehousing, war goods manufacturing, food stores supply, and railroad shipping. Also like Grant, Sherman would rely on the turning movement as his basic tactical weapon. Given that both Sherman and Grant outnumbered their Confederate opponents by roughly two to one, the turning movement was an obvious and practical device to gain their objective. Instead of the hell-for-leather frontal assaults that had proven so costly in the early years of the war, the turning movement–in Sherman’s case relying on numerical superiority of forces–simply called for holding the enemy in place with one powerful body while another part of the army sidled around a flank, got in his rear, and rendered his position untenable.
Use of the turning movement was not a gimmick new or exclusive to Civil War armies–Alfred von Schlieffen, the renowned nineteenthcentury German military strategist, avowed, “Flank attack is the essence of the whole history of war” –but most certainly it was elevated, enhanced, and refined to an art by both Union and Confederate generals. From the outset, commanders on both sides based the bulk of their military strategy on their reading of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe half a century earlier and–to a greater or lesser extent–on their personal experiences in the war with Mexico nearly a quarter century before. Studies at West Point in those days were sure to have included such classic turning movements as Napoleon employed in his Italian and Austrian campaigns, as well as those of victorious U.S. generals Winfield Scott at Cerro Gordo and Zachary Taylor at Monterey during the Mexican conflict. In the Civil War, the turning movement had become the major set piece in the overall grand strategy of the Union armies. In the eastern theater–in Virginia–five Union generals had tried it, and all had failed, mostly because a wiley Robert E. Lee had anticipated their maneuvers and countered them with flanking movements of his own. In the west, the federal strategy had been more successful, with the Confederates being flanked all the way out of Kentucky and through Tennessee to Vicksburg, and now Sherman was poised for another go at it. At the tactical level, modern advancements in the ranges of both heavy and light armaments–coupled with the vastly increased rate of firepower during the Civil War–practically mandated the turning movement rather than a straightforward charge, and Sherman was among those generals who thoroughly grasped this vital development.
At any rate, by the time Sherman was ready to make his move in the spring of 1864 he had amassed some one hundred twenty thousand men, as well as mountains of supplies and rail cars to carry them. Now the temperamental Ohioan was fully prepared to do as Grant had ordered him: ‘move against Johnston’s army, break it up, and get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources.”
Confederate commander Joe Johnston, however, a trim fifty-seven-year-old West Pointer, wasn’t prepared to take this lying down. He had a plan of his own, though, unfortunately, it did not jibe with what the authorities in Richmond had in mind. Studious and cautious–some would say a “textbook general” –Johnston had divined a scenario he believed would cope with the numerical odds against him: stay flexible, fortify every position, and let Sherman come on. Make him attack, make him pay, retreat if necessary but always be on the lookout for a mistake. Surely, Sherman must make one–and then he could be whipped. Richmond, on the other hand, with an eye on the political storm gathering in the North, still wished to see Johnston go on the offensive and aggressively push Sherman back into Tennessee–if possible, all the way up to Nashville and beyond–and this difference of opinion soon gave way to bitter and acrimonious communications between the Confederate commander and his overlords in Virginia.
* * *
The Union Army of the Tennessee amassed by Sherman was, like the Confederate’s Army of Tennessee, an amalgam of various smaller armies that over the years of fighting–and as Confederate territory shrunk–had been consolidated into a single, powerful engine of destruction. It was composed of the armies of the Cumberland, Ohio, and Tennessee, commanded respectively by Generals George Thomas, John Schofield, and James McPherson. Each army could contain about thirty to forty thousand men, depending on the task at hand. Each was further divided into three corps of ten to twelve thousand, which in turn were comprised of three divisions of about three to four thousand infantrymen each. In addition, Sherman had at his disposal some three divisions of cavalry commanded by Generals Edward M. McCook, Kenner Garrard, and George Stoneman, as well as 254 pieces of artillery. With this one-hundred-twenty-thousand-man juggernaut he moved out in early May to smash Joe Johnston.
Initially, Johnston’s Army of Tennessee contained only two corps, Hood’s and that of General William J. Hardee, each totaling about twenty thousand men. As Sherman began his campaign, however, Johnston was reinforced by Bishop Polk and his twenty-thousandman corps from Mississippi, bringing his total infantry to sixty thousand, more or less. His cavalry consisted of five thousand sabers under the command of Major General Joseph Wheeler, and with the addition of Polk’s artillery, Johnston boasted 188 guns–to take on an army twice that size.
In the old days, Confederates might have said the two sides were about evenly matched, but the old days were long gone. This Union army was vastly improved by three years of fighting from Shiloh to Vicksburg, Stones River to Chattanooga, Chickamauga to Lookout Mountain; and now here they were in Johnston’s face at Dalton, Georgia, and it was going to take a lot more than courage and savvy to keep them off his back.
* * *
As the crow flies, Atlanta is a hundred miles southeast from Dalton, and Johnston figured that gave him some pretty good room to maneuver. Not only that, but since armies didn’t fly, to get at either Johnston or Atlanta, Sherman was going to have to traverse some of the roughest terrain ever contested during the war–myriad mountains, hills, valleys, gaps, forests, swamps, gullies, passes, rivers, and ravines, each presenting Johnston with a formidable opportunity for defense. At the outset, Johnston had his army drawn up along several miles of stone and clay called Rocky Face Ridge, facing west, with a passage known ominously as Buzzard’s Roost dividing it in two. It was not a position a prudent man would attack head-on, and William Tecumseh Sherman was a prudent man. He had learned his lesson the hard way a year before, at Chickasaw Bluffs above Vicksburg, when he had embarrassingly failed to carry such a position, and he wasn’t about to repeat the mistake now.
First, Sherman sent Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland at Johnston’s center to hold him while Schofield’s Army of the Ohio attacked due south into the Confederate right flank. McPherson, meanwhile, had maneuvered his Army of the Tennessee way around the Confederate left flank to the southeast and was aiming at the railroad linking Dalton with Atlanta. Trouble was, when McPherson got there, he found the cat was out of the bag. Outflanked, and with their only escape route about to be cut, the Confederate army had withdrawn southward without a fight to the small railway town of Resaca, where they had set up another defense. This time Johnston stood firm while Sherman attacked him to no avail, and then he launched a counterattack of his own, led by Hood. The federals were driven back, but darkness set in, and by morning it was apparent that Sherman was executing another flanking movement. After desultory fighting all day, Johnston decided to abandon Resaca and retreat southward again. Thus, he conformed to the pattern that he had in mind, more or less, of fortifying and causing Sherman to pay for his ground, all the while waiting for him to make his mistake. Sherman wasn’t making mistakes, however, and Johnston was letting his enemy shove him that much closer to Atlanta.
Johnston cunningly laid a few traps for Sherman along the way, moving Hood and Hardee around in hopes of catching one of the three federal armies alone and where it could be cut off. But none of that worked, and Johnston continued his retreats until he had lost nearly two-thirds of the ground between Dalton and Atlanta. Though no major battle had yet been fought, attrition was taking its toll, mostly on the Union army, which so far was losing men two to one against the Confederates. In a dispatch to Washington, Sherman reported that his loss at Resaca was 3,375 wounded. William Murray of the 20th Tennessee, who was there, remarked later that Sherman ‘did not say how many he had killed, but there are 1,790 Yankees buried there and 170 Confederates.” In another telegram shortly afterward, Sherman sourly told Washington, “Johnston retires slowly, leaving nothing and hitting hard if crowded.”
Hood, meanwhile, in whatever spare time there was, had been sending private reports on the progress of the campaign to Jefferson Davis and Braxton Bragg, who, after being replaced by Johnston, had been elevated to chief military advisor to the Richmond authorities. Davis, Bragg, and Secretary of War James A. Seddon composed a sort of triumverate for running the war from Richmond. Mostly they had let Robert E. Lee alone to do what he thought best, but in the western theater there had been nearly as many lost battles and changes in high command as the federals had experienced in the Army of the Potomac. Hood had gotten on excellent personal terms with Davis during the months he spent in Richmond recuperating from the loss of his leg, and it was later suggested that his correspondence with the Confederate president and other authorities was in the nature of an intrigue against Johnston, with whose defensive policies Hood had begun to strongly disagree. Whatever the case, by the time Johnston reached the area of Kennesaw Mountain, about twenty-five miles northwest of Atlanta, he knew he had to make a stand. It was a little more than a month since the campaign had started; he had lost nearly five thousand men and had yet to give Sherman a serious check.
In addition, Sherman was having his own problems. In pursuing the elusive Johnston, he had saved time and distance by cutting loose from the Western & Atlantic Railroad that ran from Atlanta through Dalton and north to Chattanooga and Nashville and beyond, from whence came the material to supply his army. He still had one flank astride the tracks, but further maneuvering in a southeastern sidle to turn Johnston’s left would leave him without a means of resupply by rail, and three weeks of rainy weather had rendered the roads impassable. For several weeks Sherman tested and feinted and demonstrated without success trying to dislodge the Confederates, but they would not budge from their strong position. About the only thing of substance he accomplished was the killing of General Polk, who was struck by a cannonball in the presence of Generals Hardee and Johnston while they were reconnoitering the enemy from a hill. So this time Sherman swallowed the bait and attacked, perceiving that not only the Confederates but, he said, “Our own officers had settled down into a conviction that I would not assault fortified lines. All looked for me to outflank.” But any army, he declared, ‘must be prepared to execute any plan which promises success.” Thus convinced, he ordered an assault on the Confederate center at Kennesaw Mountain on June 27.
The attack was a miserable failure, reaffirming the opinions of veteran soldiers that assaulting troops who were behind fortifications was suicidal. Three thousand of Sherman’s men were lost, and several generals were killed while inflicting “comparatively little loss on the enemy,” according to Sherman, who sought to put a better face on it by reporting that at least it was ‘demonstrated to General Johnston that I would assault, and that boldly.”
Johnston, on the other hand, was finally able to report a victory to the Confederate high command in Richmond. Telegraphing on the day of the Kennesaw battle that Sherman had been repulsed with great losses, Johnston now undertook to provide his superiors with an explanation of why he had retreated to the very outskirts of Atlanta without giving Sherman a major offensive battle. Citing “long cold wet weather,” ‘sickness,” and “the superior forces of the enemy,” Johnston wrote that he had “intended to take advantage of the first good position to give battle” but had so far not found one.
Understandably, the Richmond authorities were upset. Two days after receiving Johnston’s telegram, Braxton Bragg fumed to Jefferson Davis, “No doubt [Johnston] is outnumbered by the enemy, as we all are everywhere, but the disparity is much less than it has ever been between those two armies.” As they worried and waited and wondered whether Johnston was going to defend Atlanta at all, or simply let himself get outflanked by Sherman all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico, Bragg and Davis must have remembered Hood’s secretive letters to them, in which he outlined his own strategy for dealing with Sherman: “We should march to the front as soon as possible . . . so as not to allow the enemy to concentrate and advance upon us.” In another of those private letters, Hood wrote, “I . . . am sorry to inform you that I have done all in my power to induce General Johnston to accept the proposition you made to move forward. He will not consent.” Possibly it was about this time that Davis began to mull over a change in command for the Army of Tennessee.
In any event, the undaunted Sherman immediately began his maneuvering again and was able to wire Washington that “the effect was instantaneous. The next morning Kennesaw was abandoned,” and Sherman maneuvered on, minus nearly sixteen thousand casualties since his campaign had opened six weeks before, compared to Johnston’s losses of nine thousand. This episode went to prove by example the theory of attritive warfare embraced by Sherman and Grant: that the North could afford to lose more men than the South because it had more men, and sooner or later the Confederacy was going to run out of replacements. Such a reduction of military science to its most brutal basics foretold by fifty years the awesome slaughter that would visit European battlefields in the century to come.
For the next several weeks Johnston fought what seemed to be little more than a delaying action all the way to the Chattahoochee River, the final big defensive terrain feature before Atlanta, then he drew himself up for another fight. But Sherman flanked him again this time turning his right with an upriver sweep by McPherson’s army. Johnston retreated once more, toward Peachtree Creek, and resumed calling on the Richmond authorities for reinforcements–mainly for the cavalry divisions of Generals Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Hunt Morgan, then operating in other states, which he wished to send to Sherman’s rear up in Tennessee to cut off Union supplies and communications. All this was about enough for Jefferson Davis, whose relationship with Johnston had been fitful and unpleasant since the two were at West Point, not to mention early in the war when Johnston quarreled with him over the seniority of his promotion. Frightened that Atlanta would be surrendered without a fight, Johnston’s friend Georgia Senator Benjamin Hill telegraphed Johnston after testing the mood of the Richmond government, “You must do the work with your present force. For God’s sake do it.”
But Johnston did not do it. On July 11 he wired Richmond his recommendation that the Union prisoners at Andersonville be evacuated, clearly a sign to the Confederate authorities that Atlanta was about to be forsaken. General Bragg was immediately sent down to meet with Johnston and assess the situation. On the 15th of July Bragg reported back gloomily, “I cannot learn that he has any more plan for the future than he has had in the past.” Two nights later the following wire from the adjutant general was received at Johnston’s headquarters:
Lieutenant General J. B. Hood has been commissioned to the temporary Rank of General under the late law of Congress. I am directed by the Secretary of War to inform you that as you have failed to arrest the advance of the enemy to the vicinity of Atlanta, far in the interior of Georgia, and express no confidence that you can defeat or repel him, you are hereby relieved from the command of the Army of the Department of Tennessee, which you will immediately turn over to General Hood.
And so the army’s fate was sealed, for better or worse, as it now had as its leader a “fighting general” to contend with the seemingly irresistible maneuvering of Sherman.
The decision to replace Johnston with Hood was not made without considerable handwringing in Richmond. Davis and the rest of the government obviously wished for the Army of Tennessee to attack Sherman, but Johnston simply would not do it–or at least he had not done it–and time was running out. Everybody knew Hood’s reputation as a fighter; he was a proud alumnus of the Robert E. Lee–Stonewall Jackson “get “em on open ground and hit “em with all you’ve got” school of military thought. He had proved that from the beginning during the Peninsular campaign in 1862 and at Second Manassas and of course at Gettysburg and Chickamauga. But there was more than just lingering doubt about Hood’s ability to command an entire army. Less than a year before, the biggest command he had held was a division, and he had led a corps for only a few months. Now he was to be responsible for one of the two great armies that held the key to survival for the Confederacy.
In recommending Hood to Davis during his panicky visit to Atlanta, Bragg had candidly stated that the young Kentuckian was not “a man of genius, or a great general.” But under the present emergency, Bragg went on to say, Hood was “far better” than anybody else available. A few days earlier and on his own hook, Davis had wired Lee about the proposed change. Lee, who had his hands full with Grant around Richmond, telegraphed back, “Hood is a bold fighter. I am doubtful as to other qualities necessary.” Soon afterward Lee followed up with a letter to the president in which he described Hood as “a good commander, very industrious on the battlefield, careless off” and went on to say, “I have had no opportunity to judge his action when the whole responsibility rested upon him. I have a high opinion of his gallantry, earnestness and zeal.” It was almost as though Hood got the job through default–the best of a bad lot.
Nor was the ascension of General Hood greeted with boundless enthusiasm by the Army of Tennessee. In fact, it was viewed in most quarters with shock–in some cases, bitter disappointment and even tears. Sam Watkins, a twenty-five-year-old private in a Tennessee regiment, who had been with the army since the beginning of the war, decried Hood’s appointment as “the most terrible and disastrous blow that the South ever received.” He went on to say, “I saw thousands of grown men cry like babies.” An entire squad of pickets, Watkins recalled, threw down their guns upon hearing the news and marched off, “the last we ever saw of them.” W. D. Murray, of the 20th Tennessee Regiment, complained that the replacement of Johnston “threw a damper over [the] army from which it never recovered.” Murray described how “great stalwart, sun-burnt soldiers by the thousands would be seen falling out of line, squatting down by a tree or in a fence corner, weeping like children.”
Exaggerated as some of this might have been, the news was not met with much welcome in the officer corps, either. Lieutenant General William Hardee, who had graduated from West Point fifteen years before Hood and was a year his senior in rank, asked to be relieved, miffed at being passed over for the promotion. One division commander remarked that Hood had ” “gone up like a rocket.” It is to be hoped that he will not come down like the stick.” Another told Hood face to face that he regretted Johnston’s removal, although he promised him cooperation. Others expressed similar sentiments–not an encouraging start for the new commander of the Army of Tennessee.
Hood himself recalled his reaction to the news of his promotion–or, as he described it, “the embarrassing circumstances under which I assumed command of the Army of Tennessee”: “About 11 o’clock, on the night of the 17th, I received a telegram from the War Office, directing me to assume command of the Army. This totally unexpected order so astounded me, and overwhelmed me with the sense of the responsibility thereto attached, that I remained in deep thought throughout the night.”
Near sunrise next morning the sleepless Hood set out for Johnston’s headquarters and was met by General A. P. Stewart, who had been promoted to command of the late Bishop Polk’s corps. Stewart, likewise disturbed by the news, suggested to Hood that they “unite in an effort to prevail on General Johnston to withhold the order, and retain command of the Army until the impending battles have been fought.” Hood readily assented to this plan, possibly because in spite of whatever earlier ambition he might have harbored to command the army, he surely recognized the immediate danger it was in now and did not wish to preside over its defeat. In any case, Johnston, saying in effect that “orders is orders,” would have none of it. By this time General Hardee had arrived on the scene, and, Hood, Hardee, and Stewart fired off a telegram to Jefferson Davis asking that the command change be suspended until the battle of Atlanta was fought. Davis declined, citing Johnston’s policies as ‘disastrous’ and concluding that he could not suspend the order “without making the case worse than it was.”
So that was that–or almost. Hood went in to see Johnston one last time and urged him, “for the good of the country, to pocket the correspondence, and fight for Atlanta, as Sherman was at the very gates of the city.” He pleaded that he ‘did not even know the position of the two remaining Corps of the Army,” and he begged Johnston, he said later, to at least ‘remain with me and give me the benefit of his counsel whilst I determined the issue.” Hood then described Johnston’s reaction to this request: “With tears of emotion gathering in his eyes, he finally made the promise that, after riding into Atlanta, he would return that same evening.” However, as Hood sourly put it, “He not only failed to comply with his promise, but, without a word of explanation or apology, left that evening for Macon, Georgia.”
There was one final flurry of reaction to the news of the change of command in the Army of Tennessee, and that came at Union army headquarters on the other side of Peachtree Creek, where some officers remembered Hood’s impulsive habits at the card table during the old army days on the frontier. It was generally agreed that the new Confederate commander, though brave and audacious, was ‘reckless.” General John Schofield, Hood’s old roommate at West Point, warned Sherman, “He’ll hit you like hell, now, before you know it.” Schofield proceeded to describe the new Confederate commander as “bold even to rashness and courageous in the extreme” and, when he wrote later, may even have provided the further intelligence that Hood was “not well up in mathematics’ while at the military academy. (Hood had graduated forty-fourth out of fifty-two cadets.)
The tall, red-haired Sherman took all this in and then wrote to his wife, “I confess I was pleased at the change.”