The 1864 Atlanta Campaign

Here’s Stephen Davis on the 1864 Atlanta Campaign and four generals involved in it:  William T. Sherman, George H. Thomas, Joseph E. Johnston, and John B. Hood.



  1. Here’s a question for you, Al:

    I get that Johnston has a very bad reputation with Steven Davis, Gary Gallagher, and others. But I’ve always wondered what they truly expected of him? Jeff. Davis wanted him to attack, and I get that, but he had no perspective; but these historians DO have hindsight. While I think he should have done more to relieve Pemberton during the Vicksburg campaign, his defense in Georgia against Sherman has always seemed to me perfectly prudent. So, what am I missing?

    1. He gave up massive amounts of territory, allowing Union forces the opportunity to take key strategic points. His theory, I suppose, was that if he retreated, the Federal supply lines would be lengthened, forcing the Federal commanders to detach more troops to guard those supply lines, eventually negating the manpower advantage and allowing him to attack with local superiority at the point of attack. The problem is that this never happened. He kept retreating and never got that local superiority. In the Atlanta Campaign, once Sherman got below the Chattahoochee River, it was only a matter of time before Atlanta fell. Johnston’s best bet was to keep Sherman in North Georgia, where the terrain favored defense. By not holding Snake Creek Gap he allowed Sherman to flank his position at Rocky Face Ridge. Even so, McPherson’s early retreat gave Johnston the opportunity to recover, but instead he simply retreated. Had he stayed there and used his own cavalry to attack Sherman’s supply lines, he would have been far more successful. It’s instructive that Hood was able to use the same cavalry to attack behind Sherman’s lines in the same manner that Johnston claimed was impossible. Johnston kept hoping he would be attacked, and instead his opponent, except for at Kennesaw Mountain, didn’t oblige him by doing what Johnston wanted him to do.

      1. jfepperson · · Reply

        I agree that JEJ gave ground too easily, but it is the case that he usually did so in response to a real threat to his own lines of communication. I think he should have responded to these threats more aggressively—by trying to remove them, perhaps—instead of more or less saying, “oh, well, we need to fall back again.” My favorite quip about JEJ is that he would have defended Atlanta to the bitter end, from his lines around Macon!

        1. Or Key West. 🙂

  2. JFEpp, yes, that was what I didn’t understand. I knew he gave up ground, but as Al and you point out, he gave it up too easily. I guess he wanted to fight a series of Kennesaw Mountains, but Sherman only obliged him the one time.

    Is it Foote who tells the story about JEJ duck hunting? He never managed to take a shot–the birds were always just a little too far away, or too close, or they were hens… The implication being he hated to risk his reputation.

    1. Chris, that story comes from Mary Chesnut. See here.

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