Question of the Week for April 28, 2014

During the opening stages of the Atlanta Campaign, General Joseph E. Johnston employed a form of Fabian Tactics. (Withdrawing in the face of the enemy in hopes of stringing out the enemy column, supply lines, etc…) This hands-off approach drew the ire of President Jefferson Davis, who thus replaced Johnston with John Bell Hood, who employed the offensive over the passive defensive. Which approach to the Confederate side of the campaign do you feel was more affective?

General Joseph E. Johnston
General Joseph E. Johnston

26 Responses to Question of the Week for April 28, 2014

  1. It terms of conserving manpower and resources and making Sherman pay for every yard of advance, I think Uncle Joe’s strategy was by far the best option available for the Confederates at the time. Unfortunately, unlike Lincoln, Davis thought himself a military genius and thought this defensive strategy “cowardly.” General Hood has been traditionally been given a bad rap regarding his preference for the offensive, but this was what Davis wanted and why he appointed Hood. Hood was carrying out what he perceived was the President’s wishes. I think we should blame Davis, not Hood, for the loss of Atlanta.

    1. I see your general point about holding Davis responsible, but cannot see Hood as a passive, compliant party. During his time in Richmond while recuperating from his Chickamauga wound, he curried Davis’s favor as ardently as he courted Sally Preston. Then, once restored to the Army of Tennessee, he regularly wrote Davis decrying (sometimes mischaracterizing) Johnston’s strategy, contrasting it with his would-be command of aggression. (Then he acted surprised when Davis appointed him commander!) I think that the strategy adopted by Hood was as much his own creation as Davis’s.

      As far as which approach was more effective, clearly Johnston’s was under the circumstances by virtue of his constant delay and frustration of Sherman–which just did not go long or far enough. He should not have left Snake Creek Gap unguarded. And he moved southward too quickly: by giving up Resaca too readily; retreating all the way to Adairsville, then giving it up when the terrain did not suit him perfectly; then moving on to Cassville where, ironically, when he had established a good position, he let Hood talk him out of attacking rather than adjust his lines. Once the armies neared the Chattahoochee, I have often wondered why the invincible Shoupades did not hold back Sherman’s army longer. It seems the Confederate cavalry did not do its job of impeding exploratory forces such as McPherson’s which managed to get around them and cross the river. Overall, if Johnston had managed to delay and impede for a longer time, postponing the fall of Atlanta closer to the presidential election, his method may have proved effective.

      Hood’s approach could not have worked for sheer numbers, by which the Union won the key battles of Peachtree Creek and the Battle of Atlanta. Hood apologists claim that his battles were lost because subordinates did not follow his orders, but so often he gave unrealistic, impossible orders. For example, in sending General French to Allatoona Pass, he not only ordered him to take the fort but to fill the entire defile with debris! How was he supposed to do that without backhoes?!

  2. Johnston definitely employed the better tactics. Resaca and Chetham’s Hill are examples of his superior ability. Hood, in my opinion, just hastened the decimation and defeat of the confederate troops.

  3. I fail to grasp how retreating all the time is a sound military tactic ? Davis allowed Johnston three chance’s in Command and each time he did not stand and fight, but retreated. If an army continue’s to retreat in the face of the enemy, it sap’s morale and cause’s desertion (if you look at the Atlanta Campaign,it was a factor in the loss of the battle.It has been the habit of modern revisionist historian’s to blame Hood and gloss over the fact that the troop’s in the West were used to advancing to the rear.

  4. In the interest of sheer silliness, I posit that Curtis LeMay had the correct approach to Sherman (“only an atom bomb would have stopped him.”)

    Seriously though, I would argue that Johnston could and should have been a little bit more bold—Castel and McMurry have argued, for instance, that he could have potentially ambushed a part of Sherman’s army during its crossing of the Etowah before the Dallas operations (Connelly, by contrast, argues that the risk would have been too great)—and Hood could and should have been a little more prudent.

    The trouble with Johnston is that recent, critical scholarship has shown that he didn’t wear down Sherman’s armies to the degree that he later claimed, and that his own losses, even on the defensive, were proportionately higher (see Castel for more on this). Perhaps the best that can be said for him, had he continued in command of the army for the rest of the campaign, is that he PROBABLY would have tried to hold Atlanta for as long as possible (though his final telegraph to Davis was ambiguous enough on this score to leave his postwar assertions open to question), more than likely would have failed (with Sherman snipping the rail lines one by one, as he actually did), and would have abandoned the city—although arguably with an army in better condition than the one that marched out on September 2nd, 1864.

    As for Hood conceiving unrealistic battle plans, that’s true of Bald Hill and Jonesboro. It’s not true of Peachtree Creek or Ezra Church. In those two engagements, had some of Hood’s subordinates (Hardee in the first case and S. D. Lee in the second) done what they were supposed to, the results might have been different. And, contrary to 150 years of popular misconception, Peachtree Creek, at least, was not a headlong charge against Yankee trenches; it was a confusing fight, mostly in the open, in which the Confederats failed for reasons of coordination, limited daylight, and sheer bad luck…not because of strong breastworks. Under different circumstances, the latter two battles might not have been resounding, crushing victories for Hood—Civil War armies were notoriously difficult to destroy—but they probably would have been better for Hood than they ended up being.

    I would also question the degree to which “Resaca…[is an] example of [Johnston’s] superior ability.” He sucessfully defended against two strong attacks, but also lost two significant counterattacks, and moreover lost a position (on Polk’s front on the far left) that could have seriously compromised his army. I’d call that mixed, at best. Kennesaw Mountain would be a better example of Johnston’s skills.

  5. Regarding Johnston’s retreat from the Shoupade line on the Chattahoochee, Castel has pointed out that the position was not impenetratble. Sherman, he argues, could have constructed his own earthworks around the railroad bridgehead, sealing it off, and then sent his army to cross elsewhere. For the plan to work, Johnston would have had to risk an attack—which he was, with a few exceptions (Seven Pines, Bentonville, even Cassville), not temperamentally inclined to do.

  6. I am not well versed in this campaign so I don’t really have too strong an opinion. However, it comes to mind that the Soviets did this to the Nazis in ’41 and Napoleon was a victim of it by Kutuzov in 1812 or so. Perhaps, just perhaps it could have worked for Joe J.

    1. In all seriousness, though, I don’t think any Confederate leaders ever seriously considered “scorched earth” as a viable military policy. Nor did they ever seriously consider waging a partisan “war of the people.” The main reason they didn’t do either one is that the majority of the Southern Confederates just didn’t have that mindset; they framed the war in terms of a struggle between two sovereign nations, they expected to fight a conventional war of conventional battles, and they expected their leaders to frame that sort of policy.

  7. I have always wondered if Wellington’s experience in Spain held any lessons for defense of the Confederate Heartland. It seems to me that an active defense was the only viable strategy, sapping the North’s will to fight rather than pursuing an outright military victory. The increased power of the defense due to the rifle musket and extensive use of field fortifications seems to strengthen the argument. Of course there were significant differences. Britain enjoyed naval superiority; the Confederacy had no comparable advantage on the inland waterways. I am not aware of any Confederate references to Wellington, except one note concerning two members of the ANV reading Napier’s “Peninsular War” during the winter of 1862-1863. Was there any influence of the “Iron Duke” on Confederate strategic thinking?

    1. I daresay that the writings of Jomini and Clauswitz had wider sway in the 19th century American military establishment (North and South) than any of Wellington’s contributions. Perhaps it was the mystique of Napoleon. For my part, I’ve always wondered why, in preparing the march orders for Shiloh, Beauregard’s aide, Thomas Jordan, by his own admission, had a copy of Napoleon’s orders at Waterloo in front of him as a guide. Why Waterloo, of all battles, which was a DEFEAT? Why didn’t Jordan choose a battle that Napoleon WON?? The only explanation I can think of this the conventional wisdom of the time considered Waterloo to be the battle that Napoleon ought to have won, and that therefore it still had some relevance.

  8. Hood was able to hold Atlanta for more than a month ever after suffering around 15,000 casualties in little more than a week at Peachtree Creek, Bald Hill, and Ezra Church. One wonders how much longer Johnston could have held it had he remained in command, especially considering the expertise in positional defensive warfare that he displayed along the New Hope Church and Kennesaw Mountain lines.

    Moreover, one wonders if the attack at Peachtree Creek would have had a greater chance of success had Johnston been in command rather than Hood. Hardee’s poor performance can be blamed, at least partially, on his lack of belief in Hood’s competence and perhaps his anger at having the junior Hood promoted over his head. Cheatham would still have been in command of his Tennessee division rather than Maney, who performed poorly at Peachtree Creek.

    1. Also, the main factor which resulted in the loss at Peachtree Creek was the hours-long move to the right by the entire line as ordered by Hood, which caused a fatal delay in the attack. Better to move a single force to plug the gap rather than painstakingly stretch the line (which ended up having to be extended far more than claimed, thus taking more time than expected, so as to connect with Wheeler as ordered–another example of Hood’s unrealistic orders!). The time taken up in that maneuver could better have been used reconnoitering the front over which they would attack, and maybe then Bates would not have gotten lost!

    2. Only if Johnson had actually STAYED in position, rather than retreating again. In early July, for instance, he claimed in a conversation with Senator Benjamin Hill that he could hold north of the Chattahoochee River for more than a month…then he treated days later. Johnston would have to have stayed put for more than he typically did in any position—a few days to a couple of weeks. Would he have done so? Well, he claimed afterwards that he would have, but he gave no promise at the time. Which Johnston are we supposd to believe—wartime Johnston, or postwar Johnston?

      As for Peachtree Creek under Johnston…once again, look at his actual record. Seven Pines was a flustercluk of epic proportions, and Bentonville was too little, too late. Not a very solid record to build a counterfactual of successful counterattack on. Hardee’s poor performance was probably in part due to resentment at being passed over, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that he would have jumped in the saddle with Johnston still in command. During the early part of the campaign, he wrote several letters to Davis that were critical of Johnston’s conduct of operations; as for Johnston, his constant employment of Hood’s Corps for the counterattacks at Resaca and the (aborted) one at Cassvlle suggest that, at least initially, he had more confidence in Hood than in Hardee. The rapprochment between Hardee and Johnston happened later, after the fall-out of the campaign, when both felt themselves victimized by Hood; at the time of Johnston’s relief, they certainly weren’t bosom buddies. If Johnston was still in command at P’tree Creek, he would have had three corps commanders—Hood, Hardee, and Stewart—who had little confidence in his leadership (Johnston, in fact, had tried to have Ewell sent to take over Polk’s Corps, rather tha Stewart). For that to have somehow miraculously worked out on July 20th would have required a miracle.

  9. Castel posits that the shift at P’tree Creek, if not the delay, actually IMPROVED the chances of success, because it sent Hardee against Newton’s small division (which Hardee’s Corps SHOULD have been been able to overwhelm handily if handled well, which it wasn’t) and Stewart against Hooker’s unprepared and unentrenched XX Corps. Had they advanced from their original positions, Castel maintains, Hardee would have been overlapped on the right by Newton, and Stewart would have gone straight into the fully-entrenched XIV Corps.

    Interestingly enough, the late Bill Scaife argued that if Johnston had remained in command, he would havein fact selected an entirely different starting point for the assault, somewhere to the east of where it actually happened. At this new starting point, Scaife wrote, the ground was open and more suitable to attack. If that was indeed Johnston’s intention, it does offer the tantalizing possibility of greater success for the Confederates. Unfortunately, the basis for Scaife’s claim was a series of battlefield tours offered by a few Atlanta historians in the 1920s—a bit of a weak citation source, given the fact that even the veterans lost track of where their units had been in the real battles after a lapse of twenty or more years, much less the hypothetical might-have-beens.

    I agree, though, that simply plugging the gap between Hardee and Cheatham would have been quicker and more economical than the “slide to the right” and resulting delay. Better still would be if Cheatham’s Corps was already covering the eastern approaches of Atlanta to support Wheeler, rathe than having to move into position to do so.

  10. Well, um, Newton may have had a small division, but he had some big, bad, formidable artillery positioning, a la Thomas!

  11. True; and the Confederates, in nearly every battle around Atlanta, were unable somehow to get their artillery involved. That was definitely one factor consistently working against them…

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