Thrust to Atlanta

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Over the past week or so, Emerging Civil War has spent a lot of time discussing the duel between U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee in the Overland Campaign. This attention is proper, as the Virginia battles of May and June 1864 are some of the most sanguinary in American military history. Yet we must not forget that these engagements were part of a much larger coordinated campaign. Grant launched five (two main, three supporting) simultaneous campaigns into Virginia, Georgia, and on the Gulf Coast, to (as Grant put it) “work all parts of the army together . . . toward a common centre.”

The Army of the Potomac’s thrust was one of two major attacks into the heart of the Confederacy. The other was launched by an army group under Major General William T. Sherman from Chattanooga, Tennessee, against General J.E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee. Sherman was ordered to “move against Johnston’s army, to break it up, and to get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources.”

This latter phrase included the City of Atlanta, which at the time was second only to Richmond as the most important armament, transportation, and supply center in the Confederacy. Like Singapore in 1942, Rome in 1943-44, or Baghdad in 2003, possession of this key city exerted a critical influence on the strategy and operations of both sides.

Johnston’s Army of Tennessee camped around Dalton, Georgia, with 50,000 men in two infantry corps under Lieutenant Generals William J. Hardee and John Bell Hood. Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk’s corps-sized Army of the Mississippi stood within supporting range, and would join Johnston’s forces on May 11. Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry screened the front. This army was in fine fighting trim, having recovered from the debacle at Chattanooga the previous November.

Sherman deployed just under 100,000 men against Johnston in three armies: Major General George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland (60,000 men), Major General James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee (24,000 men), and Major General John M. Schofield’s Army of the Ohio (13,000 men). All three armies had established a record of victorious campaigns and were ready to fight.

Both sides’ strategies depended on the Western & Atlantic (W&A) Railroad, which ran the 110 miles from Chattanooga to Atlanta (roughly parallel to I-75 today). Both Sherman and Johnston needed this lifeline to supply their troops over the long term; they could (and did) operate away from the rails, but never for very long. With that fact in mind, Sherman determined to turn Johnston’s position at Dalton by sending McPherson’s army through the mountains to cut the W&A at Resaca, forcing Johnston to retreat or accept isolation. Meanwhile Thomas and Schofield would engage the Confederate front, but avoid a major battle.

Sherman’s campaign started May 7, the same day Grant decided to march south to Spotsylvania. What happened next was a chess game between Sherman and Johnston over ten weeks that ended in the Atlanta suburbs. Lee White and I will explore these moves (and the resulting Battles for Atlanta) in the coming weeks and months.

Top Image: Kurz & Allison’s 1889 depiction of the Battle of Resaca, which occurred 13-15 May 1864.

Below: An overview map of the Atlanta Campaign, 7 May – 2 September 1864.

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