John Bell Hood took command of the Army of Tennessee with a clear mandate (really an almost imperative directive) to wage offensive war against the Federals before Atlanta. Most discussions of his appointment tend to stop there, but fail to assess the impact of the change on the Army of Tennessee itself. Hood’s accession to command did not occur in a vacuum, and itself impacted the army from an organizational standpoint. The army was not the fully cohesive military machine that Johnston led into the campaign in May – Hood’s new command was a dulling sword.
A military organization is ultimately only as good as its team of senior leaders. Countless battles throughout military history have been decided by successes or failures of top leaders, and the Civil War certainly offered its examples. A campaign of maneuver (like in Georgia) places a premium on senior leadership and their ability to coordinate and execute the wishes of the commander. Leader casualties therefore inevitably weaken the army’s ability to function.
The Army of Tennessee numbered 3 infantry corps of 10 divisions and 36 brigades. By July 10, they had lost 1 corps commander, 2 division commanders, and one-third of brigade commanders as casualties. Further turmoil resulted from commanders stepping up to replace the lost leaders, and many of these replacement leaders faced a learning curve in their new posts. Hood’s promotion vacated his position as corps commander, forcing a shuffle of commanders as Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham shifted from a division in Hardee’s Corps to take command. In short, two-thirds of the army’s corps commanders and one-third of the Army of Tennessee’s high command below corps level had been changed between May 7 and July 18, 1864.
Previous posters have addressed how such major command shuffling negatively impacted the performances of Army of Northern Virginia in the Overland Campaign and the Army of the Potomac at Petersburg; those lessons apply here. Add in one more factor: between attack and defense, attack is by far the more complex form of warfare. An offensive requires more energy, effort, and precision than a defensive action. The Army of Tennessee had fought a mostly defensive campaign to this point; now it would fight three major offensive battles within the next fortnight.
Leadership, expressed by leaders’ communication, collaboration, and coordination, makes the difference between success or failure in any organization. The Army of Tennessee’s leadership flux must be kept in mind when assessing its performance in the battles around Atlanta.