When John Bell Hood assumed command of the Army of Tennessee on July 18, 1864 he quickly changed the tactics employed by the main Confederate army in the west. Under the leadership of Joseph E. Johnston, the Army of Tennessee had given up considerable ground, moving from one defensive locale to the next, husbanding its strength. Johnston’s goal was to trade land for a chance to catch Sherman either in open ground or weary enough that the Ohioan would launch a fruitless assault against the entrenched Confederates; see Kennesaw Mountain.
Yet, under Hood’s leadership, the tactics would flip; the Army of Tennessee would move to the offensive, strike back at the invading Union army.
Hood would treat the Battles for Atlanta as his former commander; Robert E. Lee fought the Peninsula Campaign in 1862 outside Richmond. He would be the aggressor.
To help him achieve his purposes, Hood requested a new corps commander less than 24-hours after taking command. He had one in mind.
Stephen Dill Lee was the man Hood wanted and on July 25, 1864, this Lee; no direct relation to the Lee’s of Virginia, arrived in Atlanta. Two days before, Lee would become the youngest, at age 31, lieutenant general in the Confederate service.
Unknown at the time, Lee would have three days to review, get orientated with, and lead his new command into battle.
Hood wanted to attack, he wanted Lee who also appreciated offensive minded tactics, and he wanted to beat back the combined Union armies starting to unfold around Atlanta.
On July 28, 1864 Lee struck at Ezra Church but instead of surprising elements of the Union Army of Tennessee, the South Carolinian ran into Union soldiers occupying the line he was supposed to gain.
Looking like “the God of War” according to one of his command, Lee hoped to defeat the Union line which he thought “would yield before a vigorous attack.”
Instead, as the 11,900 man corps under Lee found out, determination and a “terrifying yell” would not move the defenders.
Hood himself never made it to the front lines to reconnoiter and see if the situation had changed. Some of the fault lies with the army commander, some lies with Lee, who under pressure to get the advance started and to reinforce his commander’s trust in making him a corps commander had led him to charge piecemeal with his corps.
As the men of Lee’s corps, like the Army of Tennessee would learn, the offensives of Atlanta would continue.
Near a small, innocent, yet highly critical railroad junction in Georgia, called Jonesboro, Lee would have another chance to prove his mettle as a corps commander.
The fate of Atlanta, the fate of the Confederacy, could possibly rest on what happened in central Georgia.