Change is in the wind

Wilbur Kurtz’s depiction of the meeting between Hood and Johnston at the Dexter Miles House, Atlanta.

Army of Tennessee,
General Orders No. 1:
July 18, 1864.

Soldiers of the Army of Tennessee:

“Strap in. Things are going to change!”


Gen. John B. Hood, Commanding.

With those stirring words, the burden of command of the Confederacy’s second army passed from Gen. Joseph E. Johnston to Corps commander Hood.

Well, not really. Pardon my flippancy.

But I feel that there is a certain verisimilitude to the words above, despite their snarky modern vibe. On July 17, after several days of fact-finding (and not a little behind-the-scenes politicking) by General Braxton Bragg, Confederate President Jefferson Davis decided to replace Joe Johnston with a more aggressive commander. Davis wanted offensive action: Johnston never found his moment. He ordered a two-division attack on May 15 at Resaca; and planned a larger counterpunch against Union General William T. Sherman’s forces at Cassville, on May 19th. Ironically, Hood himself was largely responsible for derailing Johnston’s big moment at Cassville, when a Union cavalry force popped up unexpectedly on his flank and rear.

Hood took charge with the idea that the Army of Tennessee had to fight, not retreat. Almost immediately, he delivered. On July 20 he attacked George Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland at Peachtree Creek, in a disjointed affair that failed to deliver the intended victory. Two days later, he ordered what was supposed to be his signature triumph, an attack against James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee (Union, not to be confused with Hood’s own army) just east of Atlanta after a very difficult flank march. While the Confederates delivered punishing blows, they again failed to shatter the Federal force.

On July 28, newly arrived Rebel Corps Commander S. D. Lee – another Eastern Theater transplant – rushed into a frontal assault against a Union defensive line west of the city. It also failed. This was perhaps the most lopsided defeat of them all, with 3,000 CSA losses stacked up against 642 Union casualties.

In the space of 8 days, Hood suffered more than 11,000 casualties in these three battles – a loss similar to Johnston’s cost for the entire campaign from May to mid-July. Though Johnston would later go to great pains to minimize his own losses during his portion of the campaign (which have subsequently been underreported to this day) there can be no denying that Hood’s tenure fundamentally changed the Atlanta Campaign’s entire dynamic.

Did Hood lose Atlanta? Or, as he asserted, did he make a desperate effort to save a city already lost by Johnston’s failure to find his moment? Did Hood destroy the Army of Tennessee, or throw the dice in a desperate effort to reverse a failed course?

Ever since, students of the war have lined up on one side or the other of those two questions. There is no definitive answer, of course, because we can only study what happened, not what might have happened. I have my own answers, but I am more interested in what your answers might be.

30 Responses to Change is in the wind

  1. By this time of the war, earthworks manned determined men were unassailable. They could, however be starved out. Johnston or Hood would have been forced to abandon Atlanta or suffer the fate of Vicksburg. Unlike Hood, Johnston would have still had an army, even if he couldn’t decide what to do with it.

  2. It is a tough call.

    I think Atlanta was as good as lost for the reason Albert Castel made. Unlike the Army of the Potomac, Sherman’s armies arrived at Atlanta intact. If Hood were to have any chance he needed a dramatic victory. The same is true when he made his Tennessee gambit. We can discuss any number of tactical missteps or the power of entrenchments, but Hood understood the stakes and what was needed to reverse the tide.

    1. Agree with Sean Chick. The one thing that Hood could not do under the circumstances was continue a defensive strategy similar to Johnston’s. He was put in command to take bold action. Did it work? No. However, I personally believe that Atlanta remained in Confederate possession longer after Hood took command than it would have had Johnston remained in command, not that it ultimately mattered. I certainly have a lot of problems with Hood as an army commander, but he did what he was expected to do at Atlanta. Tennessee Campaign; well, that’s another issue…..

    1. An interesting point but if I recall correctly Castel pretty much rejected the notion that Hood’s cavalry – even with Wheeler joining Jackson – would have made a material difference. And we’re talking about Joe Wheeler, after all. Sherman’s army group was in much better shape than the Army of the Potomac was (especially the fought-out II Corps) and Hood had sufficiently depleted his own army with the July attacks that it’s hard to imagine him holding out for long against an aggressive Sherman. One way or another I think Sherman would have forced Hood’s hand in short order, even if he were able to stall the Jonesborough move for a few days.

  3. This will be lengthy. Sorry about that. I think Hood did destroy the Confederate Army of Tennessee. He had made certain promises to his commanders and the troops they commanded, like he would never throw away their lives assaulting prepared positions. There were others as well, all of which he reneged on. His army was ill-equipped for a winter campaign. Hood had some grandiose plans for winning the war that were to start in Tennessee, and then somehow take him into Ohio and on over to Washington, DC. It is fair to question his state of mind. He had suffered enormously in the war with the significant wounds he received. I always wondered if he had a mindset that, one way or the other, he was going to end the war regardless of victory or defeat? He was often aggressive to the point of recklessness.

    Interesting piece from these very boards on this subject from a year and a half or so ago.

    There is this great passage in there about Joe Jackson.

    “Johnston’s Fabian tactics, although unpopular, at least ensured the army lived to fight another day. He didn’t necessarily care about winning so long as he didn’t lose.”

    Given the fact that the Confederates had long odds against them, and their underdog status, such an approach makes eminent sense.There was still the hope, regardless pf how unlikely, that foreign assistance and intervention might be had. That approach had also set the stage for ultimate victory in the American Revolution. Campaigns led by both George Washington and Nathaniel Greene were not victorious, but their forces remained intact and viable. Wearing down an opponent’s will and resolve to continue a long, costly conflict can lead to that side giving up (the American experience in Vietnam anybody?). I think Johnson was a realist, and by the time of Nashville Hood was not.

    1. I don’t think it as simple as a comparison to the American Revolution or Vietnam. I think the Confederates had four years to politically defeat Lincoln. How were they to accomplish that? Would Fabian tactics alone accomplish it? Or did they need some signal victories to scare the bejesus out of people in the North and possibly encourage some level of British and French involvement?

      Fabian tactics also meant giving up territory which meant giving up thousands of slaves. Giving up slaves wasn’t what the Confederacy was about. They had to fight them somewhere to try and prevent this from happening to their own people so that the Confederacy itself would remain united.

      1. There’s also a vast difference between wearing down the will of a nation fighting a war on foreign soil thousands of miles from the homeland and the North fighting the Civil War. And simply giving up swaths of “territory” – meaning large parts or even the entirety of seceded states – was itself a fatal problem, even apart from what you point to as the loss of significant “property” in those states.

      2. John Wilkes-Booth sure changed some things, didn’t he now? Imagine if that had happened before the 1864 election! By holding out and remaining viable as a fighting force, there was always hope. The comparisons to Vietnam and the Revolution, and other conflicts, thus are relevant. The Colonials did ‘hold out’ and thus they did receive active foreign help and aid to continue their cause. In Vietnam many a poll showed that the American public was initially all for the intervention here, until the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese proved that they weren’t going to go away, and certainly not by the way the American government conducted the war. And the North Vietnamese had very strong ‘foreign support’ themselves from other communist countries around the world, specifically the USSR and Red China.

        But the discussion here is about Johnson and Hood, and who conducted their command more effectively. I say again that, to me anyway, Johnson appeared to be the more realistic in his attempts to make the most out of what he had.

      3. I disagree about there being a ‘vast difference’. The point is about what is often hoped for by any force or side that engages in certain practices. And the discussion is about whose approach was better, Johnson’s attempts to marshall his forces or Hoods ‘Hail Mary’s’. WHY they did such things is important. Things can change over time, and that included overseas as well (that HOPE for aid and/or intervention). Remember also that when the Atlanta campaign was unfolding, the election of 1864 had not happened yet, which effectively sealed the Confederacy’s fate. There was certainly considerable hope among the Confederates that Lincoln would be defeated. So holding out in the hope that the will of an opponent changes was and is viable.

      4. So we disagree. You can debate whether Johnston’s or Hood’s approach was better, but suggesting that the problems in fighting the AWI for the British and the Vietnam War for the US were the same as those faced by the North in prosecuting the Civil War doesn’t fly. Neither the PRC or the USSR made close to the same commitment to a foreign war in Vietnam as the US did (primarily hundreds of thousands of troops and the resulting casualties). And Britain not only was immersed in the AWI on foreign soil but ended up in a world war at the same time. By the way, Johnston claimed in Fall 1864 that Hood simply adopted the plan he had in mind when he was ousted by Davis. Where does that leave the discussion?.

      5. The USA absolutely lost its will to continue to Vietnam. The British absolutely grew weary, i.e., lost their will, to continue fighting the Colonials. Those are indisputable facts. I never said “the problems” faced by the North were the same as in those conflicts, I said that there were HOPES within the Confederacy that the WILL of the Union’s leaders would falter in prosecuting the war, as happened in those other wars, and thus being able to carry on was a viable approach.

        So what about what Johnson said about any plan? Was he there to implement and lead it? Think Johnson would have carried out those plans exactly as Hood had done?

      6. I have no idea whether how Johnston would have carried out the “plan” (assuming he was telling the truth when he made the claim some months later). His assertion that Hood merely borrowed Johnston’s own plan indicates that there isn’t much he would have done differently.The point is that Johnston was essentially saying he would have done as Hood did, rather than adopting so-called Fabian tactics and simply holding out for several months at Atlanta in hopes that the North would give up the fight. That’s entirely aside from other reasons why that option would likely not have worked, addressed elsewhere in these comments.

      7. What Johnson said and what Johnson DID are obviously two different things. And obviously Johnson did adopt the approach that he believed gave him a better chance at preserving his army, and thus being able to utilize it in the way he hoped to. Given what transpired under Hood, any similarities between supposed ‘plans’ doesn’t hold up. It’s rather hard to accept that Hood would implement someone else’s plan, seeing how he himself had just relieved that individual. And given what DID happen, it becomes even less l believable.

      8. I agree that there is reason to be skeptical about Johnston’s claim, given his track record after Fair Oaks. The point is that even after Hood had failed Johnston still saw fit to saddle up with Hood’s tactics instead of claiming that Hood should have sat in Atlanta for several months. Johnston’s approach up to when he was replaced had simply moved things from northern Georgia down to Atlanta between early May and early July. As set forth in other comments, there is no basis for believing that sitting in Atlanta would have accomplished anything. Sherman had the wherewithal to force him to come out, as ultimately happened with Hood in late August. . .

      9. And there is no basis for reducing Johnson’s handling of the army as merely ‘sitting in Atlanta’. Vital as Atlanta might have been, or perceived to be, Johnson realized that keeping his army intact would serve the cause better than trying to hold onto territory. Lee would be destroyed the following year for doing that.

      10. If he isn’t attacking and he isn’t holding on to Atlanta, what would he be doing? In other words, and reminiscent of McClellan, if he doesn’t intend to actually use the army what does “keeping it intact” matter? One might argue that Hood’s tactics on July 20 and July 22 weren’t a paradigm, but – as I keep saying – Johnston (in his official report that Fall) basically espoused the same concept – hit Sherman at the Peachtree line and if that failed pull back and then strike Sherman on the flank at Atlanta.

    2. It means not ‘frittering it away’ (my term) on operations he didn’t have the numbers to pull off. Johnson’s retreat was centered on several very strong points along his route southwards. Sherman pulled off some impressive maneuvers of his own to keep flanking him. .But Johnson wasn’t letting his troops become engaged in the open, which would have been suicidal. By ‘not losing’ as the previous article I referenced made clear, his force would remain something that the Union couldn’t ignore or take for granted. Johnson was evidently hoping (there’s that word again!) for a situation that he could interpret as advantageous for him. Obviously we won’t ever know what would have happened, as Hood was given command, and he did accomplish his army’s destruction.

  4. Hood’s subordinates could not follow his orders or alert their commander of their inability to do so.

  5. Great questions and discussion. I’ll consider your questions in turn:

    “Did Hood lose Atlanta?” Yes. The city’s fall happened on his watch, so is his responsibility.

    “Or, as he asserted, did he make a desperate effort to save a city already lost by Johnston’s failure to find his moment?” His attacks in July and August were indeed desperate efforts to save the city. It is difficult to see how he could have done otherwise, in fact, without completely ceding the initiative to Sherman. Could his planning and execution been better (especially July 20, 22, and August 31)? Yes. But the overall counteroffensive strategy had merit.

    “Did Hood destroy the Army of Tennessee, or throw the dice in a desperate effort to reverse a failed course?” In the case of Atlanta (and the subsequent North Georgia operations), definitely the latter – although the “failed course” statement is open to debate, at least until September 2, 1864. He destroyed the army in Tennessee later, when it took it on its Death Ride to Franklin and Nashville.

  6. By losing Atlanta WHEN he did, Hood lost the Confederacy’s only opportunity in early fall 1864 to win the war. They no longer had the strength to win militarily, but perhaps could break the North’s political will resulting in Lincoln’s reelection defeat. Had Hood preserved his forces & fought defensively from the trenches, he could have delayed the fall of Atlanta beyond the election & denied Lincoln the huge morale boost important to his reelection.

    1. Those are plausible points but I’ve also seen recent research indicating that Lincoln’s re-election was not in as much doubt as he himself thought in August. I find it highly questionable that Hood could have held Atlanta for two more months without Sherman forcing.him into a very disadvantageous fight. Moreover the Atlanta Campaign had been far less draining and bloody for Sherman than was the Overland Campaign for Grant, exacerbated by the missed opportunity in mid-June 1864 and the Crater fiasco. Last, everyone seems to forget Sheridan;’s total victory over Early in the Valley. In short, I can’t buy the notion that Hood could have prevented Lincoln’s re-election. By November, 1864 the question would have been simply “when”, not “whether”.

  7. Perhaps if Hood had been willing to “hit singles” instead of always “trying for the home run,” he might have been able to delay the encirclement of Atlanta further than he did.

    1. Perhaps but Atlanta already was headed for encirclement by mid-July and Hood was hired to replace Johnston specifically because Davis, et al. demanded offensive action. Maybe hitting the PT Creek line on July 20 and then trying the flanking move on the eastern side two days later was excessive but I’m not sure what else would have achieved the desired effect . As we know, Johnston claimed some months later that Hood effectively followed Johnston’s own “plan” – whether one believes that in fact he had such a plan, that is effectively a concession that Hood took the correct option in a situation with no great choices.

      1. My long-standing opinion is the Joe Johnston would have fought an epic battle for Atlanta … from the trenches at Macon … or maybe Tallahassee … 😉

  8. My own inclination has always been, “Let those who were there speak for themselves.” On September 1st 1864 General Joseph Johnston wrote a letter to General Dabney Maury providing his interpretation of the situation (before his replacement by General Hood.) Available in Dabney Maury’s “Recollections,” pages 146 – 150 at

    1. That letter is a bit different from his detailed October 20, 1864 official report (OR XXXVIII, Part III, at 618). He explained in detail his intent to attack at the Peach Tree Creek line and, if that failed, to retreat to Atlanta and then attack Sherman on his exposed flank. That sounds very similar to what Hood did, except perhaps for compressing the two attacks into a 2-day window.

  9. A lot of cogent comments above about a complex and hotly disputed campaign. I believe that Uncle Joe’s Fabian strategy was the best plan for the situation given Uncle Billy’s overwhelming superiority in men and materiel.

    On the other hand, General Hood was put in place specifically to adopt a more aggressive stance and that’s what he set out to do.

    The real blame for the (in retrospect) useless bloodletting really should fall on Jefferson Davis, not Hood. When asked by Davis for his advice on replacing Johnston, General Lee was against it, but Davis kept pressuring Lee to agree to Hood’s appointment and Lee, sensing his commander in chief’s mood and, no doubt, also wanting to stay on Davis’ good side, assented. Hood was unused to that level of command and that was a factor, but in the end it was far more due to his lack of resources (which were still being diverted to the Virginia theater) than anything else which spelled Atlanta’s doom. But as I said, it was a complex situation, and perhaps in the end Atlanta was doomed no matter who was in charge.

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