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.