Confederate John Bell Hood
On July 17, 1864, in a move that would help to decide the Atlanta campaign, Confederate President Jefferson Davis finally had enough of retreating. He removed General Joe Johnston as commander of the Army of Tennessee, replacing him with fiery John Bell Hood. Davis rightly alleged that the tactics of Johnston had not stopped Sherman’s advance to Atlanta, and both time and space were nearly exhausted.
Whatever one might think of his tactical sense, the Confederate John Bell Hood was a remarkable figure. Only thirty-three years old by spring 1864, Hood had already developed a prior formidable reputation for leading shock charges in the Peninsula campaign of 1862. Later, as a division commander, he lost the use of his left arm at Gettysburg. By September 1863, he was helping to break the Union line at Chickamauga, where he lost his right leg. In the aftermath, Hood was promoted to lieutenant general.
Less than a year later, as one of Johnston’s corps commanders and a favorite of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, Hood was once more clamoring for the elusive decisive winner-take-all battle against Sherman. Rumors circulated that Johnston had become gun-shy and hesitant, in part because of his slow recuperation during two years in Virginia from his own severe wounds. In contrast, Hood seemed all the more impatient for having lost a leg and the use of an arm. Age no doubt explained more: Hood was thirty-three, Johnston a tired but sober fifty-seven.
Even with Sherman less than ten miles from the city, Hood was still the wrong replacement for Johnston and exactly the wrong sort of Confederate army commander to stop Sherman’s slow strangulation of Atlanta. For all his tenacity—at least three men were needed to strap the general to his horse—Hood had destroyed many of the divisions of which he had been given command. A third to a half of the men under his direct command were lost at each of the battles of Second Manassas, Antietam, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga. Sherman’s subordinate commanders, especially those who knew Hood’s character (“bold even to rashness”) as fellow cadets at West Point, were eager to see Hood take over.
Johnston let it be known that he surely had done better than Lee had against Grant. His relative numerical disadvantages were far worse than those of Lee, and yet he had lost proportionally far fewer troops. In his further defense, he had also forced Sherman to advance far more slowly to Atlanta than Grant had to the outskirts of Richmond in roughly the same time. Just as Lee had stiffened outside Richmond, so, too, would Johnston in front of Atlanta, where the advantages would increasingly accrue to the defense. Johnston’s point was that, until his relief, he had been readying his army for a long war of attrition and fortified defense outside Atlanta that would stall and then wreck Sherman’s army as Lee had nearly done to Grant. Why relieve him before his strategy had fully a chance to come to fruition?
Hood later remarked of his appointment, “Was it General Johnston’s policy to retreat till he had demoralized the army?” But Hood’s immediate problem—other than the fact that the troops resented Johnston’s abrupt removal—was not boosting morale, but finding a better strategy. Sherman was at the height of his powers, masterfully organizing and directing an enormous and constantly resupplied military machine of some hundred thousand veterans, who had grown in confidence with each mile they had advanced southward. Indeed, as Sherman neared Atlanta, he wrote as if he were a divine Nemesis, as if he were a tool to remind an entire people of the wages of their folly: “They dared us to war, and you remember how tauntingly they defied us to the contest. We have accepted the issue and it must be fought out. You might as well reason with a thunder-storm. War is the remedy our enemies have chosen.” For the new commander Hood, it quickly became apparent that he was dealing not just with a good tactician and master strategist, but with a missionary as well, bent on teaching the entire South his version of a moral lesson. More mundanely, Hood would soon learn that the Confederate army outside Atlanta had only poor choices: either be outflanked and bypassed by Sherman, or be forced to fight head-on in unfavorable circumstances. Sherman’s genius was that he usually controlled the conditions of battle, and somehow he had managed to supply his invading army far better than the defenders were provisioned on their home soil.
Nonetheless, Hood was promoted to fight, and fight he would. He began the final round of the campaign in a series of three engagements within just ten days: at Peachtree Creek (July 20, nearly 5,000 Confederate casualties), Decatur/Atlanta (July 22, 8,500 casualties), and Ezra Church (July 28, 3,000 casualties). The battles were memorable—aside from the fact that Sherman’s favorite army commander, General James McPherson, fell outside Atlanta—in that Sherman left the tactical details to his subordinates. Both sides suffered heavy casualties. But by the end of July, Sherman was ready to turn his full attention to the siege of Atlanta.
Most important, about eleven days after assuming supreme command, John Bell Hood’s forces had suffered twice the casualties of Sherman’s larger army, squandering sixteen thousand combatants without materially deterring the enemy. Now morale among the Confederates truly plummeted—with most soldiers nostalgic for the Fabian tactics of Johnston that were increasingly seen as about the only way to wear out the Sherman juggernaut. By the end of the battle of Ezra Church, decimated Southern troops—some three thousand were lost—sometimes would not follow the raised swords of their regimental officers into battle.
Nor did Sherman rashly charge into Atlanta. Instead, in the final month, he systematically began cutting Atlanta off from all rail and wagon traffic, while bombarding the city. In theory, the Confederates at last were in the position that Johnston had once envisioned might turn the tide: a nucleus of thousands of troops, entrenched behind stout fortifications, housed among civilians in Atlanta, and guarded only by miles of thinning Union troops at the end of tenuous supply lines. Confederate mobile columns could leave the city and nearby camps to hit Sherman from the rear should he engage in a lengthy siege. Given that there was really no more army to outflank, Sherman finally had to choose between besieging and starving out the surrounded Hood in Atlanta or assaulting the city directly.
For most of August, Sherman sought pitched battle with Hood by daily shelling and sending cavalry out to cut the last rail link to Atlanta from Macon to the south. When his horsemen under Generals Stone-man and Kilpatrick proved unable to tear up the last rail line to Atlanta, Sherman sent his infantry out to destroy the tracks. As Sherman’s troops seemed to leave his entrenchments around Atlanta, Hood and others in the city dreamed the Yankees were retreating back to Tennessee. Indeed, the Confederates and thousands in Atlanta began celebrating the defeat of Sherman’s army on the assumption that the Yankees were dumbfounded as to how to stop the city’s lifeline, out of supplies, and more worried about a counterattack from Hood.
That fantasy dissipated almost immediately. Following the battle of Jonesboro on August 31, Sherman’s forces finally severed the remaining rail artery from Macon. General Hardee’s mounted forces were forced back into Atlanta, which lacked any source of fresh supplies. To prevent his troops from being trapped altogether, Hood pulled out the entire Confederate army on September 1, blowing up the city’s munitions in a terrible conflagration even as Sherman’s forces began entering the city the next day.
In less than fifteen weeks since leaving Tennessee, Sherman with relatively light casualties had taken the second most important city of the Confederacy. His army remained over eighty thousand soldiers strong—not that much smaller than when he had begun the Atlanta campaign. Of course, Sherman was not done; he was in position to cause far more havoc inside the heartland of the South. Indeed, Hood scattered from Atlanta with fewer than forty thousand troops—the Southerners in defense losing in the Atlanta campaign some thirty-four thousand casualties to the attacking Sherman’s thirty-one thousand.
At the beginning of the struggle in spring 1864, Joe Johnston had originally been charged with ensuring that Sherman could not come east to aid Grant. But a somewhat different threat confronted the Confederates. There were very few forces between Sherman and the Atlantic coast—and so nothing to stop the victors from marching to the rear of Lee’s army. As for Sherman, again historians would fault him for letting Hood escape Atlanta with the remnants of his army, when Union troops had virtually surrounded the city. But if he failed in one objective of destroying outright the Army of Tennessee, he succeeded in many others.
First, by taking Atlanta, Sherman provided an enormous emotional lift to a shaken Union as the November elections neared. In twenty-four hours, Sherman had essentially destroyed the candidacy of Democratic nominee George McClellan. Second, Sherman fought in a way that ensured his losses would be light at a time when Union casualties were unsustainable elsewhere. Third, Sherman had worn Hood’s army down to less than half its original size. Fourth, he had prevented Hood from reinforcing Lee. Fifth, Sherman had positioned a large Northern army inside the South, where it could continue to raid and pillage the heartland as it headed eastward. And sixth, Sherman had saved Grant’s sinking reputation. By taking Atlanta and giving deference to Grant, Sherman had enlightened the public about the Union’s dual strategies of tying down one army in the east while encircling others in the west: Suddenly the bloodbath in Virginia could be reinterpreted as complementary to Sherman’s quite different mobile warfare rather than antithetical and misguided.
In any case, after Kennesaw Mountain, Sherman was not about to risk another set battle against a desperate Confederate army. He would leave behind General George Thomas to deal with Hood if the latter went northward into Tennessee. Rather than being trapped in a destroyed city, Sherman was liberated—free to cut his supply lines, leave an Atlanta a wreck, ravage where he pleased, and live off the post-harvest Georgia landscape.