Atlanta Campaign

From New World Encyclopedia

Atlanta Campaign
Part of the American Civil War
Union General William T. Sherman and his staff in the trenches outside of Atlanta
Date May 7 – September 2, 1864
Location Area north of Atlanta, Georgia
Result Union victory
United States of America Confederate States of America
William T. Sherman, James B. McPherson, John M. Schofield, George H. Thomas Joseph E. Johnston; replaced in July by John B. Hood
Leonidas Polk
Military Division of the Mississippi (Army of the Cumberland, Army of the Ohio, Army of the Tennessee); 98,500 – 112,000 Army of Tennessee; 50,000 – 65,000
31,687 (4,423 killed, 22,822 wounded, 4,442 missing/captured) 34,979 (3,044 killed, 18,952 wounded, 12,983 missing/captured)

The Atlanta Campaign was a series of battles fought in the Western Theater throughout northwest Georgia and the area around Atlanta, Georgia, during the summer of 1864, leading to the eventual fall of Atlanta. Representing a successful push into the heartland of the Confederate territory, this successful campaign hastened the end of the American Civil War in which so many lives were lost (more than 3 percent of the country's population). The morale of the Union forces was hugely boosted, and Abraham Lincoln's re-election that year may well have been secured by this victory. Yet John B. Hood's robust campaign on behalf of the Southern states would help them, once defeated, to retain a degree of self-respect. Without this, their participation in the Union would have been colored by deep resentment and a sense of coercion, and cooperation with the North would have been grudging and unenthusiastic at best. If the causes of the war and even the question of whether it was a necessary conflict remain matters of debate, few would dispute that an event that helped to end the bloodshed can be described as at least a qualified good. The success of this campaign contributed, in its way, to the success of the post-war Reconstruction.


The Atlanta Campaign followed the Union victory at the Battle of Chattanooga in November 1863; Chattanooga was known as the "Gateway to the South," and its capture opened that gateway. After Ulysses S. Grant was promoted to general-in-chief of all Union armies, he left his favorite lieutenant, Major General William T. Sherman, in charge of the Western armies. Grant's strategy was to apply pressure against the Confederacy in several coordinated offensives. While he, George G. Meade, Benjamin Butler, Franz Sigel, George Crook, and William W. Averell advanced in Virginia against Robert E. Lee, and Nathaniel Banks attempted to capture Mobile, Alabama, Sherman was assigned the mission of defeating the army of General Joseph E. Johnston, capturing Atlanta, and striking through Georgia and the Confederate heartland. From Chattanooga, the general would amass a 100,000 man army to face a foe almost half that size.

At the start of the campaign, Sherman's Military Division of the Mississippi consisted of three armies: Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson's Army of the Tennessee (Sherman's old army under Grant), Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield's Army of the Ohio, and Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas's Army of the Cumberland. When McPherson was killed at the Battle of Atlanta, Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard replaced him. Opposing Sherman, the Army of Tennessee was commanded first by Joseph Eggleston Johnston, who was relieved of his command in mid-campaign and replaced by Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood. On paper, at the beginning of the campaign, Sherman outnumbered Johnston 98,500 to 50,000,[1] but his ranks were initially depleted by many furloughed soldiers, and Johnston received 15,000 reinforcements from Alabama. However, by June, a steady stream of reinforcements brought Sherman's strength to 112,000.[2]

Johnston was a conservative general with a reputation for withdrawing his army before serious contact would result; this was certainly his pattern against George B. McClellan in the Peninsula Campaign of 1862. But in Georgia, he faced the much more aggressive Sherman. Johnston's army repeatedly took up strongly entrenched defensive positions in the campaign. Sherman prudently avoided suicidal frontal assaults against most of these positions, instead maneuvering in flanking marches around the defenses as he advanced from Chattanooga towards Atlanta. Whenever Sherman flanked the defensive lines (almost exclusively around Johnston's left flank), Johnston would retreat to another prepared position. Both armies took advantage of the railroads as supply lines, with Johnston shortening his supply lines as he drew closer to Atlanta, and Sherman lengthening his own.

Palisades and chevaux-de-frise in front of the Potter House, Atlanta, Georgia, 1864


The following battles comprise the Atlanta Campaign:

Battle of Rocky Face Ridge (May 7–May 13, 1864)

Johnston had entrenched his army on the long, high mountain of Rocky Face Ridge (known as the "Georgian Gibraltar" by Union forces) and eastward across Crow Valley. As Sherman approached, he decided to demonstrate against the position with two columns while he sent a third one through Snake Creek Gap, to the right, to hit the Western & Atlantic Railroad at Resaca, Georgia, and check a Rebel retreat. The two columns engaged the enemy at Buzzard Roost (Mill Creek Gap) and at Dug Gap. In the meantime, the third column, under McPherson, passed through Snake Creek Gap and on May 9, advanced to the outskirts of Resaca, where it found Confederates entrenched. Fearing defeat, McPherson pulled his column back to the opening of Snake Creek Gap. On May 10, Sherman decided to take most of his men and join McPherson to take Resaca. The next morning, as he discovered Sherman's army withdrawing from their positions in front of Rocky Face Ridge, Johnston retired south towards Resaca. He had expected this move from Sherman and had his army in place by May 12.[3]

Battle of Resaca (May 13–May 15)

Union troops tested the Confederate lines around Resaca to pinpoint their whereabouts. Johnson needed to protect the rails in order to safeguard his supply line and thwart a hasty Yankee invasion of Atlanta. Early, sporadic attacks against the Confederates on May 13, proved futile. Full scale fighting occurred on May 14, and the Union troops were generally repulsed except on Johnston's right flank, where Sherman did not fully exploit his advantage. On May 15, the battle continued with no advantage to either side, until Sherman sent a force across the Oostanula River at Lay's Ferry, towards Johnston's railroad supply line. Unable to halt this Union movement, Johnston was forced to retire, lest his path of retreat be blocked.[4]

Map of the Atlanta Campaign ██ Confederate ██ Union
Battle of Adairsville (May 17)

Johnston's army retreated southward while Sherman pursued. Failing to find a good defensive position south of Calhoun, Johnston continued to Adairsville, while the Confederate cavalry fought a skillful rearguard action. On May 17, Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard's IV Corps ran into entrenched infantry of Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee's corps while advancing about two miles (3 km) north of Adairsville. Three Union divisions prepared for battle, but Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas halted them because of the approach of darkness. Sherman then concentrated his men in the Adairsville area to attack Johnston the next day. Johnston had originally expected to find a valley at Adairsville of suitable width to deploy his men and anchor his line with the flanks on hills, but the valley was too wide, so Johnston disengaged and withdrew.

Battle of New Hope Church (May 25–May 26)

After Johnston retreated to Allatoona Pass from May 19 to May 20, Sherman decided that attacking Johnston there would be too costly, so he determined to move around Johnston's left flank and steal a march toward Dallas. Johnston anticipated Sherman's move and met the Union forces at New Hope Church. Sherman mistakenly surmised that Johnston had a token force and ordered Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker's corps to attack. This corps was severely mauled, losing approximately 1,600 men in a relatively short battle.[5] On May 26, both sides entrenched.

Battle of Dallas (May 26–June 1)

Sherman's army tested the Confederate line. On May 28, Hardee's corps probed the Union defensive line, held by Maj. Gen. John A. Logan's corps, to exploit any weakness or possible withdrawal. Fighting ensued at two different points, but the Confederates were repulsed, suffering high casualties. Sherman continued looking for a way around Johnston's line, and on June 1, his cavalry occupied Allatoona Pass, which had a railroad and would allow his men and supplies to reach him by train. Sherman abandoned his lines at Dallas on June 5, and moved toward the railhead at Allatoona Pass, forcing Johnston to follow soon afterwards.

Battle of Pickett's Mill (May 27)

After the Union defeat at New Hope Church, Sherman ordered Howard to attack Johnston's seemingly exposed right flank. The Confederates were ready for the attack, which did not unfold as planned because supporting troops never appeared. The Confederates repulsed the attack, causing high casualties.

Battle of Marietta (June 9–July 3)

When Sherman first found Johnston entrenched in the Marietta area on June 9, he began extending his lines beyond the Confederate lines, causing some Confederate withdrawal to new positions. On June 18–June 19, Johnston, fearing envelopment, moved his army to a new, previously selected position astride Kennesaw Mountain, an entrenched arc-shaped line to the west of Marietta, to protect his supply line, the Western & Atlantic Railroad. Sherman made some unsuccessful attacks on this position but eventually extended the line on his right and forced Johnston to withdraw from the Marietta area on July 2–July 3.

Battle of Kolb's Farm (June 22)

Having encountered entrenched Confederates astride Kennesaw Mountain stretching southward, Sherman fixed them in front and extended his right wing to envelop their flank and menace the railroad. Johnston countered by moving John B. Hood's corps from the left flank to the right on June 22. Arriving in his new position at Mt. Zion Church, Hood decided on his own to take the initiative and attack. Warned of Hood's intentions, Union generals John Schofield and Joseph Hooker entrenched. Union artillery and swampy terrain thwarted Hood's attack and forced him to withdraw with heavy casualties. Although the victor, Sherman's attempts at envelopment had momentarily failed.

Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (June 27)

This battle was a notable exception to Sherman's policy in the campaign of avoiding frontal assaults and moving around the enemy's left flank. Sherman was sure that Johnston had stretched his line on Kennesaw Mountain too thin and decided on a frontal attack with some diversions on the flanks. On the morning of June 27, Sherman sent his troops forward after an artillery bombardment. At first, they made some headway overrunning Confederate pickets south of the Burnt Hickory Road, but attacking an enemy that was dug in was futile. The fighting ended by noon, and Sherman suffered heavy casualties, losing about 850 men.

Battle of Peachtree Creek (July 20)

Johnston had retired south of Peachtree Creek, about three miles (5 km) north of Atlanta. Sherman split his army into three columns for the assault on Atlanta with Thomas' Army of the Cumberland moving from the north. Johnston had decided to attack Thomas, but Confederate President Jefferson Davis relieved him of command and appointed John B. Hood to take his place. Hood attacked Thomas after his army crossed Peachtree Creek in an attempt to drive the Yankees back across the creek and as close to the Chattahoochee River as possible. The determined assault threatened to overrun the Union troops at various locations, but eventually the Union held, and the Confederates fell back.

Battle of Atlanta (July 22)

Hood determined to attack McPherson's Army of the Tennessee. He withdrew his main army at night from Atlanta's outer line to the inner line, enticing Sherman to follow. In the meantime, he sent William J. Hardee with his corps on a fifteen-mile (24 km) march to hit the unprotected Union left and rear, east of the city. Joseph Wheeler's cavalry was to operate farther out on Sherman's supply line, and Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham's corps was to attack the Union front. Hood, however, miscalculated the time necessary to make the march through the rough terrain, and Hardee was unable to attack until afternoon. Although Hood had outmaneuvered Sherman for the time being, McPherson was concerned about his left flank and sent his reserves—Grenville Dodge's XVI Corps—to that location. Two of Hood's divisions ran into this reserve force and were repulsed. The Confederate attack stalled on the Union rear but began to roll up the left flank. Around the same time, a Confederate soldier, Corporal Robert F. Coleman, shot and killed McPherson when he rode out to observe the fighting. Determined attacks continued, but the Union forces held. Around 4:00 p.m., Cheatham's corps broke through the Union front, but massed artillery near Sherman's headquarters halted the Confederate assault. Logan's XV Corps then led a counterattack that restored the Union line. The Union troops held, and Hood suffered high casualties.

Battle of Ezra Church (July 28)

Sherman's forces had previously approached Atlanta from the east and north and had not been able to break through, so Sherman decided to attack from the west. He ordered Howard's Army of the Tennessee to move from the left wing to the right and cut Hood's last railroad supply line between East Point and Atlanta. Hood foresaw such a maneuver and sent the two corps of Lt. Gen. Stephen D. Lee and Lt. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart to intercept and destroy the Union force at Ezra Church. Howard had anticipated such a thrust, entrenched one of his corps in the Confederates' path, and repulsed the determined attack, inflicting numerous casualties. Howard, however, failed to cut the railroad. Concurrent attempts by two columns of Union cavalry to cut the railroads south of Atlanta ended in failure, with one division under Edward M. McCook completely smashed at the Battle of Brown's Mill and the other force also repulsed and its commander, George Stoneman, taken prisoner.

Battle of Utoy Creek (August 5–August 7)

After failing to envelop Hood's left flank at Ezra Church, Sherman still wanted to extend his right flank to hit the railroad between East Point and Atlanta. He transferred Schofield's Army of the Ohio from his left to his right flank and sent him to the north bank of Utoy Creek. Although Schofield's troops were at Utoy Creek on August 2, they, along with the XIV Corps, Army of the Cumberland, did not cross until August 4. Schofield's force began its movement to exploit this situation on the morning of August 5, which was initially successful. Schofield then had to regroup his forces, which took the rest of the day. The delay allowed the Confederates to strengthen their defenses with abatis, which slowed the Union attack when it restarted on the morning of August 6. The Federals were repulsed with heavy losses and failed in an attempt to break the railroad. On August 7, the Union troops moved toward the Confederate main line and entrenched. They remained there until late August.

Second Battle of Dalton (August 14 – August 15)

Wheeler and his cavalry raided into North Georgia to destroy railroad tracks and supplies. They approached Dalton in the late afternoon of August 14 and demanded the surrender of the garrison. The Union refused to surrender and fighting ensued. Greatly outnumbered, the Union garrison retired to fortifications on a hill outside the town where they successfully held out, although the attack continued until after midnight. Around 5:00 a.m. on August 15, Wheeler retired and became engaged with relieving infantry and cavalry under Maj. Gen. James B. Steedman's command. Eventually, Wheeler withdrew.

Battle of Lovejoy's Station (August 20)

While Wheeler was absent raiding Union supply lines from North Georgia to East Tennessee, Sherman sent cavalry Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick to raid Confederate supply lines. Leaving on August 18, Kilpatrick hit the Atlanta & West Point Railroad that evening, tearing up a small area of tracks. Next, he headed for Lovejoy's Station on the Macon & Western Railroad. In transit, on August 19, Kilpatrick's men hit the Jonesborough supply depot on the Macon & Western Railroad, burning great amounts of supplies. On August 20, they reached Lovejoy's Station and began their destruction. Confederate infantry (Patrick Cleburne's Division) appeared and the raiders were forced to fight into the night, finally fleeing to prevent encirclement. Although Kilpatrick had destroyed supplies and track at Lovejoy's Station, the railroad line was back in operation in two days.

Battle of Jonesborough (August 31–September 1)

Sherman had successfully cut Hood's supply lines in the past by sending out detachments, but the Confederates quickly repaired the damage. In late August, Sherman determined that if he could cut Hood's railroad supply lines, the Confederates would have to evacuate Atlanta. He therefore decided to move six of his seven infantry corps against the supply lines. The army began pulling out of its positions on August 25, to hit the Macon & Western Railroad between Rough and Ready and Jonesborough. To counter the move, Hood sent Hardee with two corps to halt and possibly rout the Union troops, not realizing Sherman's army was there in force. Hood was determined to keep the Yankees from destroying the lines. On August 31, Hardee attacked two Union corps west of Jonesborough, but was easily repulsed. Fearing an attack on Atlanta, Hood withdrew one corps from Hardee's force that night leaving it alone to face a three corp Union attack. The next day, a Union corps broke through Hardee's line, and his troops retreated to Lovejoy's Station. Hardee sent word to Hood to abandon the city. On the night of September 1, Hood evacuated Atlanta, burning military supplies and installations, causing a great conflagration in the city (the dramatic fire scenes depicted in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind). Union troops occupied Atlanta on September 2. Sherman cut Hood's supply line but failed to destroy Hardee's command.[6]


Sherman was victorious, and Hood established a reputation as the most recklessly aggressive general in the Confederate Army. Casualties for the campaign were roughly equal in absolute numbers: 31,687 Union (4,423 killed, 22,822 wounded, 4,442 missing/captured) and 34,979 Confederate (3,044 killed, 18,952 wounded, 12,983 missing/captured). But this represented a much higher Confederate proportional loss. Hood's army left the area with approximately 30,000 men, whereas Sherman retained 81,000.[7] Sherman's victory was tainted because it did not fulfill the original mission of the campaign—destroy the Army of Tennessee—and Sherman has been criticized for allowing his opponent to escape. However, the capture of Atlanta made an enormous contribution to Northern morale and was an important factor in the re-election of President Abraham Lincoln.

The Atlanta Campaign was followed by Federal initiatives in two directions: almost immediately, to the northwest, the pursuit of Hood in the Franklin-Nashville Campaign; after the 1864 U.S. presidential election, to the east in Sherman's March to the Sea.


  1. David S. Eicher, The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 696.
  2. John E. McKay, "Atlanta Campaign," in Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History, eds. David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000), 129.
  3. McKay, 132.
  4. McKay, 133.
  5. McKay, 136.
  6. McKay, 145.
  7. Shelby Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative: Red River to Appomattox (New York: Random House, 1974), 529.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Castel, Albert. Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992. ISBN 0-7006-0748-X
  • Eicher, David J. The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. ISBN 0-684-84944-5
  • Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, A Narrative: Red River to Appomattox. New York: Random House, 1974. ISBN 0-394-74913-8
  • McKay, John E. "Atlanta Campaign." In Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History. Edited by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, 129-146. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000. ISBN 0-393-04758-X


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