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History of the American Civil War: FALL OF ATLANTA, September 2, 1864
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History of the American Civil War: FALL OF ATLANTA, September 2, 1864

 

By Lincoln Mint


On May 7,1864, three days after Grant crossed the Rapidan, William T. Sherman launched the second prong of the coordinated Federal offensive against the Confederacy. From Chattanooga he led his three field armies—100,000 men in all— southward into Georgia to challenge Joseph E. Johnston’s 60,000-man Army of Tennessee.

The campaigns in Virginia and-Georgia had certain parallels. Just as Lee was ultimately tied to the defense of Richmond, Johnston was under pressure to protect Atlanta, a munitions and railroad center crucial to the South’s war effort. The war in northern Georgia became a campaign of feint and parry. Repeatedly, as Lee was doing in Virginia, Johnston threw up field fortifications in his enemy’s path that were too strong to be assaulted frontally. (Sherman tried it once, at Kennesaw Mountain on June 27, and was bloodily repulsed.) The Federals countered with successive outflanking movements. In this crab-like fashion the two armies moved ever closer to Atlanta. By mid-July they were on the outskirts of the city. Johnston played a waiting game, preserving his army for a sudden counterstroke when the chance came. But as far as Jefferson Davis was concerned, he was waiting too long. On July 17 Davis replaced him with General John Bell Hood.

Hood had made a reputation as one of the best fighting generals in the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee acknowledged his former subordinate’s aggressiveness, but expressed his doubts to Davis about Hood’s abilities for an independent command. It was an accurate assessment. Between July 20 and 28, Hood launched three assaults on Sherman’s army. He was beaten back each time, losing a total of 20,000 men. Methodically, Sherman tightened his grip on the city, threatening the Rebel army’s supply lines. On September 1 Hood abandoned Atlanta and withdrew southward. The next day, the Federal army marched into the city.

While Sherman had failed in his primary task of demolishing the Army of Tennessee, Atlanta’s fall was an event of major significance. It was a severe blow to the Confederate economy, and it had powerful political repercussions as well. The summer of 1864 was a trying time for the Lincoln administration. War weariness and the fearful, unending casualty lists were eroding the President’s support, so much so that he feared he might not win reelection in the November presidential contest. The capture of Atlanta was a tremendous tonic to the North. In combination with Sheridan’s victories in the Shenandoah, it assured the President’s reelection—an event that marked the South’s last hope for an armistice and a compromise peace.

Sherman immediately set about preparing the destruction of Atlanta’s war-making potential. He also ordered the populace to leave. Hood protested this “barbarism.” “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it,” Sherman replied. “You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war.”
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