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The Decisive Battle of the Civil War: Another Nomination
The Battle of Rocky Face Ridge
By David A. Carrino
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2010, All Rights Reserved

One of the much debated topics about the Civil War is which battle was the decisive battle. Much effort and time have been expended in support of one or another Civil War battle for this distinction. A great deal of energy and thought have also been devoted to the point of view that no Civil War battle merits this title. Herein is offered another nomination for this designation as well as the case for this contention. Note that the choice of the word "contention" is intentional, because the battle which is proposed as the most decisive is not one which is likely to be selected and which is instead likely to provoke disagreement.

Rather than championing this battle as the most decisive, the intent is to provide a different and hopefully thought-provoking point of view about a little known Civil War battle, the ramifications of which are greater than the apparent insignificance of the battle. The battle in question is Rocky Face Ridge, the opening battle of William Tecumseh Sherman's Atlanta campaign. This battle is nominated as the decisive battle of the war because it set the pattern for the entire Atlanta campaign, and the Atlanta campaign, as argued below, was the most significant military action in ensuring Union victory.

The Atlanta Campaign: Act I

Rocky Face Ridge is in northwest Georgia, 30 miles southeast of Chattanooga, and is one of the folds of land which, like Missionary Ridge to its west, jut upward like sharp pleats in the terrain. In fact, Rocky Face Ridge is the easternmost of this series of elevations and, as such, stands as the last topographical barrier to the flatter terrain to its southeast, in which the city of Atlanta is situated 100 miles away. Interspersed within these hundred miles are three major rivers which an invading army would have to cross on its way to Atlanta: the Oostanaula, the Etowah, and the Chattahoochee. Rocky Face Ridge is pierced by three main gaps, which are named, north to south, Mill Creek Gap (known to the locals as the Buzzard Roost), Dug Gap, and Snake Creek Gap.

From Chattanooga to Atlanta and through Mill Creek Gap ran the Western & Atlantic Railroad, the line on which the Great Locomotive Chase took place in 1862 and to which were connected other railroads that ran all the way to Union supply depots in Nashville. Four miles east of Rocky Face Ridge was the town of Dalton, through which the Western & Atlantic ran and into which also ran the East Tennessee & Georgia Railroad from the north, the latter railroad lying east of Rocky Face Ridge. Approximately ten miles south of Dalton along the Western & Atlantic was the town of Resaca, which was situated on the Oostanaula River and almost directly east of Snake Creek Gap. Rocky Face Ridge and the towns east of it comprised the area from which Sherman's drive to Atlanta would begin, and it took no great military insight for Sherman to envision the Western & Atlantic as a supply line which would be available to him all the way to his objective.

At the same time, Sherman's adversary, Joseph E. Johnston, was using that same railroad to supply the army which he commanded, the Army of Tennessee. Johnston had been named to command of this army after its disastrous performance at Chattanooga. The battle of Chattanooga was the culmination of lengthy and widespread disenchantment among both officers and enlisted men toward the Army of Tennessee's previous commander, Braxton Bragg. Johnston restored the morale and confidence of this army and now had it deployed in a formidable position on Rocky Face Ridge, which Johnston correctly recognized as an advantageous location to block the advance of Union forces into Georgia toward the enticing objective of Atlanta.

Johnston had at his immediate disposal the two corps of William Hardee and John Bell Hood, each approximately 20,000 men, deployed to the left and right (south and north), respectively, of the Buzzard Roost and, hence, of the railroad which Johnston anticipated Sherman wanted to cling to during an advance on Atlanta. Johnston's 5,000 cavalry under Joseph Wheeler were positioned east of Rocky Face Ridge and north of Hood's corps to guard against an advance along the East Tennessee & Georgia Railroad around the northern end of Rocky Face Ridge. The southern end (left) of Hardee's corps extended to Dug Gap, which allowed this passage to be stoutly defended, but Snake Creek Gap, five miles further south, was not defended. In addition to the approximately 45,000 troops in the Army of Tennessee, Johnston also had available to him the 19,000 men under the command of Leonidas Polk, who were currently in Alabama, but who were available to join Johnston in the event that he needed them. Their availability was due to the fact that Nathaniel Banks no longer demanded attention from any Confederate forces east of the Mississippi, although Johnston still had to convince the authorities in Richmond that Polk's force was needed in Georgia. Polk was in Alabama because, almost three months after his suspension by Johnston's predecessor, Bragg, Polk had been sent west and eventually replaced the man who was brought east to succeed Bragg and who was now requesting that Polk, along with the 19,000 troops under his command, be sent east to Georgia.

This was the situation and the force which were Sherman's immediate concern as he contemplated his thrust at Atlanta. When Ulysses S. Grant was appointed general-in-chief of all Union armies and attached himself to the Army of the Potomac to direct its thus far fruitless attempts at eliminating Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, Sherman was placed in charge of the western theater, for which the focus by this time in the Civil War had become the southeast. Sherman's force was composed of three armies: the Army of the Cumberland, 70,000 strong under George H. Thomas; the Army of the Tennessee, 25,000 strong under James B. McPherson; and the Army of the Ohio under John M. Schofield, which at 19,000 troops was in reality a corps. Sherman had these forces deployed with Schofield on the left (north), Thomas in the center, and McPherson (whose army Sherman called "my whiplash") on the right (south). This arrangement of the three armies was to be used for most of the drive to Atlanta.

Sherman's plan to dispossess Johnston of his formidable position took into account its stoutness. In a foreboding phrase in a letter home, Sherman gave his assessment of the Confederate defenses and the likely outcome of a direct assault by his men against "the terrible door of death prepared for them in the Buzzard Roost." Accordingly, Sherman intended Schofield to feint from the north along the East Tennessee & Georgia and Thomas to assault frontally, but only as a means of holding Johnston in place, while the main thrust would be delivered by the whiplash McPherson. McPherson was to move from Chattanooga under cover of Taylor's Ridge, which lies between Missionary Ridge to the west and Rocky Face Ridge to the east. Then McPherson was to move eastward through Taylor's Ridge at Ship's Gap, which lies south of the Dug Gap end of Johnston's line, then through the town of Villanow, and finally through the undefended Snake Creek Gap to emerge in rear of the Army of Tennessee for a strike at Resaca to cut Johnston's supply line.

McPherson's Missed Opportunity

On May 4, 1864, the three Union armies commenced their coordinated movements against the Army of Tennessee. While Schofield's force was stalled by Wheeler's cavalry, and Thomas' men met expectedly stiff resistance, McPherson's intricate movement came off precisely as planned, and on May 9 the Union Army of the Tennessee found itself east of the Confederate Army of Tennessee and a mere five miles from Resaca. McPherson reported this in a dispatch to Sherman, who was with Thomas' army. McPherson also reported in the dispatch that the only enemy forces so far encountered were some rebel cavalry. Sherman was at dinner when this news reached him, and he pounded the table in triumphant jubilation and shouted, "I’ve got Joe Johnston dead!"

As it happened, Joe Johnston still had a good deal of life left, both literally and figuratively, and the latter was due as much to serendipity as skill. On the same day that Sherman set his plan and his forces in motion, Johnston convinced Richmond to send Polk's 19,000 troops to join the Army of Tennessee as a third corps, and its immediate assignment was to reinforce Resaca once it moved there. The first contingent of these troops, a brigade of 2,000, arrived in Rome on May 5 and then at Resaca two days later, where these men took position along with the small equally sized garrison in entrenchments which Johnston had had constructed there. As McPherson's force closed in on Resaca, these rebel troops took them under fire, which stopped McPherson in his tracks to assess an enemy infantry force which he had not expected to encounter. After considering his situation, unsupported and out in the open in rear of the enemy and confronting a force of unknown size, McPherson decided that the most prudent course of action was to return to the safety of Snake Creek Gap, and by the end of the day on which he had emerged from the gap, he was back in it in a much more defensible position than the exposed one near Resaca.

When Johnston was informed of the appearance of a large Union force near Resaca, he ordered the movement of Hood with three divisions to reinforce the 4,000 troops who had disquieted McPherson into withdrawing. On the following day, Confederate reconnaissance indicated that Sherman's whiplash had relinquished its threatening position near Resaca and cloistered itself in Snake Creek Gap. This led Johnston to believe that McPherson's movement had been a feint, and this supposition caused Johnston to order Hood to leave one division at Resaca and move the other two to Tilton, which is between Rocky Face Ridge and Resaca and from which these divisions could be sent to meet a threat at either place.

In the meantime, Polk and his 19,000 men were arriving, which gave Johnston both comfort and more troops to reinforce Resaca. Because the attacks against Rocky Face Ridge had all but ceased, Hardee and eventually Johnston began to suspect that Sherman was planning to reinforce McPherson for a stronger attack from that direction. In an attempt to determine his adversary's intentions, Johnston sent Wheeler's cavalry around the north end of Rocky Face Ridge for reconnaissance. Wheeler reported that Sherman's entire force appeared to be moving southward, perhaps through Snake Creek Gap for a junction with McPherson. Johnston decided that his stout position on Rocky Face Ridge was no longer tenable, and on May 12 the Army of Tennessee withdrew from the ridge and evacuated Dalton.

Thus it was that Sherman used maneuver more than assault to accomplish his immediate goal of dislodging Johnston's force from its formidable position on Rocky Face Ridge. However, a few days earlier when Sherman pounded his fist on the table, he envisioned much more. The disappointment over this stung Sherman, in part because it had come after such a height of expectant jubilation and in part because it was due to a failure by his protégé, McPherson, who had been appointed Sherman's replacement in command of the Army of the Tennessee when Sherman assumed command of the entire conglomeration of Union armies after Grant moved east. Sherman had such high regard for McPherson that he once remarked about him, "If he lives, he'll outdistance Grant and myself." Stung by the disappointment over McPherson's failure, Sherman stung back. When Sherman met with McPherson in Snake Creek Gap during the concentration of the Union forces there, Sherman told his protégé, "Well, Mac, you missed the opportunity of your life," although Sherman might have been more impressed with the prescience of his comment had he known how little life McPherson had left. In his memoir, Sherman could accurately state, with the assuredness of hindsight, that for McPherson and his opportunity at Resaca, "Such an opportunity does not occur twice in a single life."

Had McPherson not succumbed to trepidation and missed the opportunity of his life, it is certainly possible that the Union fruits of the battle of Rocky Face Ridge would have led history to categorize it as a truly decisive battle. Even though Polk's force was close to joining Johnston's army, the juncture might have been prevented if the Army of Tennessee had been caught between the two Union forces. While this would have left Polk's force looming in the area around Sherman's armies, it is not inconceivable, in light of the relative strengths and of Johnston's cautious nature, that Polk and his men would have simply hovered uselessly near Sherman's horde, uncertain of what to do, in the same way that Johnston had done outside Vicksburg as John C. Pemberton's Army of Mississippi was inexorably ground into submission.

Nevertheless, even without the elimination of the Army of Tennessee, the battle of Rocky Face Ridge can rightly be considered much more important than its obscurity and apparent insignificance suggest. This is the battle which set the tactical pattern for most of the battles of the Atlanta campaign, in terms of both the deployment and the use of each of the three armies under Sherman's command and also with regard to Sherman's use of maneuver more so than assault to drive Johnston's forces backward toward the Union objective.  Because the Atlanta campaign and the eventual Union capture of Atlanta led to the re-election of Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War could continue until the North emerged victorious and the Union was restored. In spite of the lost opportunity at Rocky Face Ridge and Sherman's resulting disappointment, one important objective had been attained: the dislodging of the Army of Tennessee from its stout position. Although there had been some serious fighting, primarily by Thomas' men in their holding action, the overall Union losses were small (estimated at fewer than 900), and it was maneuver rather than assault which had accomplished the expulsion of the Confederate army.

In addition to driving the Army of Tennessee out of its formidable position on the ridge, the maneuver by Sherman placed Johnston's army in relatively open and less defensible terrain, where Sherman's superior numbers could be used to greater advantage. Johnston realized this, and his plan (which in reality was more a yearning) was to catch Sherman in motion when the Union commander had made an error and exposed his forces, or part of them, to attack. The odds of this were not good, but Johnston felt that, in light of the two-to-one numerical superiority of Sherman's forces, the odds were not good from the Confederate perspective in any situation. Johnston correctly reasoned that the best chance for driving Sherman's large force away lay in cutting the railroad supply line. To this end, Johnston urged the Confederate government to move Nathan Bedford Forrest from northern Mississippi to middle Tennessee where the Wizard of the Saddle could work his destructive sorcery on Sherman's railroad lifeline.

For various reasons, Forrest was never given that task during the Atlanta campaign, which left Johnston to deal with Sherman's horde without the benefit of the best weapon to strike the best blow to stop or at least slow the Union advance on Atlanta. As a result, Johnston was left with only his yearning for an opportune error by his adversary. While the Confederate commander waited for this and, in his mind, took action to increase the chances of it, his tactics during the Atlanta campaign consisted of a gradual slow withdrawal toward Atlanta with recurrent occupations of strong defensive positions in the hope of enticing Sherman into a ruinous assault. Save for once during the campaign, Sherman refused to be coaxed into it and instead used maneuver rather than attack to move closer to his objective of Atlanta.

Thus it was that the lesson which Sherman learned at Rocky Face Ridge was applied throughout the Atlanta campaign. Certainly this strategy was made effective by the necessity of Johnston to defend Atlanta. Nevertheless, Sherman was astute enough to realize that, as at Rocky Face Ridge, maneuver was not only the safer and less costly option, but also the more effective course to reaching his objective. The capture of that objective, Atlanta, is what led to the re-election of Abraham Lincoln and the continued prosecution of the war to restore the Union. Hence, it can be said that the battle of Rocky Face Ridge, because it was the place where Sherman developed the tactics which would be used to bring about the capture of Atlanta and the re-election of Lincoln, was the decisive battle of the Civil War.

Johnston Gives Ground

After withdrawing from Rocky Face Ridge and Dalton, Johnston concentrated at Resaca, another stop on the Western & Atlantic Railroad. In the meantime, Sherman moved all but a holding force to unite with McPherson for an attack on Resaca. The Union forces were in position on May 13 in the same arrangement as at Rocky Face Ridge: McPherson on the right, Thomas in the center, and Schofield on the left. This force faced another strong Confederate position which was entrenched in a curved line west and north of Resaca with its left flank anchored on the Oostanaula River and its right flank anchored on the Conasauga River, a tributary of the Oostanaula.

On the following day, Sherman launched an attack focused mainly on the Confederate left. Johnston, reasoning that Sherman had weakened his left for the assault from his right, ordered Hood to attack the Union left. Hood's attack was quite successful, and only darkness limited the gains. Johnston instructed Hood to renew the attack as early as possible the next morning. However, a report came in during the night that a sizable Union force had crossed the Oostanaula several miles south of Resaca. Johnston cancelled Hood's morning attack and sent a division south to confront the Union force which had crossed the river. Soon thereafter, Johnston ordered a withdrawal of the whole Army of Tennessee across the Oostanaula once intelligence confirmed that there were Union troops across the river. Johnston correctly surmised that the entire Union force might cross the river and thereby make his Resaca position untenable. Sherman had again maneuvered Johnston out of a strong defensive position and had also crossed the first of the three rivers between his forces and Atlanta.

Sherman pursued quickly in what had become the customary right-center-left McPherson-Thomas-Schofield deployment begun at Rocky Face Ridge. Sherman's immediate goal was to overtake Johnston before his adversary could develop another stout position. Prior to the movement south of Resaca, the Union troops were redistributed to bring the three components of Sherman's force into better balance. As a result, Thomas' army now numbered about 40,000, Schofield's about 30,000, and McPherson's maintained its strength close to 25,000. In addition to the main force, which advanced along the Western & Atlantic, Sherman detached a small force to move south on the opposite bank of the Oostanaula (i.e., west of the main force), so that this detachment could take Rome in order to destroy the factories there. The detachment consisted of two divisions, one of cavalry under the command of Kenner Garrard, who had served prior to the Civil War as an adjutant to Albert Sidney Johnston and Robert E. Lee in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regiment, and one of infantry commanded by the antithetically named Jefferson Davis, a Union general who had shot and killed a superior, William Nelson, during an argument in 1862, but who was exonerated due primarily to the Union's excruciating need for experienced field commanders at that time.

Ultimately, the three components of Sherman's triplet army and the detached force would concentrate at Kingston on the north bank of the Etowah, the second of the three major rivers between Rocky Face Ridge and Atlanta. Sherman rode with Thomas in the center along the Western & Atlantic and anticipated that Johnson would dig in at Calhoun, a town on the railroad. When Sherman found only a rear guard at Calhoun, he expected Johnston to entrench at Adairsville, further south along the railroad. There was some skirmishing at both places, but no intense fighting. As it was, Johnston relinquished about 25% of the distance to Atlanta without making a stand. After the war, Johnston wrote that he had "hoped to find a favorable position near Calhoun, but there was none." Eventually Johnston decided to dig in at Cassville, about five miles east of Kingston, the place where Sherman intended to concentrate his forces and where he felt he could bring Johnston to battle with the Etowah in rear of the Army of Tennessee.

This situation presented Johnston the opportunity he had been awaiting. When Schofield's force turned west to converge with Thomas and McPherson, it would pass just north of Cassville, where Johnston's army could pounce on it in an attack which Johnston had hoped for to destroy Sherman's numerically superior force in piecemeal fashion. While Hardee's corps had been withdrawing southward along the Western & Atlantic, skirmishing along the way to carry on the ruse that this corps was guarding the rear of Johnston's army, Polk's and Hood's corps had taken position in Cassville for the ambush of Schofield's army. Johnston further planned to consolidate his three corps to strike in succession at Thomas and then McPherson when each of them responded to the anticipated call for assistance from Schofield after his army was struck by the surprise attack from Cassville.

However, before the trap could be sprung on Schofield, a report arrived that Federal troops were sighted in Hood's rear. As it happened, a portion of the division of Daniel Butterfield (who, along with Oliver Norton, is credited with composing "Taps") became separated and wandered several miles away from the rest of the division to end up in Hood's rear. When the report reached Johnston, he refused to believe it. Even years later, Johnston claimed, in his typical post-war fashion of absolving himself of culpability and affixing it to someone else, "The report upon which General Hood acted was manifestly untrue."

But even though Johnston put no credence in the report, he endeavored to act on it by canceling the attack against Schofield and then putting his army on the defensive to await developments. All three Confederate corps were consolidated on a ridge southeast of Cassville, while Schofield (now aware of the ambush which had been prepared for his army), Thomas, and McPherson had concentrated against them. While Johnston called his army's position on the ridge "the best I saw occupied during the war," both Polk and Hood expressed to their commander their opinion that the position could not be held. Although Hardee agreed with Johnston, Johnston decided to withdraw, not because, as he later said, he was incorrect about the strength of the position, but because the lack of confidence of the two corps commanders would be conveyed to their troops and result in failure to repulse any attacks by the enemy.

Accordingly, Johnston made the decision to withdraw across the Etowah, the second of the two major rivers between Rocky Face Ridge and Atlanta. In a message to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Johnston left no doubt that in his mind the commander of the Army of Tennessee was blameless in the cancellation of the attack, "While the officer charged with the lead was advancing he was deceived by a false report that a heavy column of the enemy had turned our right and was close upon him, and took a defensive position. When the mistake was discovered it was too late to resume the movement."

The double disappointment of the cancellation of the attack against Schofield followed by the withdrawal across the Etowah had a demoralizing effect on the Army of Tennessee. One soldier wrote in his diary that this turn of events "impaired confidence" and caused the troops to "think no stand to be made north of Chattahoochee." Johnston withdrew to Allatoona, another town along the Western & Atlantic four miles south of the Etowah. This latest southward movement placed the Army of Tennessee 60 miles south of its initial position on Rocky Face Ridge.

Arriving at Allatoona on May 20, Johnston put up another strong position over the gorge through which the railroad passed with each flank of the army protected by a creek. The imposing strength of the position was its primary weakness, because, as at Rocky Face Ridge, Sherman was more likely to bypass Johnston's army than attack it. This is what Johnston expected, and this is what Sherman did, this time separating from the railroad for a wide sweep to the right around the left of Johnston's strong position.

While awaiting Sherman's movement around his left, Johnston sent another message to Davis to follow up his previous message faulting Hood for the cancellation of the Cassville attack. Johnston's second message was intended to assuage the criticism which Johnston knew was being directed at him for his failure to take any aggressive action against Sherman. In this message, Johnston assured Davis, "I have earnestly sought an opportunity to strike," but, Johnston explained, he was thwarted by Sherman repeatedly extending his right, which necessitated Johnston's retrograde movements in response. Johnston ended by stating his agreement with Davis for a need for a rapid change to the offensive and by assuring Davis that the Army of Tennessee was in fine shape for just that. Johnston received a response not from Davis, but, ironically, from Braxton Bragg, the person who had left the Army of Tennessee in no shape for military operations of any kind and now a military advisor to the Confederate president (a position held early in the war by Robert E. Lee). In his message to Johnston, Bragg stated, "We confidently rely on a brilliant success."

Sherman Sweeps West and South

After giving his troops three days to rest, which also allowed some repairs to be made to the Western & Atlantic and 20 days rations to be accumulated for the next movement, Sherman sent his force on a wide sweep to the right in the three columns as before, McPherson-Thomas-Schofield from right to left. From his pre-war military experience in Georgia, Sherman was familiar with the terrain which Johnston had chosen for his latest stout position. Sherman claimed, "I knew more of Georgia than the rebels did," and he had no intention of assaulting Johnston's position. Instead, Sherman had his troops cross the Etowah (what Sherman called "the Rubicon of Georgia") several miles west of the Western & Atlantic with the goal of making a wide sweep west of the railroad, which at this location ran southeast.

The major target in Sherman's path was Marietta, 15 miles south along the Western & Atlantic and Johnston's new supply base. Johnston moved his army to meet this threat, and the lead troops in Thomas' column were the first to encounter the enemy. These troops met stiff resistance from men in Hood's corps. After two hours of fighting, a thunderstorm erupted and drenched the combatants during their third hour of fighting. Finally both the storm and the day came to an end, the latter bringing the fighting to a close. Between the storm and the combat, the Federals who fought here referred to the place not by its actual buoyant name, New Hope Church, but as the Hell Hole. For the next two days, the armies faced each other with Sherman probing for a weakness in Johnston's lines. Unsuccessful in this, Sherman again decided to move around Johnston, this time in the opposite direction than his previous movements, that is, around the right of the Army of Tennessee.

However, this leftward movement of one corps did not bring this corps around Johnston's army, but directly into one of Hardee's divisions, the division commanded by Patrick Cleburne. This led to a bloody afternoon firefight and a bloody repulse of the Federal troops at a place called Pickett's Mill. The men who suffered most at the hands of Cleburne were those in the division of Thomas Wood, who at Chickamauga had committed the grievous error of obeying the order of William Rosecrans to shift his division to the left to plug a nonexistent gap and thereby created the gap through which Confederate troops poured.

Johnston reasoned that if Sherman was extending his left, perhaps he was weakening his right. Accordingly, Johnston ordered an attack of a division from his left, an attack which was as thoroughly repulsed as the Union attack had been. While the fighting during both of these assaults was intense, it was also highly focused and did not progress to the level of a major battle, certainly not the decisive battle which Davis and the authorities at Richmond were craving as a means to put an end to Sherman's drive on Atlanta. That night, Johnston held a council of war at which Hood proposed an attack for the next day by his corps, which would be shifted to the right of Cleburne's division for an assault on the Union left. Subsequently, the corps of Polk and Hardee would join the attack after they heard Hood's artillery.

After dawn on the day for Hood's attack, the men of Polk's and Hardee's corps listened for the artillery barrage of Hood's corps. But rather than a signal for attack, Hood sent a message that an additional Federal division had been placed perpendicular to the planned path for Hood's advance, which made such an advance imprudent. Johnston's response was to cancel the attack and to instruct his army to fortify its position. Since Sherman's men now did the same, neither commander was hopeful of success in assailing the other's formidable defenses. As May gave way to June, both armies faced each other with no imminent prospect of dislodging the other. Rather than ordering another costly attack on Johnston's entrenchments, Sherman continued to extend his left toward the Western & Atlantic, which forced Johnston to conform by extending his right.

On the first of June, Johnston was reinforced by an unexpected ally: rain. For 17 straight days, a soaking rain fell. Separated from the Western & Atlantic, Sherman's men experienced the first pangs of want of supplies. The rain-drenched roads made acquisition of rations and ammunition an onerous task. As a result, Sherman's men had to subsist on hardtack and bacon, which led to scurvy. Weeks earlier in a letter to Grant, Sherman had written his optimistic prediction about living off the land during the advance on Atlanta, "Georgia has millions of inhabitants. If they can live, we should not starve." But foraging in the barren region brought in so little that Sherman's earlier assertion now seemed like an empty boast.

Three days after June opened with unceasing rain, Johnston slipped away again, this time to an even stronger position astride the railroad. Johnston's three corps each occupied a piece of high ground east and west of the railroad, Hardee's men on Lost Mountain, Polk's on Pine Mountain and eastward to the railroad, and Hood's from the railroad to Brush Mountain.

By June 6, Sherman's forces once more had closed up with the Army of Tennessee, which brought the rain-soaked Federals back to their Western & Atlantic lifeline. A frustrated Sherman recognized that the Confederate position was too strong to assail without substantial losses. But the prospect of another sidle around Johnston did not appeal to Sherman, especially on muddy roads. This marked the Union nadir of the Atlanta campaign. Deprived, due to the rain, of his most powerful weapon, maneuver, Sherman now considered doing that which he had wisely avoided up to now and what he told a superior, Henry Halleck, he would not do: send his men on an assault against a formidable enemy position. The Union commander was about to deviate from the successful Rocky Face Ridge tactics which had brought him deep into Georgia.

In less than a month, Sherman's triplet army had advanced almost three-fourths of the way to its objective, Atlanta. But now Sherman's forces had become bogged down after a wide sweep away from its railroad lifeline through terrain made muddy by prolonged rain. Once again, Sherman faced a strong defensive position which Johnston had thrown up in his path along the Western & Atlantic, and a frustrated Sherman had to devise a plan to move around Johnston's army.

While Sherman stewed, Johnston contracted and strengthened his position. Part of this position included an elevation known as Pine Mountain, although its height did not really merit that geographic designation. Pine Mountain was in advance of Johnston's main position, and Johnston had stationed some of his forces there (including a battery commanded by the son of P.G.T. Beauregard) primarily to act as an observation post. Hardee was concerned that this small force could be easily taken and requested that he and Johnston make a personal assessment, which they did during a pause in the rain. Polk decided to accompany them, and all three generals and their staffs ascended the southern slope of Pine Mountain. A short time after they reached the summit, two events occurred. First, Johnston agreed with Hardee that the position was untenable, and, second, artillery shells began to fall near the three generals. One shell tore through Polk's body and killed him. When Sherman was informed of this, his mood brightened, even though his forces still faced Johnston's formidable defenses and even though there was a resumption of the rain which had been hampering his progress.

The Devil in Sherman's Rear

While Sherman's attention throughout the campaign had been steadfastly focused in front of him, one fear, now as always, had been directed behind him on "that single stem of railroad" (as Sherman called it) which Sherman recognized made the Atlanta campaign possible. Sherman's primary fear in this regard was Nathan Bedford Forrest. Although John Morgan was conducting raids in eastern Kentucky, it was Forrest whom Sherman viewed as the greater threat, and he said so in a letter to his wife, "John Morgan is in Kentucky, but I attach little importance to him or his raid. Forrest is a more dangerous man." Sherman was hopeful that an expedition sent from Memphis would at least keep Forrest occupied to prevent the Wizard of the Saddle from falling on Sherman's Washington & Atlantic lifeline. The expedition was led by Samuel Sturgis, who had pursued Forrest several weeks earlier, but had to withdraw for lack of supplies, which prompted Sturgis to write Sherman, "I regret very much that I could not have the pleasure of bringing you his (Forrest's) hair." Now Sturgis was given another opportunity to procure Forrest's scalp.

Sturgis' southeastward excursion from Memphis had the effect which both Sherman and Sturgis desired, that is, of drawing Forrest away from Sherman's lifeline. However, the end result was not so pleasant for Sturgis who came to face not just Forrest's hair, but the whole man accompanied by his redoubtable force. The engagement which resulted on June 10, Brice's Crossroads, was one of Forrest's most brilliant victories, which for Sturgis was an early and wholly unwanted present coming as it did on the day before Sturgis' birthday. Near the end of the battle, the formerly cocksure Sturgis was no longer interested in taking possession of Forrest's scalp, but of saving his own skin. In his report after the battle, Sturgis tried to put a good light on the defeat by claiming that his force "only yielded to overwhelming numbers." In fact, numerical superiority was the reverse of Sturgis' claims, which put Forrest's strength at 15,000 to 20,000 rather than its actual number of 5,000.

In Georgia, Sherman was disappointed at the failure of Sturgis' expedition to end once and for all the threat from Forrest. But Sherman took some consolation that the expedition had bought a short respite from that threat. Now Sherman had in mind another strike at Forrest with the objective to "follow Forrest to the death, if it costs 10,000 lives and breaks the Treasury," such was Sherman's desire to remove Forrest as a threat to his supply line. To bring this about, Sherman telegraphed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on June 14, "I have just received news of the defeat of our party sent out from Memphis, whose chief object was to hold Forrest there and keep him off our road. I have ordered A.J. Smith not to go to Mobile, but to go out from Memphis and defeat Forrest at all costs."

In fact, Smith's force of 15,000 not only held Forrest away from Sherman's supply line, but managed to defeat a combined Confederate force under Stephen Lee and Forrest when this force, technically under the command of Lee but in an attack sanctioned by Forrest, assaulted Smith's strong position near Tupelo and was repulsed. While Forrest had brought Sturgis to grief on the day before the latter's birthday, Lee's and Forrest's defeat came on July 14, the day before Forrest's birthday. To compound Forrest's troubles, he was wounded in an attack on the following day, an attack which Smith's men likewise repulsed.

In spite of his victory and of holding his strong position, Smith decided to withdraw to Memphis because his supplies and ammunition were running low. But even this retrograde movement served Sherman's purpose, because Forrest, sufficiently recovered from his wound to remain in command, pursued Smith, which kept Forrest from taking action against Sherman's supply line. As it happened, Smith was able to occupy Forrest until the latter's assistance was no longer of use to Johnston. By the time Forrest was able to conduct operations in middle Tennessee, Johnston had been relieved and his replacement would soon move the Army of Tennessee northward in the hope that Sherman's horde would follow.

"A Small Affair," a Big Mistake

With the threat to his lifeline neutralized, Sherman could maintain his focus on the more proximate force in his front. That force had been contracted by a short withdrawal southeastward. The focal point of the new position was Kennesaw Mountain, a 700-foot, twin-peaked prominence which rose from the flat ground around it. Kennesaw Mountain was occupied by Polk's corps, now commanded by W.W. Loring, who served the Confederacy due to his Southern birth, although he did not agree with secession, and who earned the nickname "Old Blizzards" when he exhorted troops under his command to "Give them blizzards, boys" during a repulse of a Union flotilla on the Tallahatchie River as part of the Confederate defense of Vicksburg.

To the right of the mountain, astride the Western & Atlantic, was Hood's corps, while Hardee's corps was positioned on the left of Kennesaw Mountain. Prior to Johnston's reconfiguration of his defenses, Sherman had wired Henry Halleck, "We cannot risk the heavy loss of an assault." Perhaps buoyed by the dispatching of Polk to the hereafter, Sherman reversed himself in spite of the fact that Johnston's Kennesaw Mountain position was stronger than his previous one.

Sherman did probe the flanks of Johnston's position for three days, which forced Johnston to shift Hood's corps from the right of the Confederate position to the left of Hardee's corps to block attempts to turn that flank. On June 22, this movement resulted in the most serious engagement of the three days of probing when Hood's men drove back and then pursued the lead elements of Schofield's turning attempt only to encounter the remainder of Schofield's men dug in. After two attempts to dislodge Schofield resulted in two bloody repulses, Hood had his troops dig in and there they and their Federal counterparts remained face to face in entrenchments which neither side cared to attack.

Thwarted in his attempts to turn Johnston's flanks, Sherman convinced himself that an assault on Kennesaw Mountain posed his best chance for success. The unexpectedness of the assault coupled with the weakening of the position by the extension of Loring's corps into the trenches evacuated by Hood's men gave Sherman reason to anticipate success in an assault on such a formidable position. Sherman and all three of his army commanders concurred that their lines could not be stretched further, which provided more support for the decision for a direct assault.

On June 24, Sherman ordered that preparations be made for an attack three days later. Following an hour-long artillery bombardment, the attack was made primarily by Thomas in the center against Hardee's well entrenched men south of Kennesaw Mountain and by McPherson on the Federal left against the southern and lower of Kennesaw Mountain's twin peaks. Ironically, if the attack was as successful as Sherman hoped, Loring, whose corps was positioned on the northern end of Kennesaw Mountain on the right of the convex Confederate line, would find himself in a similar situation as he was at Champion Hill, that is, atop an elevation and cut off from the rest of the army.

However, within two hours of the beginning of the infantry assault, the Union commanders knew that the attack had failed. O.O. Howard said afterward, "Our losses were heavy indeed, and our gain was nothing." At 11:00, Thomas sent word for the attackers to fall back, if possible. Those who could not fall back were told to hold their position until dark and then fall back. But further movement forward was halted. When Sherman wired Thomas in the early afternoon to ask if Thomas could take any part of the Confederate lines, Thomas wired back that he had already suffered heavy casualties in the earlier assaults and then added, "One or two more such assaults would use up this army."

One of the participants in blue at the battle was Abraham Hoch Landis, a physician (Assistant Surgeon) in the 35th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, who had been captured at Chickamauga and sent to Libby Prison in Richmond, but who was exchanged in time to take part in the Atlanta Campaign. At Kennesaw Mountain, Landis was struck in the left leg by a cannonball, which led to his discharge two months later and left him with a permanent limp. Perhaps in memory of his wounding, Landis' son, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, was named after the battle (although with a different spelling). The younger Landis eventually became the first commissioner of Major League Baseball and handed down the stern ruling against eight players who were accused of deliberately losing the 1919 World Series in return for money in what came to be known as the Black Sox scandal. Landis' ruling banning the players was handed down in spite of the acquittal of all eight in a court of law. Among the players who were banned was Shoeless Joe Jackson, even though his productivity in the 1919 World Series was excellent: a batting average of .375 (12 for 32) with three doubles, a home run, and 6 runs batted in. One can only imagine Jackson's output had he not been putting forth, as it was alleged, a compromised effort.

After the battle whose name would find its way into the national pastime, Sherman, perhaps blasted into recognition of the costly futility of attacking a strongly entrenched army, decided to revert to his previous tactics of maneuvering. While preparations were being made for the attempt to maneuver Johnston out of his current position, Sherman undertook the task of defending his decision to attack. In a message to Halleck, Sherman declared, "The assault I made was no mistake." Sherman justified the decision by claiming that the attack "demonstrated to General Johnston that I would attack, and that boldly." In the epitome of rationalization, Sherman wrote about the Kennesaw Mountain losses, "I begin to regard the death and mangling of a couple of thousand men as a small affair," a statement which would have come as small consolation to the wives and mothers of all those who fell in Sherman's fruitless attempt.

In spite of Sherman's assertion to Halleck about the soundness of the decision to assault Kennesaw Mountain, this was Sherman's sole blunder of the entire campaign, when he faced Johnston's strongest position and inexplicably abandoned the tactics which had carried his army in just over five weeks from the northwest corner of Georgia three-fourths of the way to his objective. If the Buzzard Roost was a "terrible door of death," then Kennesaw Mountain was a solid wall of death with no portal whatsoever to give even the slightest hint that passage through was possible. Though Sherman rationalized that the attack was successful for hardening men who, in his opinion, had become accustomed to maneuvering rather than attacking, in the end Sherman came to realize that maneuvering was the only course which could dislodge Johnston from his Kennesaw Mountain position.

The last day of June, the third day after the battle, was a day of armistice agreed by both sides for burying the corpses which had lain in the summer heat. Two days later, the movement which Sherman had planned was set in motion. McPherson's forces were pulled from their position at the northern (left) end of the Union line and moved behind the center (Thomas) to join with Schofield. These combined forces made a sweep around the southern (left) end of the Confederate line, which was manned by Hood's corps. This movement not only threatened Johnston's supply base at Marietta behind the Confederate position, but also threatened an attack on the rebel forces from their rear. Sherman had no pretense that either of these would happen, not with the vantage available to the men on Kennesaw Mountain.

Johnston's Finale

As expected, when Sherman ordered Thomas to send pickets forward early on July 3, this small force did what the much larger Union force could not do six days earlier, reach the summit of Kennesaw Mountain, because this time there were no enemy troops there to oppose them. Once again, the Army of Tennessee had withdrawn and was moving toward Sherman's objective, Atlanta. At this news, Sherman realized that the army which was between his own and the Georgia capital was now out in the open. This meant that Sherman now had a fleeting opportunity to crush Johnston's forces, if the Union commander could find them before they were able to lay down another stout position, particularly if they could be attacked while they were crossing the Chattahoochee, the last of the three major rivers between Sherman and Atlanta.

By the time Johnston's army was found late in the day five miles south along the railroad near Smyrna, the Confederates were once more in a strong position with each flank protected by a creek which flowed into the Chattahoochee five miles in their rear. Sherman's assessment was that Johnston would not risk a fight with a river close behind him and that the Smyrna position was intended only to cover a crossing of the Chattahoochee. Accordingly, Sherman ordered an attack for the following morning, Independence Day and the one-year anniversary of the fall of Vicksburg. However, when the Confederate position was observed on the morning of the scheduled attack to be as formidable as on the previous day, Sherman, no doubt mindful of his self-described correct decision to assault the Kennesaw Mountain defenses, canceled the attack and thereby avoided another "small affair" involving "the death and mangling of a couple of thousand men."

Sherman instead decided to again maneuver Johnston out of his position. Again it was McPherson's men who were to execute a sweep around Johnston's left while Thomas' troops were given the task of holding the Confederates in place by demonstrating in their front. Because daylight ended before McPherson's force was in place, the operation was scheduled for the following day. But when the day dawned, the Union army once again confronted empty fortifications. The Army of Tennessee had again moved southward, this time to Vining Station, where they put up what Sherman called "the best line of field intrenchments I have ever seen."

From the top of a hill, Sherman could see his objective, Atlanta, but he could also see the well constructed Confederate entrenchments on each side of the railroad north of the Chattahoochee as well as another set of entrenchments, currently unoccupied, on the south bank of the river, prepared in advance in the event that the Confederate troops needed to fall back. Also on the south side of the river was Johnston's cavalry, where it could detect any probes made by Union forces upstream or downstream of the formidable rebel position.

Sherman's solution was to order two separate crossings of the Chattahoochee far upstream of the Confederate right. One of these was to be made by Schofield and the other, even farther upstream, by McPherson. Some of Schofield's men effected a crossing by boarding pontoon floats on Soap Creek, which flows into the Chattahoochee from the north, and making a successful amphibious assault on the small surprised rebel force on the south bank of the river. Another part of Schofield's army was able to cross the Chattahoochee at a ford, and by nightfall of July 9 an entire Union division was across the river. Informed of this, Johnston realized that his position was untenable, and he ordered a withdrawal to the opposite side of the river followed by destruction of the six bridges which his men used for their crossing.

Once across the Chattahoochee and in the fortifications prepared beforehand for this possibility, Johnston ordered a further withdrawal to a position only five miles from the city whose defense was Johnston's primary object. With the rebel army removed from its front, the blue wave rolled across the Chattahoochee. Sherman was now across the last of the three major rivers which lay in his path at the start of the Atlanta campaign. One week later, another obstacle which had stood between Sherman and Atlanta was no longer in his path: Joseph Johnston.

The Fall of Johnston and of Atlanta

For two months, William Sherman's triplet army grappled with Joseph Johnston's Army of Tennessee in a long struggle across northwest Georgia. But Johnston's participation in the affair was about to end. The groundwork for Johnston's removal had begun some time earlier in Richmond where the Confederate hierarchy was becoming increasingly frustrated with Johnston's apparent aversion to aggressive action and was also becoming increasingly anxious at the shortening distance between Sherman's horde and Atlanta.

Perhaps surprisingly, in light of the strained relationship between Johnston and Jefferson Davis, it was the Confederate president who had prolonged Johnston's tenure as commander of the Army of Tennessee, while Davis' cabinet was unanimous and strident in its call for Johnston's removal. For now, Davis continued to resist such a move out of concern for Atlanta and because he understood the dangers inherent in changing a commander in the face of the enemy. Davis' view at this time was to leave Johnston in command so long as he would not relinquish Atlanta without a fight.

In order to gauge Johnston's intentions, Davis sent his chief military advisor, Braxton Bragg, to meet personally with Johnston. Before Bragg had arrived, Richmond received a telegram from Johnston recommending immediate relocation of the Union prisoners at Andersonville. This telegram informed Davis of Johnston's intentions as effectively as any information which Bragg could provide, and Davis now decided that Johnston had to be relieved.

It is not difficult to surmise that Davis foresaw a more aggressive commander replicating the 1862 result of Johnston's successor when the Army of the Potomac was close enough to Richmond to hear the church bells. Davis solicited advice from that successor, Robert E. Lee, about a replacement for Johnston and asked Lee's opinion of John Bell Hood as Johnston's 1864 successor, to which Lee replied that the situation outside Atlanta was not conducive to replacing the commander of the Army of Tennessee. Lee also gave a less than enthusiastic endorsement of Hood, "Hood is a bold fighter. I am doubtful as to other qualities necessary."

Subsequently, messages from Bragg confirmed that Johnston's plans had not changed from his previous pattern of awaiting developments by the enemy and hoping for an opportunity to attack. Accordingly, Bragg recommended that Johnston be relieved and eliminated Hardee as the replacement, because he had agreed with Johnston's tactics. Bragg also eliminated Alexander Stewart, the successor to W.W. Loring (who had succeeded Leonidas Polk after Polk was killed at Kennesaw Mountain), because Bragg considered Stewart too inexperienced for overall command. Bragg suggested Hood as Johnston's replacement, because Hood had, for the most part, favored giving battle throughout Sherman's drive toward Atlanta (although it was Hood who failed to make the attack which Johnston ordered at Cassville when the opportunity had presented itself to attack a part of Sherman's large force, and who had also failed to make the attack at Pickett's Mill which he, himself, had proposed).

In a message to Davis, Bragg stated, "Lieutenant General Hood would give unlimited satisfaction." Then by way of contradicting himself, Bragg continued with hardly a ringing endorsement of the man who he claimed would be a source of boundless achievement, "Do not understand me as proposing him a man of genius, or a great general, but as far better in the present emergency than any one we have available."

Before making the change, Davis gave Johnston one final chance by asking Johnston his plans in a telegram. In spite of postwar pronouncements that he was at that time preparing the attack which he had been waiting to deliver against a portion of Sherman's force, which was then divided by a creek, all that Johnston told Davis was that the much smaller Confederate army would have to remain on the defensive and be vigilant for the chance to attack at an advantage.

On the next day, July 17, came a telegram from Richmond, which said in part, "(A)s you have failed to arrest the advance of the enemy to the vicinity of Atlanta, far in the interior of Georgia, and express no confidence that you can defeat or repel him, you are hereby relieved from the command of the Army and Department of Tennessee, which you will immediately turn over to General Hood." In his reply to Richmond, Johnston concluded his telegram with a sarcastic comment aimed at the Confederate president, "Confident language by a military commander is not usually regarded as evidence of competency."

Among the high command of the Army of Tennessee, the reaction to the change, even by Hood, was to prevail upon Johnston to ignore the order and remain in command. When Johnston refused, the three corps commanders (one of whom, technically, was now commander of the army) sent a joint telegram to Davis to request that the change at least be postponed "until the fate of Atlanta is decided," but Davis refused this request. At this, Hood tried to again convince Johnston to remain in command "for the good of the country," as if Hood had some prescient understanding of the disaster that his command of the Army of Tennessee would bring to that country. Again Johnston refused, and by that evening he was gone.

On the Union side, the reaction to the change was the reverse. After the war, O.O. Howard wrote, "Just at this time, much to our comfort and surprise, Johnston was removed, and Hood placed in command of the Confederate army." Jacob Cox, a division commander under Schofield, claimed, "(T)he change of Confederate commanders was learned with satisfaction by every officer and man in the National Army." Sherman simply wrote home, "I confess I was pleased at the change," and later wrote, "At this critical moment, the Confederate Government rendered us most valuable service." Ironically, had Polk not been dispatched to stand in the presence of the only being Polk truly felt outranked him, Polk quite possibly could have been chosen as Johnston's successor, and it is intriguing to ponder how the obstreperous clergyman would have fared in overall command of an army rather than as a recalcitrant subordinate.

The switch to Hood caused two major changes with regard to Atlanta's fate. First, the last few weeks before the city's capture would include serious fighting initiated by the commander of the Army of Tennessee, and second, the city would fall into Union possession much more quickly than if Johnston had remained in command.


Once Sherman's army had reached the outskirts of Atlanta, its falling into Union possession was virtually assured. The time to prevent the fall of Atlanta was when the opposing armies were in the rugged territory northwest of the three rivers which Sherman had to cross to reach Atlanta. But Johnston failed to stop Sherman there or even substantially delay him. Johnston's best chance to accomplish either of these was by cutting Sherman's railroad lifeline, and Johnston seemed to recognize this.

While the Army of Tennessee was still in its position on the north bank of the Chattahoochee, Johnston told an emissary from Georgia governor Joe Brown that what was needed to save Atlanta was a strike at the Western & Atlantic by Forrest or Morgan. When the emissary asked Johnston why he did not use his own cavalry for such a strike, the cautious Johnston responded that his cavalry was needed where it was. In the middle of May, just prior to the planned Cassville attack, Johnston had received word that Forrest would be sent against Sherman's railroad lifeline. But this strike, like the Cassville attack, was canceled before it began, because Forrest's services were deemed more important elsewhere.

Johnston cannot be blamed for not receiving assistance for the one best course to thwart or slow Sherman's movement toward Atlanta. In fact, after the war, Sherman remarked, "No officer or soldier who ever served under me will question the generalship of Joseph E. Johnston." Although it is difficult to be highly critical of Johnston in light of the circumstances he faced (opposing a numerically superior army, limitations on his movements due to the necessity of protecting a city), Johnston can be faulted for not taking some initiative against the Western & Atlantic Railroad, since Johnston, himself, realized that this was the key to slowing if not halting Sherman's advance. A more aggressive and creative commander might have at least slowed Sherman sufficiently to prevent the fall of Atlanta prior to the election of 1864 and thereby eliminated the Northern elation which carried Abraham Lincoln to victory in that election and ensured continuation of the war.

Johnston’s tactics during Sherman’s drive to Atlanta are reminiscent of Johnston’s performance during George McClellan’s 1862 advance toward Richmond, that is, a continuous, slow withdrawal while awaiting a serious error by the opponent which would permit an opening for an attack. Evidence of the willingness of Johnston's men to fight was in a letter from a young artillery officer in the Army of Tennessee to his mother in Atlanta, which was less than ten miles away at the time the letter was sent, "There was not an officer or man in this Army who ever dreamed of Johnston falling back this far or ever doubted he would attack when the proper time came. But I think he has been woefully outgeneraled and has made a losing bargain."

Another indictment of Johnston came from W.C.P. Breckinridge (cousin of the former vice president, John C. Breckinridge), who commanded a regiment in Wheeler's cavalry during the Atlanta campaign. With the bluster and indignation which come with the advantage of hindsight, the cavalry officer wrote, "(I)t was the fate of the Southern armies to confront armies larger, better equipped, and admirably supplied. Unless we could by activity, audacity, aggressiveness, and skill overcome these advantages it was a mere matter of time as to the certain result. It was therefore the first requisite of a Confederate general that he should be willing to meet his antagonist on these unequal terms, and on such terms make fight. He must of necessity take great risks and assume grave responsibilities. While these differences between the two armies that confronted each other in the mountains of North Georgia existed, they were no greater than usually existed, and for which every Confederate general must be presumed to have prepared."

Perhaps the best indication of the dissatisfaction of Johnston’s superiors with his handling of the Atlanta campaign is that the Confederate government was willing to replace Johnston with John Bell Hood, effective as a subordinate but seriously lacking as an army commander, who was chosen as Johnston’s replacement in spite of Robert E. Lee’s refusal to endorse Hood and despite Lee’s veiled assertion that William Hardee was more worthy of this command.

No matter the opinion of Johnston's performance in the Atlanta campaign, the essential contribution of the Confederate government to Sherman's success should be acknowledged. Replacing Johnston with Hood probably accelerated the timetable for the fall of Atlanta. Davis and the rest of the Confederate hierarchy wanted a commander who would not allow Atlanta to fall without a fight. In Hood this is precisely what they received, and with disastrous consequences. Had Johnston remained in command of the Army of Tennessee, it is not inconceivable that Sherman would have had to lay lengthy siege to Atlanta in much the same way that Grant was stalled outside Petersburg. Protracted twin sieges would have fueled dissatisfaction among the Northern electorate and likely led to Lincoln's defeat in the 1864 election and possibly a conclusion to the war which would have been favorable to the South.

Although the war effort from the Union perspective was in reality going well, the war-weary Northern citizens were questioning whether the effort was worth the costs. When Atlanta fell into Union possession, the people in the North were given their first real hope that the war would soon reach its end with a Northern victory, which also gave them reason to continue both the war and the Lincoln administration. This first true glimpse of the war's end and the accompanying confidence in the Lincoln administration came when Sherman telegraphed Halleck on September 3, 1864, "So Atlanta is ours, and fairly won."

Sherman’s handling of the drive to Atlanta was superb, and no assessment of his performance should be diminished by any shortcomings on the part of the enemy. While it was Sherman's good fortune that the Confederate government became disenchanted with Johnston and replaced him with Hood and thereby hastened the fall of Atlanta, it was Sherman who brought about this situation. From the beginning of the Atlanta campaign, Sherman kept the pressure on his adversary and, other than at Cassville, gave Johnston no opening for the attack on a part of the Union force which Johnston hoped for.

Sherman also deftly anticipated his opponent's thrusts and took steps to thwart them as at Pickett's Mill. While it is perhaps more appropriate to call the entire Atlanta campaign the decisive battle of the Civil War, because of the desire to confer this designation on a single battle, and because the battle of Rocky Face Ridge was the first battle in the campaign and set the pattern for the whole campaign, this battle is herein offered as the decisive battle of the Civil War. The tactics which Sherman developed in the battle of Rocky Face Ridge were applied with great effectiveness throughout the drive to Atlanta. Sherman skillfully exploited the advantages at his disposal and, save for one glaring and costly exception, adeptly and wisely employed maneuver rather than assault to attain objectives and to compel Johnston to withdraw closer to the ultimate objective, Atlanta. Sherman’s Atlanta campaign, a lance into the heart of the Confederacy, resulted in the capture of Atlanta, Lincoln’s re-election, and the continued prosecution of the Civil War until Northern victory brought about restoration of the Union. And all of this started with the battle of Rocky Face Ridge.

Author's Note: Most of the information in this article is from volume 3 of Shelby Foote's The Civil War: A Narrative and from Retreat With Honor (Battles & Leaders of the Civil War Vol. IV). The maps are from volume 3 of Shelby Foote's The Civil War: A Narrative. The inspiration for this article came from a chapter in How Great Generals Win by Bevin Alexander. This book was given to me by Jon Thompson, who won it in the monthly Roundtable raffle. (So don't underestimate the benefits of the Roundtable book raffles.)

For the Union...

William T. Sherman
James B. McPherson
John M. Schofield
George H. Thomas

For the Confederacy...

Joseph E. Johnston
John Bell Hood
William Hardee
Leonidas Polk
Joseph Wheeler

The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable