The Atlanta Campaign 1864
“We are going to war in earnest this time, General Sherman is no trifler” – Union trooper in Georgia 1864
At the beginning of 1864 William Tecumseh Sherman united several Union armies in the western theater for his coming operations in Georgia, forming one of the largest armies in American History.
Nearly untouched in the war up to this point the State of Georgia was an enormous bread basket for the Confederacy. By 1864 the City of Atlanta had become a large manufacturing center and its’ rail yards linked the southern and western states in rebellion to the rest of the Confederacy.
President Lincoln, US Grant and W. Tecumseh Sherman had workout a plan that they hoped would finally put an end to this Rebellion. It took the form in a number of planned military campaigns throughout the country that would happen simultaneously in 1864. They reasoned – with all the Confederate armies engaged in the field, no one Rebel force could come to the aid of the other – the Union’s superiority in the numbers of soldiers and supplies would inevitably wear down the Rebels. Lincoln, Grant and Sherman planned to asphyxiate the Confederacy.
US Grant’s orders to Sherman,
“You I propose to move against Johnston’s army, to break it up, and to get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources” *
Grant was referring to Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston and his Army of the Tennessee at this point entrenched and waiting for Sherman in the mountains of northwest Georgia. Sherman’s ultimate goal, the City of Atlanta, was 100 miles away as the bird flies from his base at Chattanooga, Tennessee.
“Sherman set his sights on the Confederacy’s last major industrial city in the West and General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee, which aimed to protect it. Atlanta’s use to the Confederacy lay in its terminus for three major railroad lines that traveled across the South: the Georgia Railroad, Macon and Western, and the Western & Atlantic.” *
The battles in May and June of 1864 in Georgia would follow the terminus of the Western Atlantic Railroad, from Chattanooga to Atlanta, both armies using it as a supply source, breaking up and repairing the tracks as they made their way through the State.
“Grant and Sherman were now intent on fully depriving the Confederacy of the ability to keep fighting. Sherman put this policy in effect…by confiscating civilian resources and literally taking the fight to the Southern people. *
What Grant had proposed to Sherman, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources, would soon come to define Sherman and his “total war” strategy in Georgia.
Sherman wrote to Grant, “Georgia has a million of inhabitants. If they can live, we should not starve. If the enemy interrupt our communications, I will be absolved from all obligations to subsist on our own resources, and will feel perfectly justified in taking whatever and wherever we can find.”
Sherman assembled nearly 100,000 men for his incursion into Georgia later defined as the Atlanta Campaign. Broken up into three distinct armies all taking their names from western rivers; the Army of the Tennessee, the Army of the Cumberland, and the Army of the Ohio, Sherman planned to spread out his forces as they moved east toward Atlanta.
From his base at Chattanooga, the view from Lookout Mountain gave Sherman an idea of what lay between his army and what was increasingly seen as the South’s last Confederate bastion at Atlanta.
“Here he could see that the Southern Appalachians formed themselves into several lines of ridges and peaks with a general north-south alignment, though as they ran south they angled to the west into Alabama. They made an impressive ensemble: When one of Sherman’s soldiers from Illinois—the second flattest state in the Union—first beheld them he said: “I think God Almighty might have made the world in four days if he had not ruffed it up so”; another, with an eye to the coming campaign, allowed that nature had created the area for General Joe Johnston’s “special benefit.” **
“The mountains’ flanks were sloping, they tended to be densely wooded and could have considerable undergrowth as well. Wheeled traffic—artillery, supply wagons, ambulances, and the like—could move only through passes and gaps; they would be roadbound in a region where roads were few. It was something of an undeveloped country, a frontier. People called the northern third of the state “Cherokee Georgia” with good reason, for only thirty years before it had been Indian country.” **
“Why was he obliged to invade Georgia across this particularly rough and inhospitable landscape? The answer lay below him—a thin, sinuous line of iron that ran from Chattanooga all the way to Atlanta: the Western and Atlantic Railroad.”
“It was not strategy that dictated the general’s route, but logistics, for by 1864 the war had demonstrated that a rail line was virtually as good as a navigable waterway in supplying an army far from its base; where waterways were lacking, it was the only means to sustain an army in a deep penetration of enemy territory.” **
“General Johnston understood this quite as well as Sherman. He had his Army of Tennessee in position athwart the railroad some thirty miles to the south.” **
Chattanooga to Resaca
I traveled through this area of Georgia in May 2014, 150 years after these events to see what remains of Sherman’s drive across this State and to attend a reenactment in the town of Resaca, Ga. I had travelled some of this journey back in September of 2013 while visiting Chickamauga and Chattanooga and looked forward to exploring this still heavily wooded country in north-western Georgia.
The country here is still wild. Driving from Atlanta to Dalton, the two-hour drive takes you through a series of heavily wooded ridges that form the southern Appalachians. Still sparsely populated today in 1864 the Confederates had built defensive earthworks along the ridges of many of these mountains. A formidable obstacle, Sherman’s troops would have to force their way through narrow mountain gaps and fight amongst dense forests to get his army the 100 miles to Atlanta.
With this terrain in mind Sherman was determined to make his armies as lean as possible. From Sherman’s memoirs,
“Each division and brigade was provided a fair proportion of wagons for a supply train, and these were limited in their loads to carry food, ammunition, and clothing. Tents were forbidden to all save the sick and wounded, and one tent only was allowed to each headquarters for use as an office. These orders were not absolutely enforced, though in person I set the example, and did not have a tent , nor did any officer about me have one; but we had wall tent-flies, without poles, and no tent-furniture of any kind. We usually spread our flies over saplings, or on fence-rails or posts improvised on the spot.”
“Several times during the campaign I found quartermasters hid away in some comfortable nook to the rear, with tents and mess-fixtures which were the envy of the passing soldiers; and I frequently broke them up, and distributed the tents to the surgeons of brigades. Yet my orders actually reduced the transportation, so that I doubt if any army ever went forth to battle with fewer impedimenta, and where the regular and necessary supplies of food, ammunition, and clothing, were issued, as called for, so regularly and so well.”
Traveling through Chattahoochee State Forest I come upon Dug Gap one of the mountain passes defended by the Confederates during Sherman’s early push through the Georgia mountains. A thousand-foot-long rock wall of boulders constructed and successfully defended by Confederate forces in 1864 still lines the ridge today.
At Dug Gap you also get a sense of the effort it would take to climb and fight in this landscape. Dramatic rock outcroppings gut-out from sheer drops, the ridges covered in dense weathered forests. The terrain at Dug Gap defines this rocky mountainous region in Georgia.
I visited Tunnel Hill, Georgia a small town that was made famous for the railroad tunnel built there in the 1850’s and was Sherman’s first big objective in his drive for Atlanta. The railroad tunnel runs under Chetoogeta Ridge and is still the longest railroad tunnel in the South. The old tunnel is a tourist attraction now, a companion tunnel was built later and serves the modern trains that continue to run between Chattanooga and Atlanta.
In May of 1864 as Sherman approached Confederate officials decided against destroying the tunnel and pulled back to their defenses at Rocky Face Ridge. After Federal troops occupied Tunnel Hill it was from Chetoogeta Ridge that Union General O.O. Howard remarked to Sherman,“The ball has opened…” the Atlanta Campaign had officially begun and luck would have it, Sherman had a completely unobstructed tunnel to run his trains through as they advanced on Dalton.
“Near Dalton, Georgia, the Battle of Rocky Face Ridge (May 7-13) began the campaign of battles, and it immediately demonstrated Sherman’s desire to seize and destroy Atlanta’s railroad capacities. This was clearly evidenced by his plan of attack; Sherman sent two columns against Johnston’s Confederate positions, entrenched in a long line across Rocky Face Ridge. In a large outflanking movement, the third column intended to strike through Snake Creek Gap, where the Western & Atlantic Railroad lay at the town of Resaca.” *
That same railroad still runs through Resaca today and the towns’ population amazingly actually mirrors that of the 1860s, retaining just a few thousands souls. The Battlefield at Resaca is one of a number of Civil War battlefields in the country administered by a private organization – the Friends of Resaca Battlefield. The 150th anniversary reenactment of the Battle of Resaca would be played out in May of 2014 on actual Civil War battleground.
The Resaca Battlefield abuts the old Western Atlantic railroad tracks and was the reason the Confederates set up a defense here in 1864. During the reenactment a modern train would occasionally rumble by. I could just imagine the face of the train conductor who when coming around a turn came upon a full-scale Civil War battle… in 2014.
The ground here at Resaca rolls in a series of small hills with some open ground surrounded by dense pine forests. Reenactors dug earthworks and constructed gun emplacements along the opposing tree lines preparing to occupy those trenches and earthworks during the weekend battles.
In 1864 the height of the Battle at Resaca centered around a four gun Confederate gun battery…
“The four-gun Confederate battery, protected behind an earthen parapet, became the center of a furious struggle. Union troops massed in a ravine directly in front of the battery, and the 70th Indiana Regiment , led by Colonel Benjamin Harrison (the future U.S. president), swarmed over the parapet and overwhelmed the Confederate gunners…The scene around the contested guns resembled a massacre, and Confederate General Carter Stevenson described the battlefield: The assaults of the enemy were in heavy force and made with the utmost impetuosity, but were met with a cool, steady fire, which each time mowed down their ranks and drove them back, leaving the ground thickly covered in places with their dead.”
This exact scene was played out at Resaca in 2014. I had the luck of being embedded with a group of dedicated reenactors in the impression of the 70th Indiana. I followed these living historians as they battled their way over the hills and across the fields at Resaca, resting and forming up along a battlefield trench before charging the four-gun Rebel battery during the reenactment.
The 70th Indiana’s commanding officer, Jim Butler, with anticipation mounded the trench and addressed his soldiers, ”Men of Indiana, are you ready!” An enormous hurrah goes up among the reenactors as they charge up and over the Rebel parapet and engage in a mock hand-to-hand fight for the guns. I am with them and after stumbling a bit scaling the earthworks get to record the aftermath of this commemorative struggle at Resaca – the reenactors lying amongst the captured Rebel guns.
The Battle of Resaca on May 14-15 1864 has been called the first major struggle for Atlanta and was ultimately a Confederate victory.
“The fury of the Confederate resistance at Resaca made a profound impression upon Sherman’s mind throughout the rest of the campaign. It would be five long weeks before the Union commander would try another major assault upon any entrenched Southern positions… It was now a matter of trench warfare that the rest of the world would not come to understand until some 50 years later in Europe.” *
The determination of the Southerners impresses Sherman in a letter to his wife, Ellen:
“The devils seem to have a determination that cannot but be admired. No amount of poverty or adversity seems to shake their faith—niggers gone—wealth and luxury gone, money worthless, starvation in view within a period of two or three years, are causes enough to make the bravest tremble, yet I see no sign of let up—some few deserters—plenty tired of war, but the masses determined to fight it out.”
In 1864 Georgians by the way seemed to have the same opinion of Sherman – he was and for some still is, the Devil incarnate.
Resaca to Kennesaw
The battles at Rocky Face Mountain and Resaca demonstrated to General Joe Johnston and the Confederates that being out numbered nearly two to one even their mountain defenses, although seemingly impregnable to frontal assaults, could be out-flanked by Sherman’s larger force. This is what continued to happened as Sherman and the Union armies made their way east toward Atlanta.
As the campaign rolled on the soldiers of both armies were in constant motion, skirmishing and in small and large scale battles on a daily basis. If they weren’t fighting they were digging entrenchments. Sherman called it, “a big Indian War” and stated frankly in a letter to his wife,
“I begin to regard the death and mangling of a couple of thousand men as a small affair, a kind of morning dash, and it may be well that we become so hardened..”
“We continue to press forward on the principle of an advance against fortified positions. The whole country is one vast fort, and Johnston must have at least fifty miles of connected trenches, with abatis and finished batteries.”
The fighting of the Atlanta Campaign can be traced from Dalton to Atlanta by basically following the old Western Atlantic rail line that still runs from Chattanooga to Atlanta. Battles at Allatoona Pass, a section of track cut through 60 foot of rock, was made famous in 1862 when the Great Locomotive Chase passed through here and in 1864 when it was captured and fortified by Union troops during the Atlanta Campaign.
The beautiful Etowah Valley in Georgia was home to the Cherokee Indians in the years before the Civil War but the regions’ Native American roots run much deeper then that. The Etowah Indian Mounds were visited by Sherman on a tour through Georgia in the 1850s and are still a major tourist attraction today. Dating to 1000AD six distinct earthen ceremonial mounds rise up along the Etowah River and still radiate an otherworldliness.
In Cartersville, Ga at the Etowah River there was a rail bridge that was vital to both armies in the campaign. When the Confederates retreated from this position they burned the bridge. Sherman’s engineers were soon able to reconstruct the span. Today the bridge abutments survive in what is now a popular fishing hole on the Etowah River.
Just down the road are the remains of Cooper’s Furnace a pre-Civil War iron works in Cartersville. Cooper’s Iron Works were defended by the Confederates and eventually destroyed by Sherman’s troops in 1864.
Here I might say something that disappointed me during this trip through Georgia. A number of Georgia’s historical sites I had intended on visiting, due to budget cuts, were opened only three days a week. This included the Etowah Indian Mounds and I had to be content with photographing this awesome ancient ceremonial site…through a barbed wire fence. I had the same issue with the wonderfully preserved Pickett’s Mill Battlefield.
The Battle at Pickett’s Mill happened on May 27th 1864 and was part of a series of battles that occurred as Sherman and his Union forces pushed further on toward Atlanta. Battles at New Hope Church, Dallas, Ga and a place called Pickett’s Mill were remembered by the Union veterans simply as “the Hell Hole”.
Unlike many Civil War Battlefields administered by the National Park Service, this relatively newly preserved State battleground hasn’t changed at all in 150 years. There are no roads in the battlefield park. After parking in a lot outside the small visitors center and paying a small fee you walk along dirt roads in the forest that the troops marched down in 1864.
Pickett’s Mill Creek runs through the battlefield and was the source for the mill when it was in operation in the 1800s. Barely anything of the mill survives today but the creek is still fed by a myriad of streams that cut through the forest creating dramatic ravines within the woodland landscape.
These ravines at Pickett’s Mill are an example of what the Union troops later referred to as a hell hole. On May 27th 1864 Union troops became bogged down in the ravines here as the entrenched Confederates delivered a devastating fire from their concealed positions above the ravine. Taking the trail along the top of the ravine reveals evidence of these Confederate trenches as well as some interpretive breastworks reconstructed by local living-historians.
Repulsed by the Confederates in these battles Sherman and the Union Army continued to grind down the Rebels by attacking and holding the Confederates in place while maneuvering a portion of the army around their flanks. These costly battles were ultimately leading to what Sherman considered to be the key to Atlanta – Kennesaw Mountain.
Kennesaw Mountain still looms today as you drive east on Route 41 toward Marietta, Georgia. Kennesaw is actually a series mountains that in 1864 were made into a fortress, bristling with guns and Confederate infantry.
Sherman and the Union Army approached cautiously and began to dig-in around the mountain chain and set up his supply depot at a rail stop called Big Shanty, now Kennesaw, Ga.
Kennesaw Mountain would be one of the places Sherman was forced to make frontal assaults during the Atlanta Campaign and they were mightily repulsed by the Confederates. Union troops surged up the slopes of Kennesaw but the Rebel defenders were too firmly entrenched. With weeks of preparation the Rebels had constructed a defense on the mountain chain that was nearly impregnable.
On June 22nd 1864 fighting erupted south of Kennesaw at Kolb’s Farm as Union forces attempting a flanking movement were ultimately stopped by Confederate troops led by General John Bell Hood. The Federals under Gen. Joseph Hooker realizing Hood’s approach quickly entrenched and wound up inflicting more casualties on Hood’s men who eventually withdrew.
Fierce fighting at Cheatham Hill and Pigeon Hill where Confederates resorted to rolling boulders down on their Union attackers, were all battles for Kennesaw that ultimately ended with high Union casualties and the Confederates still firmly entrenched.
Visiting Kennesaw Mountain was a bit of a shock after a few days of driving through the Georgia wilderness. Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park is situated just outside Marietta, Georgia a mire 20 miles from downtown Atlanta and subject to the pressures of growing suburban development. The dense lush forests of northwest Georgia are being replaced by private gated communities and upscale malls. I could conveniently grab a Starbuck’s coffee just a few minutes from the Kennesaw Mountain Battlefield Visitors Center but sadly, after driving for a week through the wilderness, Marietta was the first place I encountered traffic since I left Atlanta.
Kennesaw Mountain Battlefield Park is still assessed along single lane roads through the forest that become congested in the mornings and evenings when joggers and sightseers flock to the battlefield park to brave the steep ascent to the top of Big Kennesaw Mountain.
This ascent to the top of Kennesaw is lined with rifle pits and along the trail the remains of Confederate trenches. At the top you get to see the view Sherman finally took in after he successfully out-flanked the Confederates at Kennesaw. The City of Atlanta, today a distinct modern skyline, in 1864 its church spires and factory smoke stacks came into Sherman’s view for the first time in the campaign.
The interpretative 12 pound Napoleon guns that now line the top of Kennesaw point west toward Sherman’s approach in 1864. Surrounded by wildflowers and a pristine forest the gunners view today barely gives you a glimpse of the valley below. The trees atop Kennesaw in 1864 were cut down to provide clear fields of fire for the Confederate gunners. Their view in 1864 would have been of a giant army in blue, dug-in and spread out before them for miles around.
Kennesaw to Atlanta
After out-flanking the Confederates at Kennesaw Mountain the Union Army was now just 20 miles from the City of Atlanta.
“As Johnston continued to gradually move south, and thus closer to Atlanta, people were growing increasingly worried. “In Richmond, Jefferson Davis began to grow uneasy. So did many other Southerners, particularly those in Georgia, and above all those in Atlanta. When and where would Johnston stand and fight Sherman?” *
It was at this time that Gen. Joe Johnston was replaced by General John Bell Hood. Johnston’s retreat to the gates of Atlanta had finally forced Jefferson Davis to make a change. John Bell Hood was all together a different sort than Joe Johnston. Already missing an arm from Gettysburg and a leg from Chickamauga, Hood was an aficionado of R.E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and believed in attacking the enemy.
In July 1864 Gen. Hood went on the attack as Sherman closed in on Atlanta. Confederates launched furious assaults on the Federals just outside the City at Peachtree Creek and Ezra Church but this time Sherman’s troops were entrenched and waiting for the Rebels. The assaults were repulsed with the Confederates withdrawing and having to leave their wounded and dead on the field of battle.
The fury of these Confederate attacks and Atlanta’s formidable defenses convinced Sherman that another grand flanking movement would need to be made – to cut off the rail lines into Atlanta. Swinging two-thirds of his army south and around the City this flanking movement culminated in the Battle of Jonesboro and is designated as the last battle in the Atlanta Campaign.
Nearly surrounded and the rail lines, their supply source in enemy hands, Hood and the Confederates abandon Atlanta, burning the City’s extensive rail yards in their retreat.
On September 2nd 1864 Union troops entered the City of Atlanta after battling their way across nearly half of Georgia. Sherman triumphantly wires Washington telling President Lincoln, “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won”. In the capturing of Atlanta Sherman and his Union armies had basically secured Lincoln’s reelection in 1864.
The absence of this vital rail center for the Rebels would be one of the last huge blows to the Confederacy. Sherman would occupy the City, evict its residents and eventually abandon and burn Atlanta when he began his infamous March to the Sea two months later in the fall of 1864.
In this sesquicentennial year there is little remaining of these battlegrounds around the City of Atlanta. Of course Peachtree Creek still runs its course through the City but nothing has been preserved of this battlefield. The Battlefield at Jonesboro as well as others around Atlanta are considered some of the most endangered Civil War battlefields in the country – many are considered beyond saving.
The CWPP will return to Atlanta and retrace Sherman’s March to Sea culminating in a reenacted Battle of Fort McAllister outside Savannah in December 2014.
(*) The Atlanta Campaign– Charles River Editors
(**) Marching Through Georgia – Lee B. Kennett
Other sources for the Atlanta Campaign include the Memoirs of US Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.
The Civil War: A Narrative Vol 3. – by Shelby Foote and War Like the Thunderbolt: The Battle and Burning of Atlanta – by Russell S. Bonds