In May of 1864, Ulysses S. Grant put into action a multi-front offensive campaign that would strike at the very heart of the Confederacy, including marching on Atlanta, Mobile, Alabama, and even the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. His plan relied on many officers to carry out his plan, and when most of his generals were met with firm resistance and turned away, the importance of Union General William T. Sherman was truly exposed. During this campaign Sherman emerged as one of the most important men during the course of the Civil War. Sherman was not as well known as some other generals because he was one of the few officers who had not served during the Mexican War, or the “dress rehearsal for the Civil War.” In 1864, Sherman truly surfaced in the eyes of citizens and troops nationwide as well as making his impact on history.
Sherman was chosen by Grant to march on Atlanta as a part of the May offensive that, so far, was not going as well as Grant had hoped. Sherman had an army of one hundred thousand men, and he was marching against the army of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, who many Confederate officers held in a high regard. The subordinate officers of Braxton Bragg had continuously asked Confederate President Jefferson Davis to replace Bragg with Johnston despite his reputation as an officer who retreated many times. Grant had sent Sherman, a capable officer under Grant’s command, to take Atlanta as the first part of his plan, but then move further into Georgia and further strangle the Confederates. Sherman was an important part of the overall Anaconda Plan that involved a naval blockade and army movement that would surround the Confederacy and attempt to exhaust them and their resources to the point that they would surrender.
As Sherman marched toward Atlanta, he was continuously harassed by Johnston’s outnumbered troops for most of May and through most of June. It wasn’t until the end of June that Sherman attacked Johnston, putting his men on the offensive for the first time since he had set off toward Atlanta. Despite Johnston’s ability to defend against the attacks of Sherman, he retreated from direct fighting with Sherman in early July, retreating back to take up a defensive position in Atlanta. His retreat did not do him any favors publicly, and his reputation for retreat only grew. Jefferson Davis replaced Johnston for failing to go on the offensive more forcefully against Sherman, and Officer John Bell Hood took his place. The replacement came as good news to Sherman and the Union army, who knew that Davis demanded offensive maneuvers of Hood, as much of Lee’s success for the Confederate army came while he was constantly on the offensive. Sherman knew that, even if the Confederates were better off taking up a defensive position, Hood would have political pressure to attack.
Sherman began to besiege Atlanta, though after two months the citizens in the North as well as Lincoln were getting restless that Sherman was not able to capture Atlanta in a timely fashion. After two months it looked like the Siege of Atlanta would be continuing for an unknown amount of time. It wasn’t until September that Union troops finally occupied Atlanta. Because of the success of the Atlanta Campaign and the time at which it came (September, 1864), Union success translated into the success under Abraham Lincoln’s leadership. Sherman’s success played a large role in Lincoln being re-elected, and the fall of Chattanooga and Atlanta made the signs of a Confederate downslide toward defeat much more apparent.
“Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era” by James McPherson
Archer Jones and Herman Hattaway – “How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War”