The Atlanta Campaign was an 1864 Union offensive fought in northern Georgia. The campaign began on May 7, 1864 when three Federal armies under the command of Major General William T. Sherman invaded Georgia from the vicinity of Chattanooga, Tennessee. The campaign ended when Confederate General John Bell Hood ordered the Army of Tennessee to evacuate Atlanta on September 1, 1864, enabling Sherman to occupy the city on the next day.
In September 1863, Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee was attempting to recapture Chattanooga, Tennessee from Federal forces by besieging the city. Union leaders responded by sending Major General Ulysses S. Grant and reinforcements to Chattanooga with orders to break the siege. After establishing a new supply line into the city, Grant ordered a breakout offensive in late November that successfully drove Bragg’s army back into northern Georgia. With the “Gateway to the South” secured, Union forces were well situated to launch an offensive aimed at capturing Atlanta.
Following the breakout at Chattanooga, Grant was promoted to the special rank of Lieutenant General and placed in command of all Union armies. Grant moved his headquarters to Washington, leaving his trusted subordinate, Major General William T. Sherman, in command of Federal operations in the Western Theater. Grant’s primary military strategy was a coordinated effort to attack and defeat the two main Confederate armies in the field, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the east, and Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee in the west. On May 5, 1864, Grant launched his Overland Campaign against Lee in Virginia. Two days later, Sherman led three armies, the Army of the Tennessee, commanded by Major General James B. McPherson; the Army of the Ohio, commanded by Major General John M. Schofield; and the Army of the Cumberland, commanded by Major General George H. Thomas, out of Tennessee in pursuit of Johnston’s army.
After the Siege of Chattanooga was broken, Bragg retreated into northern Georgia and established a defensive line at Dalton, about thirteen miles south of Sherman. On February 24, 1864, Confederate President Jefferson Davis sacked Bragg, replacing him with General Joseph Johnston. As Sherman approached the entrenched Southern army, he decided to avoid a costly frontal attack. Instead, he sent the Army of the Tennessee through an unprotected gap in the mountains at Snake Creek to disable the Western and Atlantic Railroad behind Johnston’s lines. In danger of being outflanked and having his supply line severed, Johnston was forced to pull back twelve miles to Resaca, Georgia on the night of May 12-13.
On May 14, the Union armies engaged the Rebels at Resaca, but with little success. On May 15, part of McPherson’s army again outflanked Johnston, crossing the Oostanaula River, forcing the Confederates to retreat south to Adairsville. Johnston planned to engage Sherman’s forces at Adairsville on May 19, but when threatened by Union cavalry, the Confederate leader called off the attack and retreated across the Etowah River on May 23.
Johnston assumed a strong defensive position at Allatoona Pass on the railroad line. Once again, Sherman chose to avoid a frontal assault, sending all three of his armies west and then south, bypassing the Confederates. This time Johnston anticipated Sherman’s flanking maneuver and engaged the Union armies at the Battles of New Hope Church on May 25, and Pickett’s Mill on May 27. After suffering heavy losses with little gain, each side entrenched and began probing the other’s defenses.
On June 3, Union cavalry secured Allatoona Pass, enabling Sherman to abandon his defensive position and move his forces eastward, back to the railroad. Johnston responded by moving his army south to a strong defensive position around Kennesaw Mountain. Confederate reinforcements and heavy rains, which hampered any further flanking movements, prevented Sherman from making much headway against the Rebels entrenched on Kennesaw Mountain. Hoping to force the Confederates from their position, Sherman ordered a frontal assault on June 27, which the Rebels easily repulsed, resulting in heavy Union losses.
In early July, the heavy rains ended, enabling Sherman to resume his flanking tactics and forcing Johnston to retreat six miles further south to Marietta. The Federals continued to press forward, and Johnston withdrew to the north bank of the Chattahoochee River just two days later. Tired of Johnston’s retreating, Confederate President Jefferson Davis relieved Johnston of his command on July 17, replacing him with General John B. Hood.
Davis chose Hood, in part, because he had proven to be an aggressive leader at the Battles of Gettysburg and Chickamauga. Hood did not take long in meeting Davis’s expectations, attacking the Army of the Cumberland after it crossed Peachtree Creek on July 20. Hood’s forces put forth a determined effort, but the Federals held their ground, forcing the Rebels to retire.
On July 22, Hood decided to take on the Army of the Tennessee as it pushed closer to Atlanta from the east. In the Battle of Atlanta, his forces inflicted heavy losses on the Federals, including the death of McPherson, but in the end, the Confederates were repulsed, suffering 5,500 casualties.
Having been unsuccessful in approaching Atlanta from the north and east, Sherman decided to try assaults from the south and west. At the Battles of Ezra Church on July 28, Confederate defenders prevented Union forces from cutting the rail line between East Point and Atlanta. To the south, on July 30, Rebel forces repelled a daring Union cavalry raid, aimed at severing supply lines into the city.
With all approaches apparently blocked, Sherman decided to shell Hood’s army out of Atlanta. On July 20, he ordered his artillery to begin bombarding Hood’s lines, as well as the city, which still harbored about 3,000 civilians. The shelling lasted for five weeks, killing about 20 civilians, but Hood continued to hold on as long as he was receiving supplies. Toward the end of August, Sherman determined to stop the flow of supplies into Atlanta. In the past, he had used cavalry raids to destroy railroads leading into the city. When the cavalry left, however, Hood was able to repair the railroad and restore his supply lines. On August 25, Sherman began pulling infantry units out of the line to move against the main supply line coming into Atlanta. Not having enough troops to guard the entire railroad line, Hood ordered an unsuccessful attack near Jonesborough on August 31. With his main supply line now severed, Hood evacuated Atlanta on the night of September 1, burning all military stores and installations. Sherman’s forces occupied the city on September 2, thus ending the Atlanta Campaign.
In addition to losing the city, the Confederates suffered roughly 32,000 casualties during the Atlanta Campaign. The Union lost about 37,000 soldiers to acquire their prize. Although Hood’s army escaped, the capture of the Georgia capital helped ensure President Lincoln’s reelection in November. Sherman occupied Atlanta for the next two and one half months before starting out on his march to the sea. Before evacuating the city, Sherman ordered “the destruction in Atlanta of all depots, car-houses, shops, factories, foundries.” After stripping the city of all materials that could be utilized by the South, the designated destruction began on November 12. Before the bulk of Sherman’s army evacuated the city on November 15, Union soldiers engaged in unsanctioned arson, torching private residences and much of the downtown. Following Sherman’s departure, Federal troops occupied Atlanta for the remainder of the war and throughout Reconstruction.