Prelude to the Battle
Federal Breakout from Chattanooga
In late November 1863, Union forces commanded by Major General Ulysses S. Grant successfully lifted Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston’s siege of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Union victories at the Battle of Lookout Mountain (November 24) and the Battle of Missionary Ridge (November 25) forced Johnston to withdraw thirty miles south near Dalton, Georgia.
Grant Promoted to Lieutenant General
After the Federal breakout from Chattanooga, President Abraham Lincoln promoted Grant to the special rank of Lieutenant General and placed him 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 Umbrella Strategy
Grant’s primary military strategy was a coordinated effort to attack and defeat the two main Confederate armies in the field, Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia in the east, and Joseph E. Johnston and the 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 in northern Georgia.
Sherman Moves South
Throughout the summer of 1864, the Confederate and Union armies engaged in a series of battles between Dalton and Atlanta in northern Georgia. Most of the fighting occurred at places on or near the Western and Atlantic Railroad, which connected Chattanooga and Atlanta. Both sides depended on the railway for supplies throughout the campaign. In a pattern that Sherman often repeated, he used flanking movements that threatened the railway to Johnston’s rear, forcing the Confederate commander to retreat south to protect his supply lines.
Hood Replaces Johnston
By mid-July, Sherman had driven Johnston’s army to the outskirts of Atlanta. Southerners, in general, and Jefferson Davis, in particular, had grown weary of Johnston’s strategy of retreat. On July 17, 1864, the Confederate President relieved Johnston of his command, replacing him with General John Bell Hood. Known as an aggressive fighter, Hood was a veteran officer with a reputation for personal bravery. He received severe wounds at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863) and at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19–20, 1863). Upon assuming his new command, General Hood wasted little time in responding to Southerners’ calls for action.
Battle of Peachtree Creek
On July 20, Hood launched a costly attack against the Army of the Cumberland. The assault cost Hood nearly 5,000 soldiers and did not drive the Federals back north of Peachtree Creek. Undeterred, Hood turned his attention to McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee, east of Atlanta.
Battle of Atlanta
On July 22, Hood ordered William J. Hardee’s corps to march out and assault McPherson’s left flank, which Hood believed was vulnerable. Unfortunately for Hood, McPherson recognized the weakness on his left flank and reinforced it before Hardee arrived to launch his assault. The battle began when Hardee’s soldiers encountered McPherson’s reinforcements. The Federals repulsed the initial attack but gradually began to give ground. Confederate soldiers shot and killed McPherson rode to the front to observe the fighting. Despite the loss of their leader, the Yankees regrouped and eventually held their line.
At about 4 p.m., Hood launched a secondary assault against the Union center. Once again, the initial push was successful, and the Rebels forced the Federals back. In response, Sherman personally directed artillery fire on the Confederates, halting their surge and inflicting heavy casualties. The Federals then launched a counterattack and restored their lines. With the Union lines stabilized on both fronts and Rebel losses rising to unacceptable levels, Hood called off the attacks.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Battle of Atlanta was another costly defeat for the Confederacy. Hood’s army lost 8,500 killed, wounded, captured, or missing badly needed soldiers. Union losses totaled about 3,600, including McPherson. The Confederates still held Atlanta, but their situation was untenable. Sherman settled into a siege, shelling the city, and cutting off supplies until Hood had to evacuate Atlanta six weeks later.