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
Upon arriving in Washington, Grant devised a “total war” policy aimed at the Confederate military, transportation systems, and anything else abetting the Rebel cause. 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.
Sherman Pursues Rebels in Georgia
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.
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 he often repeated, Sherman 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. Many Southerners, including President Jefferson Davis, had grown weary of Johnston’s strategy of retreat. On July 17, 1864, Davis 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 who suffered severe wounds at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863) and the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19–20, 1863). General Hood wasted little time responding to Southerners’ calls for action.
Sherman Besieges Atlanta
Hood launched costly attacks against Sherman’s armies on July 20 (Battle of Peachtree Creek) and July 22 (Battle of Atlanta) that produced high Confederate casualties (over 13,000 men killed, wounded, and captured/missing). Despite his high losses, Hood prevented Sherman from penetrating Atlanta from the north and from the east. Foiled in his efforts to capture the city by force, Sherman besieged Atlanta in late July.
To prevent supplies from entering Atlanta, Sherman transferred the Army of the Tennessee (under the command of Major General Oliver O. Howard, following McPherson’s death at the Battle of Atlanta) to the west side of the city between July 25-27. Howard’s aim was to cut the Atlanta and West Point Railroad, which brought supplies from East Point, Georgia into Atlanta.
Confederates Attack at Ezra Church
Anticipating Howard’s intentions, Hood sent two corps to intercept the Federals. On the afternoon of July 28, the Confederate soldiers attacked Howard’s army at Ezra Church. Expecting just such a move from the ever-pugnacious Hood, Howard had entrenched one of his corps in the Rebel path and repulsed the attack.
Aftermath of the Battle
Once again, Hood’s aggressiveness proved costly in terms of casualties. The Confederates lost about 3,000 soldiers (killed, wounded, and captured/missing), compared to less than 600 for the Federals. Although the Battle of Ezra Church exacted a high price on the Rebels, Hood prevented Howard from achieving his goal of severing a critical supply line for Atlanta.