Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Battle of Atlanta - The True Turning Point of the American Civil War

The Battle of Atlanta
– The True Turning Point of the American Civil War


            For three days in July of 1863, a small crossroads town in Southeastern Pennsylvania served as the stage for the largest battle ever waged on the North American continent. There elements of General Robert E. Lee’s invading Army of Northern Virginia stumbled into a cavalry element of General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac. As the rest of the two armies sprinted to join their comrades in the initial skirmishes of the battle, the Union wisely ceded the town to occupy the high ground to the south of the city. From the afternoon of the 1st through the afternoon of the 3rd of July, Lee, wishing to be Wellington to Meade’s Napoleon at Waterloo, threw three waves of attacks at all sides of the Union lines. Attempts at the flanks were thrown back on days one and two, while what should be considered Lee’s gravest tactical failure, the infamous “Picket’s Charge” at the center of the Union line at Cemetery Ridge, failed on the final day. After witnessing horrendous losses to his three Corps, Lee retreated to Virginia.
            Much of conventional wisdom states that the battle of Gettysburg was the turning point in the American Civil War in favor of the Union. Certainly due to the proximity of the Eastern Front to the highly populated Atlantic Coast and New England states, the ebbs and flows of the war in this region were amplified by the press. Strengthening the argument of July 1863 serving as the turning point of the Civil War, coincidental to the battle of Gettysburg was arguably the far more important final battle of Vicksburg, in which Lincoln’s favorite fighting general, Ulysses S. Grant, masterfully maneuvered his army down the Mississippi, came ashore many miles south of the city, marched through swampland, fighting multiple battles as he went, and arrived at Vicksburg knocking at its backdoor. Grant’s bold maneuver in concert with the poor strategic decision of the Confederate War Department not to reinforce Pemberton’s 30,000-strong army at Vicksburg, and Pemberton’s foolhardy decision not to abandon the city resulted in a 45 day siege with the inevitable complete surrender of Pemberton’s forces.
            These two battles certainly marked not just a change in direction of the war, but also a change in perception of the war from the Northern point of view. After all Gettysburg demonstrated that Lee was not in fact, invincible. Lee’s previous ability to stymie Union advances against overwhelming odds to include the masterful strategic victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville fed the legend that was Lee; alternately contributing towards his own overconfidence at Gettysburg, and propagating the myth to Union generals that Lee was unbeatable. And, once again, this all took place under the bright lights of the sensational print media of Washington, Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.
            But just as quickly did the press’ love affair with the advances of the Union armies in general and with General Grant in particular began, so speedily it ended during the Overland Campaign in the summer of 1864. General Grant’s and General Lee’s armies marched by flanking maneuver after flanking maneuver from the Rapidan River down to the James. In just 45 days the Army of the Potomac suffered 65,000 casualties at the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, North Anna, and Cold Harbor. The number of casualties from May 5 to July 4 “was nearly two-thirds of the total in the previous three years.”[1] Appalled by the horrifying loss of life and limb, the northern press bestowed the moniker of “butcher” upon Grant.
            It is upon this stage then that the battle was fought that proved to be the latest and greatest turning point of the war: the Battle of Atlanta.
The devastating Confederate setbacks in the Vicksburg and Gettysburg campaigns together and simultaneously (both campaigns produced Union victories in early July 1863) put an end to the prospect of the South conquering the North, but none of those union campaign victories signified an end to the war on Lincoln’s two terms [of reunion and abolishment of slavery]. [2]

The Military Reality of 1864

            Despite the tremendous successes on both the Western and Eastern fronts in the latter half of 1863, militarily the Union faced a significant set of challenges prior to the campaigning season of 1864. Over 230,000 three-year enlistees in the Union Army were set to expire the spring of that year. Through reenlistment bonuses and other incentives, approximately 136,000 did reenlist.[3] And though the draft of 1863 managed to replenish the ranks, these new soldiers were inexperienced, undisciplined, and green troops at best; deserters, bounty jumpers, and career criminals at worst.[4] "A Connecticut soldier described the new men in his regiment as ‘bounty jumpers, thieves, and cutthroats’; a Massachusetts officer reported that forty of the 186 ‘substitutes, bounty jumpers … thieves and roughs’ who had been assigned to his regiment disappeared the first night after they arrived.”[5]  Though Grant’s army outnumbered Lee’s significantly, the aforementioned lack of quality in the replacement troops certainly leveled the playing field between the two armies.
Text Box: ["A CONNECTICUT SOLDIER DESCRIBED THE NEW MEN IN HIS REGIMENT AS ‘BOUNTY JUMPERS, THIEVES, AND CUTTHROATS’; A MASSACHUSETTS OFFICER REPORTED THAT FORTY OF THE 186 ‘SUBSTITUTES, BOUNTY JUMPERS … THIEVES AND ROUGHS’ WHO HAD BEEN ASSIGNED TO HIS REGIMENT DISSAPPEARED THE FIRST NIGHT AFTER THEY ARRIVED.”]            While Sherman was driving southeast from Chattanooga, Grant simultaneously engaged Lee in the Overland Campaign. And though Sherman enjoyed tremendous success, his victories were overshadowed by the activities in the East and had “lacked much news value”; “the public did not have the same expectations of him as it had had of the lieutenant general in the East.”[6]
            From the start of the Overland Campaign to the beginning of the siege of Petersburg, Lee had demonstrated that through maneuver and fortification, a greatly outnumbered army could continue to exist for a great amount of time and inflict unpalatable casualties upon the numerically superior aggressor. “Until its logistical base completely collapsed, the Army of Northern Virginia had successfully exploited the entrenched defense and defensive maneuver on interior lines. In the process, from the Wilderness through Cold Harbor it had inflicted 64,000 casualties on the enemy, a number equal to the largest size the Army of Northern Virginia attained during the year.”[7]  As the casualties piled up with few gains in territory or tangible successes, the will of the Northern populace wilted.
            One demographic that did not plunge into despair was the military itself. “When Northern home-front morale plunged to perhaps its lowest point in the summer of 1864 because of horrendous casualties in the Army of the Potomac without much apparent progress toward victory, Union soldier morale remained higher than it had been in the spring of 1863.”[8]

The Political Reality of 1864

            The election hung like the sword of Damocles over President Lincoln and influenced every single strategic decision made during the war’s campaign in 1864. As the casualties mounted during the Overland Campaign a depressing sense of reality and war fatigue replaced the euphoria of the previous year’s advances. General Benjamin Butler’s wife Sarah wrote in her diary a statement that no doubt echoed the sentiments of the entire North, “what is all this struggling and fighting for? This ruin and death to thousands of families? … What advancement of mankind to compensate for the present horrible calamities?”[9] Further plunging morale into the depths of despair came July 18 when “with unfortunate timing Lincoln … issued a call for five hundred thousand more volunteers.”[10]
            As the Union casualties in 1864 mounted and as the reality set in that the Confederacy could never hope to win the war outright through force of arms alone, the Southern newspapers, politicians, and generals all knew their best, perhaps only, opportunity of achieving their independence was inversely proportional to Lincoln’s electoral chances. “’If we can break up the enemies arrangement’s early, and throw him back,’ explained [General] Longstreet, ‘he will not be able to recover his position or his morale until the Presidential election is over, and then we shall have a new president to treat with.’”[11] “Confederate hopes in 1864 were based on a military strategy of holding out until the Northern elections and inflicting heavy casualties on the attacking Union forces to turn the electorate against Lincoln.”[12]
            General George B. McClellan was a compromise choice by the Democrat Party in the convention held in Chicago in 1864. The Democrat Party of 1864, being divided into War Democrats and Peace Democrats, selected McClellan on the basis of his previous popularity amongst the soldiers and his war credentials. The Convention adopted a platform that advocated “immediate efforts be made for a cessation of hostilities, with a view of an ultimate convention of the States, or other peaceable means, to the end that, at the earliest practicable moment, peace may be restored on the basis of the Federal Union of the States.”[13]
            Although McClellan stated he was personally in favor of continuing the war for the purposes of reunification, McClellan himself shared the dominant Democrat opinion on the issue of slavery and race relations. Whether McClellan would have been pressured by the Copperheads to seek peace at any cost or continued the war to its end, the implied divergence between McClellan and Lincoln on the issue of emancipation and contraband blacks would have significantly altered the terms of peace, let alone the future of the 13th amendment. “At the national level, Republican victory meant the continuation of emancipation as a war policy and the creation of an antislavery majority in Congress large enough to abolish slavery by constitutional amendment.”[14]
            Lincoln himself was convinced as to the inevitability of his defeat on November 8. Throughout August, Lincoln prepared himself, his supporters, and his administration for the defeat. Lincoln even summoned a meeting with Frederick Douglass to discuss the possibly outcome for the southern black should the Democrat nominee triumph and trade away the Emancipation Proclamation in exchange for reunion and peace.[15]

The Battle of Atlanta

            The campaign of General Sherman that culminated in the victory at Atlanta was actually one component of a five-pieced strategy devised by General Grant and approved by Lincoln in the early spring of 1864. While Sherman struck out from Chattanooga, simultaneously General Meade’s Army of the Potomac moved south to decisively engage the Army of Northern Virginia, General Butler would reprise McClellan’s Peninsula campaign by driving up the James River towards Richmond, General Sigel’s Army of West Virginia would drive south through the Shenandoah Valley, and General Banks would take a force to establish firmer control in Louisiana and eventually capture the port of Mobile, Alabama.[16] This overall campaign devised by Grant was undeniably brilliant but the political choice of generals Nathaniel Banks, Benjamin Butler, and Franz Sigel led to these plan’s components’ failures.
            With Confederate General Jubal Early’s II Corps running roughshod over Sigel’s replacement General David Hunter, Butler languished McClellan-like on the James Peninsula, and Banks did not secure the Red River which in turned failed in delivering Mobile Bay; three out of the five concurrent operations were at the least not successful, if not abject failures. The bloodshed of Grant’s Overland Campaign was the capstone to the tremendous failure of the Union’s 1864 campaign plan. Sherman’s drive from Chattanooga to Atlanta was left to salvage Lincoln’s electoral chances in November.
            Grant ordered Sherman “to attack Johnston and destroy his army if possible, to capture Atlanta and hold it … [cutting] the Confederacy in two again, as [the] gaining possession of the Mississippi River had done before.”[17] In the early May of 1864, Sherman’s army group composed of Generals Schofield’s, McPherson’s, and Thomas’ armies of the Ohio, Tennessee, and Cumberland respectively, drove southeast towards Atlanta. Sherman, who significantly outnumbered his opponent General Joseph E. Johnston, maneuvered his three armies, continuously outflanking Johnston and forcing him to withdraw in the face of being cut off from his logistics base.
With no need to attack his adversary in battle, Sherman had only one minor engagement at Kennesaw Mountain, fought in part to show Johnston that he could not count on the Union army never assaulting his field fortifications. Otherwise, Sherman’s campaign followed Grant’s, with numbers and the offensive supplying initiative. Without surprise, however, the turning movements only forced the enemy to fall back. Both Sherman and Johnston waited to catch the other at a disadvantage, but each proved too wary and skillful to give his antagonist an opening.[18]
            Even though Johnston was outnumbered 90,000 to 60,000 and suffered very minimal casualties compared to Lee’s aggressive defense against Grant, President Davis, with an undermining General John Bell Hood in his ear, became fed up with Johnston’s continuous retreat and replaced him with the more attack-minded Hood after Sherman crossed the Chattahoochee River.[19] But replacing Johnston with Hood merely accelerated the inevitable. Grant believed “that now they would become the aggressors—the very thing [his] troops wanted.”[20]

Sherman’s Left Wheel Drive to Atlanta
            Sherman brilliantly eschewed the easier southern approach to Atlanta, and instead crossed the Chattahoochee north of Hood’s lines, and moved to envelop Hood from the north and east. With Sherman’s numerically superior forces able to maintain his logistics line to Chattanooga, from July 18 to 19, he sent Thomas, Schofield, and McPherson across Peachtree Creek in a swinging door formation with Thomas as the pivot on the Union right and McPherson swinging quickly on the left, cutting off the Augusta railroad at Decatur. After securing Decatur, on the 20th of July, McPherson drove west toward Atlanta, and started to tighten a three-sided noose around Hood.[21] Hood desperately tried to turn McPherson’s left with cavalry and infantry attacks from Wheeler and Hardee respectively. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee ably repulsed the counterattacks by “[facing] half left to meet them.”[22] Hood too tardily realized the significance of McPherson’s drive in from Decatur, and was forced to withdraw into the inner defenses of the city on the 21st. On the night of the 21st, Hood withdrew two Corps from the city to attempt to encircle McPherson’s rear, marching around him from the south.[23] This effort failed to surprise McPherson.
            After several days of outwitting Hood and maneuvering around his flanks, Sherman, confident of his superior position and unwilling to launch a frontal attack against Hood’s fortifications, settled into a siege. Throughout the month of August, Sherman used raids to cut off every last rail line and road leading to Atlanta. Following the seizure of the Macon railroad by Sherman at Jonesboro, on the night of September 1st, Hood became completely cut off and withdrew his remaining defenders from the city.[24] Exuberantly, Sherman marched into Atlanta and sent the now ubiquitous telegram to Lincoln stating, “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.”[25]

The Impact

            One has to view the battle of Atlanta from a political perspective and not simply from that of a military perspective. Yes, Sherman realized that “it was ‘full of foundries, arsenals, and machine shops,’” but he also realized its propaganda impact: “besides being a moral symbol … ‘it’s capture would be the death-knell of the Confederacy.’”[26] Sherman also knew that “if [he] took Atlanta, he would achieve immensely significant political results, more important than the military value.”[27] So while it is inarguable that the capture of Atlanta was an extremely valuable military objective, the fact that it was captured pales in comparison as to when it was captured. The timing of Sherman’s taking Atlanta cannot be understated
            One must consider the events surrounding its capture. During the siege, the progress made by Sherman in the individual battles surrounding the city was not reported by the myopically focused press in the North. Jubal Early’s triumphs at the door of Washington DC received far more coverage than the small, but tactically important victories of Sherman against Hood.[28] The fiasco of the Battle of the Crater in the trenches around Petersburg had also just occurred. The Democratic National Convention closed the night of the final battle of Jonesboro. Their anti-war platform was adopted two days prior to the end of the battle on August 29th.[29] Finally, McClellan was nominated by the Democratic National convention on August 31st, the day before Sherman’s forces entered Atlanta.[30]
            The timing of Atlanta’s capture could not have been better scripted for Lincoln’s reelection campaign. Arriving sharply “on the heels of the Democrats’ war-is-a-failure platform” the Northern press vindicated Lincoln in story upon story.[31] Following this battle, even McClellan supporters realized the inevitability of their defeat. “The New York Evening Post spoke for many Democrats when it said bluntly, “It is impossible to vote for General McClellan, or any other candidate … on that Chicago platform.”[32] The victory even allowed prominent War Democrats cover to campaign for Lincoln’s reelection within their districts.
            Following Sherman’s taking of Atlanta, the tide decidedly turned in favor of the North for the remaining seven months of the conflict. In September, General Phillip Sheridan was placed in charge of the now-renamed Army of the Shenandoah and was charged by Grant to “follow Jubal Early ‘to the death’” as well as turning “the Shenandoah Valley [into] a barren waste … so that crows flying over it for the balance of this season will have to carry their provender with them.’”[33] Sheridan did just that in September and October 1864, effectively making Early’s forces impotent. Grant stated, “these two campaigns [Atlanta and the Shenandoah Valley] probably had more effect in settling the election of the following November than all the speeches, all the bonfires, and all the parading with banners and bands of music in the North.”[34]
“Not Grant’s campaign of attrition in Virginia but fortunately-timed victories by Rear Admiral David Glasgow Farragut at Mobile Bay, Sherman at Atlanta, and Major General Philip H. Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley gave the needed military impetus to Lincoln’s prospects at the polling place.”[35]
            On November 8, 1864 President Abraham Lincoln was elected to a second term by a popular vote majority of approximately 500,000 votes, and by an Electoral College vote of 212 to 21, winning every state save Delaware, Kentucky, and New Jersey.[36] The most notable statistic of the vote was that of the soldier vote. Little Mac, the first soldiers’ general, lost to Lincoln, patron to the ‘butcher’ by 119,754 votes to 34,291, an embarrassing and paltry 22 percent minority.[37]
            Interpreting the election as a mandate to achieve the ultimate strategic goals of the reunification of the country and the abolition of slavery, a now empowered Lincoln rested comfortably in the fact that the ultimate fate of the Confederacy had been sealed with this election victory. With the political pressure eased, Grant settled into a siege of Petersburg and did not directly attack Lee at any further point in the war.  Cutting Sherman loose to drive to Savannah and “make Georgia howl,” Grant could sit patiently and watch Lee’s strength dwindle not through attrition but by desertion from those who lost hope, were starving, or were more concerned for the welfare of their families in Georgia.  All the while Grant thinned Lee’s lines even more by extending the front to the west to cut off the last railroad leading into Richmond and Petersburg from the rest of the southern states.  When Lee recognized his only hope lay in attempting to join Johnston’s forces in North Carolina, he drove the remaining thousands of the Army of Northern Virginia west to try to escape Grant.  Grant though anticipated the move and through blocking, pursuit, and excellent speedy maneuvers of Sheridan’s joining forces from the northwest eventually trapped Lee at Appomattox courthouse.
            While we in the 21st century, with our involvement in Vietnam, the French in Algeria, and our recent involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan are perfectly familiar with the strange concoction that emerges when electoral politics and warfare are mixed, Lincoln essentially blazed the trail for this new development on the American landscape.  Never before had a commander in chief of any nation had to deal with what essentially was a direct referendum on the very conduct of the war.  Many will continue to name great battles that had important tactical impacts upon the conduct of the war like Gettysburg and Vicksburg, but they neglect the political variable that inevitably trumps the military.  Even following Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the Confederacy had just as much hope to establish an independent nation as they did in 1861.


Democratic Party Platforms: "Democratic Party Platform of 1864," August 29, 1864. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley. The American Presidency Project. [accessed February 19, 2013].
Ecelbarger, Gary. The Day Dixie Died: The Battle of Atlanta. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010.
Glatthaar, Joseph T. Partners in Command: The Relationships Between Leaders in the Civil War. New York: The Free Press, 1994.
Grant, Ulysses S. The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant., Kindle Edition, 2012.
Griffith, Paddy. Battle Tactics of the Civil War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.
Hagerman, Edward. The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare: Ideas, Organization, and Field Command. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988.
Hart, B. H. Liddell. Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American. New York: Da Capo Press, 1993.
Hart, B. H. Liddell. Strategy. New York: Meridian, 1991.
Jones, Archer. Civil War Command and Strategy. Simon & Schuster, 2010, Kindle Edition.
McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
McPherson, James M. This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
McPherson, James. Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief. New York: Penguin, 2008.
McWhiney, Grady and Perry D. Jamieson. Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama, 1982.
Paret Peter, Ed. Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.
Sherman, William T. Memoirs of William Tecumseh Sherman. New York: Penguin, 2000.
Von Clausewitz, Carl. On War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976.
Vorenberg, Michael. “’The Deformed Child’: Slavery and the Election of 1864.” Civil War History 47, no. 3 (September 2001): 240-257.
Waugh, John. Reelecting Lincoln: The Battle For The 1864 Presidency. New York, Da Capo Press, 2001.

[1] James M. McPherson, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief (New York: Penguin, 2008), 231.
[2] Gary Ecelbarger, The Day Dixie Died: The Battle of Atlanta (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010), 225.
[3] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 719, 720.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Archer Jones, Civil War Command And Strategy (Simon & Schuster, 2010, Kindle Edition), location 3118.
[7] Edward Hagerman, The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare: Ideas, Organization, and Field Command (Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 1988), 274.
[8] James M. McPherson, This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 165.
[9] McPherson, Tried by War, 232.
[10] Ibid., 231.
[11] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 721.
[12] McPherson, Tried by War, 233.
[13] Democratic Party Platforms: "Democratic Party Platform of 1864," August 29, 1864, Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, [accessed February 19, 2013].
[14] Michael Vorenberg, “’The Deformed Child’: Slavery and the Election of 1864,” Civil War History 47, no. 3 (September 2001): 241.
[15] Ecelberger, 221, 222.
[16] Ibid., 3.
[17] Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S Grant (, Kindle edition, 2012), location 6409.
[18] Jones, Location 3118.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Grant, Location 6842.
[21] B. H. Liddell Hart, Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American (New York: Da Capo Press, 1993), 275-278.
[22] Ibid., 279.
[23] Ibid., 281.
[24] Ecelbarger, 222, 223.
[25] Ibid., 223.
[26] B. H. Liddell Hart, Strategy (New York: Meridian, 1991), 132.
[27] Jones, Location 3198.
[28] Ecelbarger, 220, 221.
[29] Democratic Party Platform.
[30] McPherson, This Mighty Scourge, 178.
[31] Ecelbarger, 223.
[32] John Waugh, Reelecting Lincoln: The Battle For The 1864 Presidency (New York, Da Capo Press, 2001), 299.
[33] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 777, 778.
[34] Grant, Location 6926.
[35] Peter Paret, Ed., Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 434.
[36] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 805.
[37] Ibid., 804.

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.