Atlanta 1864: Last Chance for the Confederacy

Atlanta 1864: Last Chance for the Confederacy

by Richard M. McMurry


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"The fall of Atlanta in September 1864 was an important strategic and psychological victory for the war-weary North, virtually assuring that the Union would win the Civil War while assisting Lincoln in his reelection efforts. This concise volume by McMurry . . . closely examines this significant military campaign, places the struggle in its social and political contexts, and includes useful topical appendices and a bibliographical essay. Given its brevity, focus, and the author's unique insights, this readable and well-documented volume will be welcomed by Civil War enthusiasts and scholars alike."-Library Journal

"[McMurry writes] with a clarity and economy of style that provide a succinct and lucid military narrative and relate it to political events and public opinion in both North and South. He also offers incisive analyses of the strengths and weaknesses of the commanding generals in this campaign."-New York Review of Books

"McMurry . . . incorporates conventional military history at strategic, operational and tactical levels, but also pays attention to wider factors. . . . Clear prose and unrushed presentation make this a thoroughly satisfying outing."-Publishers Weekly

Richard M. McMurry is the author of John Bell Hood and the War for Southern Independence (also available in a Bison Books edition) and Two Great Rebel Armies: An Essay in Confederate Military History.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803232129
Publisher: UNP - Nebraska
Publication date: 08/28/2000
Series: Great Campaigns of the Civil War
Pages: 236
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.29(h) x 1.02(d)
Lexile: 1350L (what's this?)

About the Author

Richard M. McMurry is the author of John Bell Hood and the War for Southern Independence (also available in a Bison Books edition) and Two Great Rebel Armies: An Essay in Confederate Military History.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Presidents and Generals

Late in the afternoon of Tuesday, the eighth of March 1864—almost at the beginning of the fourth year of the American Civil War—Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, his fourteen-year-old son, and two of the general's staff officers arrived by train in Washington DC. At that time Grant commanded the Military Division of the Mississippi, an assignment that gave him authority over almost all Union land forces operating in the vast region between the Mississippi River and the Appalachian Mountains. In the military jargon of the day, this area was known as "the West."

    Grant had come to Washington from his headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee, in response to a summons from President Abraham Lincoln. The chief executive, after three frustrating years of war, was still seeking a general who "would take the responsibility and act" to place in overall command of the Federal armies. Grant, he had concluded, was that man.

    The general made his way from the railroad station to Willard's Hotel, two blocks from the White House. There he took a room and went to eat supper. At forty-two, slightly built, and with stooped shoulders, Grant was not an imposing man. When he registered at the hotel, the desk clerk snorted that he had only a small room available. Grant assured the man that the room would be satisfactory and signed the register. Not until the clerk checked the signature ("U. S. Grant & son, Galena, Ill.") did he realize who this new guest was and arrange for him to have proper quarters. Later, at supper, the other hotelguests broke into applause when they learned his identity.

    After eating, Grant walked to the White House for the president's weekly reception. He reached the Executive Mansion about 9:30, and his entry created quite a stir. There, for the first time, he met the president, as well as Mrs. Lincoln, some of the cabinet members, and assorted hangers-on. All crowded around the general, anxious to see him, shake his hand, and cheer him.

    The national capital's excitement over Grant was certainly understandable. During the preceding three years, he had emerged as the most successful of the Northern army commanders. While other Federal generals, especially those operating in the area around Washington, had suffered defeat after defeat, Grant's armies in the West had marched from victory to victory.

    Early in 1862, troops under Grant's command had moved into West Tennessee. There, in cooperation with the Federal navy, they had captured Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. In so doing they had opened the lower and middle stretches of those streams to the gunboats of the Union navy and forced the Confederates to abandon their positions in Kentucky along with almost all of West Tennessee. Those successes marked the beginning of the slow but inexorable process of dismembering the Southern nation.

    In mid-1863 Grant's forces had captured Vicksburg, Mississippi, along with its defending thirty-thousand-man garrison. By that conquest Grant had split the Confederacy in half. In the following fall Grant had directed the Yankee armies that drove the Secessionists away from Chattanooga in southeastern Tennessee and secured the national government's grip on the Volunteer State.

    By the end of 1863 Grant had played the central role in all three of the great strategic successes won by Federal arms. It was logical, therefore, that early in the following year President Lincoln decided to place him in command of all Union land forces and to confer upon him the recently revived grade of lieutenant general (held earlier only by George Washington, although the aged Winfield Scott then held it by brevet).

    The promotion formalities took place the day after the president's reception. Early that afternoon Grant and his entourage—the two staff officers and his son—went to the White House. There, in a brief, simple ceremony, Lincoln thanked Grant for his past successes, promised to sustain him in the coming months, and presented him with his new commission. A nervous Grant, in equally brief remarks, accepted the new assignment and soon busied himself with preparations for the 1864 campaign.

Lieutenant General Grant ascended to his new post at what seemed a most favorable time. The great battles and campaigns of 1863 (Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and Gettysburg in Pennsylvania) had inflicted stunning losses on the Rebels. Vicksburg and Chattanooga had also produced major changes in the strategic situation of the opposing armies—changes that very clearly tipped the military balance toward the Federals. Gettysburg had brought no alteration in the relative strength or position of the opposing armies or in the course of the war. That engagement did, however, boost Northern morale. In conjunction with Grant's successes at Vicksburg and Chattanooga it also made it certain that the Southerners could not gain a military victory over the Union armies that would compel the Federal government to recognize Confederate independence.

    Things, however, were not that simple. The war had been going on for three years. While Grant had won great successes for the Union cause in the West, the press, the politicians, and the public had focused their attention on events in Virginia. There a long and sometimes spectacular string of local victories by the Rebels had created a strong impression that the Federals had met with failure. Few people, therefore, realized how successful the national armies had been elsewhere in 1861, 1862, and 1863.

    Many in the North, furthermore, had never favored the use of force to hold unwilling states in the Union. Large numbers who had initially supported the war had been sickened by the carnage that marked the conflict's first three years. (The number of deaths in the Federal army had exceeded the number in the Confederate forces by about one hundred thousand.) They and thousands of others were appalled at the sight of veterans who returned from the army missing an eye, an arm, or a leg, or with their bodies wasted by disease.

    The financial cost of the war, like the human toll, had soared far beyond what anyone had anticipated in the long-ago days of 1861 when eager young volunteers had flocked to the colors, anxious to get into battle before the conflict ended in glorious and bloodless victory. Tens of thousands all across the North were deeply alarmed by the many changes the prolonged conflict was forcing onto their society. They resented the higher taxes that took an increasing part of their wealth, the draft that forced thousands of unwilling young men into military service, and the infringements on civil liberties that marked the Lincoln administration's sometimes clumsy efforts to deal with its domestic critics.

    All those matters were symbolic of the increasing power and expanding reach of the Federal government that came with the war. Such developments alarmed Americans raised on the traditional nineteenth-century doctrine of a limited national government and maximum freedom for the states and for individual citizens. Hundreds of thousands who had supported the war in 1861 and 1862 bemoaned the fact that what had begun as a crusade to preserve the Union had in late 1862 become also a war against slavery.

    In the winter of 1863-64 there were numerous reasons why large segments of the Northern population were, at most, lukewarm in their support of the national cause. No one could know how much it would take to convince the majority of people in the United States that continuing the struggle would cost more than any possible result would be worth. Somewhere, though, there was a point beyond which popular support for the war would not go. Success—or, at least the perception of success—by the Federal armies would push that point farther out in time. Failure or perceived failure, on the other hand, would bring it closer. Individuals, of course, would reach that point at different times. Already, in the winter of 1863-64, many citizens in the North could take no more of the war.

    Several ambitious, antiadministration politicians saw in this cauldron of war-weariness, anger, fear, and resentment the opportunity to gain (or regain) political power. Important elections were, after all, scheduled for the fall of 1864. If by then a majority of Northern voters concluded that the Federal government's war effort had failed, they might well vote the Lincoln administration out of office and replace it with "peace men" willing to end the war on whatever terms they could get. Almost all those who held such views belonged to, or were sympathetic with, the Democratic Party.

    Lincoln and Grant, then, were like men three-fourths of the way up a rickety ladder. If the Northern public concluded that they could not continue up the ladder to their goal, support for the war effort might dissolve. Any number of factors—a massive battlefield defeat, constantly increasing casualties, higher taxes, greater draft calls, or even the absence of significant military success—could undermine popular support for the war and destabilize the ground at the foot of the ladder.

    Northern leaders, therefore, had ample reason to worry as they prepared for the renewed military operations that would come with the spring. Even though they had climbed high, a misstep on the ladder could yet send them and their cause crashing to the ground. All those factors led many to the conclusion that if the Federal government were to achieve victory, it must at least be obviously on the way to doing so before the fall elections.

    In truth, the national government had always possessed more than ample resources of men and matériel to win the war. The Yankees' great problem was to find a general who had the will to apply those resources ruthlessly, the competence to do so effectively, the willingness to work with the president in a way that furthered the overall policies of the government, and the ability to get the job done before public support for the war reached its limit.

    President Lincoln certainly had the will to win and the determination to use whatever force was necessary to achieve victory. In the war's first three years, however, the Federal chief executive had been unable to find a general with comparable determination, and he did not have the inclination, technical knowledge, ability, or time to exercise day-to-day command of the national armies himself. In Grant, Lincoln hoped, he had finally found the man who could bring the war to a victorious conclusion.

Abraham Lincoln was not the only American commander in chief seeking a new general that winter. Some two and one-half months before Grant journeyed to Washington the Confederates also found themselves in need of a replacement commander for an important assignment.

    Separated from the Federal capital by barely more than one hundred miles of Virginia countryside, President Jefferson Davis, in Richmond, faced even more daunting problems than did his Union counterpart. Whereas Lincoln had the success and momentum of the North's 1863 victories upon which to build his effort for the coming year, Davis and the Confederates faced the far more difficult task of rebuilding their armies after a series of shattering defeats.

    Unlike Lincoln, Davis did not select a general to entrust with overall command of his nation's armies. The Confederate president was a man of considerable military experience—graduate of the United States Military Academy, seven years an officer in the Regular Army, wounded Mexican War hero, former United States secretary of war, and former chairman of a legislative military affairs committee. He took literally his constitutional designation as commander in chief of his nation's armed forces. He, therefore, kept in his own hands control of all important (as well as of many unimportant) military matters. His desk in the Executive Mansion in Richmond was the de facto headquarters of the Rebel armies, and he intended to play the major role in developing the grand strategy that he hoped would lead the Secessionists to independence in 1864.

    As he went about preparing his country for the onslaught she would face in the spring, Davis could feel very confident about Rebel military prospects in Virginia. There Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia would meet the invading Yankees, and Confederates had every reason to anticipate that Lee and his veteran troops would stymie future Union efforts just as they had done with those of 1861, 1862, and 1863.

    Davis's chief military problem that harsh, cold winter—as it had been since the war began—was in the West. From the Appalachians westward across the Mississippi Valley his armies had known only failure in one campaign after another. Battle by battle they had been driven back, losing their toeholds in Kentucky and Missouri; the great Mississippi River itself; and all or large slices of Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama. When Grant shooed the Secessionists away from Chattanooga in November 1863, they fled south to Dalton in northwestern Georgia. There the dispirited Rebels huddled about their campfires while their president in far-off Richmond decided what to do.

    Obviously the Confederate army at Dalton—the Army of Tennessee was its official designation—must have a new commander. Gen. Braxton Bragg, who had been at the head of that army for some eighteen months before his defeat at Chattanooga, had proved both unsuccessful and unpopular. He resigned early in December. Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee, the senior officer then with the army, assumed temporary command but made it clear that he did not want the responsibility on a permanent basis. President Davis's first major task that winter—and as it turned out, one of the two or three most important decisions he made as the Confederacy's chief executive—was to find a permanent replacement for Bragg.

    Whereas Lincoln had in Grant the obvious choice for a new commander, Davis found himself with no successful general to place in such an important post. Davis's problem was complicated by the grade structure of the Rebel army, by his own predilection for placing graduates of the United States Military Academy in all important commands, by the longstanding military practice of seniority, by the sordid internal politics of the Army of Tennessee, and above all by the personal relationships among the Confederacy's top political and military figures.

    The highest grade in the Secessionists' military hierarchy was that of "full general." Such officers held the most important commands and were subordinate only to higher-ranking (more senior) full generals and to the civilian authorities in Richmond. Five full generals—all Academy graduates—were in Confederate military service in December 1863. One, the aged Samuel Cooper, performed only administrative duties in the War Department in Richmond. Lee was another, and sending him to the Army of Tennessee would simply shift the problem of finding a suitable new army commander from the West to Virginia. Bragg, of course, could not be restored to the post he had just vacated.

    Davis thus found himself with only two full generals who might be placed in command of the Army of Tennessee. One was Joseph E. Johnston, then heading the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana; the other was Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, then in charge of Confederate forces on the South Atlantic Coast. Unless the president elected to dip into the pool of lower-ranking general officers and elevate one of those men above his fellows, he would have to select either Johnston or Beauregard.

    The chief executive found himself on the horns of a nasty dilemma. He hated, despised, and distrusted both Johnston and Beauregard. Those two officers returned the sentiments with compound interest. Davis knew that both generals cooperated more or less openly with the government's political enemies, and he had good reason to doubt the ability of either to command a field army successfully.

    Promoting a subordinate general—none of whom had demonstrated much aptitude for high command—would generate enormous problems of morale and resentment among officers who had been his seniors and who had been passed over. In Davis's view such a step could be justified only under very unusual circumstances. James Longstreet, the Confederacy's ranking lieutenant general, had just proved resoundingly unsuccessful in independent command in East Tennessee. Leonidas Polk, the senior lieutenant general in the West, was a troublemaker of the first magnitude and an officer of demonstrated incompetence. He had mishandled his troops in many battles and disobeyed orders in several others. His bungling in Kentucky in 1861 and his unceasing efforts to undermine Braxton Bragg during 1862-63 had contributed much to the steady stream of failures that characterized Confederate command in the West. Only Polk's long friendship with Jefferson Davis and the great prestige he enjoyed as a bishop in the Episcopal Church kept him from facing a court-martial. As a general, Hardee was a bit more competent than Polk, but he too had labored assiduously to undermine Bragg, and he had already made it clear that he did not want the responsibility of army command.

    Longstreet, Polk, and Hardee along with other lieutenant generals (E. Kirby Smith, Daniel Harvey Hill) were or had been deeply involved in the internecine squabbles in the Army of Tennessee that had revolved around Braxton Bragg. Appointment of one of them might well rekindle those destructive quarrels with the coterie of Bragg loyalists who still commanded many regiments, brigades, and divisions in the army as well as its cavalry corps.

    Other lieutenant generals (Theophilus Holmes, John C. Pemberton) had proved failures in command or were in poor health (Richard S. Ewell, Ambrose Powell Hill). The senior major generals in the West (William W. Loring, Benjamin Franklin Cheatham, Samuel G. French) were even less qualified, not Military Academy alumni, members of the anti-Bragg faction, and/or too fond of alcohol. Besides, jumping a major general over all the lieutenant generals would touch off many protests, and Jefferson Davis did not need to stir up more quarrels in the Confederacy.

    Davis could have faced up to those problems when they arose earlier in the war. He had chosen not to do so, and they had festered on to haunt the army and the Confederacy. Never did the South's paucity of competent military commanders loom so clearly or as so great an obstacle on the region's road to independence as it did in December 1863.

    Finally, after about two weeks' deliberation, the president settled on Joseph E. Johnston as Bragg's successor. Within the parameters of Davis's dilemma the choice made sense. Johnston was the senior general available for the post. Except for Lee and Bragg, he had more experience at the head of a large army than did any other Confederate. Physically he was a brave man as his many wounds (inflicted by Indians, Mexicans, and Yankees) all testified. He possessed a fair degree of administrative ability. He had the knack of winning and holding the loyalty of most of his subordinates—a trait that, employed wisely, might prove valuable in healing some of the internal problems of the Army of Tennessee. Indeed, as an outsider, Johnston might be able to bridge the gap between the army's old pro-Bragg and anti-Bragg factions. Finally, Johnston commanded a great deal of very vocal support from the public, the press, many of his fellow officers, and his numerous and powerful political friends who had come to regard him as an outstanding general whose great talents had been wasted by Jefferson Davis. The appointment was very popular.

Four potential troubles lurked in any situation that put Jefferson Davis and Joseph E. Johnston in an "official" relationship with the former the commander in chief and the latter holding what proved to be the nation's most crucial military command. First, and probably most serious, Davis and Johnston each tended to assume that every fair-minded person would see any given situation the way he did and would, therefore, agree with him about any issue. For this reason neither was willing to devote much time and energy to explaining matters. If someone else did not agree, then he was, by definition, not fair-minded. The bitter personal feelings and professional resentments that existed between the two men constituted a second potential source of trouble. Johnston's tendency to shy away from responsibility and rarely decide controversial matters or take professional risks was a third.

    The final potential danger inherent in the new command arrangement stemmed from the fact that President Davis often proved very reluctant to face up to serious problems (no matter how obvious they were) or to decide great issues (no matter how pressing they became). On many occasions during his presidency he refused to act the role of a commander in chief, refused to allow anyone else to make major decisions, and occupied his time with minutiae better left to the secretary of war or even to a clerk. Meanwhile, events continued on their course with little or no effort on the part of the Rebel government to control, guide, or even influence them.

    What Jefferson Davis did—the work of a minister of war—he usually did fairly well. What he sometimes left undone—the work of a commander in chief—did not get done. As a result, a partial vacuum often existed at the top of the Confederate military hierarchy. In that vacuum many important decisions often went unmade, many crucial problems unaddressed.

Robert E. Lee, a man of great tact, self-confidence, and self-control, learned early in the war to work around and to adapt himself to Davis's personal peculiarities rather than trying to oppose the president. Lee patiently supplied Davis with the military and administrative details the chief executive craved, explained matters at length, adopted a respectful (some critics have unfairly said obsequious) attitude in his correspondence with the government, and made it clear that he understood and accepted the president's authority.

    By keeping Davis well-informed about military matters, not talking to the press, and steering clear of political involvement, Lee won the president's trust. Lee also demonstrated an ability to win battles, a willingness to exercise command, the intelligence to weigh risks and take appropriate action, and the moral courage to accept responsibility for his decisions and acts. With a great deal of effort, Lee kept Davis's confidence and wholehearted support. As a result, the president gave Lee virtually a free hand to conduct the war in Virginia, and the Confederacy enjoyed great success there.

    Davis and Joseph E. Johnston, by contrast, had quarreled frequently over many issues since the late summer of 1861, when Johnston had accused the president of treating him unfairly in the matter of his rank among Confederate generals. To his dying day Johnston, a vain and petty man when it came to such matters, believed himself entitled to the highest rank in the Rebel army. Davis, however, interpreted Confederate military legislation to mean that Johnston stood fourth in rank among the army's full generals. The deep bitterness and distrust that stemmed from this matter destroyed any possibility that the two men could work well together. The spat over Johnston's rank marked the beginning of a series of wrangles over strategy, army organization, logistics, railroads, personnel, security leaks, and many other matters.

    So deep did their differences run that in the spring of 1862, when Johnston commanded the principal Confederate army in Virginia, he and Davis had what an observer reported as "some heated discussion" over the strategy the Rebels should adopt to defend Richmond. A frustrated Johnston tendered his resignation, but Davis refused to accept it. By the late summer of 1863, when Johnston commanded Secessionist forces in Mississippi, he—or at least his wife and close friends—had become paranoid enough to believe that Davis was actively seeking to bring about his failure and disgrace.

    Owing to his experiences with the government, Johnston often hesitated to take any major action without specific orders from Richmond, and he usually complained at length about government interference with his command when he received such instructions. His military operations were, therefore, characterized by extreme caution. He simply was reluctant to take any major risk. He might fail, and who could doubt that the chief executive would lay the blame for that failure at his doorstep? Johnston's correspondence with the government was marked by carping, evasiveness, and complaints and was filled with excuses as to why he could not act.

    Johnston brought all those attitudes, beliefs, and habits to Dalton, where he arrived on December 26. Fearful of Davis's enmity, he always kept one eye on Richmond and remained constantly on guard lest the president and his sycophants launch some new hostile effort. Johnston, in summary, absolutely would not (or could not) confide in, depend on, trust, work harmoniously with, or even communicate freely and openly with any government headed by Jefferson Davis.

    On the other hand, events of the war's first three years had convinced Davis that Johnston—despite the good reputation he enjoyed and the high esteem in which many held him—was an uncooperative, secretive, petty man and a timid, pessimistic commander convinced of his inability to hold any position to which he was sent and afraid to risk his great reputation in an attempt to do so. Even worse, Johnston exhibited little appreciation of the all-important political side of warfare or of the Confederacy's massive logistical problems. He often seemed blind to the impact of his military operations on public opinion and morale and on civilians' willingness to support the government and the war effort. The president was also well aware of Johnston's close cooperation with the administration's political foes in Congress and in the press in their unceasing efforts to embarrass the government.

    Davis's selection of Johnston to command the Army of Tennessee represented the triumph of hope over experience. It can be explained only on the grounds that no better alternative existed. In the winter of 1863-64 Lee was the Confederacy's only general competent to command an army. The president's choice can be understood only with the assumption that Davis hoped that Johnston would be willing to put personal feelings aside and to work with the government to meet the great crisis confronting the Rebels in the third winter of the war. Davis naively believed (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, including his own army experience) that officers could and would cooperate effectively in their official capacities even when they despised each other.

When Lincoln named Grant as his new commanding general, he could look forward to working in harmony with a capable officer whom he respected and quickly came to trust. When Davis selected Johnston to command the Army of Tennessee, he clearly did so with great foreboding.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsviii
List of Mapsix
Series Editors' Introductionxi
1. Presidents and Generals1
2. Grand Strategy for 186412
3. Preparations for the Field26
4. The Best Laid Plans42
5. To the Oostanaula54
6. On to the Etowah75
7. Into the Hell Hole85
8. On the Kennesaw Line100
9. Across the Chattahoochee113
10. On Other Fields121
11. Hood Takes Command129
12. The Rebels Strike Back141
13. Battle for the Macon & Western160
14. "Let Old Abe Settle It"177
Appendix 1 ChickamaugaFever and Grant's Grand Strategy for
Appendix 2. Numbers andLosses194
Appendix 3. Johnston's Railroad Strategy198
Appendix 4. The Atlanta Campaign and the Election of 1864204
Bibliographical Essay221

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Atlanta 1864: Last Chance for the Confederacy 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
dhughes on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The author approaches the Atlanta campaign from both military and political aspects. He does not provide detailed information on the actual battles only summary information. For details on the battles see Decesion in the West by Castel. McMurry does provide perspectives that shed new light on the campaign. He evaluates the players and shows both their strengths and weaknesses. He addresses many of the what-ifs that would later be part of the Lost Cause theories. The book makes the reader doubt the perspectives outlined in many of the autobiographies written by the players.