Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the February 2021 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
We left off in January with General Grant’s three corps of about 30,000 soldiers advancing westward toward Vicksburg, Mississippi. Grant had just defeated General Johnston, who was in overall command of rebel troops in the west, at the state capital, Jackson. On May 16, 1863, Grant had McPherson’s corps on or near the railroad line with McClernand’s corps south of McPherson’s. Following close behind was Sherman’s corps after carrying out Grant’s orders to destroy the military and manufacturing value of Jackson – he burned the city so badly to the ground that henceforth it became known as “Chimneyville.”
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the January 2021 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
We left off last December with General Grant having advanced from his Mississippi River Bruinsburg landing south of Vicksburg. From there, he went on to win a small but sharp battle in front of Raymond, just west of the Mississippi capital, Jackson. However, before we progress I would like to pause and thank our president, Steve Pettyjohn, for providing modern photos from his extensive collection of some of the places mentioned in these history briefs last month and going forward.
Noted Civil War author Shelby Foote used a picturesque phrase to describe William T. Sherman’s repeated maneuvering around Joseph E. Johnston during Sherman’s drive through Georgia toward Atlanta. Foote called this a “red clay minuet.” It was at the first battle of Sherman’s Atlanta campaign, the battle of Rocky Face Ridge, that the Union general devised the dance steps that he employed for his minuet with Johnston. At the battle of Rocky Face Ridge, Sherman used a coordinated series of maneuvers to compel Johnston into abandoning his strong position and give ground toward Sherman’s ultimate objective: the city of Atlanta. Except for the disaster at Kennesaw Mountain, Sherman sent his forces on similar coordinated maneuvers throughout his thrust toward Atlanta and thereby forced Johnston to fall back all the way to the objective that Sherman was seeking to reach.
William T. Sherman’s Atlanta campaign was instrumental in ensuring the completion of the Union victory in the Civil War, because its culmination, the capture of the city of Atlanta, enhanced support of the war effort in the North by giving Northerners hope that the war could soon end in defeat of the Confederacy. This likely contributed greatly to Abraham Lincoln’s re-election, which meant that the war would be continued and the Confederacy defeated. Much of Sherman’s progress toward his objective of Atlanta was achieved by maneuvering his adversary, Joseph E. Johnston, out of one strong position after another followed by Johnston falling back closer and closer to Atlanta. Sherman’s tactic of maneuver around Johnston’s strong positions, rather than direct assault on those positions, was devised and first employed at the battle of Rocky Face Ridge, the opening battle of the Atlanta campaign. Because of this, and because the Atlanta campaign, as stated above, was the most significant military action in ensuring the completion of the Union victory, the battle of Rocky Face Ridge, which is not a well-known battle, is proposed in this four-part article as the decisive battle of the Civil War. As discussed in Part 1, the intent in nominating this battle as the most decisive is to provide an unconventional and hopefully thought-provoking point of view and to show how a seemingly insignificant battle can have important ramifications. Part 1 of this four-part article describes the battle of Rocky Face Ridge, while Part 2 focuses on how Sherman used the tactics that he employed at Rocky Face Ridge in the early phases of the Atlanta campaign. Part 3 continues this story and includes the one battle in the campaign in which Sherman deviated from this pattern, with disastrous consequences.
One very effective way to instigate a lively discussion among a group of Civil War enthusiasts is to propose a specific battle as the decisive battle of the Civil War. It is likely that the people in the group will follow up by making their own proposals for the decisive battle, which will probably result in a number of different battles being suggested for this distinction, among them Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Antietam, and Chancellorsville (because of the mortal wounding of Stonewall Jackson), if not others. This four-part article proposes a different (and obscure) battle as the decisive battle of the Civil War: the battle of Rocky Face Ridge, which was the opening battle of William T. Sherman’s Atlanta campaign. This battle is nominated as the decisive battle of the war because it set the pattern for the entire Atlanta campaign, and the Atlanta campaign, as argued in this four-part article, was the most significant military action in ensuring the completion of the Union victory. Part 1 of this article focuses on the beginning of the Atlanta campaign at Rocky Face Ridge and how one of Sherman’s subordinates missed an opportunity to possibly eliminate Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate Army of Tennessee and thereby remove the only significant military force between Sherman and Atlanta. Part 2 continues the story of how the battle of Rocky Face Ridge set the military pattern that Sherman used throughout his Atlanta campaign.
One of the much debated topics about the Civil War is which battle was the decisive battle. Much effort and time have been expended in support of one or another Civil War battle for this distinction. A great deal of energy and thought have also been devoted to the point of view that no Civil War battle merits this title. Herein is offered another nomination for this designation as well as the case for this contention. Note that the choice of the word “contention” is intentional, because the battle which is proposed as the most decisive is not one which is likely to be selected and which is instead likely to provoke disagreement. Rather than championing this battle as the most decisive, the intent is to provide a different and hopefully thought-provoking point of view about a little-known Civil War battle, the ramifications of which are greater than the apparent insignificance of the battle. The battle in question is Rocky Face Ridge, the opening battle of William Tecumseh Sherman’s Atlanta campaign. This battle is nominated as the decisive battle of the war because it set the pattern for the entire Atlanta campaign, and the Atlanta campaign, as argued below, was the most significant military action in ensuring the completion of the Union victory.
Editor’s note: From 2007 to 2011, Mel Maurer filled the position of Roundtable historian. During Mel’s tenure as historian, each Roundtable meeting opened with a ‘history brief’ presented by Mel, each ‘brief’ providing a small glimpse into a less-explored corner of the story of the Civil War. This page collects the history briefs from the 2007-2008 Roundtable season. Following Mel’s tenure as historian, his successors likewise presented history briefs at the beginning of each Roundtable meeting. The history briefs that were written by Mel’s successors are also on the Roundtable’s website, each of those history briefs on a separate web page.
Lincoln secretary, John Hay, writes to Lincoln’s other secretary, John Nicolay.
“Executive Mansion Washington, September 11, 1863
“Washington is as dull here as an obsolete almanac. The weather is not so bad as it was. The nights are growing cool. But there is no one here except us old stagers who can’t get away. We have some comfortable dinners and some quiet little orgies on wine and cheese in my room.
Editor’s note: From 2007 to 2011, Mel Maurer filled the position of Roundtable historian. During Mel’s tenure as historian, each Roundtable meeting opened with a ‘history brief’ presented by Mel, each ‘brief’ providing a small glimpse into a less-explored corner of the story of the Civil War. This page collects the history briefs from the 2009-2010 Roundtable season. Following Mel’s tenure as historian, his successors likewise presented history briefs at the beginning of each Roundtable meeting. The history briefs that were written by Mel’s successors are also on the Roundtable’s website, each of those history briefs on a separate web page.
September 1862: Union forces under General George McClellan hold back the invading forces of General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland. Some words of those days:
General George McClellan, upon being handed the Battle plan of General Lee:
“Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobbie Lee, I will be willing to go home.”
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the December 2020 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
Picking up where we left off at the end of November’s history brief, during April of 1863 Union General U. S. Grant’s troops had marched south along the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River to rendezvous with Union Admiral Porter’s fleet and cross to the eastern shore in the vicinity of Grand Gulf. Specifically, McClernand’s corps of about 10,000 troops would board the transports after Porter’s river ironclads destroyed the Confederate batteries atop the cliffs defending the town. Mr. Ed Bearss, former Chief Historian of the National Park Service and renowned expert on the Vicksburg Campaign, characterized it as follows in his book Fields of Honor, “By April 28, Grant’s troops and Porter’s fleet are ready to undertake what, for that time and place, is a formidable amphibious operation.”
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the November 2020 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
We resume where we left off in October with General Grant having decided to move ahead with Admiral Porter’s daring plan to help achieve Grant’s goal of ultimately landing troops on dry ground on the east bank of the Mississippi south of Vicksburg. Porter’s plan was to slip by fortress Vicksburg “running the batteries” under the cover of darkness. However, before we venture further, one of our members, Brian Kowell, after reading last month’s history brief submitted some additional research to me on the ironclads in Porter’s fleet that I believe readers of this history brief would enjoy.