The Decisive Battle of the Civil War: Another Nomination – Part 4

By David A. Carrino
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2010, All Rights Reserved

Part 4 of a 4-part article


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.

Because it was at Rocky Face Ridge that Sherman devised these coordinated maneuvers, and because the Atlanta Campaign, as argued in this four-part article, was the most significant military action in ensuring the completion of the Union victory, this article proposes the Battle of Rocky Face Ridge as the decisive battle of the Civil War. Part 1 of this article focuses on the beginning of the Atlanta Campaign at Rocky Face Ridge. Part 2 describes how Sherman used the Rocky Face Ridge maneuvers during the early phases of the Atlanta Campaign to force Johnston to fall back. Part 3 discusses how Johnston continued to give ground until he had been maneuvered so deep into Georgia that the eventual fall of Atlanta was all but assured. Part 4 describes the final phase of the minuet, which culminated with Sherman coming into striking distance of Atlanta and with Johnston being removed as Sherman’s dance partner.

The Fall of Johnston and Atlanta

For two months, William Sherman’s triplet army grappled with Joseph Johnston’s Army of Tennessee in a long struggle across northwest Georgia. But Johnston’s participation in the affair was about to end. The groundwork for Johnston’s removal had begun some time earlier in Richmond where the Confederate hierarchy was becoming increasingly frustrated with Johnston’s apparent aversion to aggressive action and was also becoming increasingly anxious at the shortening distance between Sherman’s horde and Atlanta. Perhaps surprisingly, in light of the strained relationship between Johnston and Jefferson Davis, it was the Confederate president who had prolonged Johnston’s tenure as commander of the Army of Tennessee, while Davis’ cabinet was unanimous and strident in its call for Johnston’s removal. For now, Davis continued to resist such a move out of concern for Atlanta and because he understood the dangers inherent in changing a commander in the face of the enemy. Davis’ view at this time was to leave Johnston in command so long as he would not relinquish Atlanta without a fight.

In order to gauge Johnston’s intentions, Davis sent his chief military advisor, Braxton Bragg, to meet personally with Johnston. Before Bragg had arrived, Richmond received a telegram from Johnston recommending immediate relocation of the Union prisoners at Andersonville. This telegram informed Davis of Johnston’s intentions as effectively as any information which Bragg could provide, and Davis now decided that Johnston had to be relieved. It is not difficult to surmise that Davis foresaw a more aggressive commander in Georgia replicating the 1862 result of Johnston’s successor when the Army of the Potomac was on the York-James peninsula and close enough to Richmond to hear the church bells. Davis solicited advice from that 1862 successor, Robert E. Lee, about an 1864 replacement for Johnston and asked Lee’s opinion of John Bell Hood as Johnston’s next successor. Lee replied that the situation outside Atlanta was not conducive to replacing the commander of the Army of Tennessee. Lee also gave a less than enthusiastic endorsement of Hood, “Hood is a bold fighter. I am doubtful as to other qualities necessary.”

Braxton Bragg

Subsequently, messages from Bragg confirmed that Johnston’s plans had not changed from his previous pattern of awaiting developments by the enemy and hoping for an opportunity to attack. Accordingly, Bragg recommended that Johnston be relieved and eliminated Hardee as the replacement, because Hardee had agreed with Johnston’s tactics. Bragg also eliminated Alexander Stewart, the successor to W.W. Loring (who had succeeded Leonidas Polk after Polk was killed at Kennesaw Mountain), because Bragg considered Stewart too inexperienced for overall command. Bragg suggested Hood as Johnston’s replacement, because Hood had, for the most part, favored giving battle throughout Sherman’s drive toward Atlanta (although it was Hood who failed to make the attack which Johnston ordered at Cassville when the opportunity had presented itself to attack a part of Sherman’s large force, and who had also failed to make the attack at Pickett’s Mill which he, himself, had proposed).

In a message to Davis, Bragg stated, “Lieutenant General Hood would give unlimited satisfaction.” Then by way of contradicting himself, Bragg continued with hardly a ringing endorsement of the man who he claimed would be a source of boundless gratification, “Do not understand me as proposing him a man of genius, or a great general, but as far better in the present emergency than any one we have available.” Before making the change, Davis gave Johnston one final chance by asking Johnston his plans in a telegram. In spite of postwar pronouncements that he was at that time preparing the attack which he had been waiting to deliver against a portion of Sherman’s force, which was then divided by a creek, all that Johnston told Davis was that the much smaller Confederate army would have to remain on the defensive and be vigilant for the chance to attack at an advantage.

On the next day, July 17, came a telegram from Richmond, which said in part, “As you have failed to arrest the advance of the enemy to the vicinity of Atlanta, far in the interior of Georgia, and express no confidence that you can defeat or repel him, you are hereby relieved from the command of the Army and Department of Tennessee, which you will immediately turn over to General Hood.” In his reply to Richmond, Johnston concluded his telegram with a sarcastic comment aimed at the Confederate president, “Confident language by a military commander is not usually regarded as evidence of competency.”

Among the high command of the Army of Tennessee, the reaction to the change, even by Hood, was to prevail upon Johnston to ignore the order and remain in command. When Johnston refused, the three corps commanders (one of whom, technically, was now commander of the army) sent a joint telegram to Davis to request that the change at least be postponed “until the fate of Atlanta is decided,” but Davis refused this request. At this, Hood tried to again convince Johnston to remain in command “for the good of the country,” as if Hood had some prescient understanding of the disaster that his command of the Army of Tennessee would bring to that country. Again Johnston refused, and by that evening he was gone.

On the Union side, the reaction to the change was the reverse. After the war, O.O. Howard wrote, “Just at this time, much to our comfort and surprise, Johnston was removed, and Hood placed in command of the Confederate army.” Jacob Cox, a division commander under Schofield, claimed, “The change of Confederate commanders was learned with satisfaction by every officer and man in the National Army.” Sherman simply wrote home, “I confess I was pleased at the change,” and later wrote, “At this critical moment, the Confederate Government rendered us most valuable service.” Ironically, had Polk not been dispatched to stand in the presence of the only being Polk truly felt outranked him, Polk quite possibly could have been chosen as Johnston’s successor, and it is intriguing to ponder how the obstreperous clergyman would have fared in overall command of an army rather than as a recalcitrant subordinate.

The switch to Hood caused two major changes with regard to Atlanta’s fate. First, the last few weeks before the city’s capture would include serious fighting initiated by the commander of the Army of Tennessee, and second, the city would fall into Union possession much more quickly than if Johnston had remained in command.

Critique

Once Sherman’s army had reached the outskirts of Atlanta, its falling into Union possession was virtually assured. The time to prevent the fall of Atlanta was when the opposing armies were in the rugged territory northwest of the three rivers which Sherman had to cross to reach Atlanta. But Johnston failed to stop Sherman there or even substantially delay him. Johnston’s best chance to accomplish either of these was by cutting Sherman’s railroad lifeline, and Johnston seemed to recognize this.

While the Army of Tennessee was still in its position on the north bank of the Chattahoochee, Johnston told an emissary from Georgia Governor Joe Brown that what was needed to save Atlanta was a strike at the Western & Atlantic by Forrest or Morgan. When the emissary asked Johnston why he did not use his own cavalry for such a strike, the cautious Johnston responded that his cavalry was needed where it was. In the middle of May, just prior to the planned Cassville attack, Johnston had received word that Forrest would be sent against Sherman’s railroad lifeline. But this strike, like the Cassville attack, was canceled before it began, because Forrest’s services were deemed more important elsewhere.

Johnston cannot be blamed for not receiving assistance for the one best course to thwart or slow Sherman’s movement toward Atlanta. In fact, after the war, Sherman remarked, “No officer or soldier who ever served under me will question the generalship of Joseph E. Johnston.” Although it is difficult to be highly critical of Johnston in light of the circumstances he faced (opposing a numerically superior army, limitations on his movements due to the necessity of protecting a city), Johnston can be faulted for not taking some initiative against the Western & Atlantic Railroad, since Johnston, himself, realized that this was the key to slowing if not halting Sherman’s advance. A more aggressive and creative commander might have at least slowed Sherman sufficiently to prevent the fall of Atlanta prior to the election of 1864 and thereby eliminated the Northern elation which carried Abraham Lincoln to victory in that election and ensured continuation of the war.

Johnston’s tactics during Sherman’s drive to Atlanta are reminiscent of Johnston’s performance during George McClellan’s 1862 advance toward Richmond, that is, a continuous, slow withdrawal while awaiting a serious error by the opponent which would permit an opening for an attack. Evidence of the willingness of Johnston’s men to fight was in a letter from a young artillery officer in the Army of Tennessee to his mother in Atlanta, which was less than ten miles away at the time the letter was sent, “There was not an officer or man in this Army who ever dreamed of Johnston falling back this far or ever doubted he would attack when the proper time came. But I think he has been woefully outgeneraled and has made a losing bargain.”

W.C.P. Breckinridge

Another indictment of Johnston came from W.C.P. Breckinridge (cousin of the former vice president, John C. Breckinridge), who commanded a regiment in Wheeler’s cavalry during the Atlanta Campaign. With the bluster and indignation which come with the advantage of hindsight, the cavalry officer wrote, “It was the fate of the Southern armies to confront armies larger, better equipped, and admirably supplied. Unless we could by activity, audacity, aggressiveness, and skill overcome these advantages it was a mere matter of time as to the certain result. It was therefore the first requisite of a Confederate general that he should be willing to meet his antagonist on these unequal terms, and on such terms make fight. He must of necessity take great risks and assume grave responsibilities. While these differences between the two armies that confronted each other in the mountains of North Georgia existed, they were no greater than usually existed, and for which every Confederate general must be presumed to have prepared.”

Perhaps the best indication of the dissatisfaction of Johnston’s superiors with his handling of the Atlanta Campaign is that the Confederate government was willing to replace Johnston with John Bell Hood, effective as a subordinate but seriously lacking as an army commander, who was chosen as Johnston’s replacement in spite of Robert E. Lee’s refusal to endorse Hood and despite Lee’s veiled assertion that William Hardee was more worthy of this command.

No matter the opinion of Johnston’s performance in the Atlanta Campaign, the essential contribution of the Confederate government to Sherman’s success should be acknowledged. Replacing Johnston with Hood probably accelerated the timetable for the fall of Atlanta. Davis and the rest of the Confederate hierarchy wanted a commander who would not allow Atlanta to fall without a fight. In Hood this is precisely what they received, and with disastrous consequences. Had Johnston remained in command of the Army of Tennessee, it is not inconceivable that Sherman would have had to lay lengthy siege to Atlanta in much the same way that Grant was stalled outside Petersburg. Protracted twin sieges would have fueled dissatisfaction among the Northern electorate and likely led to Lincoln’s defeat in the 1864 election and possibly a conclusion to the war which would have been favorable to the South.

Although the war effort from the Union perspective was in reality going well, the war-weary Northern citizens were questioning whether the effort was worth the costs. When Atlanta fell into Union possession, the people in the North were given their first real hope that the war would soon reach its end with a Northern victory, which also gave them reason to continue both the war and the Lincoln administration. This first true glimpse of the war’s end and the accompanying confidence in the Lincoln administration came when Sherman telegraphed Halleck on September 3, 1864, “So Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.”

Sherman’s handling of the drive to Atlanta was superb, and no assessment of his performance should be diminished by any shortcomings on the part of the enemy. While it was Sherman’s good fortune that the Confederate government became disenchanted with Johnston and replaced him with Hood and thereby hastened the fall of Atlanta, it was Sherman who brought about this situation. From the beginning of the Atlanta Campaign, Sherman kept the pressure on his adversary and, other than at Cassville, gave Johnston no opening for the attack on a part of the Union force which Johnston hoped for. Sherman also deftly anticipated his opponent’s thrusts and took steps to thwart them as at Pickett’s Mill. As a result, Sherman was able to move his large force into striking range of his objective primarily through adroit maneuvering.

Perhaps it is more appropriate to call the entire Atlanta Campaign the decisive battle of the Civil War. However, because of the desire to confer this designation on a single battle, and because the Battle of Rocky Face Ridge was the first battle in the campaign and set the pattern for the whole campaign, this battle is herein offered as the decisive battle of the Civil War. The tactics which Sherman developed in the Battle of Rocky Face Ridge were applied with great effectiveness throughout the drive to Atlanta. Sherman skillfully exploited the advantages at his disposal and, save for one glaring and costly exception, adeptly and wisely employed maneuver rather than assault to attain objectives and to compel Johnston to withdraw closer to the ultimate objective, Atlanta. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign, a lance into the heart of the Confederacy, resulted in the capture of Atlanta, Lincoln’s re-election, and the continued prosecution of the Civil War until Northern victory brought about restoration of the Union. And all of this started with the Battle of Rocky Face Ridge.

Most of the information in this article is from Volume 3 of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative and from Volume 4 of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (Retreat with Honor). Most of the maps are from Volume 3 of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative. The inspiration for this article came from a chapter in How Great Generals Win by Bevin Alexander. This book was given to me by Jon Thompson, who won it in the monthly Roundtable raffle. (So don’t underestimate the benefits of the Roundtable book raffles.)


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