Sherman’s opponent, Joseph E. Johnston inherited a command rife with dissension in one whose already low morale had cratered after the recent loss of Chattanooga. Johnston spent much of the winter of 1863, 1864 restoring discipline to the command, building its morale, and working hard to create a strong defensive position just outside of Dalton, Georgia around Rocky Face Ridge.
Johnston’s defensive position at Rocky Face Ridge is in the Northwest corner of the state of Georgia. Roughly 100 miles to his rear is Atlanta, a key railroad hub whose manufacturing facilities are vital to the survival of the Confederacy. Johnston must protect this city and the railroads leading into it. Most importantly, the Western Atlantic, which is his main supply line. This will also be Sherman’s supply line as he advances closer and closer to the Gate City.
Early reconnaissance convinced Sherman that attacking the position at Rocky Face Ridge was suicide. Rather than attack head-on, Sherman demonstrates against his position with the forces of Thomas and Schofield, while McPherson’s army of the Tennessee sneaks around through Snake Creek Gap, south to Resaca where he’s supposed to destroy a vital railroad bridge. Unfortunately for Sherman, McPherson stalls just long enough to allow Johnston to retreat from Rocky Face Ridge and establish a new position at Resaca. On May 14th and 15th, Sherman attacks Johnston at Resaca and is repulsed. However, a portion of his command manages to sneak around Johnston’s flank and threaten his rear.
This establishes a pattern that will repeat itself throughout the campaign. The two armies are in constant contact throughout May and June. And no matter how many casualties the confederates inflict upon Sherman’s army, the federals are always able to get around their flank and force Johnston to retreat closer and closer to Atlanta. This happens at Castroville, New Hope Church, Pickett’s Mill, Dallas, Pine Mountain. Even after a disastrous one-side loss at Kennesaw Mountain, Sherman is able to flank Johnston and push him to the banks of the Chattahoochee River.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis is monitoring this from Richmond, Virginia. And he’s becoming increasingly frustrated at Johnston’s inability to do anything at all to retard the progress of Sherman’s armies. The last straw comes in the beginning of July, when Sherman manages to once again get past the strong defenses along the Chattahoochee River and threatens now-Atlanta itself.
Davis removes Johnston and replaces him with a much more aggressive commander, John Bell Hood. Hood is trained in the lead Jackson school. And he believes that the only way to achieve success against the Union armies is to hammer them again and again and again with offensive blows. He begins on July 19th, attacking at Peachtree Creek, then again at the Battle of Atlanta, July 22nd, and on July 26th, at Ezra Church.
Each one of these assaults is a dismal failure for the Confederates. And in the course of these three battles, Hood suffers more casualties than Johnston had in the entire campaign up to this point. Sherman, however, is no closer to achieving his objective. Rather than take the city by storm, he leaves a portion of his army to bombard the city and lay siege to it. This continues around the clock, day and night.
In the meantime, other elements of his armies will march around the city and sever the various rail lines that feed into it. By the end of August, Atlanta is cut off completely. Following the battle of Jonesboro, what’s left of Hood’s army quickly evacuates Atlanta, but not before setting fire to its stores left behind in the city. The sound of these explosions reached the men of the Union 20th Corps outside Atlanta.
The following morning, September 2nd, these men warily marched into the city. And there, on the streets, meet its mayor who surrenders the city. The next day, Lincoln receives a telegram from Sherman saying, “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.” With Lincoln in the White House, and the men and women of the North behind him, the days of the confederacy were numbered.