In the summer of 1864, the Union cause rested with Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. They commanded the most formidable armies ever seen on the continent, yet neither had been in uniform four years earlier, when the war began. Both were West Point trained and had served, without distinction, in the regular army. One had left the army in disgrace; the other in frustration. The detractors of one said that he drank, and the other’s enemies said he was “unbalanced.” When the two were working in harness, during the long and difficult campaign against the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, one newspaper had editorialized that the “army was being ruined in mud-turtle expeditions, under the leadership of a drunkard [Grant], whose confidential adviser [Sherman] was a lunatic.”
The Vicksburg campaign had eventually succeeded. Grant was called east by President Lincoln to take command of all Union armies. He put Sherman in charge of the western armies positioned around Chattanooga. His plan, as Sherman described it: “He was to go for Lee, and I was to go for Joe Johnston. That was his plan.”
Like all able generals, they understood that the enemy’s armies were the ultimate objective. Destroy them, and the rest—cities, governments, whole populations—would follow. So the true objectives of the campaigns were the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Tennessee under Joseph Johnston. The nominal objectives were Richmond and Atlanta, and these were the focus of attention in the press and in the political debate about the future of the war and President Abraham Lincoln.
The South could not afford to lose either city and certainly not both. The Confederates would be compelled to risk their armies to save them, and when they did, they would be crushed by the Union’s superior weight in numbers, arms, and all things except, perhaps, generalship. On that matter, the jury was still out.
The plan was simplicity itself, and the generals who were to execute it were plainly brutal and determined enough to pull it off. And yet . . .
Grant found it hard going in Virginia. He began the campaign in early May, and in a month he had lost 60,000 men in a series of exceptionally bloody battles, none of which could be called a Union victory—the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, Cold Harbor. By mid-June, his army was in Petersburg, outside of Richmond, locked down into something like what the world would eventually come to know as “trench warfare.”
Washington—indeed, all the Union—was demoralized by the casualties and the stalemate. There was a sense of futility in the air that translated into a desire, simply, for an end, for some kind of political settlement that would require, first, a new president. With the election coming in November, President Lincoln told a confidant that he expected to lose and perhaps to lose badly.
With Grant stalemated, hopes against this possibility seemed to rest with Sherman, down in Georgia. Atlanta was about as far from his base in Chattanooga as Richmond was from Washington. But while he had the same distance to go as Grant, he faced a different kind of enemy attempting to keep him from getting there.
Someone had said earlier in the war that Robert E. Lee’s name “might be Audacity.” If that were so, Joe Johnston’s could have been Prudence or Caution. Lee had taken over command of the armies defending Richmond in 1862 from Johnston, who had been seriously wounded in the Battle of Seven Pines. Prior to that battle, he had retreated for days ahead of Union armies commanded by his old friend George McClellan in the Peninsula Campaign. It was a contest between two equally cautious commanders. Lee had changed all that, saved Richmond, chased McClellan back to Washington, and been nemesis to Union commanders and armies ever since.
Johnston had recovered from his wound and been given new commands, ultimately taking over in the west from Braxton Bragg, who had won a victory at Chickamauga but was otherwise both unsuccessful and unpopular—so much so that even the support of Confederate president Jefferson Davis could not keep him in command.
Johnston was a prideful, prickly man, whom Davis disliked. He had a reputation as an able administrator and tactician. He could handle an army, and his troops liked him, but he was not inclined to take risks. A story told about him got to this aspect of his character. It seems that the patrician Johnston, who enjoyed quite a reputation as a wing shot, was invited on a hunt at some plantation. With each bird that flew over, he found a reason not to shoot—too high, too low, too far away, etc. He was a crack shot who never missed because he never fired a shot.
He had backed all the way up the Peninsula, almost to Richmond, two years earlier, retreating skillfully enough but never showing much inclination to go over to the offensive. The question now was, under pressure from Sherman, would he back all the way up to Atlanta? Would he give up the city and, perhaps, in so doing, lose the war?
Sherman, in temperament, was the antithesis of Johnston. He is known to history for the statement “War is hell,” though the context is uncertain, and the occasion was many years after the war. But he said much the same during the war, as in his famous letter to the people of Atlanta: “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”
He was a man of fierce and liquid emotions who had become so despondent early in the war that he left the army and lived in a kind of self-imposed solitary confinement for a time, suffering from what today would be called depression. When he came back, he showed that he was a fighter, especially at Shiloh, where his division took some of the worst of the Confederate assault on the Union line in the first day of fighting. That night, he found Grant, alone, sitting under a tree and smoking a cigar. “Well, Grant,” he said. “We’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?”
“Yes,” Grant said. “Lick ’em tomorrow, though.”
They did, with Sherman taking two wounds in the fighting.
The two generals became an immortal military partnership. Sherman, 10 years Grant’s senior, was happy to serve as the subordinate. He once acknowledged to another officer what he saw as Grant’s most critical virtue as a soldier: “I am a damned sight smarter man than Grant. I know more about military history, strategy, and grand tactics than he does. I know more about supply, administration, and everything else than he does. I’ll tell you where he beats me though and where he beats the world. He doesn’t give a damn about what the enemy does out of his sight.”
Sherman also summed up, with colloquial precision, the bond between these men who would win or lose the war: “Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.”
Sherman, for all his volatility, was not an impulsive general. He knew how to maneuver and he understood terrain. He was familiar with some of the ground his army would be required to cross if it were to make it to Atlanta, having walked it when he was stationed nearby in the years before the war.
He began his movement toward Atlanta in early May as Grant moved down into Virginia. Johnston was in Dalton, Georgia, where he had established a strong defensive position. Sherman, after the war, wrote, “I had no purpose to attack Johnston’s position at Dalton in front, but marched from Chattanooga to feign at his front and to make a lodgment in Resaca, eighteen miles to his rear on his lines of communication and supply.”
This set the tone for the entire campaign. With, that is, one unfortunate exception.
For the next month and a half, Sherman would move to get around Johnston, who would counter with a move of his own, almost always a withdrawal. While each of those moves would bring Sherman’s army closer to Atlanta, it would also lengthen his lines of supply and communication and shorten Johnston’s.
It was a chess match between two able tacticians. Move and countermove, with neither general taking any long risks but with both men looking for opportunity to make that one, decisive maneuver that would end the thing.
Sherman tried at Resaca, sending General James McPherson far around Johnston’s left in an attempt to get behind him and then between the Confederates and the first of three rivers between their current position and Atlanta. The move would force them to come out of their defensive positions or wither with their own supply line to their base in Atlanta severed. Done right and done decisively, this maneuver would, perhaps, finish the thing for good and all. Sherman believed it would, and when McPherson’s first dispatches arrived at headquarters, he banged his fist on a table and said, “I’ve got Joe Johnston dead.”
But as so often in this war, an opportunity went wasting when a subordinate failed to execute. McPherson was cautious, like all of Sherman’s senior commanders, and Johnston, who seemed to have a feel for this sort of thing, moved quickly to escape the trap McPherson was slow to spring.
Sherman took it hard, saying, “Such an opportunity does not occur twice in a single life.” But he did not relieve McPherson. He merely informed him that he “regretted beyond measure” that he had not done all he might have.
Johnston, despite his preference for the defense, was also looking for an opportunity to turn and handle the enemy in one big, decisive action. Prudence and sound strategy argued that the closer to Atlanta this fight occurred, the better. But he was not going to pass up any opening Sherman gave him. He had his pride, and he knew his reputation and was aware of what his detractors were saying about him, both in Richmond and among his own officers.
So in the course of what one of the generals on the other side called his “clean retreats,” Johnston came up with a design to go over to the offensive and catch Sherman out in the open. He gave the job to one of the most aggressive generals of the war on either side. John Bell Hood had lost an arm and a leg already, but it was still in his nature to attack. To excess, perhaps, as noted by Lee, under whom he had served. Asked about Hood’s fitness for high command, Lee had described him as “all lion; no fox.”
But the lion had the ear of Jefferson Davis, to whom he wrote complaining of the army’s lack of aggressiveness. Johnston now provided Hood with the opportunity to correct that defect by attacking one of the three elements of Sherman’s advance when it was isolated and could not be supported by the other two, which would then be dealt with in turn. It was a good plan. Hood liked it and was eager for the opportunity to fight. Johnston was so confident of success that he issued a general order which concluded, “I lead you to battle. We may confidently trust that the Almighty Father will still reward the patriots’ toils and bless the patriots’ banners. Cheered by the success of our brothers in Virginia and beyond the Mississippi, our efforts will equal theirs. Strengthened by His support, these efforts will be crowned by like glories.”
The soldiers, too, were tired of retreating, and after the reading of the order, according to one, “A sort of grand halo illuminated every soldier’s face. . . . We were going to whip and rout the Yankees.”
But Hood, like McPherson, flinched at the critical moment. The general mistook a small element of cavalry that he encountered for a much larger Union force and feared that it was he who would be ambushed and annihilated. The attack never happened. The retreat continued.
This was maneuver war of the sort that is taught in command and staff colleges, and perhaps the most striking thing about it is how capably it was done. Hood and McPherson may have missed their opportunities, but neither commander blundered or even made an injudicious move. This was a rare thing in war, which is generally a catalogue of mistakes and blunders. It was especially notable in this war, which was fought between armies of tens of thousands, almost all of them untrained civilians three years earlier. The war had been the school and combat the teacher. It is interesting to imagine what might have happened if either of these American armies—or either of the two fighting in Virginia—had suddenly found itself in a fight against the soldiers from any of the European nations. Americans had become both terrible and skilled in battle.
So the soldiers in Georgia performed like the veterans that they now were. They were especially good at throwing up defensive works whenever they stopped moving. They would quickly go to work with saws, axes, and shovels and in short order construct field fortifications from earth and logs strong enough to make an attack imprudent at best and suicidal at worst. They had learned a lot, not least the futility of fighting upright and in the open.
And so the generals maneuvered and the soldiers dug. The fights were insignificant affairs against the bloody battles being fought in Virginia. The people behind the lines and in the governments of Richmond and Washington were not inclined to admire the skills of either the generals or the soldiers engaged in this martial dance across Georgia. They wanted action and results—wanted Atlanta taken or the invaders routed and punished. They wanted something conclusive.
Union impatience with Sherman and his slow progress was exacerbated by the heavy body counts in Virginia and by unrelieved bad news from other fronts. Grant had put three other operations in motion. They were relative sideshows compared with the campaigns that he and Sherman were waging. Still, they were intended to put additional pressure on the South, and all three had failed. General Banks had been defeated and pushed back in Louisiana. General Butler was stalemated south of the James River in Virginia. And General Siegel was routed in the Shenandoah Valley, at the Battle of New Market, by a hastily assembled Confederate force that included the cadets of the Virginia Military Institute, some of them as young as 15. They were, in Jefferson Davis’s phrase, “the seed corn of the Confederacy.”
Meanwhile, in Georgia, far to Sherman’s rear, the Confederate cavalryman Nathan Bedford Forrest fought and won what may have been his masterpiece at Brice’s Crossroads in Mississippi. Forrest’s victory was studied by military men for years after, among them Erwin Rommel.
Sherman, unlike previous Union commanders, did not let what had happened to his rear stampede him into abandoning the advance, however slowly it might be proceeding. He commanded others to take care of Forrest and continued to press Johnston. But Forrest’s success may have been one factor pushing him into a standup battle at Kennesaw Mountain.
Sherman himself had begun to chafe at the slow progress and the repetitive flank marches of his army. His troops, he seemed to think, were losing their edge. They needed to fight, and the enemy needed to see that they would fight. “A fresh furrow in a plowed field,” he complained to Grant, “will stop the whole column and all begin to entrench.”
The Confederates’ Kennesaw Mountain position that he chose to attack was naturally formidable and made stronger by the ad hoc engineering skills of the Confederate soldiers. The battle was a one-sided defeat for the Union, which Sherman did not deny in his postwar writings: “I ordered a general assault with the full cooperation of my great lieutenants, Thomas, McPherson, and Schofield, as good and true men who ever lived or died for their country’s cause, but we failed, losing 3,000 men, to the Confederates’ loss of 630.”
It was undeniably a defeat, though Sherman would argue in his official report that “it produced good fruit, as it demonstrated to General Johnston that I would assault and . . . boldly.”
As for the numbers, in these late, hard days of the war, they had become somehow tolerable. Grant had lost more men at Cold Harbor in an hour. As Sherman wrote to his wife, “I begin to regard the death and mangling of a couple of thousand men as a small affair, a kind of morning dash. . . . It may be well that we become hardened. . . . The worst of the war is not yet begun.”
Kennesaw Mountain may have been a victory for Johnston and his army, but that did not mean taking the offensive. Three days later, Johnston was again in retreat. The Chattahoochee River was to his back, and once he had crossed that . . . Atlanta.
The frustrations of the South were as great as those of Washington, and pressure for the relief of Johnston was almost irresistible. Odd as it might seem that the victorious general after a great battle should be in danger of losing his command, this was the case, and it says volumes about a spirit of mutual desperation at this point in the war.
The mood of Washington may have been depressed and fearful, but the two commanders, the crazy man and the drunk of Sherman’s formulation, remained calm and confident—in themselves and in each other. Sherman would not let himself be distracted by the successes of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Nor would Grant take his eyes off the prize, even when Jubal Early came raiding up the Shenandoah Valley and reached the outskirts of Washington. The president himself went out to observe the action and was actually under fire for a few moments from a Confederate sharpshooter, before Union captain Oliver Wendell Holmes is supposed to have shouted to him, “Get down, you damn fool, before you get shot.”
It is said that Holmes did not recognize one of the most recognizable men alive, and maybe so. At any rate, Lincoln took himself out of the line of fire, and Early went back to Virginia. He did not have the numbers to follow up on his successes, Grant having sent just enough men to make sure of that, while himself pursuing the main objective, which was Lee and, by extension, Richmond.
So if there was fear and demoralization in Washington, there was firmness in the high command under conditions that easily could have made it otherwise; when generals could have made it known to supporters in government and the press that the blame lay not on them but, for instance, on the army in Georgia that maneuvered instead of fighting and lost when it did fight, or on the army in Virginia that was being bled white by an inferior force. All the while, Grant and Sherman remained confident in their plan and pressed the fight.
Things were not so on the other side of the hill. Frustration with Johnston became exasperation leading, finally, to his relief. His replacement was his critic, General John Hood, who was determined to fight.
Of Johnston, Sherman wrote, “No officer or soldier who ever served under me will question the generalship of Joseph E. Johnston.” After the war, the two became friends and dined together when Johnston was in Washington. In 1891, as an honorary pallbearer for Sherman, Johnston refused to wear a hat, though it was raining and he was warned he might take ill, saying, “If I were in his place and he were standing here in mine, he would not put on his hat.” Johnston did, indeed, become ill, and pneumonia carried him off not much later.
There was no such quaint sense of chivalry in front of Atlanta once Hood assumed command. He immediately put his men on the attack in a series of battles, beginning on July 21 on the banks of Peachtree Creek. The fighting was intense and bloody even by the grisly standards set in Virginia. Men and officers went down, including General McPherson, who rode into Confederate lines in the heat of battle, refused to surrender, and was cut down when he tried to make his escape. He was the second-highest-ranking officer killed in the war and was mourned not just by Sherman but also by Hood, who called him “my classmate and boyhood friend.”
While he lost more men in 72 hours than Johnston had in a month and a half, Hood had not accomplished the deliverance of Atlanta. But neither had Sherman taken the city. It was now under siege, as Richmond was to the north.
With the election looming, impatience and frustration spread like a fever, and even so staunch a supporter and Union man as Horace Greely was saying, “Mr. Lincoln is already beaten. He cannot be elected.”
Sherman, however, was not done. And the world would soon learn the meaning of the words by which history remembers him.
Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.