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.