The Atlanta Campaign Begins 150 Years Ago…

“On the fifth I rode out to Ringgold and on the very day appointed by General Grant from his headquarters in Virginia the great campaign was begun.”

–William Tecumseh Sherman

While much of the attention in the Civil War community rests in Virginia this week to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of the Wilderness and the start of the famed Overland Campaign, 150 years ago this week, another monumental campaign was beginning. In Northern Georgia, just over the border from Tennessee, a 100,000 man army, one of the largest of the war, began pushing south towards Joseph Eggleston Johnston and the Confederate Army of Tennessee. This Union army, an amalgamation of three armies–the Army of the Tennessee, the Army of the Cumberland, and the Army of the Ohio–commanded by Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, head of the Military Division of the Mississippi, was moving in conjunction with Grant’s force in Virginia. The two armies were working in concert, placing pressure on Confederate forces on numerous fronts. Grant and Sherman, close friends in positions of great power, were working together as no other Union generals of comparable rank and power had done thus far in the war.

Grant to Sherman, April 4, 1864

Major General William Tecumseh Sherman

Major General William Tecumseh Sherman

“You I propose to move against Johnston’s army, to break it up, and to get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources.

I do not propose to lay down for you a plan of campaign, but simply to lay down the work it is desirable to have done, and leave you free to execute it in your own way. Submit to me, however, as early as you can, your plan of operations.”

Sherman to Grant, April 10, 1864

“That we are now all to act on a common plan, converging on a common centre, looks like enlightened war…”

“Should Johnston fall behind the Chattahoochee, I will feign to the right, but pass to the left and act against Atlanta or its eastern communications, according to developed facts. This is about as far ahead as I feel disposed to look, but I will ever bear in mind that Johnston is at all times to be kept so busy that he cannot in any event send any part of his command against you or Banks.”

As Sherman’s men pushed south 150 years ago this week, they were encountering Johnston’s Confederates in some of the strongest defensive positions of the war. Confederates outside of Dalton, Georgia, were around and on Rocky Face Ridge. Sherman wrote of it later in his Memoirs:

 

“The position was very strong, and I knew that such a general as was my antagonist (Jos. Johnston), who had been there six months, had fortified it to the maximum. Therefore I had no intention to attack the position seriously in front, but depended on McPherson to capture and hold the railroad to its rear, which would force Johnston to detach largely against him, or rather, as I expected to evacuate his position at Dalton altogether.”

Over the coming days, Sherman began the first of many flanking maneuvers during the Atlanta Campaign. He ordered James McPherson to move the Army of the Tennessee around the flank of Johnston’s line, forcing the Confederate commander to make a decision: stay in position and risk annihilation, or fall back and live to fight again another day. This decision was the first of many like it that Johnston would have to face over the coming weeks.

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