In one of the more interesting personal moments of the Atlanta Campaign, 150 years ago this evening, on the night of May 17, 1864, in a tent near Cassville, Georgia, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, the commander of the Army of Tennessee, was baptized. General Leonidas Polk, one of the leading corps commanders under Johnston’s command, performed the ceremony. This was the second time which Polk baptized a Confederate general during the campaign; the first being the baptism of General John Bell Hood, who would eventually replace Johnston in command of the Army of Tennessee.
Leading up to this event, Johnston’s wife, Lydia, had written to Polk about her husband’s spiritual salvation: “[I]t is the dearest wish of my heart that [Johnston] should be [baptized] and that you should perform the ceremony.”[i]
Johnston’s baptism occurred at a key moment for the Confederates. Having fallen back from Resaca, Johnston’s army retreated all the way south to Cassville. There, Johnston set up what he hoped to be a strong defensive position capable of launching a strong counterattack against Union forces. From the start of the campaign, Johnston hoped to engage the Federals on ground of his own choosing, enabling him to pick his battlefield and increase his chances of victory. Johnston believed that if he could win a defensive battle in Northern Georgia, he could then push north and force Sherman back into Tennessee, hopefully reclaiming part of that state.
At Cassville, Johnston hoped to lure Sherman into such a position. The men of William Hardee’s corps were to draw part’s of Sherman’s army to Kingston, Georgia, while John Bell Hood and Leonidas Polk drew part of Sherman’s force to Cassville. Johnston intended for Hood to launch a strike against Federals moving south to Cassville, hopefully crushing one part of the Federal army in Georgia and delivering Johnston the victory which he had been seeking since the first week of May.
Thus, on the night of May 17, while Joseph Johnston was baptized in a tent near Cassville, the men under his command were preparing a defensive strike against Federal forces.
[i]. Symonds, Joseph E. Johnston,290.