May 21, 1864: Johnston’s Allatoona Line

150 years ago today, General Joseph Johnston’s Army of Tennessee took up defensive positions just outside Allatoona in the mountains of northwestern Georgia. In the span of just two weeks, Johnston’s army had retreated over fifty miles, having only fought a few battles during their movement. William T. Sherman’s massive army had maneuvered Johnston out of at least three strong defensive positions during this retreat. First, Johnston’s army was dug in around Rocky Face Ridge. Second, Johnston’s army had taken positions outside of Resaca. Third, the Confederates had set what Johnston hoped would be a trap at Cassville, where Sherman’s columns would have been lured into the awaiting battle lines of the Army of Tennessee. Each time this occurred because of Federal flanking maneuvers and well placed and well timed marching routes.

On May 20, Johnston wrote to Jefferson Davis in Richmond to apprise him of the status of the campaign.

“In the last eight days the enemy have pressed us back to this place, thirty-two miles. We kept near him to prevent his detaching to Virginia, as you directed, and have repulsed every attack he has made.”

Johnston went on to assign blame to one of his officers for mistakenly ruining the planned Confederate attack at Cassville on the 19th. The officer, although unnamed in the dispatch, was John Bell Hood, who Johnston had hoped would launch a devastating attack into Federal columns on the roads just north of Cassville. Hood rightly abandoned his attack after sighting Federal cavalry in the distance on his flank. This course of events was so unfortunate for Johnston, he could not help but believe that Hood had acted out of error rather than firm intelligence. Hood had indeed spotted cavalry, and Johnston’s planned attack was wrecked.

While Johnston knew that his campaign was not going well, he still felt the need to point out to Davis that he had done as the Confederate president had hoped in one regard; none of Sherman’s forces had thus far been able to reinforce Grant in Virginia. Of course, this was in part because of Sherman’s success thus far in the campaign. Yet, for Johnston, there was still hope ahead. The further Sherman went into Georgia, the longer and more vulnerable his supply lines became. If Johnston would be able to defeat Sherman in a strong defensive position while the Federals had long and exposed supply lines, the momentum of the campaign would be reversed and Georgia and Atlanta would be saved.

On May 21, Johnston wrote to Davis again, further clarifying the position of his army:

“I have earnestly sought an opportunity to strike the enemy. The direction of the railroad to this point has enabled [Sherman] to press me back by steadily moving to the left and be fortifying the moment he halted. He has made an assault upon his superior forces too hazardous, and in making this retrograde march we have [not] lost much by straggling or desertion.”

Thus, Johnston was dispirited, but believed he had good reasons for retreating instead of attacking. In the days and weeks ahead, Johnston and his army would look for victory in the mountains and hills of northern Georgia, and the Atlanta Campaign would enter a new phase of vicious and brutal combat.



Source: OR 38, Vol 4, 728, 736.


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