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The Battle for Atlanta in American Civil War

The Preamble

On September 2, 1864, Atlanta, also known as the gate to the South, fell. This day has become one of the significant turning points in the history of the Civil War and the predecessor of the shortly after Federal military campaign in the Georgia state. Both sides of the Civil War struggled for Atlanta’s control over about four months. Northern commanders launched the Georgia military campaign at the beginning of May 1864. Its main objective was Atlanta and the destruction of the army defending it.

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The Unions two-theater strategy assumed the use of attrition and maneuver for exhausting the Confederate army. They achieved their aim within 12 months – the Confederate army was defeated. The Yankee military forces needed to occupy Atlanta, as the city was politically, economically, and psychologically critical to the Confederacy (Hoffman 3). It was one of the leading railroad Confederate hubs; therefore, its role in material support for the military effort was vital.

The battle for Atlanta was not only a military contest. The results of the further presidential election depended much on the success of the campaign. Atlanta’s fall strengthened Abraham Lincoln’s chances to be elected for the second term as president (Donnell 4). His primary opponent in the 1864 election campaign was George B. McClellan, whose popularity as a peacemaker was increasing among the northern electorate. McClellan insisted that the country needed reunion instead of emancipation, and it was one of his conditions for peace. In the summer of 1864, Confederate political leaders pinned specific hopes on him regarding the end of the war on favorable terms. Losing Atlanta meant the increase of Lincoln’s rates and the growth of his potential electorate.

The Battle for Atlanta

It is worth noting that northern Major General Sherman was sure in his victory from the outset. He considered his army the best in the country and, therefore, was optimistic. Sherman had three federal troops in total under his command, successfully fighting and maneuvering southward to Atlanta (Drummond 48). The Confederate Army of Tennessee, opposing Sherman, was led by General Johnston (Wieczorek 3). After a number of the Union’s army battlefield setbacks, Johnston’s army was outnumbered and exhausted, which resulted in repeated retreats. On July 8, 1864, the Union army circumvented Johnston’s position near the Chattahoochee River and crossed it, making the Confederates retreat to Atlanta’s outer trenches line. On July 17, 1864, the three Union’s armies (Army of the Cumberland, Army of Tennessee, and Army of Ohio) appeared on the southern bank of Chattahoochee, which was several hours march to Atlanta. The same day, Confederate President Davis relieved General Johnston of his army. He was decided to be replaced by General Hood (Morrison 5). Hood promised aggressive actions against the Union army and indeed attacked the Yankees soon.

Therefore, the final battles in the Atlanta Campaign took place under the command of General Hood from the Confederate’s side. There were four of them: on July 20, 1864 – at Peachtree Creek, on July 22, 1864 – in the east of the city, on July 28 – at Ezra Church in the west of Atlanta. The final fight took place on August 31 – to the south of the city at Jonesboro. Each time General Hood assaulted the Confederate army, making them advance or maneuver, and in each battle, the losses were heavy, and the result was another defeat.

General Hood has been known as an aggressive warrior with an amputated right leg and crippled left arm. He decided to disregard the extensive defensive fieldwork around the city primarily built by the slaves – he decided to attack. Hood’s first attempt to attack one of the three Sherman’s armies and drive it back from the Peachtree Creek took place on July 20 (Bui 1). The losses of the Union were about 1,900, while the Confederates lost not less than 2,500 soldiers (Bui 2). That attack bent Federal forces, but they held their positions.

The undeterred Confederates took their second chance in two days – the fight on July 22 is today worldwide known as the Battle of Atlanta. Before the battle, Hood sent several thousands of soldiers on an overnight secret maneuver around the left flank of Federals. Although the Confederates reached the planned positions later than it had been scheduled, the Union’s forces were caught by surprise. Nevertheless, the delayed arrival proved costly as Federal commanders had enough time to readjust their troops in the morning. Due to that, they met the Confederates head-on but not from the side as it was initially planned. This whole battle was a chain of assaults by the southerners from all directions. They even succeeded in briefly breaching the Federals line and killing high-ranking general McPherson. Yet the northerners replaced McPherson with General Logan, rallied under his command, and at the end of that day, it became apparent that the southerners were no close to dislodging their opponents. Again, the Confederates suffered 6,000 casualties compared to about 3,700 from the Union’s side.

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General Hood initiated the third battle in nine days on July 28. The Union again defeated the Confederate troops at Ezra Church. This battle cost Hood at least 3,000 men, while the Union lost only about 600 soldiers, and these numbers are especially devastating in the light of already limited Confederates’ human resources (Wieczorek 5). It was obvious for the Yankees that Confederates could no longer confront Union in the field effectively. Therefore, they began the artillery bombardment of the city along with cutting Atlanta’s railroad supply lines.

As a result of the fourth, the most one-sided Federals victory, the last line fell, and General Hood had to evacuate the city. On August 31, the fighting primarily raged at Jonesboro, but, at the same time, the northern infantry has successfully reached the Western and Macon Railroad about 5 miles to the north. In such a way, the last supply line for the Confederate army was cut by the Union. The next day, Federal troops made the remaining Confederate army route at Jonesboro. As a result, General Hood had to withdraw his forces from Atlanta the same night. Sherman’s army let the Confederates escape with no pursuit, as there was no real sense in it. After the battle for Atlanta, Hood’s troops hardly encountered forty thousand soldiers.

On September 1, 1864, before noon, three infantry divisions and the Georgia militia had received the withdrawal orders from the army headquarters. The civil population was in a panic; therefore, many of them joined the retreating columns of the Confederacy soldiers. Before leaving the city, the Confederate army opened the army’s commissary warehouse, so the city people were able to take whatever they needed or wanted.

Approximately at 5 p.m., the Confederate infantry started their march out of Atlanta. There was an impressive cannon, as the army with Georgia militiamen had to wreck five locomotives and burn around eighty freight cars – those that could not have been removed from the city as the Yankee occupied the Macon railroad (Morrison 6). Out of eighty cars, about thirty were carrying ammunition, so the whole of Atlanta has heard them exploding.

On September 3, 1864, President Lincoln provided Major General Sherman and all the troops under his command with the national thanks (Muller 193). Entering the city that would be occupied by his army for the nearest eleven weeks, Sherman shifted his attention to transforming the conquered city to a military base. His main idea was to afford a small garrison but not a substantial force holding Atlanta, as he understood the need to move further. Therefore, on September 7, 1864, Sherman evicted Atlanta’s residents remaining in the city. He was not interested in humanity as his main interest was preparation for the future struggle.

At the beginning of October, Hood succeeded in regrouping his battered army and started to pose a real threat to the Federal railroad supply chain between the city and Chattanooga. The effort of Confederates made Sherman head to the north of Georgia in pursuit. The inconclusive battles and maneuvering lasted for several weeks, after which both armies withdrew in opposite directions. The Confederates moved to northern Alabama, while Sherman and his troops came back to Atlanta.

This incident made Sherman realize that it was too dangerous to continue occupying an inland city without a huge risk of losing the vital supply line at any moment. He got approval for another campaign and abandoned Atlanta. Sherman understood the profit of shifting his army to the coastal location – it was an ability to be supplied by the navy. Therefore, on November 11, 1864, Yankee engineers were preparing for the new campaign.

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They got an order to demolish all the structures in Atlanta, like the railroad depot – everything having military value for the Confederacy. Therefore, the final nights of occupation were on November 15 and 16 (Hoffman 11). All the unoccupied buildings have been burnt, but the fire was uncontrolled, so the entire city was under threat. By morning, the vast majority of buildings in Atlanta have been destroyed. Sherman’s army started its famous March to the Sea, ruining everything on its way: wrecking railroads, cotton gins, entire farms and plantations, grist mills, and confiscating animals, money, and jewelry.

Sherman’s soldiers destroyed about 270 miles of railroad tracks during a month. Moreover, the rails were not just dumped downhill, but twisted around trees. Soldiers destroyed factory pipes, broke melting furnaces in workshops, broke steam engines. Factory boilers were full of holes, and Federal troops destroyed everything that could be broken, thrown into the river, ruined, or burnt. Everything that could not be taken away was spoiled; a terrible stench rose everywhere above the fields – living creatures were destroyed without exception (Hoffman 14). Having captured Atlanta, Sherman drove all the inhabitants to the outskirts, in the pouring rain, and burned the city to the ground – about two thousand houses. The number of women, the elderly, and children who have caught a cold under night rain have not yet been calculated.

Most of what Sherman did, was subsequently called “war crimes.” This concept appeared in the decrees of the Washington Conference of 1922, the Geneva Convention of 1929. It was finally developed in the Charter of the Nuremberg Military Tribunal and the Charter of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. Here is a strict formula: war crimes include killing, torturing, or taking into slavery or for other purposes the civilian population of the occupied territory; ill-treatment of wounded and prisoners. It also includes hostage killings, robbery of public or private property, senseless destruction of cities and villages, use of prohibited methods and weapons of war, and other crimes.

Physical Consequences

According to the estimate of the commander of the Confederate Georgia state militia General Howard, 3200 structures were destroyed within Atlantas limits in terms of General Sherman’s operations (Wieczorek 7). The whole city had been left in ruins, except about 400 buildings left intact. In addition, in Atlanta’s periphery, over 4000 structures had been destroyed. Any strategically important objects and equipment had been removed or destroyed by both armies. In 1864, Atlanta was a valid logistical and industrial unit in the Confederacy; it had tremendous economic value. Moreover, after its industrial potential had been destroyed, the Confederation lost both Atlanta’s contribution to the war effort and economy. Atlanta’s destruction resulted, firstly, in hyperinflation and, secondly, in law and order deterioration.

In addition, all the refugees, former slaves, ruined farmers, and Confederate Soldiers began to migrate into the city massively. Among all the cities in Georgia, Atlanta has received the most considerable amount of migrants, as it was also one of the closest to the destructive path of General Sherman (Army 341). Due to the shortage of intact buildings, people had to restore them or construct wooden shanties both within Atlanta and on its outskirts. The swelling of the population led to the spread of diseases. Thus, by the end of 1865, the city faced a severe pandemic that took away many lives.

Works Cited

Army, Thomas F. Jr. “Civil War Logistics: A Study of Military Transportation.” Journal of American History, vol. 105, no. 2., 2018, pp. 408-409.

Bui, L. Bao. “The Battle of Peach Tree Creek: Hood’s First Effort to Save Atlanta.” Civil War Book Review, vol. 20, no. 1., 2018. Web.

Donnell, James. Atlanta 1864: Sherman Marches South. Osprey Publishing, 2016.

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Drummond, Greg A. Across the Etowah and into the Hell-Hole: Johnston’s Lost Chance for Victory in the Atlanta Campaign. Fort Leavenworth, 2017. Web.

Hoffman, Christopher S. Major General William T. Sherman’s Total War in the Savannah and Carolina Campaigns. School of Advanced Military Studies US Army Command and General Staff College, 2018. Web.

Morrison, Jeffrey. Atlanta Underground: History from Below. The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc., 2019.

Muller, Gilbert H. Abraham Lincoln and William Cullen Bryant. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

Wieczorek, Jason. The Successes and Failures of Military Occupation in Atlanta, Georgia 1865-1871. Fort Leavenworth, 2017. Web.

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