In the summer of 1864, after many years of war waged in the Western Theater of the American Civil War, the destruction of Atlanta becomes the goal of the Union Army.
The North can see an opportunity to end the Civil War with a decisive victory in the deep South and, thus, end the prolonged bloodshed. In addition, it becomes a point of focus for a political war raging in Washington during the 1864 Presidential election between Abraham Lincoln and the former Union Major General, turned peaceful Democrat, George Brinton McClellan.
Union Major General William Tecumseh Sherman leads his Military Division of the Mississippi along the railroad lines stretching from Chattanooga, Tennessee throughout northwest Georgia down to the military depot in Atlanta.
His military strength consisting of the Army of the Cumberland, led by Major General George Henry Thomas, the “Rock of Chickamauga,” the Army of the Tennessee under Major General James Birdseye McPherson, and the Army of the Ohio under Lieutenant General John McAllister Schofield. In all, Sherman has nearly 98,000 Union Soldiers at his command and Atlanta in his crosshairs. See also this post about Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The man in charge of slowing Sherman’s movements through the state of Georgia is Confederate General Joseph Eggleston Johnston. A cautious general, often criticized by Jefferson Davis, the Confederate President, for a lack of aggressiveness, Johnston gives ground to the advancing Union Army after every battle. Eventually, the Union Army reaches the Chattahoochee River and the Confederates plan to fight one last defensive battle along Peachtree Creek in order to save the city.
However, in one of the most controversial decisions of the Civil War, Johnston is immediately removed from his command of the Army of the Tennessee by an unhappy Confederate Congress in Richmond. He is replaced by Lieutenant General John Bell Hood on a Thursday, July 17, 1864, with the Battle of Atlanta only five days away.
Confederate General Hood, known for his bravery in battle as well as his recklessness in command at the end of the war, is literally strapped onto his horse before each engagement. His artificial leg was hanging stiffly close behind with crutches, due to all sorts of injuries he suffered at Gettysburg and an amputated leg at the Battle of Chickamauga, but General Hood is the aggressive commander the Confederate Congress demands. Unfortunately, the Army of the Tennessee, with its 43,000 southern soldiers meets a superior force and suffers significant casualties from bold flanking attacks and vicious fighting with the Union Army.
The Battle of Atlanta begins with the controversy of change at the head of the Confederate Army, amidst a re-election campaign for President Lincoln, in a country weary of war and at the hands of a General often credited with the creation of modern warfare. This will become a final turning point in the American Civil War and a decisive point in American history. Check out also this post on Chief John Hicks.