In the spring of 1864, Lieut. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, General-in-Chief of all U.S. armies, ordered five, simultaneous offensives to press Confederates all along their frontier. Grant recognized the Confederates could not win a war of attrition, and he instilled in his commanders the need to exhaust the resources of the Rebels by destroying their armies and their means to fight. Maj. Gen. George Meade’s Army of the Potomac, with Grant attached, would march against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, while Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks in Louisiana, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler on the James River and Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel in the Shenandoah Valley would move against the armies that faced them.
To command the fifth advance, against Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee, Grant assigned his friend Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, commanding a group of three armies in southeastern Tennessee. Johnston, in northern Georgia with some 60,000 men, was charged with defending Atlanta; one of the largest Confederate cities not yet conquered by Union forces. Atlanta was the center of four railroads that connected all remaining Confederate held territory east of the Mississippi River. The city was also the largest industrial, logistical and administrative center outside of Richmond. Sherman’s 110,000 men set out from around Chattanooga on May 4 to confront Johnston.
The campaign’s opening encounter occurred on May 8 at Rocky Face Ridge, just 15 miles from the Tennessee border. Sherman’s three army groups separated, outflanking Johnson’s defenders but failing to cut him off completely, a pattern that would continue throughout the campaign. Thrusting and parrying, both sides met again at Resaca, Adairsville and Cassville along the Western and Atlantic Railroad over the next 12 days. Johnston fell back along the railroad southward, while Sherman used it to supply his army from Tennessee.
Spreading westward as he approached Marietta to avoid a head-on assault on Johnston in narrow Allatoona Pass, Sherman battled with Johnston behind Pumpkin Vine Creek at New Hope Church, Pickett’s Mill and Dallas the last week of May. Fighting continued into June with a battle at Kolb’s Farm and at Kennesaw Mountain, where Sherman suffered his only defeat during the campaign, on June 27.
By early July, Johnston had fallen back behind the Chattahoochee River and into the defenses of Atlanta. Frustrated with Johnston’s lack of aggressiveness, President Jefferson Davis replaced him with Lt. Gen. John B. Hood on July 18. Within days, Hood launched two attacks on Sherman at Peach Tree Creek on July 20 and along the Georgia Railroad (known as the Battle of Atlanta) on July 22. Both were repulsed with heavy losses. Hood suffered another loss at Ezra Church one week later but kept Sherman from reaching the Macon & Western and Atlanta & West Point Railroad at Utoy Creek on August 5-7.
The two armies settled into a state of siege until Sherman moved his armies south of Atlanta to cut the remaining rail lines supplying the city. Hood dispatched troops to counter the move but they were defeated at Jonesborough on August 31, forcing Hood to abandon Atlanta on September 1. The city surrendered to Federal forces the next day.
The fall of the strategic Confederate city and other Union victories helped ensure the reelection of President Abraham Lincoln in November. Sherman’s successful Atlanta Campaign opened the door for his most famous operation—the March to the Sea and the capture of Savannah.