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General William T. Sherman's Atlanta Campaign: Summary & Significance

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  • 0:05 The Players
  • 1:08 The Target
  • 1:44 The Journey
  • 3:40 The Battle for Atlanta
  • 5:10 The Victory
  • 6:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will discuss General William T. Sherman's Atlanta Campaign, which took place throughout the spring and summer of 1864. During this campaign, Union troops under General Sherman marched south from Tennessee and eventually captured the Confederate city of Atlanta.

The Players

In the spring of 1864, Union and Confederate troops in the Civil War's western theater were gearing up for another season of military campaigns. The war was already entering its fourth year, and both sides were experiencing a combination of weariness and excitement as they faced new battles.

The Union army in the West was under the control of Major General William T. Sherman. It consisted of about 100,000 soldiers who were divided into three parts under the direction of Major General George H. Thomas, James B. McPherson, and John M. Schofield. Sherman and his army had wintered at Chattanooga, Tennessee, but they were ready for action.

On the Confederate side, Joseph E. Johnston was the commanding general with the assistance of General William J. Hardee and John Bell Hood. Together they directed approximately 45,000 men who were holed up at Dalton, Georgia, about thirty miles south of the Tennessee border. The stage was set for a clash.

The Target

Sherman had already decided on his target. He would march toward Atlanta, Georgia, which was an industrial and railroad hub for the South. Atlanta's many factories and arsenals provided the Confederate army with everything from rifles and cannons to uniforms and coffins. Sherman knew that if he could take Atlanta, he would deprive the South of much-needed resources and open up a gateway for the Union to march across Georgia and meet up with Union forces in the East. If his plans worked, the Confederacy would be cut into pieces and, hopefully, ready to surrender.

The Journey

Sherman and his men set out from Chattanooga on May 1, 1864, and crossed the border into Georgia on May 5th. They soon ran into Johnston's forces near Dalton. After a limited, but sharp clash, the Confederates retreated to the south.

This pattern continued over the next two months. Sherman pushed south. Johnston's forces, always on the defensive, tried to prevent Sherman's advance. Sherman wasn't much for head-on attacks. He tended to engage the Confederates in small-scale encounters and then shift his forces around the Southerners and make his way south through Georgia. Johnston followed Sherman's lead; he knew he was outnumbered.

By the end of June, Union forces were at Kennesaw Mountain about twenty-five miles from Atlanta. The Confederates were firmly entrenched toward the top of the 700-foot-high mountain. Sherman realized that this was one major battle he could not avoid. On June 27th, the Union attacked, beginning with a blast of artillery fire to try to soften up the Confederate position. Then Union soldiers began making their way up the mountain. They took heavy casualties as withering fire poured down upon them from above. Things looked bleak for the Union until General Schofield discovered a gap in the Confederates' left flank.

Sherman immediately jumped at the chance to sidestep Kennesaw Mountain and led his troops through the gap and off to the south. Johnston tried to block him, but it was too late. The Union was once again on its way to Atlanta. Sherman soon crossed the Chattahoochee River and set up his trenches and defense works around Atlanta. His troops had traveled about one hundred miles through rough Georgia terrain, and he had lost about 12,000 men to Johnston's 9,000 casualties. The Confederates had not been able to stop him, however, and Sherman was poised to capture his goal.

The Battle for Atlanta

The Confederate government was not too happy with Johnston's failure to stop Sherman, so they replaced him with General John Bell Hood. Hood was much more aggressive, and he quickly attacked the Union at Peachtree Creek on July 20th and Bald Hill on July 22nd. These attacks were aimed at weaknesses in the Union line, but they were uncoordinated, unsuccessful, and costly.

Atlanta itself was fortified by a series of rifle pits, gun batteries, and spiked logs that formed a ring around the city. Sherman knew that a direct attack was bound to fail. Since he already held three of the railroad lines into Atlanta, he decided that if he could capture the fourth and final one, he could lay siege to the city and eventually gain victory.

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