Sherman's Atlanta Campaign of 1864: Summary & History

Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
The Atlanta Campaign of 1864 saw Union General William T. Sherman and his army fight against Confederate General Joseph Johnston's Army of Tennessee. The campaign culminated in the capture of Atlanta by Union forces and was a major Union victory.

Atlanta, Georgia

Today, Atlanta, Georgia is a bustling metropolis. Modern skyscrapers, busy industry, and millions of tourists all make Atlanta one of the biggest cities in the United States. Yet, around 150 years ago, Atlanta was the scene of one of the bloodiest and most important campaigns of the American Civil War.


By 1864, the American Civil War had already cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Battles had been fought across the country, destroying homes and families. And yet, the worst death and destruction were yet to come. In the spring of 1864, Ulysses S. Grant was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General in the United States army. Grant controlled the entire Union Army and orchestrated a grand offensive against the Confederacy. Since Grant had formerly commanded Union forces in the West, a new leader was now needed to command those troops who fought in Tennessee and Mississippi. That man was Major General William T. Sherman.


If one were to list the most famous generals of the Civil War, William Tecumseh Sherman would certainly rank quite high because of his widespread fame and notoriety. An Ohio native, Sherman was born in 1820. His father had a great admiration for the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, and gave his son the name in honor of the great Native American leader. It would be fitting considering his young son's military future. By the age of 16, Sherman had entered West Point, where he graduated in 1840.

Major General William T. Sherman

Sherman's pre-Civil War career was not very distinguished. He did not serve in the Mexican War but instead was in California at the time. He resigned from the army in 1853 to try his hand at private enterprise. After several failed ventures, he took the helm of a military academy in Louisiana. With the outbreak of war and secession, Sherman journeyed north in 1861, where he soon became an officer in the Union Army. Sherman commanded a brigade at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861. He was in command of the Department of Kentucky later that year, but, after a nervous breakdown, his public reputation was shattered. It was at the Battle of Shiloh in which, under the command of Grant, Sherman began his rise to glory. By the spring of 1864, he was one of the most powerful commanders in the Union Army. That spring, he and Grant planned the campaigns for the upcoming year. Sherman was given the task of pursuing Confederate General Joseph Johnston's Army of Tennessee while simultaneously damaging Confederate war resources. Grant went east to Virginia to deal with Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, and Sherman would soon move south into Georgia.

Joseph Johnston

Sherman's opponent in the Atlanta Campaign was a defensively minded general, characteristics that suited him well for the task at hand. Joseph Johnston was a native of Virginia. He graduated from West Point in 1829 (the same year as Robert E. Lee) and had a long and distinguished career of service before the Civil War. He served with distinction on the staff of General Winfield Scott during the war with Mexico. When the Civil War began in 1861, Johnston became a Brigadier General in the Confederate Army, helping to lead Confederate forces to victory during the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861. By 1862, he was in command of the army defending Richmond during the Peninsula Campaign. He was wounded during the Battle of Seven Pines, and Robert E. Lee took his place. For the next two years, Johnston served as the commander of the Department of the West. In late 1863, after the Confederate defeat at Chattanooga, Johnston took command of the Army of Tennessee (named after the state).

General Joseph Johnston

From Dalton to Kennesaw Mountain

The campaign began in early May, when Sherman started advancing his men south. His troops numbered more than 100,000 men and consisted of three separate armies: the Army of the Tennessee (named after the river), commanded by Major General James B. McPherson; the Army of the Cumberland, commanded by Major General George Thomas; and the Army of the Ohio, commanded by Major General John Schofield. Johnston's Army of Tennessee was roughly 60,000 men strong.

Initially, Johnston was positioned on Rocky Face Ridge, a formidable position. Rather than attacking with his entire army, Sherman decided to flank Johnston, a move that became common place in the campaign. Johnston fell back to Resaca, where on May 14 and 15, the two armies fought the first battle of the campaign. Johnston soon fell back to Adairsville, and then to Allatoona, taking another formidable position in the Georgia mountains. Rather than attack, Sherman moved away from the Western and Atlantic Railroad, which was his main line of supply, and attempted a broad flanking movement. Johnston followed, and a series of bloody battles were fought near Dallas. By mid-June, Sherman had reconnected with the rail line, and Johnston took position near Marietta, just over twenty miles north of Atlanta.

Kennesaw Mountain

For about two weeks in late June, Johnston was positioned on and near Kennesaw Mountain, just west of Marietta. After weeks of skirmishing and marching through mud, Sherman had grown increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of the campaign. On June 27, 1864, he sent almost 20,000 men forward in an attack against several places in Johnston's line. This is now known as the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, which was a terrible failure for Federal forces. Sherman's men suffered nearly 3,000 casualties in roughly three hours of fighting, and Johnston's men held their ground. Despite these heavy losses, Sherman soon returned to his flanking actions, and Johnston was forced to fall back across the Chattahoochee River, the last major barrier between Sherman and Atlanta.

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