Breaking into the South II


General Sherman in Atlanta Georgia.

General John Bell Hood’s first battle as commander of the Army of Tennessee was at Peach Tree Creek, north of Atlanta, where he intended to carry out Johnston’s plan to drive the Army of the Cumberland farther west so that Sherman could not concentrate his forces on Atlanta. Hood first came forward from the Peach Tree Creek position on July 20, and attacked the corps opposite, commanded by Hooker, which had crossed the creek on pontoon bridges. A bitter battle ensued, lasting five hours. The Confederates were driven back, leaving in the fields their dead and wounded, 4,796 altogether, to the Union loss of 1,710. Throughout the Atlanta campaign Confederate losses were to be much heavier than the Union’s, a grievous disadvantage for the Confederacy, which could afford the losses much less. Hood fell back into his lines around Atlanta. Sherman closed up, and Hood, leaving half his force to defend the city, led the other half, under the cover of darkness, in a long, circuitous march through woodland, round Sherman’s left flank. This led to what Sherman called “the hardest battle of the campaign.”

The outer line of Atlanta’s defences had now been reached. As Grant recalled:

We feigned to the right, but crossed the Chattahoochee by the left, and soon confronted our enemy behind his first line of entrenchments at Peach Tree Creek, prepared in advance for this very occasion. At this critical moment, the Confederate Government rendered us most valuable service. Being dissatisfied with the Fabian policy of General Johnston, it relieved him and General Hood was substituted to command the Confederate army (near Atlanta), July 18. Hood was known to us to be a “fighter,” a graduate of West Point of the class of 1853, No. 44 (in the order of merit), of which class two of my army commanders, McPherson and Schofield were No. 1 and No. 7. The character of a leader is a large factor in the game of war, and I confess, I was pleased at this change, of which I had early notice. I know that I had an army superior in numbers and morale to that of my antagonist; but being so far from my base and operating in a country devoid of food and forage, I was dependent on a poorly constructed railroad, back to Louisville, five hundred miles. I was willing to meet the enemy in open country, but not behind weak constructed parapets.

Grant may have been exaggerating the value of the change of command. Johnston was not as averse to fighting as he made out, while Hood was a doughtier and cleverer opponent. He would not allow Atlanta to fall easily into Sherman’s hands.

The battle of Atlanta began on July 22, when, believing that Hood had abandoned the city, the Army of the Tennessee advanced to the lines of earthworks the Confederate defenders had dug. At first they settled down, intending to harass the earthworks, to use them for their purposes, when in early afternoon Confederates appeared in large numbers and began to attack them. Hood had planned a complex offensive, sending part of his force to make a long flank march to take the enemy in the rear. The fighting soon became intense, as some of the Union troops found themselves attacked on three sides. Casualties quickly rose high, but the Union forces held their ground, greatly assisted by the presence in their ranks of two regiments of Illinois sharpshooters who had purchased, at their own expense, the Henry sixteen-shot breech-loading rifle. These two regiments inflicted terrible casualties on the Confederates they encountered, at a much smaller cost to themselves. The Confederates lost control of three of the four railroads leading into the city and suffered 8,499 casualties, to 3,641 on the Union side. Among the Union dead was General McPherson, who rode into Confederate lines whilst on reconnaissance, was called upon to surrender, but, tipping his hat to the enemy, turned his horse and was shot and killed as he rode away. His loss was deeply regretted by Sherman, who valued him highly. He was replaced temporarily by General John A. Logan, an Illinois congressman much valued by Lincoln as a political ally. He made an unforgettable impression on the battlefield, where he was temperamentally at home. Black-haired, with fiery eyes, he led by example, waving his sword overhead and shouting encouragement to his soldiers from the back of his warhorse. Unlike other notable mounts which had unmilitary names, such as Lee’s Traveller and Jackson’s Little Sorrell, Logan’s was appropriately called Slasher. Command of the Army of the Tennessee was later given to General Oliver Howard.

In the later afternoon, Hood’s men renewed their attack on the Union’s advance lines in great force and with high ferocity. The fighting became very confused, with the Union jumping from one side to the other of the entrenchments that crisscrossed the battlefield, some Confederate, some Union. Hood’s attack shook the Union lines, opening a wide gap which threatened to collapse Sherman’s army. In this crisis, Logan, who had observed the disaster from a vantage point, turned his horse and galloped to intervene, leading a large reinforcement. As he approached the Union lines a cry of “Black Jack! Black Jack!” sped through the ranks. Inspired by Logan’s arrival, and strengthened by the reinforcements he brought, the Union troops recaptured several guns the enemy had taken and turned them round against the attackers, who were quickly driven into retreat. During the fighting the Union forces were able to retrieve McPherson’s body, sending a special detachment to do so. They also, at one stage of the fighting for the trenches, retrieved McPherson’s hat, binoculars, and documents from Confederate prisoners who had taken them. At about six o’clock, with darkness drawing in, the battle of Atlanta reached its climax, leaving the field, littered with the dead and wounded, in Union hands. Sherman had scored a victory, though one of the most costly and hard-fought of his career as a general.

Sherman’s troops now surrounded Atlanta, though they just failed to cut it off from contact with the outside world. A battle fought at Ezra Church on July 28 was again disproportionately costly to the Confederates, who lost 4,632 to the Union’s 700, but it left them still protecting Atlanta from capture. Thereafter Hood contented himself with holding Atlanta’s earthworks, and accepting siege, which was to last the whole of August.

Sherman spent August manoeuvring around the Atlanta defences with the object of severing the city’s last railroad communications with Alabama. He also sent a large cavalry force, under General George Stoneman, on a raid to liberate the Andersonville prison camp. The raid was badly conducted, however, with the result that it not only failed but that Stoneman and 700 of his men themselves were taken prisoner and interned at Andersonville. Andersonville, a principal Confederate prisoner-of-war camp, had already become notorious in the North because of the very high death rate among its inmates. The prison camps of both sides had high death rates because they were vectors of disease. Disease at Andersonville was enhanced by malnutrition, though perhaps also by mismanagement. The commandant of Andersonville, Captain Heinrich Hartmann Wirtz, a native of Switzerland, was tried and executed on criminal charges after the war. He may have been overwhelmed by circumstances, but not even the most dedicated Confederates have ever tried to argue that he was unfairly treated.

Hood was so encouraged by the Union failure that he sent his 4,000 cavalry under General Joseph Wheeler on a raid of his own against Sherman’s principal supply link, the Western and Atlantic Railroad. Its apparent success led him wrongly to conclude that Sherman was giving up the siege of Atlanta. In fact the Union, which had gone off Hood’s map, had placed themselves astride the railroad to Macon and thus cut off Atlanta from the outside world. During September 1-2, Hood therefore withdrew from Atlanta, correctly recognising that it could no longer be defended. Sherman telegraphed Lincoln on September 3: “Atlanta is ours and fairly won.”

The sensation aroused in both North and South by the fall of Atlanta reinforced the equal sensation caused by the Union victory at Mobile Bay on August 5. Both Grant and Sherman had long sought to capture Mobile, as a means of opening up a local campaign in Alabama. When Mobile’s fall came, it was as a result of a naval, not a land, battle. Mobile in August 1864 was one of the last active naval bases and blockade-running centres still open to the South, and home to some of the Confederate navy’s most powerful ships, including the ironclad Tennessee. Admiral David Farragut commanded a sizable fleet in the Gulf, and in early August led it into Mobile Bay with the aim of destroying the forts and the Confederate fleet they protected. The anchorage was defended by belts of what were then called torpedoes and today would be called mines, barrels filled with gunpowder to be detonated by fulminate of mercury contact fuses. The Union’s eighteen vessels, some ironclad, most wooden, advanced in pairs, lashed together, starting out early in the morning of August 6. They were brought under fire both by Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines, and by the Confederate fleet. Farragut had climbed the mainmast of his flagship, the USS Hartford, where the quartermaster had lashed him to the rigging. When the danger of the mines became apparent, Farragut uttered what were to become immortal words: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” A lively gun duel then opened up, causing heavy casualties on the Union ships. One Union seaman lost both legs to a conical shot, then throwing up his arms in agony, lost both arms to another. The Tennessee, which boldly took on the entire Union fleet single-handed, attempting to sink her enemies by ramming, made herself the target of its combined gunnery and had her rudder chains shot away as a result. Not answering her helm, she was surrendered under a white flag by her captain, and with her capitulation the rest of the Confederate ships gave up the fight. The Union troops in the vicinity then came up and secured the surrender of the forts, though the city of Mobile remained in Confederate hands until April 12, 1865.

The victories of Atlanta and Mobile had a crucial effect on the impending presidential election campaign of 1864. Both parties had already chosen their candidates; the Republicans, known for purposes of the election as the Union Party, had nominated Abraham Lincoln at Baltimore in June; the Democrats were running George McClellan. Frémont, the “Pathfinder,” offered himself as a third-party candidate, tepidly opposed to the war, but made no showing and soon withdrew. McClellan, who had fought to preserve the Union without crushing the South, was identified as an anti-war candidate, though he wisely restored his pro-war position, saying that the sacrifices his comrades in arms had made could not be set aside for electoral purposes. During the Democratic Convention, held in Chicago, proceedings had been disturbed by the intervention of the long-term anti-war campaigner and troublemaker Clement Vallandigham, whose position was dramatised, though he did not deliberately encourage it, by an anti-war conspiracy based in Canada; arms were collected, and there were even some minor attempts at arson in New York and elsewhere, but the conspiracy failed to take fire. It was too blatantly pro-rebellion to win support among the partisans of peace. Nevertheless, at Niagara Falls, emissaries from Richmond hoped to manoeuvre the president into discussing familiar conditions for peace, including recognition, independence, and the continuation of slavery, but Lincoln issued a letter restating his inflexible commitment to restoration of the Union and abolition. At the same time the Republican Party weakly agreed to send its own peace mission to Richmond, with a letter from Lincoln offering peace upon the basis of the Constitution; Lincoln, however, recognised the pitfall, since the Constitution accepted slavery, and at the last moment declined to be caught. Nevertheless, he was, on the eve of the election, wholly uncertain of re-election, apparently believing that McClellan would win and that his last public duty would be to negotiate a way out of the war which would not compromise the Union.

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