ATLANTA CAMPAIGN. Major General William T. Sherman's campaign in 1864 to capture Atlanta, Georgia, resulted in the loss of the Confederacy's most important railroad hub. Atlanta was also the location of important factories, foundries, munitions plants, and supply depots. The Union advance to Atlanta began on 5 May 1864, simultaneously with Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant's advance to Richmond. Sherman commanded a force of three armies totaling 100,000 men. He was opposed by Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Tennessee, which numbered 65,000. Sherman's superior force
led Johnston to adopt a defensive strategy of continuous retreat, to which the mountainous topography of northern Georgia was favorable. His army could not withstand a direct battle with Sherman's. The resulting campaign was one of maneuver and little fighting. Sherman attempted an attack at Resaca, but overcautious subordinates and an overestimation of enemy strength produced only a skirmish. Johnston considered fighting Sherman at Cassville, halfway to Atlanta, but subordinates believed the risk too great and he did not attack. Sharp but indecisive fighting occurred at New Hope Church from 25 to 28 May. Both armies then settled down for several weeks of skirmishing, maneuvering, and raiding. Johnston moved skillfully and entrenched his army so well that Sherman was unable to find a weak point to attack. As the opposing armies drew closer to Atlanta, fighting became more frequent. Sherman broke the stalemate with a frontal attack against Confederate fortifications at Kenesaw Mountain on 27 June. He was bloodily repulsed, losing 3,000 men compared to Confederate losses of 442.
The size of Sherman's three armies required him to keep his forces close to railroad lines for the entire advance to Atlanta. Frequent raids on Union supply trains by Confederate cavalry men Nathan Bedford Forrest and Joseph Wheeler slowed Sherman considerably. However, the sheer size of Sherman's armies allowed them to out-flank Johnston and continue the advance despite these raids and the defeat at Kenesaw Mountain.
By 9 July, Sherman forced Johnston to move his army across the Chattahoochee River, into fortifications along Peachtree Creek, only four miles from downtown Atlanta. This threw the city into a panic as well as the Confederate government in Richmond. On 17 July, Confederate President Jefferson Davis relieved Johnston of command and replaced him with John B. Hood, who Davis believed would be more aggressive. Hood attacked Sherman on 20 July but was repulsed. He initiated the Battle of Atlanta on 22 July, but suffered another costly defeat. A third Confederate offensive on 28 July at Ezra Church again ended in a bloody repulse. These three battles cost Hood 15,000 casualties compared to Sherman's 6,000. The Union armies besieged Atlanta during August. Hood evacuated Atlanta on 1 September and moved his army south. The mayor of Atlanta surrendered the city to Sherman the next day. Sherman burned Atlanta on 15 November before setting out on his "march to the sea."
The capture of Atlanta boosted Northern war morale, weakened the peace platform of the Democratic presidential candidate George B. McClellan, and contributed to Abraham Lincoln's reelection that November. The fall of Atlanta also weakened Confederate morale. The city's importance to the Confederate military effort made it second only to the capital, Richmond, as a symbol of Southern strength and resistance.
Hattaway, Herman, and Archer Jones. How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.