Atlanta's Role in the Civil War

Written by Brian Enright

Cannon on Battlefield

The Battle of Atlanta occurred on July 22, 1864, and it's considered to have been one of the major battles of the Civil War. Union Army Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman directed this battle as a part of the Atlanta Campaign. Atlanta was a strategic city for the South because it was a railroad hub, a major supply center, and a symbol of the Confederacy. The Confederate loss of the Battle of Atlanta was significant, and it helped to precipitate the end of the Civil War.

Military Background

When Ulysses S. Grant was placed in charge of the Union Army, the Civil War had already been raging for three years. The Confederates may have had a smaller army, but they succeeded in moving their forces strategically to face any part of the Union Army that was active. This strategy was working for the South, and Grant saw the need for coordination of the Union Army as a whole to defeat the Southern forces. Grant orchestrated the Union field armies to engage with all of the Southern field armies simultaneously, which would overwhelm the Confederates. Grant led the Army of the Potomac against Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia with the goal of capturing Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. Sherman moved his combined armies against Gen. Joseph E. Johnston's Confederate Army of Tennessee with a goal of capturing Atlanta.

Political Background

President Abraham Lincoln was experiencing political trouble in 1864. With just more than 39 percent of the popular vote in 1860, Lincoln may have been the least popular president to take office up to that point. Very quickly, seven Southern states seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. The Civil War officially began on April 12, 1861, and by 1864, the Union had lost several important battles; Lincoln needed battle victories to ensure his reelection in November of that year. The Atlanta Campaign was devised in part to help Lincoln's campaign.

Atlanta Campaign

On May 6, 1864, the Atlanta Campaign began. Sherman divided 100,000 men into three separate field armies. Johnston's Confederate force was roughly half the size. Two of Sherman's armies faced Johnston's army, and the third army employed flanking maneuvers. Johnston had to retreat into Atlanta on July 9 and 10. Johnston didn't give up, though: He successfully delayed and maneuvered to slow and wear down the Union forces. It took Sherman's army 72 days to march only 100 miles. Finally, Confederate President Jefferson Davis decided to dismiss Johnston because he hadn't been able to stop the Union forces. John B. Hood was given command of the Confederate Army of Tennessee.

The Battle

The Battle of Atlanta happened about halfway through the Atlanta Campaign. Sherman was about five miles outside of Atlanta when Hood took over command. Hood had a reputation for aggressive leadership, and he planned on defending Atlanta. On July 20, Hood's troops attacked Union Gen. George Henry Thomas's forces. Other Union armies in the area were moving in other directions and couldn't help Thomas. Even so, Thomas's army didn't back down, and the Confederates were eventually forced to withdraw. Hood then attacked on July 22 with his entire army, coming in on Sherman's left flank. The fighting went back and forth until the Confederates were finally driven back. The Confederate army lost about 8,000 men, and the Union army lost 3,722 men. Next, Sherman set up cannons and began bombarding Atlanta for a month. Sherman then withdrew most of his men, leaving just a few behind. Hood's men followed Sherman's men to Jonesboro, Georgia. Sherman took out the railroad tracks going back to Atlanta, trapping the Confederates. The Battle of Jonesborough lasted for two days, with the Union forces besting the Confederates on Sept. 1, 1964.

The Aftermath

Hood took what was left of his army and finally left Atlanta after burning their supplies and ammunition. Sherman moved in and took over Atlanta. This virtually guaranteed Lincoln's reelection.

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