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The Atlanta Campaign : The Conundrum of General Joseph E Johnston

Gen. Joseph E. Johnston

The Atlanta Campaign : The Conundrum of General Joseph E Johnston General Joseph E Johnston’s defensive strategy in 1864 engenders strong opinions, both pro and con. While acknowledged as a fine general and a fine man. He is also criticized by some. For his strategy of retreat in the Atlanta Campaign. It is of great historical interest that his former enemies had the highest regard for him.

The Atlanta Campaign

With the fall of Chattanooga, Sherman was prepared to advance to Atlanta, a crucial railroad hub and urban center. Sherman had 110,000 men in three armies around Chattanooga. Facing them at Dalton, eighty miles north of Atlanta, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston had 53,800, but within the month the Confederates received 15,000 reinforcements. While the 69,000 man army was the South’s largest, it was still markedly outnumbered. Consequently, Johnston’s strategy was to take strong defensive positions and wait for the enemy to attack him. His plan was to hold a strong line, and when flanked, fall back. The idea was to trade land for time.

Map of the Atlanta Campaign (May 7 – September 2, 1864). CC BY 2.5
Sherman specifically eschewed frontal attacks of the kind Grant was employing in the eastern theater against Lee.

In broad terms, Sherman used Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas‘ Army of the Cumberland and Maj Gen. John M. Schofield‘s Army of the Ohio to demonstrate against the Rebel lines, while he sent Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson‘s Army of the Tennessee to maneuver around Johnston’s left flank and threaten his supply line, the Western & Atlantic Railroad.

From May 1 to June 22 there were 5 battles, and skirmishes more days than not.
The Atlanta Campaign from Dalton to Kennesaw Mountain (May 7 – July 2, 1864).

Those battles under Johnston were Dalton, Resaca, Adairburg. New Hope Church/Pickett’s Mill, and Kennesaw Mountain. In each case, Johnston set up defenses along the main road, then Sherman demonstrated frontally while flanking him. Johnston kept his army together to fight another day.

In a series of military operations over a month’s period, the union army encountered an entrenched confederate army. Johnston employed tactics to slow and stretch Sherman’s armies, withdrawing in the face of Sherman’s successive flanking maneuvers, while Sherman tried to avoid pitched battles that necessitated head-on assaults against fortified positions.

Johnston statue in Dalton, Georgia, where he took command of the Army of Tennessee
Several engagements were fought during this four-week period, called the Battle of Marietta.

During which Sherman flanked Johnston and threatened his supply lines and in one case made a direct assault. Sherman forced Johnston to withdraw after a month of small battles and maneuvers. Later, the town that was protected by the entrenchments was burned. Today Marietta is a suburb of Atlanta.

Johnston planned a battle at Resaca but it never came off. While the two armies traded short, sharp attacks on May 14-15, McPherson crossed the Oostanaula River, flanking the prepared defensive line, and forcing Johnston to retreat again.

ATLANTA CAMPAIGN, Union advance: Chattanooga to Etowah (May 7–19, 1864).

Sherman did attack Johnston at Kennesaw Mountain, which held, but Johnston nevertheless retreated again. Sherman flanked Johnston again. Approaching the Chattahoochee River, Sherman feinted right and moved troops across upstream. Davis relieved Johnston of command soon after.

Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, June 27th, 1864

Davis vs Johnston

Moreover, Davis came to disrespect Johnston for not fighting a set-piece battle. Johnston’s foremost goal was to trade space for time and keep his army intact.  He was not concerned with attacking without a substantial likelihood of success.

But ultimately he ran out of space to give up (politically, and eventually geographically).  While criticized for not finding a place to attack, it must be credited to General Sherman that he was careful with his troop dispositions to not give Johnston an opportunity. 


Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s troops bombarding Atlanta during the American Civil War. U.S. Army Signal Corps

For Johnston, without taking advantage of the time gained by giving up space, it was a losing strategy. He knew he was outnumbered two to one. 

His strategy to keep Sherman out of Atlanta until after the 1864 Presidential election, and hope that McClellan would defeat Lincoln, was a reasonable link between political and military goals. It was a delicate balancing act: stall the enemy, keep the army together, look for an opportunity (however unlikely).  

William Tecumseh Sherman, 1864.

Johnston didn’t waste his men needlessly as Hood did after he assumed command. Hood managed to lose both his army and Atlanta.  Davis never really understood Johnston’s strategy and expected a fight. Hood was exactly what he wanted. The responsibility for the loss of Atlanta and the western theater rests with Jefferson Davis.

Post Bellum Assessments

Ruins of Rolling Mill and railroad cars destroyed by rebels on evacuation of Atlanta, Ga.

It is intriguing that Johnston was praised by Grant & Sherman in their memoirs, and was remembered well by Longstreet. Sherman described him as a “dangerous and wily opponent”. Johnston’s strategy of falling back and stalling further Federal advances threatened to stall the Federal war effort. It worked far better than Hood’s direct attacks.

Joseph E. Johnston and Robert E. Lee in 1869–1870
Grant wrote about the Atlanta campaign: “For my own part, I think that Johnston’s tactics were right. Anything that could have prolonged the war a year beyond the time that it finally did close, would probably have exhausted the North to such an extent that they might then have abandoned the contest and agreed to a settlement.”

Said James Longstreet to a reporter years after the war: “General Johnston was one of the ablest generals the war produced. He could handle a large army with ease. But his usefulness to the South was greatly impaired by the personal opposition of the President, he dared take no risks on account of this ‘fire in the rear,’ fearing that he would not be sustained, perhaps discredited before the world. A menace like that will paralyze the best efforts of any commander in the field. General Johnston never had a fair trial.”

The Siege of Atlanta by Thure de Thulstrup (c. 1888)

Sherman & Johnston became good friends after the war, corresponding and often meeting for dinner in Washington. Johnston died of pneumonia 10 days after standing in the rain and serving as a pallbearer at Sherman’s funeral. Despite concerns for his health at the funeral, he said: “”If I were in his place, and he were standing here in mine, he would not put on his hat.” 

The Atlanta Campaign : The Conundrum of General Joseph E Johnston Written by By Dr. Lloyd W Klein, A Practicing Cardiologist in San Francisco

The Atlanta Campaign : The Conundrum of General Joseph E Johnston Written By Lloyd W Klein

More Works By Dr. Lloyd W Klein:

The “Lost Order” Of General Lee

Sherman’s March To The Sea

The Battle of Shiloh

Siege of Vicksburg