150 Years Ago This Week: Bloody summer

July 1864

In Georgia on Saturday, July 16, Maj. Gen. William Sherman’s major move across the Chattahoochee River and out around the north side of Atlanta toward Decatur on the east got underway, though not without delays.

Gen. Joseph Johnston’s Confederates planned to attack as Gen. Sherman’s Federal army moved around the city, when the flanks of his army might be separated from the center. The Confederates continued working on fortifications extending from the Chattahoochee, south of Peachtree Creek around to the Atlanta & Decatur Railroad. During the various troop movements, there was skirmishing at Turner’s Ferry on the river.

From Richmond, President Jefferson Davis sent a firm wire to Gen. Johnston in Georgia: “I wish to hear from you as to the present situation as will enable me to anticipate events.” Gen. Johnston replied somewhat ambiguously, “As the enemy has double our number, we must be on the defensive. My plan of operations must therefore depend upon that of the enemy. It is mainly to watch for an opportunity to fight to our advantage. We are trying to put Atlanta in condition to be held for a day or two by Georgia militia, that army movements may be freer and wider.”

Without knowing it, Gen. Johnston just sealed his fate. The next day, July 17, President Davis sent this to Gen. Johnston: “As you failed to arrest the advance of the enemy to the vicinity of Atlanta, far to the interior of Georgia, and express no confidence that you can defeat or repel him, you are hereby relieved from the command of the Army and Department of Tennessee, which you will immediately turn over to Gen. Hood.”

Gen. Johnston was at Nelson’s House on the Marietta Road, three miles from Atlanta, when he received word that he had been sacked. President Davis and Gen. Johnston had misunderstood each other since the war began.

The Confederacy could not ignore the loss of so much territory to the Federals, whereas Gen. Johnston believed he had adopted the only strategy possible in light of the Federal numbers, and had preserved the Army of Tennessee — not only intact but in excellent condition. Gen. John B. Hood, an impetuous fighter, now took over from the cautious, careful Gen. Johnston.

President Abraham Lincoln issued a call for 500,000 volunteers on July 18, emphasizing the need to replenish army ranks after the severe fighting in Virginia. Another effort to seek peace was made by the Lincoln administration when John Hay and Horace Greeley went to Niagara Falls to meet with Confederate emissaries based in Canada. The peace efforts came to failure; the Confederacy refused to consider any terms unless they contained the Confederacy’s independence and recognition by the Union government.

In the Shenandoah Valley, Union troops searching for Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s Confederate troops engaged the Southerners in a series of sharp fights near Berryville, in Clarke County. There was a sharp engagement at Cool Spring, at Castleman’s Ferry on the Shenandoah River; Gen. Early retreated his men that night from Berryville toward Winchester.

Heavy fighting resumed in Georgia on July 20, when Maj. Gen. George Thomas moved his Army of the Cumberland and met Gen. Hood’s troops at Peachtree Creek. Over 20,000 Union troops were engaged against about 20,000 Confederates. After two hours of intense fighting, the fierce Southern assaults against the Union troops failed.

Two days later, on the very outskirts of Atlanta, Gen. Hood’s men launched another major assault against the Union army. By nightfall, Gen. Hood’s attacks had again failed to defeat the Union troops, at a terrible cost. Of some nearly 40,000 Confederates engaged, casualties numbered as high as 10,000. Federal troops in the Battle of Atlanta sustained almost 4,000 casualties.

Gen. Hood’s policy of hard fighting whatever the cost was not working. Casualties that day included Confederate Maj. Gen. William Walker and Union Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson, commander of the Army of the Tennessee. Maj. Gen. John “Black Jack” Logan assumed command of the Army of the Tennessee; during the fighting at Atlanta, he had shown himself to be a ferocious and able combat commander.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 194 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.