On September 2, 1864, Atlanta surrendered to Union forces following a months-long campaign in which the outnumbered Confederates suffered devastating casualties trying to defend the city. Up until that point, the Northern war effort had stagnated so badly that President Abraham Lincoln feared losing re-election. Afterwards, however, the Union’s battlefield victories came in rapid succession, bringing the Civil War to a close within months.
With the outcome of the Civil War still in doubt, the North turned its hopes to Ulysses S. Grant, who in March 1864 was given command of all Union armies and promoted to lieutenant general, a rank last held in wartime by George Washington. In this capacity, Grant came up with a plan to attack the Confederacy simultaneously on multiple fronts, using “all parts of the army together.” He participated in the so-called Overland Campaign himself, in which a large Union force engaged Confederate General Robert E. Lee in several bloody battles around Richmond, Virginia, the Southern capital. But after suffering an estimated 55,000 casualties (killed, wounded and missing) in just a few weeks, Grant was forced to back off and initiate a siege of Petersburg, Virginia, a rail hub that Richmond depended on for supplies. Smaller Union forces fared no better on Virginia’s Bermuda Hundred peninsula and in the Shenandoah Valley, whereas a planned offensive against Mobile, Alabama, never even got off the ground following the disastrous Red River Campaign in Louisiana. To add insult to injury, Confederate raiders in July came within a hair’s breadth of entering Washington, D.C.
Only a campaign against Atlanta seemed to be making progress. Under General William T. Sherman, the successor to Grant as the top Union commander in the West, about 100,000 men departed Chattanooga, Tennessee, in May, heading south along a railroad line. In their way stood some 63,000 troops led by Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, who took up a series of strong defensive positions only to retreat each time after being outflanked by long, roundabout Union marches. Wary of engaging his numerically superior opponents head on, Johnston tried to goad them into attacking. This strategy worked once, as his trench-protected soldiers cut down roughly 3,000 northerners who charged up Kennesaw Mountain on June 27, while losing fewer than 1,000 of their own. But neither this setback nor near-daily skirmishes prevented Sherman from continuing his advance, oftentimes through heavy rain, including one storm in which a single lightning bolt killed or wounded 15 of his men. By the second week of July, Sherman’s force had reached the outskirts of Atlanta, then a city of around 20,000 that served as a rail hub and manufacturing center.
Fed up with the constant withdrawals, Confederate President Jefferson Davis replaced Johnston on July 17 with the aggressive General John B. Hood, whose right leg had been amputated at the Battle of Chickamauga and whose left arm had been permanently crippled at the Battle of Gettysburg. True to form, Hood decided not to rely on the extensive defensive fieldworks ringing Atlanta, which had been built largely by slave labor, and instead went on the attack. His first offensive took place on July 20, when he attempted to drive back one of the three armies under Sherman’s command as it crossed Peachtree Creek. But although the Union force bent, it ultimately held its position, suffering about 1,700 casualties while inflicting at least 2,500.
Undeterred, Hood targeted a second Sherman army two days later in what would become known as the Battle of Atlanta. Prior to the fighting, he sent thousands of men on a secret, overnight march around the Union’s left flank. Despite arriving into position hours later than planned, they caught their opponents by surprise. The delay proved costly, however, because Union commanders had readjusted their troops that morning. As a result, they were able to meet certain Confederate divisions head-on rather than being attacked from the side or rear. During the course of the battle, the southerners launched assault after assault from seemingly all directions, killing high-ranking General James B. McPherson and briefly breaching the Union line. Yet the Yankees rallied under McPherson’s replacement, General John A. “Black Jack” Logan, and when darkness fell the rebels were no closer to dislodging them. Once more, the Confederates suffered more casualties than their Northern counterparts—an estimated 6,000 compared to 3,700—a particularly devastating outcome considering their already limited manpower.
On July 28, Hood initiated still another battle, his third in nine days. But his troops were defeated again at Ezra Church, an encounter that cost him some 3,000 men, in contrast to only 632 on the Union side. With it now clear that Hood could no longer effectively confront Sherman in the field, the Yankees stepped up their artillery bombardment of Atlanta and maneuvered to cut its railroad supply lines. Once the last line fell in the midst of a fourth Union victory—arguably the most one-sided yet—Hood evacuated the city on September 1, blowing up a long munitions train on the way out so that it wouldn’t fall into enemy hands. As Yankee troops prepared to pour in the following day, Atlanta’s mayor officially surrendered. “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won,” Sherman boasted in a telegram.
Just a few weeks earlier, President Lincoln had doubted his re-election chances. “I am going to be beaten…and unless some great change takes place, badly beaten,” he purportedly told a White House visitor. Yet the capture of Atlanta, along with a subsequent Union victory in the Shenandoah Valley, completely changed the national mood. Lincoln would go on to win 55 percent of the popular vote and all but three states that November, receiving overwhelming support from the armed forces. Meanwhile, Sherman’s troops were still in Atlanta, deporting over 1,600 of the city’s remaining civilian residents and destroying factories, warehouses and railroad installations, along with numerous private homes. “If the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty,” Sherman wrote to another general, “I will answer that war is war and not popularity-seeking.”
Rather than spend much time chasing Hood, who was attacking his supply line from Chattanooga to Atlanta, Sherman decided to press onward. On November 15, he and some 60,000 men set out on their so-called March to the Sea, in which they wrecked railroad tracks, pillaged and otherwise terrorized Georgia’s populace from Atlanta to Savannah. Hood left them to their own devices, preferring instead to invade Tennessee. But his force was decimated by a reckless charge near Nashville, after which a Union attack sent what remained of his army into a full-scale retreat. Less than four months later, as Sherman’s troops pushed up through the Carolinas, Grant captured Petersburg and Richmond and forced Lee to surrender, effectively ending Southern resistance once and for all.