chapter  11
14 Pages

Joseph E. Johnston and the Atlanta Campaign

The Atlanta campaign marked a significant shift in Confederate tactics. Concurrent with the Wilderness and Petersburg campaigns in Virginia, this campaign reflected the tactical trends in that theatre towards prolonged contact with the enemy, extensive use of entrenchments and an appreciation of the primacy of the defensive. For the forces in the east, and for the Federals in the western theatre, the emergence - and dominance - of fortifications was a natural progression: 'The fighting from Chattanooga to Bentonville consolidated the pattern of trench warfare that had emerged by the end of 1863.'1 Entrenchments, in several forms, had made an appearance on numerous battlefields in the east, most notably in the Peninsula campaign and at Fredericksburg in 1862 and at Gettyburg in 1863. In the west, as noted in previous chapters, the Federal Army employed field fortifications to considerable effect at Stones River and Chickamauga. It also constructed extensive works around Chattanooga from which it launched the offensives against Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. Indeed, Edward Hagerman has suggested that the conservative nature of American military theory in the antebellum period incorporated an 'undercurrent of tactical thought which championed the entrenched defensive', and that the emergence of field fortifications on the Civil War battlefield was more a reflection of the theories of Jomini and Mahan than an indicator of the practices of twentieth-century warfare.2 In contrast, the Army of Tennessee had very little experience in the construction and utilisation of battlefield fortifications. Forts Henry and Donelson had been brief affairs and more akin to eighteenth-century siege warfare than twentieth-century entrenched fighting. In the battles that followed at Shiloh, Perryville, Stones River and Chickamauga, Confederate commitment to the offensive had prompted commanders to see entrenchments as superfluous, and temporary fortifications or rifle pits had been constructed on only a handful of occasions - invariably on the initiative of a brigade or divisional commander rather than as part

of a general order. At Missionary Ridge the entire army created extensive battlefield entrenchments for the first time as part of an attempt to besiege the Federal Army at Chattanooga. This, however, conformed to the pattern of siege warfare as practised by Frederick the Great and his contemporaries. Moreover, the Confederate works were laid out in such a way as to contribute to their eventual defeat - the men retreating from the rifle pits at the foot of the ridge providing a screen for the pursuing Federals. Thus, the record of the Army of Tennessee was bereft of any effective utilisation of battlefield entrenchments before Johnston's assumption of command on 27 December 1863.3

The observation that Confederate tactics in the Atlanta campaign were much different from those employed by Albert Sidney Johnston and Braxton Bragg in earlier battles is beyond dispute. Explaining precisely why this was the case is not such a simple task. The starting point for such an explanation must lie with the strategy Johnston intended to employ, and, in particular, the defensive posture he was willing to take. In contrast, Sherman was determined to take the offensive, but not necessarily at the expense of high casualties. Instead he chose to circle round Johnston's flanks, employing the numerical superiority of the Federal armies to force Johnston to retreat further and further into Georgia in order to maintain his communications with Atlanta. Johnston was also keen to avoid any unnecessary effusion of blood. He later stated that it was his policy 'to stand on the defensive, to spare the blood of our soldiers by fighting undercover habitually, and to attack only when bad position or division of the enemy's forces might give us advantages counterbalancing that of superior numbers'..

Coupled with a willingness to concede ground rather than fight at a disadvantage, Johnston's strategic approach went a long way to determining the style in which the Southerners would fight and consequently, the tactical shape of the campaign. Moreover, as the campaign progressed and Sherman advanced further into Georgia, Johnston became more committed to the defensive through the development of a plan in which Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry would attack Sherman's communications, leaving the Federal Army weakened and isolated.5 The obstacle to the execution of this plan was that Forrest was in northern Mississippi, defending that state from the Federal forces Sherman had sent to invade it. In fact, Sherman had sent the Federal forces into northern Mississippi - under a veteran commander A. J. Smith - more to keep Forrest busy than to invade the strategically unimportant region he was defending. Nevertheless, Johnston was prepared to wait for Forrest to move to Tennessee and attack Sherman's rear, and hoped to preserve the strength of the army to exploit the