The final battle during General Sherman’s campaign against Atlanta (American Civil War). Sherman had reached the vicinity of Atlanta in mid-July 1864. After three battles in nine days at the end of July (Peachtree Creek, Atlanta and Ezra Church), the Confederate commander, General Hood, had settled down within the defences of the city, while Sherman was never keen on attacking fixed defences.
The siege dragged on throughout August. In the North Sherman’s apparent inactivity combined with Grant’s stalemate in front of Petersburg to produce very low morale, and even posed a serious threat to President Lincoln’s re-election. However, while Grant was genuinely stuck at Petersburg, Sherman was only biding his time.
On 26 August, the Confederate defenders of Atlanta woke to find that most of the Union besiegers had gone! Only one army corps remained north of Atlanta, guarding the railroad bridge over the Chattahoochie river. Opinion within Atlanta had expected just such a retreat, convinced that Sherman could not maintain his army over such a long, thin supply line as the one that connected him back to Chattanooga and beyond.
Hood and the remaining inhabitants of Atlanta had misjudged Sherman. The key to the defence of the city was the one remaining railroad out of the city, the Macon and Western Central Railroad. Five miles south of Atlanta, the Montgomery and West Point Railroad split from the Macon railroad and headed south west. Sherman had decided to move most of his army in a massive flanking operation to cut that remaining rail link south of Hood’s defensive lines.
While Hood congratulated himself in Atlanta, on 28 August Sherman’s army reached its first target, the Montgomery Railroad, and began to destroy it. Even now, Hood refused to believe that this was Sherman’s main effort. Only two days later did the awful truth dawn on him, and he remained convinced that most of Sherman’s men were still north of the city. Only the Macon railroad now remained open. On the evening of 30 August he ordered Hardee and Lee down the railroad to Jonesborough in an attempt to secure control of that railroad.
The following day saw the last fighting of the Atlanta campaign. Hardee and Lee launched a series of assaults on Howard’s army, which directly threatened Jonesborough. Their attacks failed to force back the Union army, and even while they were fighting at Jonesborough other parts of Sherman’s army reached the Macon railroad at Rough and Ready, closer to Atlanta.
Now even Hood had to admit that this was Sherman’s main army. With the last railroad link cut, Atlanta could no longer be defended. Hood’s only option was to abandon the city. On the night of 1-2 September the Confederate army that had opposed Sherman all the way from the northern border of Georgia to Atlanta slipped away from the city. The next morning (2 September) the single Union corps north of the city (Slocum’s), carefully advanced into the now undefended city.
Ironically, it took another day for the news to reach Sherman, who had accompanied the army south. On the same day, the news made the headlines in Northern newspapers. The fall of Atlanta could not have come at a better time for Lincoln. His position as Republican candidate in the upcoming Presidential elections had briefly been under threat, and his re-election was not at all certain. In the aftermath of the fall of Atlanta, Lincoln’s re-election was much more certain.
Militarily, the fall of Atlanta eventually led to Sherman’s march to the sea, and then on through the Carolinas. The campaign in Georgia had begun the process of bringing the war home to the heart of the Confederacy. The aftermath was to complete that process.