July 1, 1864 (Friday)
There were two things impeccably clear to Joe Johnston. First, William Tecumseh Sherman’s host would move along his left and outflank the Rebel position on Kennesaw Mountain. Second, he had no where near enough troops to stop him. In his heart, he knew he needed to retreat.
Perhaps he could have send out small strike forces toward Federal interests, but, unlike General Lee in the east, there was no Washington DC or Harper’s Ferry to threaten. In Georgia, he was alone, with only Atlanta at his back.
On this date, Confederate Senator Benjamin Hill from Georgia paid Johnston a visit. It was a strange meeting, with Johnston making little sense and vacillating wildly. As he had before, he urged Senator Hill to convince President Davis in Richmond to order Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry to play upon Sherman’s lines of supply.
Of his own situation, he explains that Sherman’s army is entrenched and impossible to assail with any hope of victory. Sherman’s army was also so large that it was now wrapping itself around the Confederate let, making for the Chattahoochee River and Atlanta. The only way he could be stopped was to employ Forrest in the cause. “In one day,” said Johnston, Forrest “could destroy the railroad to an extent that as to require two weeks or a month to repair it.”
Without a line of supply, Sherman, in Johnston’s estimation, would either have to attack or retreat. If he attacked, he would be beaten by the Rebel defenses. Johnston insisted there was still plenty of time.
John Bell Hood, one of Johnston’s corps commanders, wasn’t so sure. Already, he feared, it might be too late. Scouts were reporting enough enemy movement on the Rebel left to indicate that Sherman had given up the idea of the frontal assault in favor of a U.S. Grant type of slide around the flank. Johnston didn’t think it was that dire, but admitted at least that Forrest should probably come sooner than later.
Senator Hill, probably agreeing more with Hood than Johnston, then asked how long the Confederate Army of Tennessee hold north of the Chattahoochee, north of Atlanta. Here, Johnston displayed either sheer stupidity or an optimism unparalleled in the war. He looked back on the campaign so far, calculating how long it had taken Sherman to move from New Hope Church to his present position. Though it was but a few miles, it had taken the Federal army nearly a month. It stood to reason, in Johnston’s mind, that it would take Sherman every bit as long to move from Kennesaw Mountain to the river.
Again, General Hood was not of the same mind. The line they now occupied was indeed one of the strongest. As long as they held to it and supplies continued to flow, they could hold it indefinitely. But they were now being outflanked. How long could they keep their own lines of supply open against the Federal cavalry? Before that happened, they would have to abandon the mountain. And when they did, it would be little slower than a race to the Chattahoochee.
Johnston, however, insisted that he had other such Gibraltars waiting to embattle his army between their present position and the river. Hood backed off, but the conversation turned, almost casually, to the idea that the railroad bridges over the Chattahooche were unguarded. Somehow, this had escaped Johnston, who took the news with a bit of surprise.
Then Senator Hill expounded on the idea of what would happen if Sherman crossed the river. Johnston’s army would be cut off from his base of supply. Lee’s army, too, would suffer, unable to move sustenance from Georgia. Johnston waved off this very real threat, assuring the senator that the Federals wouldn’t get nearly that far without a bloody fight.
When boiled down, Johnston was pleading with President Davis, sending wires, letters and messengers – even politicians – to Richmond, insisting that he could not stop Sherman’s columns without help. And repeatedly, Davis insisted that he could. This was hardly a recipe for success.
General Sherman, on this date, issued orders for his entire army to outflank Johnston’s.
“The object of the contemplated movement is to deprive the enemy of the great advantage he has in Kennesaw as a valuable watchtower from which to observe our every movement; to force him to come out of his intrenchments or move farther south.”
It would not be an immediate move, but Sherman instructed his commanders to gather their supplies. First, the cavalry was to be sent. This was, in fact, already happening. Soon, James McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee, one of Sherman’s three armies, away from Kennesaw, slyly slipping south, while additional cavalry screen his movements. McPherson was to “threaten the Chattahoochee River and also the railroad,” while George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland was ordered to “press the enemy close and at the very earliest possible moment break his lines and reach the railroad below Marietta.”
If accomplished, it would place the two largest armies between Johnston and Atlanta. “All movements must be vigorous and rapid.”1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 39, Part 5, p14; Kennesaw Mountain by Earl J. Hess; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; Decision in the West by Albert Castel; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds. [↩]