‘We Must Attack Him in Position’ – Sherman Readies His Armies

April 24, 1864 (Sunday)


As General Grant had predicted and William Tecumseh Sherman had feared, the Red River Campaign, undertaken by Nathaniel Banks, had run over, and Sherman would have to make due without A.J. Smith’s troops, which Banks had promised to have returned by now. There was hardly time for lamentation, and soon, Sherman was again planning, thinking forward as if A.J. Smith had never existed.

“I only ask as much time as you think proper to enable to me get up [General James] McPherson’s two divisions from Cairo, [Illinois],” wrote Sherman to Grant on this date. In his memoirs, Sherman summed up the planning more succinctly: “These armies were to be directed against the rebel army commanded by General Joseph E. Johnston, then lying on the defensive, strongly entrenched at Dalton, Georgia; and I was required to follow it up closely and persistently, so that in no event could any part be detached to assist General Lee in Virginia; General Grant undertaking in like manner to keep Lee so busy that he could not respond to any calls of help by Johnston. Neither Atlanta, nor August, nor Savannah, was the objective, but the ‘army of Jos. Johnston,’ go where it might.”

General Sherman’s army was actually composed of three, and totaling 110,000 men. The bulk of this force was composed of the Army of the Cumberland, 73,000-strong, and under the command of George Thomas. Based out of Chattanooga, Tennessee, they were the closest force to Johnston’s Confederate army at Dalton.


General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio had survived the winter at Knoxville, Tennessee, facing off against James Longstreet’s Corps detached from Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. With Longstreet recalled to the east, Schofield’s 13,000 could now become Sherman’s left.

The five remaining divisions of the Union Army of the Tennessee, once Sherman’s own, now tallied but 24,000 due to Banks’ Red River Campaign. As Sherman today informed Grant, they were coming from as far away as Illinois, but soon too they would be in Chattanooga. Ultimately, Sherman wanted McPherson to be his right column, storming in behind the Rebels if they should retreat from Dalton.

“I see that there is some risk in dividing our forces,” continued Sherman to Grant, “but Thomas and Schofield will have strength enough to cover all the valleys as far as Dalton.” There was some fear that Johnston might lunge at the smaller McPherson, but Sherman thought it unlikely. “My own opinion is that Johnston will be compelled to hang to his railroad, the only possible avenue of supply to his army, estimated at from forty-five to sixty thousand men.”


Sherman was only slightly over-estimating his opponent. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee was backing into northern Georgia with about 43,000 troops more or less ready for action. Though less than half the size of the Federal horde before them, they are, almost to a man, hardened veterans.

Still, Johnston needed reinforcements, and had been calling upon Richmond for weeks. The answer was always returned in the negative. Lee, with Grant to his front, did not want to send them, and it was nearly impossible to pull them from anywhere else. Richmond had wanted Johnston to launch a winter offensive, but the general demurred until it was simply too late. All that he could really do at this point was order his cavalry to be ever-vigilant. Sherman’s armies, knew Johnston, would not tarry long.

Soon Sherman’s armies would be together, “and if Johnston stands at Dalton,” concluded Sherman, “we must attack him in position.” From all reports, Johnston had entrenched and though he had received no reinforcements, he aimed to put up a defense.

“You had better make ready with every man you can take along,” warned Sherman to General Thomas. “I will come down as soon as possible.” General Sherman, like Grant in the east, would be commanding from the field. He would arrive in Chattanooga on the 28th.1

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 3, p465-466, 469-470; Nothing But Victory by Steven E. Woodworth; Days of Glory by Larry J. Daniel; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds; Decision in the West by Albert Castel. []
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‘We Must Attack Him in Position’ – Sherman Readies His Armies by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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