|Hood blew up his ammunition train before abandoning Atlanta. This photo was taken a few days later as Federal forces occupied the city.|
Lincoln feared he would lose the presidency to his Democratic opponent, Union General George B. McClellan. The north was tired of the war and wanted peace. There were anti-draft riots in New York City as well as pervasive grumbling throughout the northern states. Also in the summer of 1863, General George Meade stood his ground against Lee's best infantry and turned the Confederates away at Gettysburg. It was the bloodiest battle of the war and the most storied battle in American history but at the time it was seen as a draw, particularly in the south, not as a southern defeat.
Then came Chickamauga, a clear Confederate victory. Up north there were demands for an investigation into what was seen as a military fiasco. Even though the Rebels were routed from Chattanooga only a few weeks later, a sense of despondency pervaded the north. About 300,000 were dead on each side. So many more were hobbling around without arms and legs. There was no indication the Union could win in the Deep South away from its river gunboats and navy. Even with its vast naval firepower, Charleston Harbor had not fallen in very heavy attacks in the fall of 1863. Vicksburg seemed to be an exception rather than the rule. Overall, the battles were bloodier than ever. It was time for peace and Lincoln seemed to be a war president. America was sick of war.
In 1864 General Ulysses S. Grant, the victor of Vicksburg and Chattanooga, aggressively and repeatedly attacked the Army of Northern Virginia in a series of very bloody battles with the Army of the Potomac. By the fall of that year, however, the public viewed Grant's attacks as just another bloody draw. No one saw victory in Grant's efforts. The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor, among several others, all drained both armies. The series of almost non-stop battles cost the south 35,000 men but Lee had inflicted over 60,000 casualties on Grant. Northerners were tired of this long bloody attrition. Grant was referred to as "the butcher" even as he edged ever closer to the Confederate capital at Richmond. May - August 1864 was the bloodiest period of months in the entire war. A significant minority in the North wanted peace and that peace minority was stronger at the moment than the emancipation minority.
Albert Castel captures the wide-spread northern despair in his 1992 history of the Atlanta Campaign. Castel wrote his book in the present tense. "On August 29 the Democratic Convention, twice postponed, finally will gather in Chicago. Almost surely it will adopt a platform branding the war as a failure and calling for a negotiated peace. Almost surely, too, it will nominate General George B. McClellan, former commander of the Army of the Potomac and still beloved by many soldiers, for president. And just as surely, unless the war takes a decisive turn for the better, McClellan will be elected. Such, at any rate, is the hope and expectation of the Democrats and the fear and apprehension of the Republicans. Among the latter is Thurlow Weed of New York, reputedly the canniest politician in the country. He believes that 'the people are wild for peace.' and he has told Lincoln, to whom he is an unofficial adviser, that his reelection is 'an impossibility.' Another is Horace Greeley, whose New York Tribune still refuses to endorse Lincoln's nomination. Declaring that 'Mr. Lincoln is already beaten,' Greeley has joined with some like-minded Republicans, including the mayor of New York and the national treasurer of the party, to bring about a new convention that will choose a new candidate: Grant, Ben Butler, and even Sherman are being considered. Butler, Senator Charles Sumner, and Governor John Andrew, all of Massachusetts, support this movement. So, too, the Cincinnati Gazette, which has called for Lincoln to withdraw from the race, a pleas that is echoed by other major Republican newspapers.
"In fact, so widespread and intense is Republican defeatism that even Henry Raymond editor of the New York Times and national chairman of the Union (Republican) party, believes that 'unless some prompt and bold step be taken all is lost.'" (page 477)
Meanwhile, despite bloody repulses at Resaca and Kennesaw Mountain, General William T. Sherman out-maneuvered General Joseph E. Johnston toward Atlanta. This ultimately led Confederate President Jefferson Davis to controversially replace Johnston with General John Bell Hood due the strategic and political importance of Atlanta. That southern railroad town became the war-related key for Lincoln's reelection. A union defeat at Atlanta would most likely have elected George McClellan as President. In fact, the south likely did not even have to defeat Sherman's combined three Union armies. All the Army of Tennessee needed to do was hold on to Atlanta as Lee held Petersburg and Richmond and the malaise that pervaded the north (and the people of the south too for that matter though that had no immediate political consequences in 1864) would have seemed validated.
Mobile Bay fell in the late summer of 1864 before the fall of Atlanta and this was a morale boost for the north. This closed one of only two remaining major southern ports open to blockade runners bringing supplies into the Confederacy. But that was still too strategically abstract to affect the majority of disgruntled northern people. Mobile Bay, like Vicksburg and even Gettysburg, was a strategic Union victory but it was not viewed as particularly important by the majority in the north at the time of the war. For them and the vast focus of northern newspapers during this time the war was about capturing Richmond and Atlanta.
The Union victory at Atlanta came after three battles around the city on July 20, July 22, July 28, and the disastrous Battle of Jonesboro. The Confederates were flat-out whipped. As long as Atlanta was held, these southern defeats did not matter. Some even argue that hyperbole about these battles at the time actually lifted southern morale. But when Sherman managed to cut the last rail line south of Atlanta, the city's only supply line, it was a clear victory and it was trumpeted throughout the north. This was no stalemate, it was a major Union victory that, along with Mobile Bay and General Jubal Early's defeat in the Shenandoah, proved to be enough to get Lincoln re-elected and to see the war through to complete northern triumph.
It is an irony that the Democrats nominated McClellan on the same day as Sherman ordered troop maneuvers toward Jonesboro. In essence this was the critical moment in the war. To the extent that Hood could not deal with Sherman's troops cutting his supply to Atlanta, McClellan lost to Lincoln.
Renowned historian James McPherson writes about the impact of the fall of Atlanta in his splendid history of the war (1988): "The impact of this event cannot be exaggerated. Cannons boomed 100-gun salutes in northern cities. Newspapers that had bedeviled Sherman for years now praised him as the greatest general since Napoleon. In retrospect the victory at Mobile Bay suddenly took on new importance as the first blow of a lethal one-two punch. 'Sherman and Farragut,' exulted Secretary of State Seward, 'have knocked the bottom out of the Chicago platform.' The Richmond Examiner reflected glumly that 'the disaster at Atlanta' came 'in the very nick of time' to 'save the party of Lincoln from irretrievable ruin...it obscures the prospect of peace, late so bright. It will also diffuse gloom all over the South.'" (pp. 774-775)
Sherman quickly occupied Atlanta and soon turned it into a huge military depot while evicting the entire civilian population. Hood's battered army limped south to Lovejoy Station where it found supplies and dug in. The campaign then briefly transformed from a military confrontation into a war of words. But that is the subject of my next post.