Take the 2-minute tour ×
History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

A major turning point of the Civil War was the capture of Atlanta by the North's General William T. Sherman. Arguably the turning point of the Atlanta campaign was when Confederate President Jefferson Davis replaced General Joseph Johnston, regarded by his opponents Grant and Sherman as the South's best defensive general, with the more offensively-minded John Bell Hood.

Johnston had started the Atlanta campaign outnumbered nearly 2 to 1 by the Northerners. After a "fighting retreat" from the Tennessee border, through northern Georgia, Johnston arrived in Atlanta outnumbered less than 5 to 4, because his policy of defensive attrition had cost the South fewer casualties than the North had suffered, and because Sherman had to detach troops to guard his lengthening supply lines (Johnston picked up a few thousand troops on his way back to Atlanta.)

Do other historical examples suggest that Johnston was "winning" or at least "doing well" when he arrived in Atlanta with an army nearly as large as his opponents', meaning that President Davis snatched "defeat from the jaws of victory" in replacing him? Or did Johnston miss better opportunities to stop Sherman further north? Or do other historical examples suggest that Hood's policy of attacking against odds of 4 to 5 was a better strategy than trying to defend against those odds?

share|improve this question
add comment

1 Answer

up vote 1 down vote accepted

In asking this question, my big fear was that some Southerner, particularly Georgian, would answer based on a knowledge of the terrain around Atlanta and northern Georgia that e.g. "Johnston would have done far better to stop Sherman around Kennesaw Mountain", or "The ground around Atlanta is much better for offense than defense, so Hood did the "right" thing, even though he lost." Since no such answer was forthcoming, I'll follow my own instincts in using historical and statistical analysis.

The North had a better than two to one advantage in population, which translated into a two to one advantage in troops, (even allowing for higher enlistment rates of Southerners). When led by a capable commander such as Sherman, the Northern forces could win, albeit with difficulty, with such an advantage. That was basically the situation Johnston was facing when he took over the army near the Tennessee border. The ratio of Union to Confederate forces at the beginning of the campaign was something like 99,000 to 53,000, close enough to 2 to 1. Hence Johnston had to act circumspectly and retreat, while extracting the highest price for land lost.

When both sides got to Atlanta, the ratio of Northern to Southern troops was something like 74,000 to 60,000, or just under 5 to 4. These were MUCH better odds than Confederate commanders typically enjoyed. When you consider the troubles that Sherman would have in city fighting in Atlanta, plus Johnston's advantage of "interior lines," the Southerners were basically at parity. While there were no guarantees, Johnston had to like those odds.

When Hood took over, Sherman's force was actually subdivided into three smaller armies, averaging 25,000 men led by Generals Thomas, McPherson, and Schofield. Hood's tactics were to try to "pick off" each of these three armies one by one, as they maneuvered in (for them) unfamiliar ground around Atlanta. In the "best case" scenario, he might have succeed in destroying one of those three 25,000 men armies, losing perhaps 12,000 of his own men, or half as many. That would have put his army at parity with Sherman's, forcing the latter to retreat from Atlanta. Given Hood's subsequent conduct, that would just have allowed him to "waste" this advantage further north, as he in fact did after the Atlanta campaign.

What actually happened was that Hood was repulsed in all three "pick-off" attempts, with a roughly two to one loss ratio (roughly 25,000 to 13,000). That reduced Hood's army to 35,000 men and Sherman's to just over 60,000, almost restoring the North's original advantage of nearly two to one. Next to the utter destruction of his army, this was the worst possible result for Hood and the South.

In chess terms, the Confederates enjoyed "draw odds," that is, the South wins all ties. In his characteristic "playing to win or lose," Hood squandered that advantage. Johnston may well have "drawn" at Atlanta, and depending on what happened elsewhere, that might just have been enough for a Southern win.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.