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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?

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3 Answers 3

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.

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Johnston's strategy was clearly correct. He traded space for time, and whittled away at the attacking army. This was what the entire Confederacy needed to do.

As to Hood's policy: the historical rule of thumb, going back centuries, was that an attacker needed to outnumber a defender 3 to 1 to be able to carry a strongly defended position. During the Civil War era, with rifles and Minie balls and trenches, the balance swung more strongly to the defender than at any time in military history. Hood's idea to attempt frontal assaults with odds of 4 to 5 is indefensible. Sherman probably would have had Atlanta anyway: but there was no need to just give it away. Johnston would have held it longer; and if he'd had to withdraw, he would have gotten out with more men.

The issue of timing is crucial. Most historians credit the fall of Atlanta as an important factor in Lincoln's re-election win. If Johnston had held Atlanta for another two months, maybe the election would have gone differently. Then the Confederacy might have been able to negotiate peace terms with the new administration.

Perhaps not. Inauguration wasn't until March; Lincoln would still have been Commander-in-Chief. In real life, Sherman had already burned Columbia and Grant was just a few weeks from taking Petersburg, on the date of Lincoln's second inauguration. But would the administration have been able to conduct the same war, in a lame duck situation? It is unknowable; but probably not. Lincoln had a hard time keeping his coalition in line even when he had the full weight of his office.

By 1864 this was the Confederacy's only remaining hope, to stave off military disaster. Hood and Jefferson Davis squandered it. It's probably too strong to say that Davis snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, since victory was by no means certain even if Johnston had held off Sherman for longer. But he hastened the Confederacy's fall.

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Another good answer. –  Tom Au May 6 at 12:38
"historical rule of thumb, going back centuries, was that an attacker needed to outnumber a defender 3 to 1 to be able to carry a strongly defended position" - source?! I think 1:3 is based on WW1 and was routinely violated in WW2 –  sds May 6 at 19:48
I think 3-1 is much older, before truly mechanized warfare. It refers to how much advantage you would need to carry a fortified position, absent other factors. WW2 and blitzkrieg tactics would have changed all of that. I'll have to go hunting for specific references. –  JimZipCode May 7 at 16:27

Joe Johnston is one of the intriguing generals in the ACW but his record is mixed to say the least. And I say that as someone who likes the man.

His abilities to plan were somewhat lacking. He came within an ace of being cut off from Atlanta in the opening stages when McPherson pulled back from Resaca into Snake Creek Gap, allowing the Rebs to pull back from Dalton. His attempts to hit back while retiring were deflected by none other than Hood himself at Cassville. Hood was also intriguing against Joe and with second in command Hardee with Richmond. Davis, who never had a lot of confidence in him, let this backbiting continue. Also, Braxton Bragg, who Johnston replaced, was there putting his own spin on matters.

The 'draw them into the interior' strategy ran into a big problem when Sherman mobilized the North's transportation might to keep the army running at the end of this tether with relative ease. When the offensive didn't just collapse, Johnston didn't seem to have a real plan to offer - he did at times beg for Forrest or someone to try and cut the rail lines, but if this were his plan he should have made this clear to Richmond at the start. His silence to Davis on strategies, if he had one, did him no favors.

The final blow to his prestige was the retirement to the Chattahoochee. He had just days before claimed he could hold north of the river for months. Instead in a matter of days the US was over the river in force and still he seemed to have no plan. The closest he ever said at the time was intending for militia to hold the city to allow 'freer and wider' movements. If he was thinking of attacking at this point, he really needed to say so, and then do it.

Davis pulling JoeJ was a bad decision, but more because it was too late. If you really are going to undercut your general the way Davis did, you might as well ditch him from the start. Hood was a sneak, and deserved to get the mess dumped in his lap at the worst time just for justice's sake, but for the CSA it was a no-win situation. It was extremely difficult to physically force an army back by frontal attacks, or even flank ones by 1864. Once the US got that close, the fall of the city was eventually going to happen barring massive reinforcements.

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