Friday, August 29, 2014

Sesquicentennial, Part XXXIX: A Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight


No one loves a siege. (Am I repeating myself?)

By the end of August 1864, the Union had settled down to besiege not one, but two Southern cities: Richmond and Atlanta. Granted, the Atlanta siege was new, but Richmond had been under siege since late Spring, at the conclusion of the Overland campaign. As I said before, sieges combine all the things least enjoyable about campaigning: you have all of the danger of active engagement, plus all of the boredom of garrison life. And into that, you can add the rampant disease of so many men quartered so closely together.

It sometimes sounds odd to the modern ear, but up until fairly recently, disease claimed more lives in wartime than did enemy action. A Union soldier was more likely to fall to cholera, fever, or some other illness than he was to fall to a Confederate Minié ball. Scientists were beginning to understand the link between germs and disease -- Louis Pasteur was wrapping up his landmark experiments at almost this exact time in 1864 -- but they had not yet applied this knowledge to military sanitation or medicine. It had long been known that a clean soldier was a healthy soldier, and that if you dig your latrines just so it holds off the sickness longer ... but they did not yet know why.

All that said, the siege of Atlanta was less than a month old, and Sherman didn't think it would last much longer. He knew that the Confederate army under John Bell Hood didn't have much in the way of supply stored up in Atlanta, and if he could manage to destroy his last rail link with the outside, he'd have to abandon Atlanta in short order.

Here we begin to see the payoff of two Union strategies: first, the long-range strategy of isolating the Confederacy; and second, the "attack everywhere" plan that kept the Confederate armies from supporting one another. The first essentially guaranteed that no Confederate force had any more than a few days' supplies on hand at any given time, and the second guaranteed that a hard-pressed Confederate army could not depend upon support or reinforcement. Armies that were based at or near a major city, such as the Army of Northern Virginia at Richmond, could draw upon considerable supplies ... but were essentially immobile. Armies like Hood's, on the other hand, either had to have a steady source of supplies or had to keep moving. Atlanta had no fortifications like those that had been built up around Richmond, nor did Atlanta have any natural defenses like Vicksburg. So hunkering down in Atlanta wasn't a real option.

So it was, then, that when Sherman's army threatened Hood's last rail link at Jonesborough, Hood was forced to come to its defense. Hood sent two corps under General Hardee to keep Sherman from cutting him off. But Hood seriously underestimated how much force Sherman was willing to commit to this effort.

Of his seven infantry corps, Sherman sent six. And a Union corps was larger than a Confederate corps to begin with.

If this had been 1862 or 1863, the Battle of Jonesborough probably would have been a bloodbath. But the survivors of 1862 and 1863 had learned the value of maneuver. And they also learned when to cut their losses. Hardee's two corps made a stand as long as they could, but were forced to yield or be destroyed.

For Hood, it may as well have been six of one or a half-dozen of the other. With Sherman's army in Jonesborough, his position in Atlanta was no longer tenable. If he stayed put, he'd be crushed. So on September 1st, Hood's army retreated from Atlanta, destroying all stores of military use beforehand.

That night, Atlanta burned.

The next morning, Sherman and his army arrived. "Atlanta is ours, and fairly won," he exulted in a message to President Lincoln. It was the best news Lincoln had received all summer. It was the best news anyone in the Union had received all summer. The capture of Atlanta had several effects.

First, the capture and reduction of an important supply center would have long-ranging implications for the Confederate war effort. The already-precarious Confederate supply system would now be in truly dire straits. Worse still, from Atlanta, Union forces could threaten the most valuable, most productive agricultural areas.

Second, it was an important symbolic victory. Vicksburg had cut the Confederacy in half. The capture of Atlanta had gone halfway towards doing it again. This was a boost to Union morale, and a dreadful blow to Confederate morale -- what was left of it. The first half of 1864 was a dreadful slog, with no end in sight. That had changed. With the capture of Atlanta, and the measurable progress that represented ... well, that's not victory, but you can see it from there.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it provided a powerful boost to Lincoln's re-election chances. McClellan's candidacy was predicated upon a negotiated peace. Why negotiate, when the matter is so very nearly settled? Sherman's victory at Atlanta took the wind out of McClellan's sails. He'd still have his partisans, of course; he'd still have a fair share of people who'd had enough. But the voters still in the undecided middle were now going to be that much harder for him to win.

For now, though, Sherman needed to take time to reorganize his army, and figure out what he was going to do next. A plan was taking shape ...

... a plan that would be the biggest gamble of his life.

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