April 24, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman worked to coordinate the efforts of three Federal armies in a drive on General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate Army of Tennessee at Dalton, Georgia.
Sherman had worked with Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to plan a major Federal thrust into northern Georgia. This plan was based on Major General Nathaniel P. Banks returning Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith’s 10,000 Federals he had borrowed from Sherman for his failed Red River campaign. As the deadline for returning Smith’s men came and went, Grant told Sherman to proceed with his plan without expecting Smith’s help.
However, Sherman had to wait until his other troops returned from furloughs. These men included most of the Army of the Tennessee, now led by Major General James B. McPherson. Since Grant wanted all the major offensives to start at the same time, he asked Sherman, “Will your veterans be back to enable you to start on the 2nd of May? I do not want to delay later.” Sherman replied, “The veteran divisions cannot be up by May 2, but I am willing to move with what I have. I am now getting all in hand ready, but every day add to my animals and men. If you can, give me till May 5.”
Sherman then wrote Major General George H. Thomas, commanding the Federal Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga, that two of McPherson’s divisions were delayed by transportation and payroll. Sherman wrote, “I want McPherson to have 30,000 men, but if we can’t get these two divisions in time, his force will fall far short. General Grant telegraphs me to be ready May 2. Make dispositions accordingly. McPherson is least ready.”
Sherman notified McPherson, “We cannot wait for the veterans. Make every possible preparation.” Sherman planned to move against Johnston’s Confederates with three armies–McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee on the right, Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland in the center, and Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio on the left. They would continue operating as three independent armies, with Sherman directing their overall movements.
According to Sherman’s instructions, “In all movements each army will be kept well in hand with no detachments except scout and skirmish, and risking as little as possible in side issues or small affairs.” The armies of McPherson and Schofield were to “confine their movements to those of the center habitually,” and the soldiers “should be instructed to fight with desperation to the last.”
On the 10th, the day after he unveiled his overall plan, Grant sent more specific instructions to Sherman: “I will stay with the Army of the Potomac and operate directly against Lee’s army, wherever it may be found. You I propose to move against Johnston’s army, to break it up, and to get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources.”
Grant did not specify where Sherman was to go, but Sherman decided to target Atlanta, a major transportation and industrial center. Atlanta was second only to Richmond in its importance to the Confederate war effort, and its fall would open a path to the Atlantic coast. Sherman told Grant, “Georgia has a million of inhabitants. If they can live, we should not starve.” He pledged to “make Georgia howl.”
To take Atlanta, the Federals had to go through Johnston’s army, which was stationed at Dalton, about 30 miles southeast of Chattanooga on the Western & Atlantic Railroad. As Sherman continued gathering men and materiel, Johnston knew what he was planning for. President Jefferson Davis gave Johnston several ideas on how to thwart Sherman’s upcoming offensive, including sending troops to Virginia before the Army of the Potomac was reinforced or attack Sherman before he got moving. Johnston rejected these ideas because they risked defeat, something he did not think the Army of Tennessee could handle after being demoralized at Chattanooga.
Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose Confederates were operating in Tennessee, advised Johnston, “I am of the opinion that everything available is being concentrated against General Lee and yourself. Am also of opinion that if all the cavalry in this and your own department could be moved against Nashville that the enemy’s communication could be broken up.”
To Davis, Forrest proposed joining forces with Major General Stephen D. Lee’s cavalry to disrupt Sherman’s supply line. Forrest wrote, “With our forces united, a move could be made into Middle Tennessee and Kentucky which would create a diversion of the enemy’s forces and enable us to break up his plans.” Forrest had suggested this plan to Johnston and Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk (commanding the Confederate Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana), but neither had responded. Forrest assured Davis that “such an expedition, managed with prudence and executed with rapidity, can be safely made.”
Meanwhile, Federal preparations continued. Sherman wrote Grant on the 24th, “I only ask as much time as you think proper to enable me to get up McPherson’s two divisions from Cairo.” Sherman did not want to move against Johnston until all three armies were ready. He wrote:
“I see that there is some risk in dividing our forces, but Thomas and Schofield will have strength enough to cover all the valleys as far as Dalton. 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 45 to 60,000 men.”
Sherman would have nearly 110,000 men when all three armies were combined, many of whom had reenlisted for another three years.
While Sherman had twice as many troops, Johnston had the advantage of acting on the defensive with hardened veterans. Sherman acknowledged that “if Johnston stands at Dalton, we must attack him in position.” He informed Thomas, “You had better make ready with every man you can take along. I will come down as soon as possible.” Sherman would take up headquarters with Thomas in the center of the three armies.
Sherman arranged for Nashville to be the major supply depot for this upcoming campaign. He worked through the logistics of transporting supplies to his troops, and he arranged for crews to repair railroad tracks almost as soon as Confederate raiders tore them up. A remarkable 193 railroad cars would be shuttled from Louisville, through Nashville, and on to Chattanooga on a regular basis.
All “excess baggage” would be discarded, including “company tents” and other so-called amenities. Sherman himself would travel with just one wagon for his headquarters and staff. Each regiment would have just one wagon, with the troops carrying “five days’ bacon, 20 days’ bread, and 30 days’ salt, sugar, and coffee, nothing else but arms and ammunition.”
Sherman threatened a quartermaster, “I’m going to move on Joe Johnston the day Grant telegraphs men he is to go hit Bobby Lee, and if you don’t have my army supplied, and keep it supplied, we’ll eat your mules up, sir–eat your mules up!”
Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20-22, 27; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 82-84; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20723-36; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 393, 395, 397; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 2279-98, 2386-406