July 8, 1864 – Leading elements of Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal forces began crossing the Chattahoochee River and getting ever closer to the vital railroad and industrial city of Atlanta.
General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate Army of Tennessee held strong defenses along the Chattahoochee, just eight miles northwest of Atlanta. President Jefferson Davis wrote Johnston that the army’s pattern of retreating made him “more apprehensive for the future.” Davis urged Johnston to hold firm on the north bank of the Chattahoochee, but he had no reinforcements to send.
Sherman, whose three Federal armies had forced Johnston to fall back southward from Marietta and Smyrna, observed the enemy positions from Vining’s Station and called them “the best line of field intrenchments I have ever seen.”
Sherman would not directly assault the Confederate defenses, having tried that and failed at Kennesaw Mountain. But neither would Sherman move against Johnston’s left flank as he had always done in the past either. Instead, Sherman would feint to the left and cross the Chattahoochee to Johnston’s right. According to Sherman’s plan:
- Major General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland would demonstrate in the Confederates’ front, keeping them in their defenses.
- Major General James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee, supported by Major General George Stoneman’s cavalry from the Army of the Ohio, would threaten Turner’s Ferry, downriver (southwest) from Johnston’s left.
- Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio would cross the Chattahoochee at the mouth of Soap Creek, upriver (northeast) from Johnston’s right.
- Federal cavalry would cross even farther upriver, near Roswell.
After two days of positioning and skirmishing, Sherman’s plan was ready for execution. McPherson and Stoneman began demonstrating against Turner’s Ferry on the afternoon of the 8th. Meanwhile, Schofield crossed the Chattahoochee at Pace’s Ferry, and Federal horsemen destroyed the textile factories at Roswell before crossing as well. The Federals secured high ground on Johnston’s right and began building a pontoon bridge that night.
The next morning, a group of Confederate congressmen visited Johnston and informed him that Davis expected the army to stop retreating and start fighting very soon. In fact, Davis had ordered Chief of Staff Braxton Bragg to come to Georgia and learn Johnston’s intentions. Specifically, Davis wanted to know if Johnston planned to give battle before Sherman reached Atlanta.
Johnston said to the congressmen, “You may tell Mr. Davis that it would be folly for me under the circumstances to risk a decisive engagement. My plan is to draw Sherman further and further from his base in the hope of weakening him and by cutting his army in two. That is my only hope of defeating him.”
The meeting was interrupted by news that Schofield’s army had crossed the Chattahoochee. Johnston announced that this was good news because it meant that Sherman had finally divided his army, making him vulnerable to attack. But Johnston did not attack; he instead issued orders for the army to fall back across the river to meet the new threat to its right. Thus, Johnston abandoned the last major waterway in front of Atlanta.
Sherman reported that his Federals were the “undisputed masters of north and west of the Chattahoochee.” His armies had made remarkable gains into Georgia since beginning their campaign two months before. Sherman wired Washington, “We now commence the real game for Atlanta,” which was “too important a place in the hands of the enemy to be left undisturbed, with its magazines, stores, arsenals, workshops, foundries, &c., and more especially its railroads, which converged there from the four great cardinal points.”
By Sunday the 10th, the Confederates were behind defenses at Peachtree Creek, a westward-flowing tributary of the Chattahoochee just four miles from Atlanta. Panic swept through the city as residents hurrying to evacuate caused major traffic jams on southbound trains. Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown called for every able-bodied man in the state to take up arms. The city soon had 5,000 men between ages 16 and 55 defending Atlanta.
Meanwhile, Georgia Senator Benjamin Hill arrived at Richmond following his conference with Johnston on the 1st. Meeting with Davis in the residential office of the Executive Mansion, Hill imparted Johnston’s suggestion that Nathan Bedford Forrest or John Hunt Morgan wreak havoc on Sherman’s supply lines in Tennessee. Davis said that neither officer was available; Forrest was opposing Federals in northern Mississippi and Morgan was just coming off a failed raid.
Davis then showed Hill a dispatch from Johnston announcing that he had just withdrawn across the Chattahoochee. Hill, who had hoped to get Davis to support Johnston, now joined Davis in turning against him. Discussing a command change, Davis said he knew “how serious it was to change commanders in the presence of the enemy,” and he “would not do it if I could have any assurance that General Johnston would not surrender Atlanta without a battle.”
Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 76-80; Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 565-66; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20826; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 433-34; 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 8467-87, 8520-40, 8670-721, 8743-63; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 465-67; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 533-36; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 132-33, 305; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 751-52