July 12, 1864 – President Jefferson Davis grew exceedingly impatient with General Joseph E. Johnston’s constant retreats and began considering replacing him as commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee.
Johnston withdrew his Confederates southeastward, across the Chattahoochee River, to a line in front of Peachtree Creek. They were now just three miles from Atlanta, a city second in its value to the Confederacy only to Richmond. As they constructed defenses, Johnston telegraphed the War Department, “I strongly recommend the distribution of the U.S. prisoners, now at Andersonville, immediately.”
This message alarmed Davis because Andersonville prison camp was near Americus, over 100 miles south of Atlanta. Davis interpreted this to mean that Johnston would abandon Atlanta without a fight, something the president found unacceptable. Davis began strongly considering removing Johnston as commander, but the list of generals who could replace him was short.
One possible candidate was Lieutenant General John Bell Hood, who currently commanded a corps in Johnston’s army. Davis sought advice from General Robert E. Lee at Petersburg: “Genl. Johnston has failed and there are strong indications that he will abandon Atlanta… It seems necessary to relieve him at once. Who should succeed him? What think you of Hood for the position?”
Lee responded in cipher: “I regret the fact stated. It is a bad time to relieve the commander of an army situated as that of Tenne. We may lose Atlanta and the army too. Hood is a bold fighter. I am doubtful as to other qualities necessary.”
In a follow-up message, Lee wrote, “It is a grievous thing. Still if necessary it ought to be done. I know nothing of the necessity. I had hoped that Johnston was strong enough to deliver battle…” Expanding on his assessment of Hood, Lee stated, “Hood is a good fighter, very industrious on the battlefield, careless off, and I have had no opportunity of judging his action, when the whole responsibility rested upon him. I have a very high opinion of his gallantry, earnestness and zeal.”
Unable to fully endorse Hood as a replacement for Johnston, Lee suggested considering another corps commander in Johnston’s army: “General (William) Hardee has more experience in managing an army. May God give you wisdom to decide in this momentous matter.” Davis replied, “It is a sad alternative, but the case seems hopeless in present hands. The means are surely adequate if properly employed, especially the cavalry is ample.”
While Davis and Lee exchanged messages, Chief of Staff Braxton Bragg was on his way from Richmond to personally inspect Johnston’s army on Davis’s behalf. Choosing Bragg for this mission was unfortunate because he was almost universally disliked by nearly every officer and man in the Army of Tennessee, including Johnston. This would make it difficult for Bragg to gather information and render an objective opinion.
Bragg arrived on the 13th and sent a troubling initial assessment to the president: “Our army all south of the Chattahoochee, and indications seem to favor an entire evacuation of this place.” After a few more hours of investigating, Bragg wrote, “Our army is sadly depleted, and now reports 10,000 less than the return of 10th June. I find but little encouraging.”
Bragg met with Hood, who offered his opinion of what had happened so far, his ideas on how best to take the offensive, and his assessment of Johnston’s leadership. Bragg also met with Johnston, assuring the commander that the meetings were unofficial. The men worked together in “ascertaining the position of his army, its condition and strength, and in obtaining from him such information as he could give in regard to the enemy.” Bragg reported:
“I have made General Johnston two visits, and been received courteously and kindly. He has not sought my advice, and it was not volunteered. I cannot learn that he has any more plan for the future than he has had in the past. It is expected that he will await the enemy on a line some three miles from here, and the impression prevails that he is now more inclined to fight. The enemy is very cautious, and intrenches immediately on taking a new position. His force, like our own, is greatly reduced by the hard campaign. His infantry now very little over 60,000. The morale of our army is still reported good.”
In another message, Bragg wrote that it seemed Johnston would continue doing what he had done the past two months, which was to “await the enemy’s approach and be governed, as heretofore, by the development in our front.” Bragg reported that in Atlanta, “All valuable stores and machinery have been removed, and most of the citizens able to go have left with their effects… Position, numbers, and morale are now with the enemy.”
Speculating on the corps commanders as possible replacements for Johnston, Bragg could not recommend Hardee, possibly due to personal differences. Bragg wrote that Hardee “generally favored the retiring policy” of Johnston. Hardee would simply “perpetuate the past and present policy which he (Johnston) has advised and now sustains.” Lieutenant General Alexander P. Stewart had recently replaced the beloved Leonidas Polk and was considered too inexperienced for army command. Only Hood remained.
Bragg argued that the only way to keep the Federals out of Atlanta was to take the offensive. He and Hood “agree in this opinion and look for success. We should drive the enemy from this side of the river, follow him down by an attack in flank, and force him to battle, at the same time throwing our cavalry on his communications.”
Bragg asserted that Hood had “been in favor of giving battle” since the campaign began without mentioning that Hood had urged Johnston not to attack on at least one occasion. In a letter, Hood complained that the army had “failed to give battle many miles north of our present position.” Bragg wrote:
“I do not believe the second in rank (Hardee) has the confidence of the army. If any change is made, Lieutenant-General Hood would give unlimited satisfaction, and my estimate of him, always high, has been raised by his conduct in this campaign. Do not understand me as proposing him as a man of genius, or a great general, but as far better in the present emergency than any one we have available.”
Hood persuaded Bragg to back him, even though Davis had already placed him at the top of the short list of replacements for Johnston. Bragg’s endorsement only reinforced what Davis may have already decided.
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