July 17, 1864 – President Jefferson Davis gambled by replacing General Joseph E. Johnston as commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee with the untried Lieutenant General John Bell Hood.
Since the Georgia campaign began in early May, Johnston had relinquished Dalton, Resaca, Adairsville, Allatoona, Kingston, Rome, Kennesaw Mountain, and the Chattahoochee River. His Confederates were now within three miles of Atlanta, and he offered no specific plan on how (or if) he intended to put up a fight before Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals descended upon this vital industrial and transportation center.
Davis had sent his top military advisor, General Braxton Bragg, to inspect Johnston’s army and provide a recommendation regarding the command. Bragg reported that Johnston did not seem willing to defend Atlanta and recommended his youngest corps commander, Hood, to replace him.
His patience nearly exhausted, Davis telegraphed Johnston on the 16th: “… I wish to hear from you as to present situation, and your plan of operations so specifically as will enable me to anticipate events.” Johnston vaguely responded:
“As the enemy has double our numbers we must be on the defensive. My plan of operations must, therefore, depend upon that of the enemy. It is mainly to watch for an opportunity to fight to advantage. We are trying to put Atlanta in condition to be held for a day or two by the Georgia militia, that army movements may be freer and wider.”
Johnston’s message directly conflicted with Bragg’s report, which (erroneously) concluded that the opposing armies were roughly the same size. Davis and Johnston had resented each other for three years, ever since Johnston accused Davis of passing him over in the order of ranking among the top Confederate generals. Also, Johnston’s close relationship with Davis’s political opponents did not go unnoticed.
Davis had been deeply disturbed when Johnston gave up Vicksburg without a fight, and now he saw the same pattern emerging with Atlanta. To Johnston, maintaining the strength and morale of the army was worth more than risking a destructive battle over a city or landmark. This fundamental disagreement between Davis and Johnston had finally come to a head.
A courier delivered a message to Johnston on the night of the 17th, as he discussed fortifying Atlanta with his chief engineer. The message came from Davis via Adjutant General Samuel Cooper:
“Lieutenant General J.B. Hood has been commissioned to the temporary rank of General under the late law of Congress. I am directed by the Secretary of War to inform you that as you have failed to arrest the advance of the enemy to the vicinity of Atlanta, far in the interior of Georgia, and express no confidence that you can defeat or repel him, you are hereby relieved from the command of the Army and Department of Tennessee, which you will immediately turn over to General Hood.”
Hood received a message notifying him that he now commanded the Army of Tennessee at 11 p.m. He also received a message from Secretary of War James A. Seddon:
“You are charged with a great trust. You will, I know, test to the utmost your capacities to discharge it. Be wary no less than bold. It may yet be practicable to cut the communication of the enemy or find or make an opportunity of equal encounter whether he moves east or west. God be with you.”
When he received these messages, Hood shared them with Lieutenant General Alexander P. Stewart, one of the army’s corps commanders. The two generals traveled to Johnston’s headquarters in the early morning, where Hood pleaded with Johnston, “Pocket that dispatch, leave me in command of my corps and fight the battle for Atlanta.” Johnston refused to stay on.
Hood and Stewart then joined with the other corps commander, Lieutenant General William Hardee, to send a joint wire to Davis asking him to suspend his order “until the fate of Atlanta is decided.” Davis replied, “The order has been executed, and I cannot suspend it without making the case worse than it was before the order was issued.”
Johnston had been deeply beloved by the army, and when news spread of his removal, many officers and men gathered at his headquarters to bid “Old Joe” farewell. Johnston removed his hat, and his troops did the same as they passed. Some men wept; others broke ranks to shake his hand. Johnston went to Macon, leaving behind a farewell address:
“I cannot leave this noble army without expressing my admiration of the high military qualities it has displayed… The enemy has never attacked but to be repulsed and severely punished… No longer your leader, I will still watch your career, and will rejoice in your victories. To one and all I offer assurances of my friendship, and bid an affectionate farewell.”
Johnston had a less sentimental response to Davis’s order removing him from command:
“Your dispatch of yesterday received and obeyed. Sherman’s army is much stronger compared with that of Tennessee than Grant’s compared with that of Northern Virginia. Yet the enemy has been compelled to advance much more slowly to the vicinity of Atlanta than to that of Richmond and Petersburg, and has penetrated deeper into Virginia than into Georgia. Confident language by a military commander is not usually regarded as evidence of competency.”
The Army of Tennessee now belonged to John Bell Hood, a talented officer who had lost the use of an arm at Gettysburg and a leg at Chickamauga. According to the Richmond Whig, Hood was “young, dashing, and lucky, the army and the people all have confidence in his ability and inclination to fight, and will look to him to drive back Sherman and save Atlanta.”
Hood was known as an aggressive fighter, as the Richmond Examiner opined that Hood’s “appointment has but one meaning, and that is to give battle to the foe.” However, this could play right into the Federals’ hands since Sherman had hoped to draw the Confederates out into an open fight ever since the campaign began. Many fellow officers believed Hood was not yet ready to command an entire army. Nevertheless, he now had 48,750 effectives to keep the Federals out of Atlanta.
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