In early September 1863 the Federal Army of the Cumberland, under Major General William S. Rosecrans, entered northwest Georgia. But Rosecrans’ army retreated to Chattanooga after being defeated on the 19th & 20th at the Battle of Chickamauga by the Confederate Army of Tennessee under General Braxton Bragg. The subsequent Confederate siege ended in late November, following the arrival of Federal reinforcements and a new commander, Major General Ulysses S. Grant, with the defeat of Bragg’s army on Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. The Confederates retreated through Ringgold to Dalton, in position to defend Atlanta. They spent the winter rebuilding morale and preparing for 1864. They spent the winter rebuilding morale and preparing for 1864.
The Federal plan for 1864 called for coordination between their main eastern and western armies. This strategy prevented the transfer of Confederate reinforcements to threatened locations, as occurred at Chickamauga. Newly promoted Lieutenant General Grant moved toward Richmond. Simultaneously, his successor in Georgia, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, aimed to destroy the Confederate army at Dalton, now under General Joseph E. Johnston, and capture Atlanta.
The move toward Atlanta began in early May. The principal supply artery for both armies was the Western & Atlantic Railroad, between Atlanta and Chattanooga. For two months Sherman made numerous flanking movements, designed to cut the railroad. Johnston steadily retreated, giving up land but preserving his smaller army and communications. Sherman first feinted toward Dalton, then pushed through Snake Creek Gap. Johnston moved south to Resaca, where a large battle occurred on May 14 & 15. But when Federal troops crossed the Oostanaula River, Johnston retreated again.
For another week the Confederates continued retreating south, eventually crossing the Etowah River to a strong position at Allatoona Pass. Sherman swept west from the railroad, and again Johnston countered, resulting in three ferocious battles near Dallas, Georgia from May 25 to 28. Sherman returned to the railroad, fighting a series of skirmishes to Kennesaw Mountain, climaxing in a failed Federal assault there on June 27. Superior numbers enabled Sherman to move around Johnston’s flanks, forcing more retreats, finally across the Chattahoochee River to the outskirts of Atlanta.
Frustrated by the retreats, Confederate President Jefferson Davis replaced Johnston on July 18 with General John Bell Hood, an aggressive fighter. Hood immediately struck at Sherman three times, at Peachtree Creek, east of Atlanta, and Ezra Church, but was defeated each time. Finally, on August 31 and September 1 at Jonesboro, Sherman cut the last rail link into Atlanta. Hood’s army retreated south and Atlanta surrendered on September 2. Sherman’s wire, “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won,” secured President Abraham Lincoln’s re-election in November, and the Federal government’s continued military effort to win the war.