Southern StormSherman's March to the Sea
HarperCollinsCopyright © 2008 Noah Andre Trudeau
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-0-06-059867-9
A Gathering of Eagles
The Central of Georgia Railroad station platform was empty when Confederate president Jefferson Davis arrived in Macon, Georgia, at 4:00 a.m., September 24, 1864. It had been an arduous, roundabout trip for Davis and his aides, involving at least three train changes and innumerable delays. Nothing had been communicated in advance of the president's arrival, so as the busy city roused itself to face another day, it did so ignorant that the most powerful individual of the world's youngest nation was in its midst.
The presidential party, departing the hushed station without a fuss, went to the home of Howell Cobb. A former U.S. congressman and secretary of the treasury (for James Buchanan), as well as a general who fought under Robert E. Lee in the east, Cobb was presently commanding Georgia's "minute man" reserve. It was a time of crisis for the Confederacy, which had suffered the loss of Atlanta-an important manufacturing center and transportation hub-just twenty-three days earlier. Now Davis had journeyed from Richmond, Virginia, as he later recollected, with a "view to judging the situation better and then determining after personal inspection the course which should seem best to pursue."
Likely during his Macon visit, Davis and Cobb (whom he considered a "pure patriot") discussed what to do about the man they both viewed as the main obstacle to Confederate success in Georgia, the state's governor, Joseph E. Brown. An outspoken and popular figure, Brown had come to represent an extreme position in the ongoing conflict between the imperative needs of a centralized government and the rights of its constituent states.
Even as a nascent Confederacy struggled to maintain its military resources to survive, Brown was equally active protecting what he termed the "sovereignty of the State against usurpation." Whether it was reclassifying Georgia government jobs to immunize them from the national draft, or requisitioning military supplies slated for export, Brown was a constant irritant to the Davis administration. While Cobb did not agree with many Davis policies, he understood that the defeat of Confederate aspirations meant an end to Georgia's sovereignty as well, and his frustration with Brown's obstructions led him to denounce the governor as "a traitor, a Tory." Cobb's anger had a special urgency, for unless there was a dramatic change in the war situation, he knew that his state's future would be too terrible to contemplate.
Davis had been settled at Cobb's only a few hours when an ad hoc committee of local notables invited him to speak that very morning at a mass meeting previously scheduled to raise money for Atlanta refugees. Davis agreed. The crowd gathered at the Baptist church greeted the fifty-six-year-old Confederate symbol with what a reporter present termed "prolonged applause." Those close to the front of the room saw a proud, determined man worn down by having to carry too much on his slim shoulders. The words of a woman who saw him just a few days earlier likely found variations in the thoughts of those present: "poor man he pays for his honors." But when Davis spoke, there was no softening of his steely defiance or iron resolve.
Fully aware of all the recent reverses suffered by the Confederacy, Davis assured the crowd, "Our cause is not lost." While an enemy force may have captured Atlanta, it was also now isolated deep within the South, wholly dependent upon a single rail line to Chattanooga to keep it supplied. Once the moment arrived when the Yankee army had to abandon Atlanta-and it would-Southern "cavalry and our people will harass and destroy it." In a purposely ambiguous reference, Davis mocked an unnamed individual who had accused the Confederate president of abandoning "Georgia to her fate." This person, Davis declared, "was not a man to save our country." Then came some plain talk: Georgia could expect little if any help from outside the state in the present crisis. What was needed at this critical time was for Southern women to endure their privations with stoic courage, and for every patriotic male to flock to the colors. "If one-half the men now absent [from the army] without leave will return to duty, we can defeat the enemy," Davis assured those present. "Let no one despond," he finished. "Let none distrust, and remember that if genius is the beautiful, hope is the reality."
The next day Davis traveled to Palmetto, some twenty-five miles southwest of enemy-occupied Atlanta; headquarters for General John B. Hood, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Hood was a wounded lion if ever there was one. Once a vigorous, vital man, he had been cruelly whittled down by the war, his left arm crippled while leading troops at Gettysburg in July 1863, and his right leg amputated below the thigh from fighting at Chickamauga the following September. A society matron who met him around that time thought he had "the [sad] face of an old crusader who believed in his cause, his cross and his crown." It was during Hood's painful recuperation spent in Richmond that he had visited often with Davis. The two found common ground and established a rapport.
In time Davis promoted Hood to lieutenant general and assigned him to lead a corps in the Army of Tennessee, then commanded by General Joseph E. Johnston. Hood's appointment came in time for the bitter spring campaign of 1864, which began in May. By July Davis was thoroughly fed up with Johnston, who had slowed but not stopped or significantly damaged a much larger Union army pushing south from Chattanooga. Johnston, whose management of the campaign would spawn a rancorous postwar controversy, declined to keep Davis informed of his circumstances or intentions, even as he deftly backpedaled his soldiers to the gates of Atlanta. When Johnston intimated he was prepared to abandon the city to preserve the army's freedom of movement, Davis acted. He removed Johnston from command and-to the surprise of many-promoted John Bell Hood to replace him.
Thrust into a high place because he was a fighting general, Hood quickly undertook a series of fierce offensive strikes at the Union forces enfolding Atlanta. None succeeded in halting the Yankee juggernaut, and on the night of September 1 Hood pulled the Army of Tennessee out of the Gate City, which immediately fell to Union forces, accompanied by much fanfare in the North. Hood reassembled what remained of his army at Lovejoy's Station, then shifted it to Palmetto, while the Federals rested easy in their freshest conquest. What was to happen next topped the Davis agenda.
The Confederate president had expended considerable political capital in appointing Hood, and the reverses suffered by the Army of Tennessee had become a rallying point for antiadministration factions. In the wake of Atlanta's fall there were even calls for Johnston's reinstatement, something that Davis refused to consider. Others suggested one of the Confederacy's underemployed heroes, General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, another on the president's blacklist. The odds that Davis had come all this way to replace Hood with Beauregard were slim, but the politically canny Confederate leader believed he could exploit the out-of-favor general's prestige without entrusting him with an army.
Hood had a ready explanation for his failure to hold the Gate City. It was, he stated, due to fumbling by some of his key subordinates and a lack of nerve on the part of his soldiers. Just a few weeks before their face-to-face Hood had written Davis that according "to all human calculations we should have saved Atlanta had the officers and men ... done what was expected of them." Hood singled out one of his corps commanders for most of the blame: Lieutenant General William J. Hardee. Some sixteen years Hood's senior, Hardee possessed impeccable military bona fides, even if his manner was annoyingly distant, patrician, and judgmental. Hardee had already played a significant offstage role in undermining the man who had preceded Johnston in command of the Army of Tennessee, General Braxton Bragg. Yet when Bragg had been reassigned and the position offered to Hardee, he had declined, leaving Davis only the distasteful option of summoning Johnston.
Hardee was no friend of Hood. While he did not question that officer's experience or courage, he had serious doubts regarding his ability to effectively manage such an important enterprise. Hood, in turn, suspected that Hardee was deliberately undermining his authority and reveling in his failures. Any ground for compromise had long since eroded, leaving Hood adamant that Hardee had to go. It was into this poisonous atmosphere that Jefferson Davis arrived at 3:30 p.m., September 25. Fittingly, it was raining.
Davis was too good a politician to prematurely reveal his hand. While Hood doubtless used their meeting to continue his tirade against Hardee, Davis made no commitment. What most interested the Confederate president was knowing what Hood intended to do next. The general did have a plan; one that, considering his situation, was about as good as possible. As he was outnumbered by the Union forces in Atlanta by better than two to one, Hood's best chance to do any real damage was to march around to the city's north side to disrupt the enemy's attenuated supply line. This would inevitably draw the Federals away from the city to protect the vital rail link with supply depots in Tennessee. Hood would keep his small army just out of reach to seek opportunities to strike at exposed portions of the enemy's force, but only when the odds favored him. Even if he could not maneuver the Yankees into such a position, the fact that all the attention was on him meant that the rest of Georgia would be left alone.
Jefferson Davis liked what he heard. Hood's plan offered the glittering (albeit remote) prospect of saving Georgia, protecting the Gulf States, and maintaining the vital supply lines that carried produce and materiel from the Deep South to Virginia. If he succeeded, Hood would blight the fruits of the enemy's spring campaign in Georgia, turn Atlanta's capture into a hollow victory, and maybe-just maybe-force the Union army back toward Tennessee.