From Kennesaw Mountain to the Chattahoochee River: General Johnston’s Lost Opportunity to Save Atlanta?

The commanders during the Atlanta Campaign, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston (left) and Union General William Tecumseh Sherman (right)

The article takes an in-depth look at the middle phase of the Atlanta Campaign, from the withdrawal of General Joseph Johnston’s Confederate army from the battlefield at Kennesaw Mountain on the night of July 2, 1864, to the largely uncontested crossing of the Chattahoochee River by General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Union forces at Sope’s Creek on July 8, 1864, less than a week later.

The Chattahoochee River was the most important physical barrier confronting the Federals in their drive to conquer the City of Atlanta. Many historians contend that the fall of the “Gateway City,” sealed the fate of the Confederacy. This conclusion is reflected, for example, in the succinct title one historian, Gary Ecelbarger, gave in his recent history of that battle, “The Day Dixie Died.”

Could the Union army under General Sherman have been stopped, or at the very least significantly delayed in its progress toward Atlanta by a more aggressive Confederate defense at the Chattahoochee River?

2. Battle of Kennesaw Mountain

Battle of Kennesaw Mountain

In the aftermath of the bloody Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, in which the Union army suffered 3,000 casualties, General Sherman’s larger and better equipped army returned to the strategy of flanking the Confederate army and thereby forcing it to retreat.

General Joseph Johnston, by contrast, cleaved to a purely defensive strategy of placing the bulk of his forces, whenever possible, in strong and well-fortified positions in the hope of enticing the larger Union army to attack. Only once, however, at Kennesaw Mountain, had Sherman taken the bait, resulting in the greatest Confederate victory of the entire campaign, but Sherman took the lesson of Kennesaw Mountain to heart, and afterwards studiously avoiding attacks on entrenched positions, thereafter maneuvering Johnston into a series of withdrawals that served both to undermine Confederate morale and the Davis administration’s confidence in that general’s capacity to stop the Union juggernaut.

Moreover, after the Confederate withdrawal from Kennesaw Mountain, conditions again favored rapid movement. After several days of heavy rain, drier weather rendered the roads to the south more easily passable. The Confederates moved forward in hasty retreat, the Federals in hot pursuit, and with minimal resistance Union forces occupied the City of Marietta, a scant 20 miles north of Atlanta, on the morning of July 3.

Sherman had assumed, incorrectly, that Johnston’s army was making a headlong dash for the Chattahoochee River; that Johnston intended to make his next stand, not at the river, but in the trenches under construction on the outskirts of Atlanta. Sherman goal was to outpace the Confederates, seize the various bridges, ferries, and fords, and defeat Johnston as he attempted to get over the Chattahoochee.

Sherman had no idea that the enemy, in the previous two weeks, had constructed a formidable set of fortifications on the river’s northern shore—a defensive barrier afterwards referred to as the Chattahoochee “River Line.”

Sherman did not expect the stiff resistance his forces encountered a few miles south of Marietta on July 4, 1864 on a six mile wide front, the Smyrna Line, extending from Nickajack Creek on the west to Rottenwood Creek on the east. Here the Confederates, who had hastily constructed a line of strong fieldworks, mounted a spirited resistance in an effort to slow down the Union advance, eventuating in the twin Battles of Smyrna Camp Ground and Ruff’s Mill, fought at the eastern and western ends of this front.

Union forces first attacked this entrenched Confederates line near the old Smyrna Camp Ground and the W&A rail line on the east, in the vicinity of present day Roswell Street in Smyrna, but failed to break through. They also attacked the Confederates on a ridge along Nickajack creek near Ruff’s Mill at the western end of this front, with similar disappointing results. The Federals sustained heavy casualties in these two sharp encounters, 410 killed and wounded, and were temporarily stymied.

3. Fighting in the woods on the Smyrna Line

Skirmishing in the woods on the Smyrna Line

A Fascinating Historical Might Have Been

It is one of the fundamental beliefs of this writer that the fabric of history is very loosely woven, and that chance occurrences often alter, sometimes quite fundamentally, the course of history. The Battle of Smyrna Camp Ground offers a dramatic instance of the transformative potential of such chance occurrences.

4. General Sherman_s field hat

General Sherman’s field hat, with bullet holes in its brim, now in the Smithsonian Institute. One description of the fighting around Smyrna relates that Sherman’s hat was damaged in one of his near death encounters at Smyrna.

During this relatively minor engagement on the Smyrna Line General Sherman, the tactical genius who ultimately captured Atlanta, and then swept across Georgia in a destructive “March to the Sea,” was very nearly killed, an incident which he later related in his Memoirs:

It was here [near Smyrna Camp Ground] that General Noyes, late Governor of Ohio lost his leg. I came very near being shot myself while reconnoitering in the second story of a house on our picket-line, which was struck several times by cannon shot, and perfectly riddled with musket balls.

Oral tradition holds that the house in question stood on Gilbert Street in the present Williams Park neighborhood of Smyrna.

One is tempted to speculate on the consequences that might have stemmed from the death of Sherman at this critical juncture. The removal of this relentless, battle tested commander would almost certainly have significantly slowed the progress of the Union army, thereby delaying, or possibly even preventing a timely conquest of the strategically critical city of Atlanta.

5. 1864 McClellan for President political poster

Political poster advocating the election of Democratic candidate General George B. McClellan, former Union commander, in the 1864 presidential election. McClellan ran on a peace platform. His election, which seemed quite possible for a time, would almost certainly have ensured the survival of the Confederacy

Bear in mind that time was of the essence here, for a presidential election was in the offing, scheduled for November 1864; that General Ulysses Grant, the other principal Union commander, was making scant headway in his campaign against Robert E. Lee in Virginia and that Union casualties there were extremely heavy.

If the Union army had failed to take Atlanta in a timely fashion, the victory in the closely contested 1864 Presidential election might well have gone to Lincoln’s Democratic opponent, General George B. McClellan, who was running on a peace platform that promised a negotiated settlement. It was therefore most fortunate for Lincoln and his political allies that it was only the general’s hat that was demolished on the Smyrna Line, and not Sherman himself.

Despite the stiff resistance Confederate forces offered on the Smyrna line, the progress of the Union army was not long delayed there. Later on the same day, the Federals succeeded in capturing the first line of breastworks at Ruff’s Mill , taking about 150 rebel prisoners. By 2:30 pm on July 4 at least one Union corps had crossed Nickajack Creek and was in the process of flanking the Confederate left. By 4 pm, Confederate Brigadier General Lawrence Sullivan Ross reported that “the enemy is moving around my flank…my position is no longer tenable.” A short time later General Gustavus Woodson Smith, who commanded state troops, confirmed the danger and reported that he would have to pull back no later than daybreak unless reinforced.

His left now seriously threatened after only 36 hours of resistance, General Johnston again ordered the bulk of his army to withdraw, and to take up a position behind the formidable River Line fortifications on the north bank of the Chattahoochee. Significantly, they were also ordered to build pontoon bridges behind the River Line that would allow them to make another orderly retreat across Chattahoochee should it prove necessary. Thus, during the night of July 4th and 5th, the bulk of the retreating Confederate force massed behind this impressive protective barrier.

As Sherman noted in his Memoirs, he had no inkling of the existence of this set of fortifications prior to his arrival on the scene.

“I confess I had not heard beforehand of the existence of this strong place, in the nature of a tete-du-pont, and had counted on striking (Johnston) an effectual blow in the expected confusion of his crossing the Chattahoochee, a broad and deep river then to his rear. The Riverline proved one of the strongest pieces of field fortification I ever saw.”

6. Detail 1864 map showing River Line

Map showing the six mile long Riverline fortifications that paralleled the north bank of the Chattahoochee River, an effectively impenetrable barrier designed to prevent Sherman’s army from crossing the Chattahoochee River

The use of slaves to construct major public works projects was a recurrent feature of the early history of the area. A large slave labor force had been utilized a quarter century earlier in the construction and maintenance of the Western & Atlantic Railroad. That railroad, captured and systematically repaired by Sherman, now served as a critical life-line for the Federal army as it advanced toward Atlanta. Had the Confederates succeeded in severing that life line and interrupting the flow of supplies to the Union army its advance might well have been stopped, but no systematic effort had been made to do so.

Now in mid-1864, as Union forces approached the Chattahoochee River from the north, a thousand slaves were again pressed into service to build the River Line, arguably the most ambitious and well- constructed set of fortifications the Confederates constructed during the entire war and a singular engineering achievement.


Confederate military engineer, General Francis Asbury Shoup

This system of fortifications was devised and constructed by the Confederacy’s greatest military engineer, General Francis Asbury Stoup with the object of preventing Sherman’s numerically superior, better armed, and better provisioned Federal army from making an easy crossing of the Chattahoochee River.

Francis Asbury Shoup was born in Laurel, Franklin County, Indiana in 1834, the eldest of nine children of George Shoup, a wealthy merchant, and his wife Jane. He attended Asbury University in Greencastle, Indiana, before entering West Point, from which he graduated in 1855. After leaving the Academy, Shoup saw service in Florida, fighting the Seminole Indians, but retired from the army on January 10, 1860 to take up the practice of law in Indianapolis.

When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, to the surprise of friends who assumed that Shoup would join the Union Army, the Indianan instead moved south, settling in St. Augustine, Florida. Declaring that he had “aristocratic inclinations and admiration for the South,” he soon after entered the Confederate service.

Shoup participated in the Battle of Shiloh as chief of artillery under General William J. Hardee, followed by service in Arkansas under Major General Thomas J. Hindman. In the summer of 1862 the talented engineer was elevated to the rank of Brigadier General by the Confederate Congress. He was soon after captured in the Battle of Vicksburg and briefly imprisoned. After his parole, he transferred to Georgia, where he served in the Atlanta Campaign in the capacity of Chief Engineer of the Army of the Cumberland.

8. Model of a shoupade

Model of one of the 36 shoupades, or interconnected small forts that rendered the Riverline impenetrable

The River Line fortifications, which Shoup so artfully devised, were formidable in the extreme, comprising no less than 36 interconnected forts.

As described by historian William R. Scaife in his 2004 essay, The Chattahoochee River Line, each of these forts was diamond shaped in plan with two faces pointing in the direction of the enemy like an arrowhead. The forts were constructed after the fashion of log cabins, using double walls of logs filled with compacted earth. The exterior face walls were 10 to 12 feet thick at the base and extended to a height of 10 to 12 feet—surmounted by an infantry parapet or banquette for riflemen, for a total height of some 16 feet. These massive earthen structures could readily absorb the impact energy of artillery fire and were therefore nearly impregnable. Each fort was designed to be manned by a company of 80 riflemen and the strange looking structures came to be known as ‘Shoupades’ in honor of the designer.

The 36 Shoupades, which stood about 60 to 175 yards apart, were connected by a stockade of sharpened vertical logs embedded in the earth, rising some 8 feet in height. About half way between the Shoupades, the stockades formed a re-entrant angle broken by a redan, featuring two artillery pieces.

To again quote Scaife:

The guns in the redans provided an enfilading fire at point blank range across the faces of each Shoupade, as well as directly to the front. The Shoupades, positioned to either side of the artillery redans, in turn provided an enfilading cross fire at optimum rifle range across the fronts of the artillery positions. This close spacing of Shoupades and artillery emplacements thus made them mutually supporting and their combined interlocking and enfilading cross fire thoroughly covered every conceivable approach to the position.

Shoup’s objective was to erect a virtually impregnable system of fortifications behind which Johnston’s outnumbered forces could mass for protection that would simultaneously place them within easy reach of all nearby river crossings points, allowing them to respond quickly and effectively to any attempt on the part of Sherman’s forces to cross the river. Shoup recognized that the Chattahoochee River was the last significant physical barrier to the Union Army’s advance on Atlanta and that its defense was therefore absolutely critical.

If Sherman attacked the Riverline directly, Shoup calculated, Union forces would suffer huge casualties, but if Sherman instead, as was more likely, sought to cross the river to the north or south of the River Line (the more likely scenario given the Union commander’s disinclination to attack entrenched positions), the Confederate force massed behind the River Line would be able offer an effective resistance to a Union crossing by a strategy of rapid and flexible response.

This strategy might well have succeeded in stopping or significantly delaying Sherman had General Johnston not been so wedded to a defensive strategy.

A second and broader strategic objective of the Confederacy must again be emphasized—the goal of significantly slowing down the progress of the Federal advance, and thus weakening Abraham Lincoln’s November 1864 reelection prospects.
It is therefore of immense significance to American history that Johnston failed to implement the combined defensive/ offensive strategy that Shoup’s River Line fortifications made possible—that this cautious commander embraced only its defensive aspects.

Before moving on to a systematic description of the military activities that unfolded in and around the River Line between the first contact of Union troops on July 6, 1864 and the largely unobstructed en masse crossing of the Chattahoochee by General Sherman’s army only two days later, on July 8, 1864, we should take note of the efficiency and speed with which the River Line was constructed.

9. Slaves constructing the Riverline

Slaves at work constructing the River Line fortifications

Following a conference with General Johnston on the evening of June 18, at Kennesaw Mountain, in which Shoup outlined his bold proposal, the engineer received authorization to construct the River Line. That very evening Shoup was dispatched to Atlanta by special train to begin assembling a force of slave laborers from surrounding plantations to carry out his plan. That slave labor force, which at its height numbered about 1000 workers, was quickly dispatched to the high ground on the north bank of the Chattahoochee with the required tools and provisions, and was there placed under the command of Major William B. Foster, senior engineer of General William W. Loring’s corps.

Shoup and Foster together laid out the parameters of the fortifications about a mile on average from the river. This line extended from a point about one mile above the Western & Atlantic Railroad Bridge to a point some three miles below the bridge, terminating near the mouth of Proctor’s Creek, extending in all about four miles.

As Schaife noted of this first phase of the River Line’s construction:

The four mile long, crescent shaped line thus enclosed a powerful bridgehead or “tete du-ponte,” from which the Confederate army could protect the rail and wagon road bridges over the Chattahoochee River.

This amazing feat of construction was accomplished moreover in record time. There was ample timber available at the site, and as General Shoup afterwards wrote, The line sprang into existence as if by magic in a scant two weeks.

Shoup’s recommended strategy, with its combination of defensive and offensive features, was not, however, fully implemented by Johnston. Instead he again pursued his accustomed defensive strategy, ordering the construction of an additional line of rifle pits southward for another nearly three miles from the main fortifications with the object of covering the crossing point at the Mayson-Turner Ferry. In adding these rifle pits Shoup signaled his rejection of Shoup’s recommendation that the troops massed behind the River Line be employed flexibly and offensively to resist any and all attempts by Union forces to breach the Chattahoochee.

As Schaife wrote of this fateful decision, Johnston’s rifle pits, changed the Chattahoochee River Line from the compact bastion conceived by Shoup to a line over six miles long, made up of Shoup’s new structures on the right — [and] almost three miles of conventional earthworks on the left.

Policing the river in the manner Shoup advocated, it should be emphasized, would have been no easy task, since there were numerous potential crossing points in the vicinity —six ferries in the 14 down stream miles below the Western & Atlantic Railroad Bridge and another seven fords or ferries above the bridge, plus a wagon bridge at Roswell, and another bridge six miles further upstream at McAfees. To be successfully implemented such a strategy would have required unusual initiative and daring—a willingness to divide his forces, and to place some of his troops south of the river to forestall Union crossings—qualities of initiative and daring that the more successful Robert E. Lee possessed in abundance, but that the cautious General Johnston did not seem to possess at all.

Sherman’s massive army converged on the Chattahoochee River across a broad front. General George H. Thomas, commander of the Army of the Cumberland, The Rock of Chickamauga, led his troops along the main road (Atlanta Road and the parallel Western & Atlantic Railroad) toward Shoup’s fortifications, while General John Schofield, commander of the Army of the Ohio, and his ill-fated colleague, General James M. McPherson, Commander of the Army of the Tennessee (who had at this point but two weeks to live), reached the river to Thomas’s right, below the Mayson-Turner Ferry. In addition, Major General John Stoneman, Jr’s cavalry reached the river at an even further distance west, opposite Sandtown.

General Oliver O. Howard in the meantime, took possession of the unoccupied and unguarded direct route to Atlanta via Pace’s Ferry and Buckhead. Also Sherman sent Brigadier General Kenner Garrard’s cavalry some 16 miles up the Chattahoochee with instructions to seize a key bridge and ford located there, and then to cross the river and occupy the important industrial town of Roswell.

10. General Oliver Otis Howard, one of the corps commanders under Sherman in the Atlanta campaign and later head of the Frredman's Bureau, left a

The most detailed description of the fighting in and around the Riverline appears in the 1908 autobiography of Major General Oliver Otis Howard, commander of one of the three corps of Sherman’s army.

Before this could be accomplished, however, on July 5, the Confederate wagon train, shielded by Lieutenant General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry, and under heavy Federal artillery fire, succeeded in crossing the Chattahoochee on two hastily constructed pontoon bridges. Once across, the bridges were cut loose to float to the southern shore, though one of them was carried by the current in the wrong direction and thus fell into Federal hands, a small consolation to Union forces that had allowed these vital supplies, so critical to continued Confederate resistance, to escape their grasp.

Under orders to engage the enemy at first contact upon reaching the River Line, General Thomas ordered his troops into immediate action but, as Sherman noted in his Memoirs, they were met by a heavy and severe fire.

After a personal inspection, Sherman wisely ordered Thomas to disengage. He had no wish to replicate here, on the northern bank of the Chattahoochee the disastrous results of his assault on Kennesaw Mountain. The Union commander recognized that the River Line defenses were virtually impregnable and that they had, in fact, been prepared with the hope of bringing on another futile Federal assault like that at Kennesaw Mountain.

Sherman’s first impression of the River Line were reinforced by a conversation he had with a poor negro who had come out of the abatis blanched with fright a short time before. This negro informed the general, that he had been hiding under a log all day with a perfect storm of shot, shells, and musket balls, passing over him, till a short lull had enabled him to creep out and make himself known to our skirmishers, who in turn had sent him back to where we were. He reported that he and about a thousand slaves had been at work for a month or more on these very lines, which…extended from the river about a mile above the railroad bridge to Turner’s Ferry below, being in extent from five to six miles.

Rather than fall into the trap that Shoup had so artfully prepared for him, Sherman decided to avoid further attacks, and instead move his army across the Chattahoochee as quickly as possible, with the object of placing Union forces between Johnston’s army and the City of Atlanta. First he ordered McPherson’s to march back across the Smyrna battlefield to Roswell. Then, on July 8, Schofield’s force was sent in the same general direction, camping to the south of McPherson at Sope’s Creek, some five miles above the River Line.

It was from Vinings Mountain on July 5 that Sherman had his first look at the prize City of Atlanta, now a mere nine miles away.

11. Sherman's first view of Atlanta from Vinings Mountain

General Sherman atop Vinings Mountain where he had his first view of the Atlanta, now only nine miles away.

Of the actual crossing of the Chattahoochee, which occurred at Sope’s Creek on July 9, Sherman recounted,

We had already secured a crossing point at Roswell, but one nearer was advisable; General Schofield had examined the river well, found a place just below the mouth of Soap’s (sic) Creek which he deemed advantageous, and was instructed to effect an early crossing there, and to entrench a good position on the other side, viz., the east bank….Schofield effected his crossing at Soap’s Creek very handsomely on the 9th, capturing the small guard that was watching. By night he was on the high ground beyond, with two good pontoon bridges finished, and was prepared, if necessary, for an assault by the whole Confederate army.

In the meantime, Thomas was instructed to demonstrate against the River Line to keep Johnston from responding to the Federal crossing that was in progress upstream.

Johnston was quick to recognize the danger he now faced, with the federals poised to take possession of the ground between his army and the Union’s principal target, the city of Atlanta.

As recounted by Sherman,

That night Johnston evacuated his trenches, crossed over the Chattahoochee, burned the railroad bridge and his pontoon and trestle bridges, and left us in full possession of the north or west bank besides which we had already secured possession of the two good crossings at Roswell and Soap’s Creek.” Sherman added significantly: “I have always thought Johnston neglected his opportunity there, for he had lain comparatively idle while we got control of both banks of the river above him.

12. Union forces crossing the Chattahoochee River

Union forces crossing the Chattahoochee River in pursuit of the Confederates forces converging on Atlanta

Not long after Johnston’s crossing of the Chattahoochee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis removed him from command, elevating the more aggressive General John Bell Hood to that position, an officer who, with the Chattahoochee River now breached, proved totally incapable of holding back the invading Federals. One can’t help but wonder if Hood might have been more successful than the overly cautious Johnston had he assumed command earlier, and used using the River Line as Shoup had intended.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the man he selected to replace Johnston, General John Bell Hood

Interestingly, in his Narrative of Military Operations During the Civil War, a volume published in 1874 in response to the many criticisms that had been leveled at him for his alleged lack of initiative, Johnston declined to provide much in the way of justification for his failure at the River Line, merely commenting with regard to his precipitate withdrawal,

In consequence of this (the crossing at Sope’s Creek by Federal forces), the Confederate army crossed the Chattahoochee in the night of the 9th (each corps had two bridges), and was established two miles from it.

Thus ended military activity in and around the singularly formidable River Line fortifications, a campaign that might conceivably, in the hands of a more aggressive commander, have salvaged the Confederate cause.

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