Who Won the Battle of Atlanta?

In the summer of 1864, the Confederacy was faltering. The Union took aim at its remaining “crown jewel”: the industrial and railroad hub of Atlanta, Georgia. Could it be taken?

Mar 6, 2024By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA
who won battle of atlanta


With Ulysses S. Grant now general-in-chief of all Union forces, direct command of the Western Theater of the Civil War went to General William Tecumseh Sherman. Both Grant and Sherman were known for their aggression, and Sherman wanted to end the war quickly by seizing the remaining Southern railways and industry. This meant capturing the vital city of Atlanta, Georgia, with four railways leading to all parts of the Confederacy.


Victory Goes to the Union

union victory battle atlanta
An image of the Battle of Atlanta [Georgia], fought between Union and Confederate soldiers on July 22, 1864. Source: The University of Georgia Press

The Battle of Atlanta was a major victory for the Union, thanks to both its strategic benefits and its high publicity in Northern newspapers. This boosted public morale in the North at a crucial time period – the rapidly approaching 1864 presidential election. Although the North was no longer in any danger of invasion by the South, as had occurred in both 1862 with the Battle of Antietam and 1863 with the Battle of Gettysburg, many citizens were growing weary of the bloody war. Union President Abraham Lincoln was at risk of losing re-election to a rival who would negotiate peace with the Confederacy.


Union General William Tecumseh Sherman approached Atlanta in early July and was met with an attack by Confederate General John Bell Hood, who thought he could draw Sherman away from the major city by circling Sherman and threatening Union supply lines. Instead, Sherman continued forward, forcing Hood to attack him directly. An intended surprise attack on the morning of July 22 was unsuccessful due to late-arriving Southern forces and experienced Union troops’ luck into being in the right spot to intercept the initial attack. By the end of the afternoon, the Confederates were unable to defeat Sherman’s forces and retired back to the city of Atlanta.


Timeline of the Battle of Atlanta

atlanta campaign timeline 1864
A map of Georgia showing the timeline of Union General William T. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign, followed by his March to the Sea. Source: The Georgia Civil War Commission


In the spring of 1864, Union forces were pushing into the South along broad fronts, conducting a war of attrition meant to exhaust the South’s remaining manpower and resources. The Union had captured Chattanooga, Tennessee the previous November, seizing those railway lines, but some Confederate railways and factories lay further south in Georgia.


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Beginning in late spring, Union General William T. Sherman began pushing back Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston toward Atlanta in a series of battles.


On July 17, the Confederate government in Richmond, Virginia replaced Johnston with General John Bell Hood, hoping a more aggressive commander could save the day.


battle atlanta 1864
A map showing movements of Union and Confederate armies during the Battle of Atlanta in July 1864. Source: American Battlefield Trust


On July 20, Sherman had advanced close enough to Atlanta to begin artillery bombardment. Hood decided to attack in an attempt to push Sherman’s armies away from the city.


Unfortunately for Hood, an intended morning surprise attack did not land until about noon, losing the element of surprise. Despite some initial success, the Confederate push was eventually halted.


At around 3:00 PM, Hood mounted a second attack from the east, again achieving some initial success before being halted.


By the evening, the Confederates retreated to their initial positions in defense of the city. The lengthy Siege of Atlanta then began.


What Caused the Battle of Atlanta?

1856 locomotive atlanta georgia
A museum exhibit of a locomotive built in 1856 and used on railroads passing through the major rail hub of Atlanta, Georgia, which was vital to the Confederacy. Source: Atlanta History Center


Atlanta, in north-central Georgia, was the next significant target for the Union after the successful capture of Chattanooga, Tennessee in November 1863. It was the largest industrial and railway center remaining in Confederate hands outside the capital city of Richmond, Virginia. Union general Sherman was confident and felt that the time was ripe for a major offensive: Union morale was high thanks to recent victories, and he had already defeated his Confederate opponent in Georgia, General Joseph Johnston, in battle.


Despite many Southerners realizing that the city could not be saved, great efforts had been made over the past year to build defensive positions. Johnston’s replacement, John Bell Hood, decided to attack Sherman north of the city in the hope of a strategic victory. If Sherman could be defeated, it might buy time to reinforce the city. However, even this potential outcome would likely be futile – thousands of Atlanta residents had fled the city since May. Additionally, the Union did not need to directly seize the city to destroy the railroads that ran into it.


Why Was the Battle of Atlanta Significant?

union troops destroy atlanta railroad tracks
A photograph of Union troops destroying railroad tracks in Atlanta, Georgia in November 1864, after the city fell to the North. Source: Dickinson College


The Battle of Atlanta was significant in that it eliminated the Confederacy’s one realistic chance to hold onto Atlanta, its most important hub outside the capital city of Richmond. The city produced food, ammunition, and clothing that was distributed to all Confederate armies. Atlanta also held great political and psychological significance for the South as a hub of Southern culture and aristocracy. Although the city likely could not be held forever against the might of the Union armies, some Confederate leaders thought holding it through the November elections in the North could mean a defeat for Lincoln.


Thus, the Battle of Atlanta and its victory by the Union meant that Atlanta would be captured before voters went to the polls on November 8. Abraham Lincoln’s Democratic Party opponents would be less able to argue that the war was not progressing and that a peace treaty should be negotiated with the Confederacy. Significantly, the Battle of Atlanta received considerable news coverage in the North, boosting support for continuing the war and increasing Lincoln’s popularity. Sure enough, Lincoln handily won re-election on November 8, boosted by recent Union victories like the Battle of Atlanta.


5 Facts About the Battle of Atlanta

william tecumseh sherman civil war
The well-publicized capture of Atlanta helped make a hero out of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman. Source: National Park Service


1. Casualties

The Union suffered some 3,700 casualties in the battle, which was slightly more than 10% of its troops committed to battle. With some 5,500 casualties, the Confederacy saw a greater percentage of its committed forces killed or injured. During the early stages of the battle, attacking Confederate forces were able to capture hundreds of Union soldiers. At the late stage in the war, however, the Confederacy could ill afford any significant amount of casualties and could scarcely afford to manage Union prisoners of war.


2. Commanders

Union forces were led by General William Tecumseh Sherman. Like many contemporaries on both sides of the conflict, Sherman was a graduate of West Point and a veteran of the Mexican-American War. After initially leaving the Army in 1853, Sherman held a variety of civilian jobs in different states, including California. When the Civil War erupted after the Battle of Fort Sumter, Sherman volunteered for service again and was made a colonel. In the Western Theater, Sherman served under Ulysses S. Grant and later replaced Grant as commander of that theater when Grant was promoted to general-in-chief of all Union armies.


Confederate forces were led by General John Bell Hood, who had replaced General Joseph E. Johnston only days before. Hood was a young general who had graduated from West Point after the Mexican-American War. When the Civil War began, he resigned from the US Army and joined the Confederate Army in Texas. Bell served in the Eastern Theater, including in the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. Shortly thereafter, he lost a leg in the Battle of Chickamauga, though he recovered and was re-appointed to serve under Johnston, whom he soon replaced.


3. Number of Forces Involved

Sherman approached Atlanta with about 80,000 men, though only 35,000 were committed to battle. Conversely, Hood had around 50,000 men, with some 40,000 committed to battle. Both armies had been somewhat diminished from regular battles since the Battle of Chattanooga, with Union forces whittled down from about 110,000 and Confederate forces reduced from about 55,000. Before battle, Johnston called for reinforcements but did not receive them prior to being replaced by Hood.


4. Visiting Battle of Atlanta Sites Today

Unlike many Civil War battlefields, the location of the Battle of Atlanta close to an urban area meant the sites of the battle on July 22, 1864 have mostly been developed over the years. Fortunately, historical markers indicate important locations from the battle within the city of Atlanta and its suburbs. Although the Battle of Atlanta site has mostly been developed, visitors can see many other nearby battlefields for other skirmishes during the Atlanta Campaign.


5. Trivia: Last Highest-Ranking Battlefield Death for the Union

Union Major General (two-star) James B. McPherson was shot and killed during the Battle of Atlanta, making him the fourth and final major general killed among Union armies during the Civil War. No Union officer with a rank higher than major general was killed in battle during the conflict. McPherson was a former West Point classmate of John Bell Hood, who mourned the death of his foe and allowed his body to be returned to Union lines for proper burial. The engineer, who had worked on Army projects in both New York and California before the Civil War, was highly praised by both Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant after his death.


Aftermath of Atlanta: Making Georgia Howl

sherman march sea 1864
After the fall of Atlanta, Union General Sherman famously proclaimed that he would “make Georgia howl” during his March to the Sea. Source: PBS Learning Media


The Confederate failure to stop Sherman led to the 36-day Siege of Atlanta, at the end of which the city was evacuated by Hood and taken by Sherman. By August 31, the Union had destroyed all railway lines around Atlanta, neutralizing it as a railway hub. On September 3, Sherman proclaimed that the city had been won. However, continued frustration with the Confederacy’s refusal to surrender led to one of the most controversial campaigns of the war: Sherman’s March to the Sea.


Leaving Atlanta on November 15, the Union general divided his forces and cut southeast through Georgia toward the coastal city of Savannah, using slash-and-burn tactics to destroy resources that might be of any use to the South. Just prior to embarking on this campaign, Sherman gave his famous quote: “I can…make Georgia howl.” Rather than occupying captured territory, which Sherman thought would cost a thousand soldiers per month, he intended to destroy it or seize any resources, particularly agriculture, that he could use. This saw the shift of the US Civil War to total war late in the conflict in an effort to finally break Southern resistance.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.