On July 17, 1864, as W.T. Sherman’s army moved steadily south toward Atlanta, with some of his forces just ten miles from that city, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, displeased with commander Joseph Johston’s defensive-oriented tactics, replaced him with corps commander John Bell Hood, then just 33 years old. In his message, Davis said Johnston “had failed to arrest the advance of the enemy…and expressed no confidence that “he could “defeat or repel” the Union.
Sherman, who learned of the change a few days later, asked his subordinates, several of whom knew Hood from West Point days, for their appraisal of the new rebel leader. The comment by Army of the Ohio commander John Schofield, Hood’s classmate at West Point, who said he was bold even to rashness and courageous in the extreme,” was echoed by the others. O.O. Howard made the most cutting analysis, writing his wife, “he is a stupid fellow but a hard fighter — does some very unexpected things.”
Sherman, presuming that Hood would discard Johnston’s effective tactics and go on the offensive, told his commanders, “This was just what we wanted, viz. to fight on open ground, on anything like equal terms instead of being forced to run up against prepared intrenchments. Schofield’s deputy, General Jacob Cox, wrote later, “The change of commanders undoubtedly precipitated the ruin of the Confederate cause…We regarded the removal of Johnston as equivalent to a victory for us…The action of the Confederate government was a confession that Sherman’s methods had brought about the very result he aimed at.”
On July 25, after his first two offensives at Peachtree Creek and Bald Hill/Atlanta were thwarted, Hood issued a general field order encapsulating his philosophy of battle. It read in part: “SOLDIERS: Experience has proved to you that safety in time of battle consists in getting into close quarters with your enemy.” Recall that he wrote this at a time in the war when defensive tactics and the effective use of entrenchments were becoming the keys to military success.
Three days after this order was issued, Hood launched a new offensive at the Battle of Ezra Church. Jacob Cox wrote later that this attack also failed because Hood’s “troops were losing their stomach for assaulting intrenchments.” He noted that as “the Union breastworks grew as if by magic, the gray columns were beaten back.” Some Confederate troops, recognizing the futility of their situation, “stolidly refused to continue the assaults.” Despite their officers waving swords to encourage them, Cox wrote, “they remained motionless and silent, refusing to budge.”
Four months later, at the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, the clash of the two approaches, massive offensive charge against entrenched defensive forces, would lead to the final destruction of Hood’s Army of Tennessee