In May 1864 W.T. Sherman began what has been called the “Atlanta Campaign” against Confederate General Joe Johnston’s Army of Tennessee. But, as modern historians have pointed out, Atlanta itself was not an objective. Grant’s order to Sherman stated that he was to “move against Johnston’s army, to break it up, and to get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources…I leave you free to execute in your own way.” (In some ways that order is a precursor of Sherman’s objective in his “March to the Sea,” but leave that for the moment). Grant wanted to be sure that Johnston couldn’t send reinforcements to Lee in the East — and vice versa — even as they tried to defeat these two armies.
When Confederate commander John Bell Hood abandoned Atlanta after Jacob Cox’s men cut his final supply line, the city was open for the Union to move in on September 1/2. As the rebel army abandoned Atlanta, Sherman had an opportunity to destroy the divided Confederate forces, half of which were at Jonesboro, and half of which were retreating from Atlanta to the east. Instead, satisfied with the capture of the city, Sherman decided to let Hood go. He told O.O. Howard that because Atlanta had fallen, “I do not wish to waste lives by an assault.” Perhaps forgetting that the objective of his campaign was to destroy the opposing army and not to take Atlanta, Sherman told his commanders September 4, “The army having accomplished its undertaking in the complete reduction and occupation of Atlanta,” it would take a month’s rest until a new campaign was launched.
Both Sherman and Hood ultimately realized that Sherman should have continued the campaign. Hood wrote later, “I have often thought it strange Sherman should have occupied himself with attacking Hardee’s intrenched position, instead of falling upon our main body on the march round to his rear.” Sherman admitted to Halleck on September 4, “I ought to have reaped larger fruits of victory,” but he blamed the slowness of his commanders instead of his own decision-making. He later acknowledged, “I had not accomplished all, for Hood’s army, the chief objective, had escaped. Then began the real trouble.”