The Atlanta Campaign of 1864

In a recent paper before the U. S. Army Command and Staff College, Christopher Gabel argued that Union commanders practiced a form of "Railroad Generalship" and in so doing structured their campaigns and their strategy around the railroads. Railroads increased the scale of operations, he points out, so much so that Sherman's managed to supply an army of 100,000 men and 35,000 animals over a single line of railway extending 473 miles from Louisville, Kentucky, to Atlanta. Without the rail his army would have required over 36,000 wagons and 220,000 mules. Other historians too have suggested the importance of the railroad in Civil War tactics and logistics, including John C. Clark Railroads in the Civil War: The Impact of Management on Victory and Defeat (Lousiana State University Press, 2001), George Edgar Turner,  Victory Rode the Rails: The Strategic Place of Railroads in the Civil War (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992, 1953), and Robert C. Black, The Railroads of the Confederacy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1952).

But "railroad generalship" in the Atlanta Campaign extended the reach of modern warfare far beyond the realm of logistics and supply. Just as railroad development did across the country decades earlier, the campaign became for Northern commanders a far-reaching attempt to reshape the social and physical environment of an entire region--the American South. To defeat the South Sherman thought he needed to master the region's complex nature, that is, to dominate, control, and comprehend its landscape, and its people. No one did this more effectively or thoroughly than Sherman, who, for his part, called forth geographical knowledge from twenty years earlier and assembled information on the railroads, distances, networks, topography, and characteristic of every local setting his army occupied. This intense geographic vision became the defining feature of his "railroad generalship."

Despite a war fought on a grand scale, made possible by the extensive railroad network, Union commanders in 1864 took a more intensive approach. The military reports of the Union Army commanders reveal the intensely local vision they held of the campaign and its structure around the railroads.