Conflict and controversy in the Confederate high command: Johnston, Davis, Hood, and the Atlanta campaign of 1864

Dennis Blair Conklin II, University of Southern Mississippi


The Union capture of Atlanta on September 2, 1864 all but assured Abraham Lincoln's reelection in November and the ultimate collapse of the Confederacy. This dissertation argues that Jefferson Davis's failure as commander-in-chief played the principal role in Confederate defeat in the war's most pivotal campaign. Davis had not learned three important lessons prior to the campaign season in 1864. First, the president failed to appreciate the benefit of a centralized command, opting instead for a departmental structure that promoted parochialism. Indeed, Joseph E. Johnston, in charge of the Army of Tennessee, was unable to secure assistance from neighboring departmental commanders during the campaign. Second, the president's tendency to allow his personal feelings to affect his decisions regarding strategy and his handling of officers proved disastrous to Confederate chances in the West. Davis permitted his friendship with Braxton Bragg and John Bell Hood to influence his assessment of Johnston as the army's commander. At the same time, the president's antagonistic attitude toward Georgia governor Joseph E. Brown deprived Johnston of an adequate militia force, making Johnston's defense of Georgia more difficult. Further, Davis's long-standing feud with Johnston interfered with his willingness to cooperate with his general as the Federal army pushed toward Atlanta. Finally, Davis's distrust of Johnston led him to appoint John Bell Hood to command one of Johnston's corps with instructions that Hood keep the administration apprised of Johnston's performance. The scheme produced unintended consequences when Hood undermined Johnston in an effort to secure command of the army for himself. The dissertation also offers a re-evaluation of Joseph E. Johnston, and challenges the traditional interpretation that casts Johnston as overly cautious and unwilling to engage in offensive action. Additionally, it reassesses John Bell Hood's role in determining the outcome of the campaign. In particular, it argues that historians have been too critical of Hood's handling of the army in the battles around Atlanta.