“No general, such as he, would invite battle with the Chattahoochee behind him.” Or so Major General William T. Sherman believed when he wrote this dispatch on July 3, 1864. The officer Sherman referenced, General Joseph E. Johnston, had weeks earlier granted permission to begin construction of a defensive position along the Cobb County side of the Chattahoochee River. The Atlanta Campaign unfolded as a series of maneuvers, as Sherman’s armies continually tried to flank the left of the various Confederate positions. Johnston, outnumbered roughly two-to-one, continued to fall back ever closer to Atlanta, hoping he could eventually catch the Federal forces separated and defeat them before they could unite. Thus, before the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, the Southern officer already anticipated yet another retrograde movement.
Johnston’s chief of artillery, Brigadier General Francis A. Shoup, approached the commander of the Army of Tennessee, around June 18, 1864, with a novel idea for a defensive line along the river. Johnston approved, requested a train up from Atlanta, and before nightfall of the same day, Shoup stood along the banks of the river surveying the task ahead. To hasten construction of the works, Shoup impressed around 1,000 enslaved persons to build the fortifications. He also canvased local hospitals and brought convalescing soldiers out to lend a hand. Work began, in earnest, and within a few days, strongholds – later named “Shoupades” – began to take shape.
Shoup crafted an original design, which called for the northern point to rest at a position above where the Western & Atlantic Railroad bridge crossed the river, then extending southward below Proctor’s Creek. Johnston, fearing yet another effort to turn his left flank – a valid concern, as Federal cavalry forces indeed neared the river – ordered the line extended below the Mayson-Turner Ferry. The extension resulted in the River Line stretching for six miles or so.
The forts, built aboveground – per Shoup’s instructions – should rest between 60 and 175 yards apart, so they could preserve the capacity to cross-support, if the position come under attack. Shoup ran what he called palisades, at angles back from each fortification. The palisades met at, in Shoup’s terms, a reentrant position, where he placed artillery pieces, one gun facing to the left, the other to the right. If the Federals charged the line, the cannon would open fire, at first with shell, and switch to canister if the advance continued. Those soldiers able to weather the artillery barrage, and boldly progress, would then face rifle fire from the Army of Tennessee troops in each Shoupade. Shoup designed each Shoupade to hold 80 men. Nearly half of them would stand on the banquet (a ledge running the sides of the fortification), and pour down fire, while the balance of the soldiers reloaded the rifles from the safety of the 12-foot-high walls.
Falling back through Marietta during the evening hours of July 2, the Confederates fought a delaying action on Independence Day along the Smyrna-Ruff’s Mill line. Under cover of darkness, on July 4, Johnston’s soldiers first occupied the various positions along the River Line. No dispatches had gone out to the corps commanders in the Army of Tennessee alerting the troops of the unique design awaiting them at the river. Some of the soldiers who had grown comfortable fighting behind more traditional earthworks – positions, which had saved their lives at Resaca, New Hope Church, Kennesaw Mountain, and other engagements – began tearing down portions of the line and using the material to build standard defensive positions. Others, notably Major General Patrick Cleburne, understood Shoup’s design, and began working to complete the yet unfinished parts of the line.
Seeing what stood between his armies and Atlanta, Sherman wired Washington on July 6, noting, “…I must study the case a little….” Sherman did not want a repeat of Kennesaw Mountain, where he had attacked the Confederate forces along a strongly fortified position, so after consulting with his chief engineer, Captain Orlando Poe, the two decided to go around the River Line instead of launching a frontal assault. However, this time, instead of moving to their left, they flanked to the right. Portions of Major General John Schofield and Brigadier General Kenner Garrard’s forces crossed the Chattahoochee River on July 9 near Roswell. Holding a position, no longer tenable, Johnston ordered the Army of Tennessee across the river during the evening of July 9.
Shoup poured his heart and soul into the design and construction of the line, and carried a sadness over the evacuation with him for the balance of his life. “I could not then, and I have never been able since, to see why the position should not have been held indefinitely,” he lamented. Today, the River Line Historic Area works to preserve, protect, and interpret these remaining portions of the River Line. For more information, please visit www.riverline.org.
 U.S. Government, The War of the Rebellion Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, The War of the Rebellion Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, vol. 38, pt.5, 30.
 O.R., vol. 38, pt.4, 433.
 Shoup, Francis. ‘Dalton Campaign – Works at Chattahoochee River – Interesting History’. Confederate Veteran III, no. 9 (September 1895).
Michael K. Shaffer is a Civil War historian, author, newspaper columnist, and lecturer. He can be contacted at: www.civilwarhistorian.net.