CMH - 150th Anniversary
The Atlanta Campaign, July 1864
Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, c 1888, by Thure de Thulstrop
The Atlanta Campaign, July 1864
Since 7 May 1864, the Union forces commanded by Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman had moved southward along the Western and Atlantic Railroad toward Atlanta, Georgia, the Confederacy's largest transportation and manufacturing hub in the Deep South. Sherman's 113,000 Federals faced the 70,000 Confederates of General Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Tennessee. Aside from a few repulses, most notably at Kennesaw Mountain on 27 June 1864, the Federals had advanced steadily through northwestern Georgia, reaching the outskirts of Atlanta by mid-July.
Convinced that Johnston intended to give up the Gate City without a fight, Confederate President Jefferson Davis replaced him with General John Bell Hood, a commander noted for his hard-hitting aggressiveness. As Sherman began to encircle the city, Hood launched a series of attacks in an effort to drive the Federals back and change the course of the Atlanta Campaign.
General John Bell Hood
The Battle of Peachtree Creek
Hood's first sortie occurred on 20 July at Peachtree Creek north of Atlanta. While Confederate forces delayed the Union advance from the east, two Southern corps under Lt. Gens. William J. Hardee and Alexander P. Stewart assailed the Union Army of the Cumberland under Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas north of the city. Had the Confederates attacked a day earlier, they would have caught the Federals when they were most vulnerable—while crossing the stream. By the morning of the twentieth, however, all the Federals were across and digging in south of the creek. Nevertheless, a two-mile gap separated Thomas' command from the rest of Sherman's army group, a situation that Hood sought to exploit.
Unfortunately for the Confederates, poor communication between Hardee's and Stewart's corps disrupted the assault, which was slated to begin at 1530. One Southern division attacked unsupported because it moved out forty-five minutes ahead of schedule, while a second division soon bogged down in dense woods and underbrush. Even so, the Confederates of Maj. William H. T. Walker's division struck along the Peachtree Road and briefly seized a section of the Union line held by Brig. Gen. John Newton's IV Corps division. But General Thomas, a former artillery instructor at the U.S. Military Academy, directed the fire of several Northern batteries and thus helped repulse Walker's assault. Maj. Gen. William W. Loring's division advanced farther than any other Confederate unit, striking Union Brig. Gen. William T. Ward's XX Corps division, which held firm despite a ferocious assault. On Loring's left, Maj. Gen. Edward C. Walthall's division attempted to outflank the Federal line, but Brig. Gen. Alpheus S. Williams' XX Corps division countered by refusing its line and subjecting Walthall's men to a lethal combination of musketry and artillery fire. By 1900 the battle was over. The rebel assault had failed to rout Thomas' army.
The Battle of Peachtree Creek cost the attacking Confederates about 2,500 casualties, while the defending Federals lost 1,750. There were numerous reasons for the Southern defeat. Hood had left execution of his complex plan to his subordinates, and Hardee had sent his divisions forward in piecemeal fashion, exposing their flanks to devastating Union artillery fire. The Federals also held the advantage of defending high ground, forcing the Confederates to attack uphill and through heavy vegetation.
During the Peachtree Creek fight, Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler's Confederate cavalry had captured an elevation referred to as the Bald Hill, about two miles east of Atlanta, extending the Confederate outer line southward well below the Georgia Railroad. Early on the morning of 21 July, Maj. Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne's rebel division also occupied the hill and began to dig in. Advancing from the east, two Union XVII Corps divisions drove the Confederates off Bald Hill. Then a Federal battery unlimbered and began firing rounds into downtown Atlanta. The projectiles caused minimal physical damage, yet the explosions terrified the city's residents. To restore civilian morale, Hood decided to put an end to the Union army's long-range artillery fire while securing the Georgia Railroad.
The Battle of Atlanta
On 21 July, Hood devised a second elaborate assault to drive the Federals from the Gate City. Learning that the left flank of Union Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson's Army of the Tennessee had lost its cavalry screen, Hood decided to launch a surprise attack on the Federals east of Atlanta. He designated Hardee's corps as the main strike force. That night, Hardee and two divisions of Wheeler's cavalry would make a night march to Decatur and assault McPherson's army from the rear while Cheatham attacked from the front, crushing the Federals in the jaws of the Confederate vise. In the meantime, Stewart's corps and Maj. Gen. Gustavus W. Smith's Georgia militia would prevent Thomas' Army of the Cumberland and Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield's Army of Ohio from coming to McPherson's rescue.
In the darkness Hardee's corps evacuated its trenches along Peachtree Creek and headed south, the weary soldiers trudging through the streets of Atlanta amid oppressive heat and choking dust. By the time the column had reached the revised jump-off point north and west of Terry's Mill Pond, it was noon on 22 July—hours behind schedule and well short of Decatur. But the men had marched fifteen miles, much of it under a hot sun, and were thoroughly fatigued, having spent the previous two days marching and fighting on little or no sleep. While Hardee's corps made its night march, Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham's corps filed out of its trenches east of Atlanta in preparation for the frontal assault on McPherson. Hardee and Cheatham's empty earthworks led Sherman to assume that Hood had abandoned Atlanta, but Thomas and Schofield reported that the rebels still occupied Atlanta's inner ring of fortifications.
On the morning of 22 July, the right and center of McPherson's line extended along a north-south axis, straddling both the Georgia Railroad and the Bald Hill. Earlier that morning, McPherson had received word of a large Confederate force moving east, so he refused his vulnerable left flank, facing Union Brig. Gen. Grenville M. Dodge's two XVI Corps divisions southward on either side of Sugar Creek. Without knowing it, McPherson had placed the XVI Corps in an excellent position to block Hardee's impending assault.
Just a few hundred yards south of the XVI Corps, Hardee launched his attack at 1215, and firing soon erupted as Union and Confederate skirmishers made contact along Sugar Creek. But the Southern assault lacked momentum, for the troops of Maj. Gen. William B. Bate's Confederate division had earlier struggled across a swamp, and rebel General Walker was killed before his division had even deployed. As a result, the XVI Corps divisions of Union Brig. Gens. Thomas W. Sweeny and John W. Fuller had little difficulty repulsing Hardee's two divisions at the far right.
On Hardee's left, Cleburne's division enjoyed initial success, exploiting a gap in the Union line between the right of the XVI Corps and the left of Maj. Gen. Frank P. Blair's XVII Corps. As the enemy poured through the opening, McPherson and several of his staff officers were riding along that part of the line toward the threatened XVII Corps. The Union general blundered into soldiers of the 5th Confederate Infantry, who demanded that he surrender. Instead, McPherson tipped his hat and attempted to escape but was shot down and died soon afterward—the only Union army commander to be killed in battle.
Pressing on, Cleburne's men struck the left flank and rear of the XVII Corps' line, held by Brig. Gen. Giles A. Smith's division. The fighting soon became hand-to-hand with fixed bayonets and clubbed muskets. No sooner had Giles Smith's Federals driven back Cleburne's men, than Gustavus Smith's Georgia militia and Brig. Gen. George E. Maney's Confederate division attacked from the front. The men of Smith's Union division repulsed Maney's onslaught, only to find that Cleburne was again attacking from the rear, while Maney launched yet another frontal assault. The combined pressure from front and rear forced the Federals of Smith's division back to Bald Hill, which was held by Brig. Gen. Mortimer D. Leggett's XVII Corps division.
On the Union right, meanwhile, Sherman could hear the din of battle to the south from his headquarters at the Howard house, located behind the Army of the Ohio's line. On receiving word of the death of his friend and protégé McPherson, Sherman designated Maj. Gen. John A. "Black Jack" Logan as acting commander of the Army of the Tennessee. Like Sherman, Hood could hear the fighting along the angle formed by the XVI Corps' and the XVII Corps' lines from his headquarters near Atlanta's City Burial Place. He misinterpreted the battle noise as evidence that Hardee had turned McPherson's left flank: the time seemed right to finish off the Federals. At 1500, Hood ordered Cheatham to strike the Union center, which was held by the XV Corps. Thirty minutes later, Cheatham's three Confederate divisions began their assault.
The attacks of Maj. Gen. Carter L. Stevenson's division on the right and of Maj. Gen. Henry D. Clayton's division on the left soon faltered due to overwhelming Federal firepower. Sherman lent his support to the XV Corps' defensive effort. A former artilleryman, he directed the fire of five XXIII Corps batteries on Clayton's open left flank. In the center, however, Brig. Gen. John C. Brown's rebel division swept into the Georgia Railroad cut and routed the under-strength Union force guarding it. Brown's onrushing Confederates captured the four guns of Capt. Francis DeGress' Union battery and punched a hole in the Federal line that extended southward from near the Troup Hurt house to well below the railroad. The Army of the Tennessee's new commander, Black Jack Logan, reacted quickly to the breakthrough, personally leading a five-brigade counterattack that by 1700 had sealed the breach in the XV Corps' line.
In the meantime, the fighting raged on at Bald Hill, with Maney and Cleburne continuing to assail the XVII Corps' line. To prevent another Confederate flanking maneuver, Giles Smith's division formed on Leggett's left, facing south, while Union Col. Hugo Wangelin's XV Corps brigade filled the gap between Smith's left and the XVI Corps' right. The fighting was at close quarters and seesawed back and forth across the Union fieldworks. At one point, Union Col. William W. Belknap—the commander of the 15th Iowa Infantry and a future secretary of war—captured Col. Harris Lampley of the 45th Alabama Infantry by dragging him across the parapet. Private Watkins of the 1st/27th Consolidated Tennessee Infantry recalled Maney's final attack on Giles Smith's line:
We gave one long, loud cheer, and commenced the charge. Like a mighty inundation . . . officers with drawn swords meet officers with drawn swords, and man to man meets man to man with bayonets and loaded guns. . . . Blood covered the ground, and the dense smoke filled our eyes, and ears, and faces. The groans of the wounded and dying rose above the thunder of battle.
His men collapsing from sheer exhaustion, Hardee ended the attack at nightfall. The XVII Corps' line had held. The Battle of Atlanta—also known as the Battle of Bald Hill—was over.
The 22 July battle was the costliest of the Atlanta Campaign. The attacking Confederates had suffered about 5,500 casualties and the defending Federals over 3,600. Two senior leaders, Union General McPherson and Confederate General Walker, lay dead. Hood's assault on the Army of the Tennessee had failed because he had demanded too much of Hardee's corps, the men nevertheless pushing themselves beyond all endurance, only to come up short at the end of the day. Credit should also go to McPherson's fortuitous troop deployments on the Union left flank, Logan's inspired generalship during the XV Corps' counterattack, and the grit and determination of the fighting men in blue.
General S. D. Lee
The Battle of Ezra Church
In late July, the Army of the Tennessee under its new commander, Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, was again on the move. Its mission was to cut Hood's last supply line at East Point, a railroad junction six miles south of Atlanta. As a diversion, Thomas and Schofield skirmished with the Confederates along their front. On 27 July, Howard's three corps reached the Ezra Church intersection, near the Lickskillet Road some three miles west of Atlanta. Howard's men began to entrench at nightfall, using wooden pews confiscated from the Methodist meetinghouse for building materials. The Federals occupied a fishhook-shaped line that faced east and south, with the barb near the crossroads. Sherman dispatched Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis' XIV Corps division to Howard's right in order to protect that flank, but the division became lost and wandered into the wilderness bordering the Chattahoochee River.
That evening, Hood ordered Lt. Gen. Stephen D. Lee and Stewart to move their corps on the Lickskillet Road to the Ezra Church intersection. The next morning, Lee was to launch a frontal assault to distract the Federals while Stewart turned their open right flank and pushed into the rear. But when Lee's first two divisions reached the intersection, they found a large Union force already dug in there. Under orders to occupy the crossroads, Lee decided to drive off the Federal intruders.
At noon on 28 July, Brown's division attacked the right of Howard's line, which was held by Logan's XV Corps. Advancing unsupported through dense woods, Brown's Confederates could not see the XV Corps' position until they received a blast of musketry and a countercharge at close range. The dazed survivors turned and fled. Ten minutes later, Clayton's division assailed the XV Corps, whose lethal fire inflicted 50 percent casualties on two of Clayton's brigades. When told that the XV Corps was under attack, Sherman replied in his usual rapid-fire manner: "'Good . . . that's fine . . . just what I wanted . . . just what I wanted, tell Howard to invite them to attack, it will save us trouble, save us trouble, they'll only beat their brains out, beat their brains out."
As Lee's two badly mauled divisions regrouped in the rear, two of Stewart's divisions marched to the sound of the guns. At 1400, Walthall's division attacked over the same ground as Brown's men and soon met with the same bloody result. Stewart then sent Loring's division forward to cover Walthall's retreat. About 1600, as the battle wound down, Stewart was struck in the head by a spent ball, knocking him unconscious and leaving Loring to oversee the withdrawal of Stewart's two divisions.
If nothing else, the Battle of Ezra Church had revealed that Stephen D. Lee ranked second to none—not even Hood—in impetuosity. Four hours of Confederate frontal assaults had generated about 3,000 casualties to the Federals' 650—a ratio of almost five to one. It was Kennesaw Mountain in reverse, more of a slaughter than a battle. Though poorly executed, the attacks had denied Sherman control of East Point—for now. The Federals may have held the field but they had not yet seized the crucial rail junction south of Atlanta.
Hood's three sorties had thus failed to drive the Federals from the gates of Atlanta. The assaults had proved costly to the Confederates, resulting in almost twice as many casualties as were sustained by Sherman's much larger army group. Hood had left the execution of his plans to subordinates who, for reasons largely beyond their control, failed to execute his grand designs. Perhaps he should have exercised more direct authority, but it is unlikely that even his intervention would have made much difference, given the Federals' numerical superiority. Although he had failed to defeat Sherman, Hood had given President Davis the battles that he wanted. And much more fighting remained to decide the fate of Atlanta.
About the Author
J. Britt McCarley is a native of Atlanta, Georgia, and holds the Ph.D. in History from Temple University. After working for the National Park Service, he came to the Army History Program in 1988 and is now the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Chief Historian and the Director, TRADOC Military History and Heritage Program. He is the author of a guide to the Atlanta area's Civil War battlefields and of a reinterpretation of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman's generalship in the 1864 Atlanta Campaign, and the co-author of The Whirlwind War: The United States Army in Operations DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM.
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