The Day Dixie Died: The Battle of Atlantaby Gary Ecelbarger
One of the most dramatic and important battles ever to be waged on American soil, the Battle of Atlanta changed the course of the Civil War and helped decide a presidential election.
In the North, a growing peace movement and increasing criticism of President Abraham Lincoln's conduct of the war threatened to halt U.S. war efforts to save the Union. On the
One of the most dramatic and important battles ever to be waged on American soil, the Battle of Atlanta changed the course of the Civil War and helped decide a presidential election.
In the North, a growing peace movement and increasing criticism of President Abraham Lincoln's conduct of the war threatened to halt U.S. war efforts to save the Union. On the morning of July 22, 1864, Confederate forces under the command of General John Bell Hood squared off against the Army of the Tennessee led by General James B. McPherson just southeast of Atlanta.
Having replaced General Joseph E. Johnston just four days earlier, Hood had been charged with the duty of reversing a Confederate retreat and meeting the Union army head on. The resulting Battle of Atlanta was a monstrous affair fought in the stifling Georgia summer heat. During it, a dreadful foreboding arose among the Northerners as the battle was undecided and dragged on for eight interminable hours. Hood's men tore into U.S. forces with unrelenting assault after assault. Furthermore, for the first and only time during the war, a U.S. army commander was killed in battle, and in the wake of his death, the Union army staggered. Dramatically, General John "Black Jack" Logan stepped into McPherson's command, rallied the troops, and grimly fought for the rest of the day. In the end, ten thousand men---one out of every six---became casualties on that fateful day, but the Union lines had held.
Having survived the incessant onslaught from the men in grey, Union forces then placed the city of Atlanta under siege, and the city's inevitable fall would gain much-needed, positive publicity for Lincoln's reelection campaign against the peace platform of former Union general George B. McClellan.
Renowned Civil War historian Gary Ecelbarger is in his element here, re-creating the personal and military dramas lived out by generals and foot soldiers alike, and shows how the battle was the game-changing event in the larger Atlanta Campaign and subsequent March to the Sea that brought an eventual end to the bloodiest war in American history. This is gripping military history at its best and a poignant narrative of the day Dixie truly died.
Civil War historian Ecelbarger (The Great Comeback: How Abraham Lincoln Beat the Odds to Win the 1860 Republican Nomination, 2008, etc.) closely examines the crucial battle of the campaign for Atlanta, the war's most decisive engagement.
Antietam, Vicksburg, Gettysburg—each marked an important turning point in the Civil War, but none spelled the end for the South as did Atlanta. Militarily, the daylong battle on July 22, 1864, the bloodiest day of the war's last ten months, assured the eventual capture of the South's most important rail and commercial center. Politically, Atlanta's surrender guaranteed Lincoln's reelection, eliminating any chance that the war-weary North would allow the Confederacy to go its own way or return to the Union with slavery in place. Military buffs will appreciate Ecelbarger's meticulous recounting of the battle—he breaks the action into increments as narrow as 15 minutes—the ferocity of which accounted for more than 10,000 casualties and kept one out of five participants from answering the next day's roll call. The author's careful reconstruction demonstrates how, with four hours of daylight remaining, the outcome could easily have turned into a Union disaster. Readers less consumed with precisely how the battle unfolded will likely prefer the numerous, sharp appraisals of the officers and soldiers. Conspicuous for the South was the aggressive John Bell Hood, whose command featured the likes of hard-drinking and hard-fighting Benjamin Cheatham, oft-wounded William "Shot Pouch" Walker, young "Fighting Joe" Wheeler, experienced Patrick Cleburne and William Hardee, who led the flanking maneuver critical to Hood's designs. Gen. James McPherson, a protégé of Grant and Sherman, led the Northern army and died in the battle, but the slack was taken up by the inspirational John Logan, the tenacious Mortimer Leggett and Medal of Honor winners Manning Force and John Sprague. Their battlefield heroics enabled a triumphant Sherman to telegraph his president, two months before the election Lincoln believed lost, "Atlanta is ours, and fairly won."
With efficiency and élan, Ecelbarger gives an often overlooked battle its due.
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Read an Excerpt
CLOSING THE VISE
A brass-laden brigade band blared forth a spirited rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the blue-clad soldiers of the Army of the Tennessee marched westward toward Atlanta, the objective point of an arduous and angst-filled campaign. The army had begun that trek in Chattanooga seventy-five days and 100 miles earlier. Since then they had crossed three rivers; fought three battles and skirmishes nearly every day between them; all the while enduring hardships from both anticipated and unexpected sources. Six days earlier, 15 men in one division were killed or wounded by a single lightning strike during a violent storm blanketing the Chattahoochie River valley, a freakish bolt that did not discriminate between foot soldiers, artillery men, or mule drivers. Thousands more fell dead or wounded from Confederate lead, iron, and steel over the two months prior to that deadly storm. But on Wednesday morning, July 20, 1864, Atlanta and ultimate victory stood just 6 miles away from the surviving Union soldiers.1
The army was not surprised to be so close to its campaign destination. Named for a major river—as were most Union armies in the field—the Army of the Tennessee, in the haughty words of one of its members, expected “nothing but victory” at the completion of its campaign. The soldier trumpeted that boast the previous autumn, a prediction borne out by ultimate success in the field. It was a statement that proved true in every major campaign in which the army participated before that: at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and Corinth in 1862; and at Vicksburg and Chattanooga in 1863. This was the army previously commanded by the two most important generals in the Union: Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. With only a smattering of setbacks on battlefields and two and a half years of continuous victories in military campaigns—including the surrender of Confederate armies at Fort Donelson, Tennessee, and Vicksburg, Mississippi—the collective opinion of soldiers within the Army of the Tennessee was that the capture of Atlanta was inevitable. They expected nothing less, for they laid claim to be the most successful army on the continent.2
In Georgia the Army of the Tennessee was not operating alone. Since the fall of 1863 it moved and fought as a collective unit called the Military Division of the Mississippi. The district was named for a major river as were the three armies under its umbrella—the Army of the Tennessee, the Army of the Cumberland, and the Army of the Ohio. Major General William T. Sherman led that army group, a command of seven infantry corps, nearly two corps of cavalry, and 250 cannons. It was a formidable Union force approaching 100,000 officers and men.3
Sherman had taken over many of the duties left by Ulysses S. Grant, who had departed during March of 1864 to head east as a lieutenant general in charge of all the Union armies in the field. Sherman’s promotion carried him from the immediate command of the Army of the Tennessee, a position he had taken once Grant was chosen to head the armies in the Western theater in the fall of 1863, to overall command of the Military Division of the Mississippi. Consequently, throughout the Atlanta campaign of the spring and summer months of 1864, command of the Army of the Tennessee belonged to Sherman’s replacement—Major General James Birdseye McPherson.
McPherson was the darling of all the Union armies in the field—at least in the eyes of the two men who mattered the most: Grant and Sherman. He came to Grant’s army in the winter of 1861–1862 (several months before it was officially called the Army of the Tennessee) and served initially as his chief engineer. By the end of 1862 McPherson had risen from lieutenant colonel to major general and held the helm of Grant’s XVII Corps. The corps was active and successful throughout the Vicksburg campaign and even though “Mac” was overlooked for promotion after Grant was elevated, he was awarded command of the Army of the Tennessee upon Sherman’s ascension to Grant’s position in March of 1864.
The command of an army was the appropriate reward and a seemingly perfect fit for McPherson, the ultimate “A” student of the Army of the Tennessee. McPherson had graduated first in his West Point class of 1853, a class including the likes of Major General John M. Schofield (in charge of the Army of the Ohio), Major General Philip Sheridan (soon to be in charge of the Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley), and Confederate General John Bell Hood, who stood in his path to Atlanta. Schofield claimed that McPherson was not overly inventive, but “his was the most completely balanced mind and character with which I have ever been intimately acquainted.…” The stress of war had begun to prematurely gray the beard of the thirty-five-year-old Ohioan, but McPherson was otherwise the model of health and fitness. McPherson fit his uniform well. He stood erect, close to the 6' mark, fully bearded with a pleasant face. McPherson was attractive in intellect, personality, and appearance.4
He was also taken. McPherson was engaged to Emily Hoffman, a Baltimore belle whom he met at a party in San Francisco during the spring of 1859. Miss Hoffman was twenty-five years old when he met her, young and beautiful, blessed with dainty features and striking blue eyes. It appears that they fell in love at first sight, but the war postponed their wedding, which they had planned for 1861. Just three days after he sailed away from her in August of that year, McPherson poured his heart and soul out to her. “You cannot imagine how much I miss you, though each hour is adding to the distance which separates us,” he wrote en route to New York from San Francisco. “But I thank Heaven every day and hour of my life, dearest Emily, that there are invisible cords stronger and more enduring than any ever made by hands which bind me to you; cords which will withstand the fury of the tempest, the rude shock of battle, and the allurements of an active, exciting life, and cause me to return to you with a heart overflowing with love and devotion.”5
Active campaigning kept the two lovers apart for nearly three years. McPherson confessed to Sherman his love for her while the generals wrapped up affairs in Vicksburg late in the winter of 1864. In an effort to help out his friend, Sherman arranged for McPherson “to steal a furlough” late in March of 1864. McPherson arranged to travel to Baltimore to the Hoffman home where he planned to marry Emily. That was a coup in itself because the Hoffman family—particularly Emily’s mother—were passionate Southern sympathizers who swallowed their aversions to allow a Union army commander into their home to wed one of their own. But telegrams sent by Sherman interrupted McPherson’s plans while traveling north—one announcing his promotion to army command and the other ordering him to northern Alabama to help plan the Georgia campaign. When the frustrated and heartbroken McPherson arrived from the postponed wedding, Sherman empathized. “Mac,” he told him, “it wrings my heart but you can’t go now.” Sherman followed up by personally writing to Emily Hoffman to smooth over the ruffled feathers and to assure her that McPherson was worth the wait.6
The problem for McPherson was that his performance at the initiation of the Atlanta campaign did not exemplify a confident commander. McPherson’s letters home reveal his own self-doubts at the time, confessing to his mother, “I have a much greater responsibility than I desire.”7 His overbearing sense of caution captured him at a moment when the Union needed a risk taker for a swift and victorious end to the campaign. That was exhibited at the opening of the campaign, just west of the town of Resaca on May 9. Instructed to hustle his army through Snake Creek Gap and cut the rail line in the rear while Sherman’s other two armies demonstrated in the gaps of Rocky Face Ridge against General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee (Confederates named their armies for regions, not rivers), McPherson marched the Army of the Tennessee (at that time consisting of two corps totaling 25,000 men) through the mountain pass and placed the men within striking distance of the Western & Atlantic Railroad and the town of Resaca, several miles south of Johnston’s Confederates and guarded by only 4,000 troops. McPherson had at least 6,000 men deployed on the hills overlooking that poorly defended locale.
If McPherson deployed and charged his men upon Resaca that day, brushing away the overmatched force there and taking control of the railroad and the town, the Southerners would have been trapped in a vise closing upon them from the north and south without a good avenue for escape. The campaign could have—and perhaps should have—ended with McPherson’s offensive, but he vacillated and eventually gave in to his caution, pulling his men back several miles into the gap rather than charging them one mile upon the town. It was a very costly decision, for General Johnston was able to use the railroad and pull his Confederate army unimpeded down to Resaca where they fought three hard days to keep possession of the town from May 13–15. He escaped southward to fight again and again, playing the game of maneuver with Sherman all the way to the outskirts of Atlanta. General Sherman realized McPherson’s error even before the battle began. “Well, Mac,” said Sherman upon greeting McPherson three days after the latter’s cautious decision and one day before the battle, “you have missed the opportunity of a lifetime.”8
Indeed he did miss a golden opportunity, but the incident would not sway McPherson from that proclivity. He never admitted that as a mistake at all and would continue to prefer caution over what he deemed as recklessness. Although the opening “inaction” at Resaca irked Sherman and caused him to label McPherson as “timid,” the fact was that McPherson had a strong case to not commit his men to an assault against a region he knew to be defended, but was unaware of the strength of that defense. The cavalry that was supposed to be his eyes as well as the force that actually cut the railroad never reached his advance. Approaching darkness that day convinced McPherson to follow Sherman’s written contingency “to draw back four or five miles, to Snake Creek Gap, make it secure, and wait for orders.” That is exactly what he did. His West Point classmate, John Schofield, felt compelled to defend his friend against Sherman’s allegations. “McPherson was a subordinate in spirit as well as in fact, and cannot fairly be charged with timidity for not attempting what he was not ordered to do, and what, in fact, was no part of the plans of his superior so far as were indicated in his orders.”9
Affected by Sherman’s rebuke to open the campaign, McPherson and his army had performed well since then, beginning with the Battle of Resaca where they seized and held hills formerly belonging to the Confederates and forced Johnston to withdraw over the Oostanaula River. Two weeks later the XV Corps inflicted over 1,000 casualties upon an ill-fated assault by a division of Confederates at the Battle of Dallas, Georgia, the only Union victory in five days of battles in a region called the “Hell Hole.” McPherson and his army continued to flank and press throughout the month of June, suffering a rare and temporary setback at Kennesaw Mountain on June 27.
The constant maneuvering, skirmishing, and battling gained McPherson more experience. By July 20 he was veteran of eight battles and at least twice as many skirmishes in his past fourteen months as a corps and army commander. His army was not big, but it was formidable and had made an impact throughout the past two months in Georgia. The Army of the Tennessee fought and marched the first half of the campaign with merely five divisions of the XV and XVI Corps. The XVII Corps completed its detached duties in Alabama and arrived in June, boosting McPherson’s strength to 30,000 officers and men, and 1,750 artillery horses pulling 96 cannons (by comparison the Army of the Cumberland had nearly twice as many men and 35 more cannons).10
Still, the compactness of the Army of the Tennessee enabled it to serve as the most mobile component of Sherman’s department. It was known as the “Whip-Snapper”—the army that conducted the huge sweeping marches while the other two held the Confederates in place. Throughout the campaign of maneuver against Johnston in Northern Georgia, Sherman ordered the Army of the Tennessee to conduct the flanking marches designed to get around the Confederate front and attack the sides and rear to prevent the ungodly casualties seen 500 miles north with Grant combating Lee head on in the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor. The cunning Johnston never allowed his flank to be completely turned but it certainly was not for a lack of trying on Sherman’s part. The Army of the Tennessee was counted on at times to march over 15 miles a day on consecutive days, and instantly deploy into battle formation and fight at a moment’s notice—no mean feat.
The “Whip-Snapper” role served those soldiers of the Old Northwest well. It is exactly how they found themselves 6 miles east of Atlanta on July 20 and closing in minute by minute. Just three days earlier they stood on the north bank of the Chattahoochie River, set to embark upon another grand sweep to challenge the Confederate defense of Atlanta from the east as the other two armies struck from the north and northeast. On July 17, McPherson crossed his army over the Chattahoochie at Roswell, 21 miles northeast of Atlanta, on a bridge constructed by the XVI Corps several days before. The Federals covered close to 20 miles that day and spent the following day destroying the Georgia Railroad between the stunning monolith called Stone Mountain and the railroad town of Decatur. Here, McPherson was acting on Sherman’s directive to prevent the Confederates from bringing in any reinforcements and provisions on the rail line to strengthen the army protecting Atlanta. That was the second of four rail lines leading into Atlanta that was under Union control and McPherson’s army made sure the Georgia Railroad was a dead line. Truman G. Tuttle of the 26th Iowa briefly explained to his hometown newspaper how he and his comrades accomplished the mission, “We took up the ties, piled them in cords with the rails across and then fired the ties, then bending the rails and making them useless.”11
The head of McPherson’s army marched into Decatur on Tuesday night, July 19, and continued to proceed unabated through the town the following morning. “This is a very old, dilapidated, wooden town, of perhaps 400 inhabitants,” determined an Iowan in the ranks; “it was certainly the most forlorn looking place we have seen for a long time.” An Illinois soldier concurred about the miserable appearance of Decatur but was buoyed by a specific attraction in the town. “I saw a couple of right pretty girls,” he wrote, but he had no time to talk to them. Even before noon most of the army had cleared through Decatur and proceeded westward to Atlanta, guiding along the Georgia Railroad.12
An Illinoisan in Decatur caught a rare glimpse of the high command of the Army of the Tennessee, a sighting he recorded in his diary:
In afternoon Gens. Dodge & McPherson & Logan conversed together in the streets of the town. Dodge rather nervous—McPh. cool as could be & smiling as ever & Logan silent and twirling his moustache, which is long enough to reach behind his ears.13
The foot soldiers of the Army of the Tennessee exhibited strong faith and trust in their generals. Solid at brigade and division commands, the army’s three corps commanders all had proven records of success throughout the Georgia campaign and the Vicksburg campaign before it. That was particularly fortunate for the army, for none of the corps commanders had solid military education or experience prior to the war. Only Major General Grenville Dodge of the XVI Corps could claim that he was a cadet—but not at West Point (instead from Norwich University). He had no military experience between his education and the war, serving as a civil engineer. Major General John Logan of the XV Corps was a company officer during the Mexican War, but his unit stayed in Santa Fe and never went to the battle front. He and Frank Blair (XVII Corps) were renowned politicians prior to 1861, not military men. Nevertheless, all three were outstanding corps commanders and all three had a strong bond with General McPherson.
It all went so smoothly for the Union rank and file that more than a few began to harbor the notion that McPherson could march unopposed into Atlanta that very Wednesday. That was Sherman’s expectation. At noon he received a cavalry report insisting that the Confederate army had evacuated Atlanta and that demoralized Confederate militia was all that remained there. That afternoon Sherman learned that report was totally erroneous. The Army of the Ohio was victimized by an artillery barrage as they crept toward Atlanta. Southern prisoners brought inside Union lines confirmed that a corps opposed them. General Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland came under attack at 4:00 P.M. in an engagement called the Battle of Peachtree Creek. Two different corps of Confederate infantry battled the army for hours, launching attacks up the center and attempting to strike the flanks of the Army of the Cumberland.14
Unable to advance from the north and northeast, Sherman counted on General McPherson and the Army of the Tennessee to find a weakness in the Confederate defense. Sherman accounted for all of the corps belonging to the Confederate Army of Tennessee. McPherson’s men should not be opposed by a significant force, but Sherman’s intelligence had failed him before and it surely would again. However, one bit of intelligence became very important to him and confirmed rumors that had trickled into the lines. Sherman had known since Tuesday, July 19, that Joseph Eggleston Johnston no longer was in charge of the Army of Tennessee. He had been ousted by Confederate President Jefferson Davis two days earlier. “It is true Johnston is relieved and gone east,” Sherman assured a subordinate; “I have seen a copy of his order of farewell to his troops. Hood is in command and at Atlanta.”15
General John Bell Hood had become the fourth commander of the Army of Tennessee in seven months, rising from corps command where he had led throughout the Atlanta campaign. Hood had earned laurels for one facet of warfare—he was a tenacious combat officer. Hood made his mark and a name for himself in the Army of Northern Virginia fighting under General Robert E. Lee in 1862 and 1863 where he sparkled on the offensive at Gaines’s Mill, Manassas, Antietam, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga. Whether the battle was a Confederate win or loss, Hood’s attacks were memorable for their ferocity and impact. On three battlefields, Hood’s assaults were so decisive as to produce or assure a Confederate victory. No one leading troops for the North or the South, whether serving in the East or the West, hit an opponent harder than John Bell Hood.
That fearless skill on the offensive fueled Hood’s meteoric rise of four grades from colonel to brigadier general to major general to lieutenant general and to the top Confederate rank of general—all in just a little over two years. He could also claim the youngest age to earn his final two ranks, having celebrated his thirty-third birthday at the end of June. On the other hand, Hood’s aggressiveness paid a heavy toll on his body. His right arm had been shattered by shrapnel at Gettysburg. He was able to keep it from the surgeon’s amputating saw, but the limb was limp and lifeless. His entire left leg was gone—including the thigh—a necessary loss to save his life after a Yankee bullet shattered his femur at Chickamauga. Nearly 8 out of every 10 soldiers who had their leg surgically removed at the hip like Hood did died from complications of the procedure. Hood’s death-defying feat was only matched by his ability to resume command in just six months.
When Hood returned from his Chickamauga wound to field duty in March he left the Army of Northern Virginia and came to the Army of Tennessee in Dalton, Georgia. He was welcomed into the army for leading an assault in Longstreet’s command at the Battle of Chickamauga that turned the Union flank and achieved the Confederate victory that day. That assault produced the grievous leg wound that made Hood a hero, albeit a crippled one. Although fitted with an artificial leg, Hood could only walk with crutches, which were difficult to use because of his useless arm. Aides needed to tend to his personal needs. They also needed to strap him to his saddle where he remained for hours as he led the corps he earned for his years of sacrifice and achievement. Ironically, it was General Johnston who put a good word in to bring the hero into his army, “Hood is much wanted here.”16
Hood’s war wounds did not appear to diminish his zeal for carnage and mayhem but the troops he commanded could not match up to the awesome performances of his Texas brigade in 1862 and the divisions he commanded in 1863. He counterpunched fluidly at Resaca, Georgia, preserving Johnston’s right flank in mid-May, but the punch was landed too weakly by one of his divisions to roll up the Union flank as Johnston had intended. Hood severely punished part of Thomas’s army for haphazard attacks made upon his corps at New Hope Church, Georgia, ten days later. Hood’s offensive prowess was entirely lacking at Kolb’s Farm, Georgia, in the third week of June. There, Hood’s two-division assault was easily brushed away by a division of the Army of the Cumberland, which inflicted 1,500 casualties upon Hood while suffering relatively few losses (250) on the defensive. Either Hood was losing his touch, or the subordinate division and brigade commanders failed to share his passion for the assault, or other circumstances, such as a stronger and wary opponent, were conspiring to neutralize his forte on those Georgia killing fields.
None of that mattered by July, for according to President Davis, Johnston “failed to arrest the advance of the enemy to the vicinity of Atlanta” and the War Department had lost confidence in him. Again, Hood’s Chickamauga wound appeared to aid him in the decision to replace Johnston. Hood had convalesced from his amputation for a time in Richmond late in 1863, where the blond-haired hero was treated well. There he continued to woo “Buck” (Sally Buchanan Preston), a South Carolina belle who caught Hood’s eye and heart back in 1862. She loved to flirt, but she did not love Hood. Still, he managed to get a tacit acceptance of his marriage proposal, an agreement that would disintegrate within a year. Perhaps Hood had an inkling of her teasing nature. He found an outlet to his needs by frequently visiting a young prostitute, a teenager who must have been aware of Hood’s courtship with the beautiful “Buck” when she wrote, “I wondered why he came here, when he could get all he wanted free.”17
Hood’s dalliances with the fairer sex did not prevent him from endearing himself to the person that mattered the most in Richmond: President Jefferson Davis. He had met Davis frequently during his convalescence and grew beyond his 6'2" frame in the President’s already approving eyes. Physically, Hood was no longer the imposing figure that helped Lee defend Richmond in 1862. His shoulders no longer appeared so broad and his chest was not as thick, both a consequence of that crippled right arm. The uniform was always ill-fitting, making Hood appear like “a raw boned, country-looking man” or “like a raw backwoodsman.” Moreover, his face remained long and sad, although his booming voice was still melodious and rich in tone, and those blue eyes still were as penetrating as ever, kindly and expressive all at the same time. The few photographs taken of him darkened his features when in actuality his tawny beard and brown hair were so light as to be described as blond.18
Hood could not impress Davis with his brilliance because he was not a brilliant man. He ranked in the bottom fifth of his West Point class of 1853, far below General Schofield and forty-three notches below James McPherson (the head of that class), but Hood’s battlefield performances outshone the class star. That and his heroic injuries impressed Davis who sent Hood to Georgia in 1864 with a rank of lieutenant general, the youngest commander in the Confederacy to hold that distinction. On July 17, Hood was promoted again to the highest Confederate rank of general, although that was noted to be a temporary rank, it was one sure to stand if Hood could somehow save Atlanta and expel the opposition from its tightening grip on the beleaguered city. In choosing him, President Davis did not consider Hood’s unproven skills as a strategist or whether or not he could handle the reams of paperwork and communicate well with his subordinates—all traits required for success by army commanders. None of that seemed to matter at that point. Davis cast his lot with Hood because he knew he would attack and not retreat. Hood’s promotion sent a message to him, his subordinates, and his opponents that the army was not going to give up Atlanta without a fight.
On Wednesday, July 20, Hood spent his third day as commander of the Army of Tennessee doing exactly what was expected of him by his president—attacking the enemy to keep them from closing in upon Atlanta. He inherited General Johnston’s command on July 17, a force that could rightfully boast seven weeks earlier to be one of the largest armies ever fielded by the Confederacy in the three-year-old war. Back then the army approached 80,000 officers and men present for duty, but Johnston lost significant numbers of troops as he ceded 100 miles of Georgia to General Sherman. He lost a higher percentage of men killed, wounded, and captured on the defensive than did Sherman, who had sparred with him since early May. The addition of Georgia militia failed to significantly offset those losses; still, Hood inherited a significant and skilled force that numbered close to 63,000 soldiers in his infantry, cavalry, artillery, and militia. Hood’s Army of Tennessee was the largest Confederate army on the continent on July 20, 1864, larger than Robert E. Lee’s dwindling numbers facing the Union Army of the Potomac 450 miles north of them at Petersburg, Virginia.19
The Army of Tennessee was torn between its ardor for its former commander and its dissatisfaction with the conduct of the campaign to that point. Grumbling within the ranks was palpable over the previous month as Johnston continued to fall back through northern Georgia. Most soldiers who wrote an opinion were distraught to see Johnston go, but Hood was not considered a source of despair for those writing within days of the command change. Quite the contrary, he was a source of hope for a change of direction and fortune. One soldier claimed that all were “perfectly satisfied” with Hood as their new commander. He could hardly speak for everyone, but even some Johnston men, like Captain Samuel Kelly, confessed that he did not object to Hood’s ascent to command “and hope it is for the best.” It was the most ardent Johnston supporters who were dumbfounded by his dismissal and also distraught at Hood’s ascent to the top of the command. “Hood is the most unpopular Gen’l in the Army and some of the troops are swearing that they will not serve under him,” revealed Lieutenant Robert Gill of the 41st Mississippi the day he learned that Johnston was gone. That same day (July 18) Martin Van Buren Oldham scrawled in his diary, “Hood’s fighting quality, as demonstrated by his total disregard for human sacrifice, does by no means suit the men.” That Tennessee soldier well realized why Hood replaced Johnston, closing his daily entry by easily predicting, “Gen. Hood will probably teach the army other tactics than fortifying.”20
Hood sensed the low morale and insisted that battle victories were the perfect antidote. Charged with the responsibility to protect Atlanta from Union invasion, Hood saw the adverse outcome as inevitable unless he could deliver a devastating blow to Sherman. The first opportunity arose Wednesday July 20 as Hood studied Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland as it crossed Peachtree Creek, a northwesterly flowing tributary of the Chattahoochee. “Feeling it impossible to hold Atlanta without giving battle, I determined to strike the enemy while attempting to cross this stream,” reported Hood, stressing that his objective was “to crush Thomas’ army before he could fortify himself, and then turn upon Schofield and McPherson.” To destroy Thomas he planned on hitting him with two of his corps to drive him over Peachtree Creek and trap him between the stream and the Chattahoochee River while the third Confederate corps—his former command—kept Schofield in place northeast of Atlanta. If he failed to destroy or irreparably wound the Army of the Cumberland, Hood realized his chances to turn the campaign around would suffer severely.
He failed. The Battle of Peachtree Creek began at 4:00 P.M. (three hours later than initially planned), and despite some early success against the center of Thomas’s army, Hood’s two attacking corps failed to throw the enemy across Peachtree Creek. Vigorous assaults were initiated by the corps of Major General Alexander P. Stewart, but Hood seethed that his other attacking corps, commanded by Lieutenant General William J. Hardee, “failed to push the attack.” Two hours and fifteen minutes later, Hood called off the battle when he rightfully convinced himself that the opportunity for success had come and gone. Thomas’s defense cost him 1,500 killed and wounded men, attesting to the vigor of the Southern attack, but Hood’s casualties reached 2,500 without appreciable gain on the battlefield.21
Unknown to General Hood was that by initiating the Battle of Peachtree Creek, he upset Sherman’s plans for General Thomas to order his troops to “push hard for Atlanta, sweeping everything before them.” Sending that message to Thomas half an hour before Hood launched his attack, Sherman was looking for a quick and simultaneous assault upon the outer defenses of Atlanta. With Thomas under continuous assaults throughout the late afternoon, and Schofield opposed by a larger corps of Confederates, Sherman looked to McPherson to break the stalemate. Based on the limited number of troops Hood had to protect Atlanta, Sherman realized that of the three armies under his command, the Army of the Tennessee must be opposed by the fewest number of Southerners and the lowest number of cannons. No one could blame Sherman if McPherson’s earlier vacillation at Resaca invaded his thoughts. If it did, that would be McPherson’s opportunity for redemption.22
McPherson’s army advanced from Decatur, Georgia (due east of Atlanta), with two corps marching westward on parallel roads. The XV Corps followed the line of the Decatur road and the Georgia Railroad while the XVII Corps attempted to keep pace on a more tortuous farm road off the left flank of the XV Corps. The undersized XVI Corps, all of four brigades, took up the reserve role and marched in the rear. McPherson’s supply train, over 1,000 wagons, remained in an established park near Decatur.23
Early in the afternoon McPherson’s men struck a line of Confederates who opened fire upon them with a battery from a belt of woods a half mile west of a north-south road known for the Clay residence off to the side of it. Major General Frank Blair’s corps, the XVII, was hit by that barrage. Blair’s men faced off against Hood’s cavalry corps, approximately 2,500 horse soldiers commanded by Major General Joseph Wheeler. Wheeler was a Georgian and only twenty-seven-years old but had come under enemy fire so often in the war that he would eventually tally three wounds, sixteen horses shot out from under him, and thirty-six staff officers who caught lead probably intended for him.
To counter Wheeler’s guns, Blair called up two batteries, the 15th Ohio and 1st Minnesota Light Artillery. A heavier-than-expected artillery duel followed in that sector, one that imbued a lasting effect on the artillerists engaged. Thomas D. Christie, a Minnesotan working one of the cannons, declared, “I never want to see shells fly thicker than they did at us there.… Four of our fancy horses were killed, & another wounded, three of them by our shell, which burst under the Limber, throwing splinters & gravel right in the Captain’s face.” In less than an hour the two Union batteries overpowered the lone Confederate battery and Blair’s men knocked Wheeler’s defenders back to a ridge line 2 miles east of Atlanta, dominated by a treeless eminence known as Bald Hill.24
Wheeler was attempting to make a stand as Hood launched the Battle of Peachtree Creek. Hood’s army was essentially arrayed in an arc that partially ringed Atlanta and covered approaches north and east. (If Atlanta was the center of the face of the clock, the Confederate army was aligned from 11 o’clock to 3 o’clock.) Wheeler was Hood’s right flank, a position made more important as the afternoon waned while Hood battled Thomas on his left. If Wheeler was driven into Atlanta, Hood risked the threat of one of Sherman’s armies at his rear as he attempted to drive two others away from his front. Furthermore, Wheeler protected the right flank of Hood’s infantry—Hood’s old corps commanded by Major General Benjamin Franklin Cheatham—that extended to the east-west Georgia Railroad to prevent the advance of the Army of the Ohio against it.
If Wheeler was forced from the ridge south of Cheatham and the railroad, Hood’s army could be rolled up counterclockwise from the railroad. That not only was unacceptable; it would be disastrous to Hood’s defense of the city. Trying to oversee the battle on each side of his arc of defense, Hood was unable to spare any infantry from his three corps to support Wheeler. He sent up more cavalry to boost his numbers up to 3,500. It was up to his cavalry chief to hold on and stave off the Union infantry and artillery opposing him. Wheeler got his men on the high ground, but he was outnumbered two to one by the available troops of Blair’s corps, and five to one if the generally unopposed XV Corps was sent after Wheeler. If General McPherson pushed his attack like Sherman expected him to, Wheeler stood no chance against the weight of Union manpower and the strength of artillery fired by the Army of the Tennessee. Throwing Wheeler back into Atlanta would open the ground for McPherson to claim, place artillery on those enticing heights, and unravel Hood’s entire defense. “If we can soon dislodge the enemy from the hill,” wrote McPherson to Sherman that afternoon, “I will press my whole line forward and ascertain the exact state of affairs.” That was the moment to redeem the lost opportunity at Resaca back on May 9.25
McPherson refused to throw caution to the wind, and he was hampered by those unforeseen circumstances on battlefields that conspired against the armies fighting there. His army crawled at the time when Sherman desired a full, hard press against any enemy troops in front. By the middle of the afternoon, McPherson was advancing close to 20,000 troops (with at least 5,000 more in reserve) within striking distance of an opponent of under 4,000 men yet it appeared he was doing as little as possible to strike. It was Resaca all over again with nearly the same number of troops opposing each other.
The XV Corps infantry enjoyed an unimpeded advance with its right moving on the Decatur road and Georgia Railroad (two routes so close that at times they occupied the same roadbed). Yet, McPherson never called upon any of its divisions or brigades to assist the XVII Corps. Only the artillery saw activity that day. As soon as he caught a view of the buildings in Atlanta just two and a half miles west of him, Major General John A. Logan ordered one of his batteries to unlimber and symbolically fire the first shots into the city. The cannons chosen belonged to Captain Francis H. De Gress’s Battery H, 1st Illinois Light Artillery. De Gress deployed his 4 Parrott rifles on elevated ground and sent twenty-pound rounds arcing into Atlanta. The shells exploded in the square in front of City Hall and at the great railroad depot (called the Car Shed). Twenty-five years later came the claim that De Gress’s battery killed a young girl near the corner of Ellis and Ivy Streets, a tragedy that escaped the newspapers and diaries in Atlanta during the summer of 1864.26
While De Gress’s artillerists hurled rounds unopposed, another XV Corps battery was horrified—“for one mortal hour” as described by its captain, William H. Gay—as Confederate artillerists attached to Cheatham’s corps harassed it with converging fire from a mere 500 yards. For reasons unknown, Gay had been ordered not to return fire, so there his silent guns stood as 7 men and numerous horses in his Iowa battery were killed and wounded. “It was indeed a trying hour,” lamented Captain Gay.27
Union Brigadier General Walter Q. Gresham personally suffered a more trying hour than did Captain Gay. His day started out cheerfully. Writing a short letter from Decatur to his worried wife back home, Gresham assuaged her with optimism, “Be of good cheer. A good time is coming. We will soon be through.”28 General Wheeler’s stubborn stand stole Gresham’s cheer. Gresham’s division of two brigades belonged to the XVII Corps; it was the principal engaged force throughout the afternoon of July 20. General Blair with another division at hand had yet to provide Gresham any assistance, nor did General McPherson who had two more corps at his disposal. Slowly Gresham had gained ground throughout the sweltering afternoon, but was unable to push Wheeler’s dismounted cavalry from Bald Hill and the ridge line running northward from it. He sent one brigade under the command of Colonel Benjamin F. Potts forward in line of battle to a point about 400 yards east of that hill. Potts advanced his men to the cover of the banks of a creek ravine where he halted his men and awaited orders.
Gresham had a trying time that late afternoon and although his 50 killed and wounded men were much smaller losses compared to most battles, he was suffering the only significant casualties of the day for the Army of the Tennessee. Seeking an end to the harassment, he rode up behind the ravine hiding Potts and his brigade, dismounted and walked toward his skirmish line in front of the Confederate battery. He never made it. A rebel bullet tore into his lower left leg and shattered his tibia, dropping Gresham immediately. He was quickly tended to and borne from the field on a litter. Gresham’s leg was saved from amputation, but his Civil War career ended that day.29
Gresham’s wound should not have ended the day’s action. Replaced temporarily but immediately by Colonel William Hall, who had commanded the Iowa brigade in the division, the division remained in position and was soon reinforced by elements of Brigadier General Mortimer Leggett’s division, which Blair ordered up to support Hall’s left. One brigade arrived and protected the Iowa flank by extending it and facing southward. McPherson rode upon the scene urging Blair to drive the Confederates off the hill. Leggett rode back to his command to prepare them for the assault. At the same time an officer was sent forward to scout out the extent of Wheeler’s line atop Bald Hill. He returned shortly and notified the generals that the line of enemy troops abruptly stopped just south of the hill. An aide to General Leggett rode up to the commanding generals, saluted them, and asked, “General Blair, General Leggett wishes to know if he shall attack the enemy in his front.”30
McPherson was instantly consumed by the caution that last overtook him at Resaca ten weeks earlier. He was swiftly arriving to the conclusion that there was not enough daylight for him to complete the job on July 20. He needed much more than the expected two hours that remained. The general practice adopted by both sides throughout the war was not to fight after dark; the few times that was attempted had proved ineffective and sometimes disastrous. Night time was for preparing for morning action, perhaps for some skirmishing and marching, but usually for rest and repose. McPherson decided to postpone his assault of Bald Hill until Thursday morning. Wheeler had figuratively dodged another bullet; Hood’s right was preserved.31
As afternoon waned to evening, Sherman could not hide his frustration. He was surprised to learn rather late of Hood’s attacks on Thomas and accepted the fact that Thomas could not counterpunch with only a few hours of daylight remaining. Directly in front of him, a Confederate division also showed its artillery strength against the Army of the Ohio. Shortly after 6:00 P.M. Sherman asserted, “I will push Schofield and McPherson all I know how,” but two hours passed without the push he so desperately sought. Sherman assured General Thomas that he would urge McPherson onward, “but [I] think the opportunity on that flank if it did exist is now past.”32
By nightfall the opportunity had indeed passed and Sherman was forced to plan for tomorrow. He fielded a report from McPherson, describing the day’s events with a dispatch that read as an elaborate excuse. McPherson described the wounding of General Gresham, the difficulty of advancing along the terrain, and an enemy armed with Enfield carbines and four pieces of artillery, but McPherson also admitted that he endured a day that ended with very light casualties, and that only enemy cavalry opposed his left flank. (Several hundred militia were in supporting distance of Wheeler but were not ever called upon.) The dispatch revealed a day of failure, for from the moment of first contact with Wheeler, McPherson had barely deployed one of his three corps against it and at the end of the day Wheeler had remained on his high perch, most certainly destined to be reinforced overnight.33
Sherman soaked up the events of the day and realized that Hood was going to be as tough a fighter as defined by his reputation. That made the results of the day so unsettling, so unsatisfying. Receiving McPherson’s excuse-laden dispatch made matters worse, but Sherman swallowed most of his disappointment and let the rest flow from his pen in the form of a mild reprimand, a way of putting in writing his Resaca exclamation, “Well Mac, you missed the opportunity of a lifetime!” He rebuked McPherson by writing, “I was in hopes you could have made a closer approach to Atlanta,” highlighting the expectation that he opposed a weaker force and shorter earthworks than would be revealed by daylight, when Hood’s reinforced right would come into view. He ordered McPherson to press the Confederate right, in front of his army, reinforced or not, in an attempt to gain ground for easy artillery range to the inner works ringing Atlanta. Sherman also revealed that because of the expected heavy losses Hood suffered in the Battle of Peachtree Creek, “I would not be astonished to find him off in the morning, but I see no signs looking that way yet.”
Nor would he. Hood was not going to abandon his defense and Sherman knew it. Hood’s reputation, his past history, and his demeanor suggested just the opposite—a fact Sherman could not avoid in passing while writing McPherson’s attack order, “Hood proposes to Hold Atlanta to the death.”34
“Death” was destined to be the operative word.
Copyright © 2010 by Gary Ecelbarger
Meet the Author
GARY ECELBARGER is a Civil War historian and has conducted several tours of the Atlanta Campaign battlefields. He has written or co-written eight books, including The Great Comeback: How Abraham Lincoln Beat the Odds to Win the 1860 Republican Nomination, along with biographies of Civil War generals "Black Jack" Logan and Frederick W. Lander and military histories of the Shenendoah Valley campaign and the First Battle of Kernstown. He lives in northern Virginia with his wife and three children.
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