The Battle of Ezra Church was one of the deadliest engagements in the Atlanta Campaign of the Civil War and continues to be one of the least understood. Both official and unofficial reports failed to illuminate the true bloodshed of the conflict: one of every three engaged Confederates was killed or wounded, including four generals. Nor do those reports acknowledge the flaws—let alone the ultimate failure—of Confederate commander John Bell Hood’s plan to thwart Union general William Tecumseh Sherman’s southward advance. In an account that refutes and improves upon all other interpretations of the Battle of Ezra Church, noted battle historian Gary Ecelbarger consults extensive records, reports, and personal accounts to deliver a nuanced hour-by-hour overview of how the battle actually unfolded. His narrative fills in significant facts and facets of the battle that have long gone unexamined, correcting numerous conclusions that historians have reached about key officers’ intentions and actions before, during, and after this critical contest. Eleven troop movement maps by leading Civil War cartographer Hal Jespersen complement Ecelbarger’s analysis, detailing terrain and battle maneuvers to give the reader an on-the-ground perspective of the conflict. With new revelations based on solid primary-source documentation, Slaughter at the Chapel is the most comprehensive treatment of the Battle of Ezra Church yet written, as powerful in its implications as it is compelling in its moment-to-moment details.
|Publisher:||University of Oklahoma Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Gary Ecelbarger is the award-winning author of seven books on the Civil War era, including The Day Dixie Died: The Battle of Atlanta and Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester, and is coauthor of three others. He has served as a historical consultant for battlefield interpretation in the Shenandoah Valley and has worked for twenty years as a symposium speaker and historical tour guide throughout the country.
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Slaughter at the Chapel
The Battle of Ezra Church, 1864
By Gary Ecelbarger
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
Sherman and His Army
Major General William Tecumseh Sherman awoke on Sunday morning, July 24, 1864, in command of a camp of 94,000 troops — a population greater than the tenth-largest city in America at that time. The red-headed, chain-smoking, forty-four-year-old mayor of this mobile metropolis had successfully led his infantry, artillery, and cavalry a hundred miles through northern Georgia, contested for more than half that mileage by an opponent that had stripped more than 20,000 residents from Sherman's city of blue. For Sherman the campaign had been hard fought, particularly during the past seven days, his first complete week on the southern side of the Chattahoochee River. But he could take solace in the fact that as he labored to choke off Atlanta from its supply lines, his command — the Military Division of the Mississippi — was assured a flowing lifeline of resources from Tennessee and the northern Georgia countryside.
Sherman's push was the only aspect of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant's four-pronged plan for simultaneous movements across all major arenas east of Tennessee that might achieve its objective before summer's end. The behemoth Army of the Potomac — accompanied by Grant himself — was locked in a siege against General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia south of Richmond at Petersburg, Virginia. Grant held a numerical advantage over Lee, but their isolated contest was destined to drag into 1865. The Army of the Potomac naturally gained the attention of Lincoln's war machine in Washington, feeding it timely reports throughout the brutal Overland Campaign, which preceded the siege of Petersburg.
Two other Union offensives had met with disappointing and disastrous results. Major General Benjamin Butler had won early success moving up the James River toward Richmond, but he and his Army of the James entered the final week of July in the same aggravating position Major General George B. McClellan had found himself exactly two years earlier — neutralized on the James River with virtually no chance to capture the Confederate capital from the east. Butler's disappointment was a success compared to Union fortunes in the Shenandoah Valley, however, which realized their nadir on July 24. There — more specifically at Kernstown, Virginia — Major General George Crook suffered a battlefield rout that eventually swept his entire army out of the belly of the Shenandoah Valley and opened a path for Confederates to invade Pennsylvania and burn the town of Chambersburg nearly to the ground.
This left Sherman and his 94,000 Westerners to meet their objective before summer's end and thereby justify the bloodiest twelve-week stretch of the Civil War, a period during which the Union had endured more than 110,000 soldiers stripped from its ranks (killed, wounded, captured, or missing) across Virginia and Georgia. Leading the only major offensive outside the state of Virginia, the home of the Confederate capital, Sherman had achieved the most success and stood less than three miles from the object of his campaign — the city of Atlanta.
Atlanta's rail systems distinguished it from all other cities within the Confederate interior. Although its 10,000 citizens rendered it unremarkable in size, those rail networks carried troops and supplies from the uncontested Deep South to all contested theaters within the Confederacy. By the end of July's third week, Sherman controlled two of the four railroads leading to and from Atlanta. He craftily kept control of the Western and Atlantic (W&A) Railroad to continuously supply all two- and four-legged members of his army group with over two hundred tons of foodstuffs per day as he marched his men, mules, and horses from Chattanooga to the crossings of the Chattahoochee. Beginning on July 18, Sherman's men gained control of the Georgia Railroad (also called the Augusta Railroad), which blocked all supplies to the "Gate City" from the east. Six days of U.S. ownership produced a fifty-mile swath of destroyed railroad, the iron in several places heated and then twisted around tree trunks to form "Sherman's Neckties."
As his infantry gained control of the Georgia Railroad, Sherman's horse soldiers removed a third railroad from immediate Confederate use. Major General Lovell H. Rousseau led 2,500 Union cavalry on a sweeping mission into Alabama and then eastward to strike the Atlanta & West Point Railroad one hundred miles southwest of Atlanta. Rousseau's men destroyed the depot at Opelika and tore up thirty-three miles of this vital line on July 17, as well as three additional miles of a connecting railroad, before returning to Marietta on July 22. Although Union troops had no continuous presence on this line as they did the Georgia and W&A railroads, Sherman believed Rousseau's extensive damage "cut off Alabama for a month."
This left but one unobstructed railroad into Atlanta: the Macon & Western line, a ribbon of iron running eighty-five miles southeastward from Atlanta to Macon, Georgia, where other Southern lines ran east, west, and south. If Sherman was unable to capture Atlanta by direct advance, his next objective would be to seize control of the remaining two Confederate rail lines (including the Atlanta & West Point), either most efficiently at East Point, where the two Southern rail lines conjoined four miles southwest of Atlanta, or on a wider arc by capturing the southwest and southeast lines separately.
Over the previous three days Sherman had attempted to penetrate Atlanta with his three armies. On July 20 Major General George H. Thomas and his Army of the Cumberland withstood aggressive Confederate attacks north of Atlanta near the bank of Peachtree Creek. Thomas and his men successfully parried those charges, but lost 2,100 officers and men in the vicious contest. Although Thomas won that battle, the aggressiveness of the Confederates caused Sherman to resist continuing a full army advance from the north. On July 21 Sherman tried to take Atlanta from the east by advancing his former command, the Army of the Tennessee, and overwhelming what he thought would be meager resistance. The Confederate defense proved much stronger than expected, stopping Sherman's army after a brief advance, then surprising it with near lethal attacks the next day.
Sherman's men hung on strongly enough to rightfully claim victory on July 22, but, just like the action at Peachtree Creek, Sherman would not attempt a direct penetration into Atlanta from this direction. The result of the three consecutive days of battle was 8,500 casualties inflicted upon his opponent (Sherman erroneously thought losses were much higher than this), but at a cost of 6,500 officers and men in blue uniform, including an army commander. Sherman's seven infantry corps — 76,500 foot soldiers and their officers — covered a four-mile arc from three miles due east of Atlanta to three miles due north of the city, and for the next two days they remained in place with nowhere to go. The infantry was flanked by most of Sherman's 12,000 cavalrymen and buttressed by 5,500 artillerists manning 250 guns.
Sherman moved his headquarters to center himself safely behind his force. Through July 23, he had occupied the two-story home of Augustus Hurt, which crowned a knoll one mile north of the Georgia Railroad, but on Sunday Sherman relocated to a large white house on the road to Marietta. There he devised a new plan of maneuver to get to the railroads south of the city. He revealed the outlines of his plan to Major General Henry Halleck in Washington. "As soon as my cavalry rests," Sherman explained, "I propose to swing the Army of the Tennessee round by the right rapidly and interpose between Atlanta and Macon, the only line open to the enemy."
Throughout the campaign for Atlanta, Sherman reserved the role of rapid movement to his former command, the Army of the Tennessee. For the first month of the campaign, this army was lighter, with only two of its three corps in the field. Less than half the size of Thomas's Army of the Cumberland at that time and more substantial than the single corps that composed Major General John Schofield's Army of the Ohio, the Army of the Tennessee was large enough and compact enough for flanking maneuvers in northern Georgia. After the XVII Corps arrived at the end of May, Sherman still used it on wide swinging maneuvers, such as crossing the Chattahoochee River in mid-July, solidifying the army's nickname as "The Whip-snapper." By July 24 the Army of the Tennessee was so thinned by battle losses that the three corps composing it numbered 23,000 infantrymen — smaller in size than the two corps that had begun campaigning eleven weeks earlier.
The army suffered a Civil War rarity in its victory east of Atlanta on July 22 — the loss of its leader. Major General James B. McPherson's 150-plus-pound body was stilled by an ounce of rebel lead in the early afternoon of that battle. General Sherman thus lost a steady presence and a dear army friend. "History tells us of but few who so blended the grace and gentleness of the friend with the dignity, courage, faith and manliness of the soldier," wrote Sherman in announcing McPherson's death to the U.S. War Department; "those whom he commanded loved him to idolatry, and I, his associate and commander, fail in words adequate to express my opinion of his great worth." McPherson was the only major general in command of a Union army to be killed in battle during the entire Civil War.
McPherson had led the Army of the Tennessee for all but the latest forty-eight hours of the Atlanta Campaign. Major General John A. Logan was its newest commander and the first leader since U. S. Grant to claim a birthright to the force stemming from the summer of 1861 when the nucleus of the army occupied the southern tip of Illinois. "Black Jack" Logan (his nom de guerre derived from his swarthy complexion) was thirty-eight years old in the summer of 1864, and until the early afternoon of July 22, he had ridden at the helm of the XV Corps, which Sherman himself had led through the Vicksburg Campaign the summer before.
Logan entered the war as a fighting politician in the most literal way. As a U.S. congressman representing Illinois's Ninth Congressional District, Logan was viewing a skirmish preceding the First Battle of Manassas in July 1861 when the action forced him to act. He took a rifle from a shirking soldier and peeled away from the gaggle of politicians watching the battle with him. Rushing to the banks of Bull Run, he crouched and fired in the clothes of a congressman. One month later he donned Union blue with a colonel's insignia on his shoulders. Logan commanded the 31st Illinois Infantry, a regiment consisting of several hundred of his former political constituents from southern Illinois. A severe shoulder wound received in the fight for Fort Donelson in the winter of 1862 forced Logan to miss the Battle of Shiloh, but he returned to Grant's army (which had not yet been named for the Tennessee River) as a brigadier general. A year later, in February 1863, Grant successfully won a new commission for Logan, this one as major general in charge of a division of his army. "There is not a more patriotic soldier, braver man, or one more deserving of promotion in the Dept. than Gen. Logan," wrote Grant to Lincoln to seal Logan's promotion.
Major General Logan earned Grant's faith in his leadership in the subsequent campaign for Vicksburg in the spring and summer of 1863. He was the field commander of record for the Union victory at the Battle of Raymond on May 12, and he led the shock troops that turned the tide of the Battle of Champion Hill in favor of the Union four days later. Grant was so impressed with Logan's performance on the Champion Hill battlefield that he told an aide in the midst of Logan's division-sized assault, "Go down to Logan and tell him he is making history today." On the Fourth of July, when the Confederates surrendered Vicksburg to Grant, he awarded Logan the post of honor to lead victorious Union troops into the newly captured city. Logan's leadership throughout the campaign could not elevate his rank, but it did gain him more responsibility. When Grant moved east with his promotion to lieutenant general in March 1864, Sherman immediately ascended from command of the Army of the Tennessee to assume Grant's former role at the helm of the Military Division of the Mississippi, and Logan rose to corps command to head the XV Corps in McPherson's army. (McPherson had led the XVII Corps during the Vicksburg Campaign.)
Logan's performance commanding Sherman's former corps during the first two months of the Atlanta Campaign could be assessed as competent at its worst and spectacular at its best. At Resaca, on May 14, he superintended an efficient and daring assault to capture and hold the only real estate Union troops took from the Confederates after two hard days of battle. Two weeks later, at the Battle of Dallas, he single-handedly overturned a rout of a large portion of his corps by racing his horse into the maelstrom, a feat that inspired his men to bravery and ultimate victory. The foot soldiers reversed their retreating steps to reclaim their lost ground, recapture lost cannons, and punish the reeling Confederates, who could not absorb the counterstrike. The rebels suffered over 1,000 casualties to the resurgent XV Corps, which suffered one-third as many losses in their surprising victory.
The Battle of Dallas brightened Logan's star, both in the eyes of his troops and in those of the Northern populace. The latter saw Logan in this battle through the work of a sketch artist for Harper's Weekly Illustrated Newspaper. Logan's troops maintained that the artist could not do Logan justice. "No one can describe how Logan looked in battle any more than he could describe the raging sea," raved an Iowan who watched Logan's exploits in that battle, adding: "I am satisfied that the biggest coward in the world would stand on his head on top of the breastworks if Logan was present and told him to do so."
Logan topped the Dallas exploit eight weeks later at the Battle of Atlanta. Barely an hour had elapsed from the time that Logan replaced the martyred McPherson on the battlefield when the XV Corps, manning the northern sector of the Union defense, came under a withering assault from General John B. Hood's old corps, commanded that day by Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham. Logan, atop a pitch-black warhorse he named "Slasher," raced to the scene from the middle of the battlefield, rallying dispirited infantrymen in the same fashion as at Dallas. Together they sealed the breach in the XV Corps line by outmuscling Confederate troops and forcing them westward, leaving four cannons they had captured behind to be reclaimed by Ohio troops. (It was a moment that would be captured for posterity twenty years later in what was then the world's largest oil painting, the Atlanta Cyclorama.) Logan's exploits and his troops' reaction also secured the hard-won Union victory at the Battle of Atlanta.
In the simplest terms, Logan was a force of nature. His inspirational leadership not only produced positive results on battlefields; it created and strengthened a unique bond with his men that had not existed with previous commanders of the Army of the Tennessee. At the beginning of the Atlanta Campaign, an Illinois soldier told his diary, "I have never heard a general cheered in my life." The soldier emphasized this as a point of pride in the reserved demeanor of the Western soldier. That all changed when they saw Logan in battle. "You should have heard them cheer him," admitted the same soldier. Brigadier General Mortimer Leggett explained Logan's captivation of his troops more definitively and with years of hindsight after the war:
When General Grant would ride down our line he commanded the most thorough respect and confidence from all of us, and it was the same when General Sherman rode down our line. But when General Logan rode down the line, every voice was heard in a shout. He seemed to have the power to awaken the enthusiasm that was in the troops, to the extent that no other officer in our army seemed to possess. He would stir up their blood in battle. The manner in which he sat his horse, the manner in which he would hold his hat ... seemed to have the power to call out of the men every particle of fight that was in them.
Excerpted from Slaughter at the Chapel by Gary Ecelbarger. Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
1. Sherman and His Army,
2. Hood and His Army,
3. Prelude to Battle,
4. Vicious Volleys,
5. Battle Hill,
6. Gibson's Attack,
7. Change of Plans,
8. Walthall's Assault,
9. Final Scene,
10. Aftermath and Analysis,
A. Order of Battle,
B. Interpreting the Battle of Ezra Church through the Words of Its Chief Confederate Commanders,
C. The Ezra Church Battlefield after the Battle,