Chapter 35: Battle of Atlanta

It was observed at the dawn of July 21, 1864, that the strong Confederate outworks in my front had been abandoned; and by pushing forward in the usual way we at last came upon the principal defenses of the city of Atlanta. They were made up of small forts or redoubts, fitted for pieces of artillery, which crowned the hilly prominences that faced in all directions.

Atlanta then looked to us like a hill city defended by encircling well-fortified hills. Curtains, more or less regular, ran along connecting hill fort to hill fort. All the redoubts, or forts, and the curtains were well made under the direction of an excellent engineer. The slashings, abatis, chevaux de rise, fascines, gabions, and sand bags were all there and in use. How could we run over those things when they had plenty of cannon, mortars, and rifles behind them

Sherman brought the troops forward, advancing our lines to these obstructions, overlapping all intrenchments on our left. McPherson's army had two [4] corps in line, Logan's-facing Atlanta, and Blair'scarrying on his line bending back to its termination. Dodge's (Sixteenth Corps) was pretty well scattered; at first Sweeny's division, the Second (of Dodge), was near Logan's right. Fuller, commanding the Fourth division, only one brigade being present with General Dodge's headquarters, was encamped well back in rear of the center of the Army of the Tennessee-Sprague's brigade was guarding trains ten miles to the rear at Decatur, while the remaining brigade of the fourth division, H. J. McDowell commanding, was held as a reserve close in rear of Blair's corps. From Dodge's headquarters to Blair's left flank in a straight line was just about one mile.

Schofield's army bending westward was next to McPherson's, and Thomas's, beyond Schofield in a semicircular formation, embraced the Atlanta forts clear on to Sherman's extreme right.

As on his arrival Fuller was directed to support Blair, his force was depleted still more by having to send away, at Blair's request, pioneers and other detachments, but up to 12 M. Fuller was in that central rear position with one brigade, his trains, and Laird's Fourteenth Ohio Battery.

About eight o'clock the morning of July 22d McPherson told Dodge to send off his second division, Sweeny's, from the right of Logan to the left of the general line. The engineers were locating the left of the Seventeenth Corps, and, not being quite ready, Sweeny's division was halted en route along a road that ran nearly at right angles to Blair's position. Sweeny's head of column came near to Fuller's position. Dodge himself had been reconnoitering to find where Blair's left flank would finally rest. [5]

Blair had two divisions-Leggett commanding one and Giles A. Smith the other. The occupation of Leggett's Hill brought one division so near to Logan's corps on its right, that Blair sent Giles A. Smith with his division to guard Leggett's left and rear, stationing his men along the line of the McDonough road, with the left flank refused toward the east.

Blair knew that there was an interval of a mile, nearly all woods, between him and Dodge, except.that McPherson at the last moment had sent Wangelin's small brigade to watch that space. Sweeny had only halted till just the points he was to occupy should be determined. That halt and detention were indeed providential.

Just before noon McPherson and his staff were with Sherman at the “Howard House.” This house on some maps is called “Hart House.” It'was a large, square, white structure near the junction of Logan and Schofield.

Sherman has recorded even the subjects of conversation at this interview. As they talked they heard some skirmish firing near them toward Atlanta; suddenly there was the duller sound of distant cannon off toward Decatur; what could that mean? Sherman took out his pocket compass to test the direction. The increasing sound was too far to the left rear to be accounted for by any known facts.

So McPherson, staff, and orderlies mounted and rode off to join Dodge where he and Fuller were together.

At 12 M. Dodge was lunching with Fuller. There were a few open farms in view, but the principal environment covering that uneven region was woodland. This these officers saw as they sat down to their frugal [6] meal, not a little anxious notwithstanding the unusual calm. Surely, this isolated position behind the brave Army of the Tennessee, with the able McPherson in command, was a safer one than any Dodge had held for weeks past-when they suddenly heard this same firing.

General Blair had been with McPherson that morning, just before McPherson started to see Sherman. Blair had then gone directly to his own headquarters not far away, when about 12 M. he heard that there had been an attack upon his hospitals, and that Colonel Alexander of his staff had taken a small company of mounted infantry and had gone there to defend them.

Sweeny sent men at once to reconnoiter between him and the Seventeenth Corps. The men sent ran across some Confederates advancing in the woods.

Dodge, on Sweeny's report, immediately comprehended the situation, and ordered Sweeny to face his lines east and south; he ordered Fuller to send a regiment to cover Sweeny's right flank. Sweeny was just ready when he was surprised to see Confederates emerge from the timber. The two batteries were part of Sweeny's fighting line, and every soldier's rifle was loaded.

Fuller, without waiting for orders, had, instead of a regiment, developed his whole force to the left of Sweeny as he faced rearward. Thus Dodge with two divisions became hotly engaged.

The Confederates were terribly shaken at the first fire; but they persevered. Their very momentum carried them beyond Dodge's command, and exposed their lines to a raking fire of artillery, to which two or three regiments of riflemen sent by Dodge, getting [7] a cross fire, added the effect of their rifles. The reason for this unexpected Confederate approach is as follows:

As soon as it was dark enough to get away from Thomas's front without endangering his columns from our artillery, Hood had caused his forces to march back through the city and pass on southward on the west side of Intrenchment Creek, and cross it far below the McDonough road near Cobb's Mill. Hardee then set out with three divisions, but Cleburne, who had been all day withstanding Leggett and Giles A. Smith, fell into his column; they moved on all night. Hardee's head of column, continuing the circuit far enough from Blair to escape attention, made northing and easting enough to be within fiye miles of Decatur by sunrise.

Fifteen miles by country roads or paths, or no roads at all, in a dark night, necessarily straggled out the columns of fours. It took considerable time to close up and get in order. The pickets toward Decatur found Sprague's brigade on the alert near that little town. Hardee did not know that our Garrard was gone, and before advancing, his right and rear must be properly cleared by cavalry, so he waited a while for Wheeler. A night march doubly fatigues all troops. Hardee very properly rested and refreshed his men. His deployed front, with its left tangent to the McDonough road, faced westerly. It covered the flank and rear of McPherson's entire force.

Hardee now deliberately began his march while Hood in front of Atlanta was holding the forts and curtains opposite Thomas and Schofield, freeing Cheathamis corps that it might help Hardee when the proper moment should arrive. The blades of the [8] shears would close and crush poor McPherson's entire command. The rivet of the blades would be at Leggett's Hill.

Hardee faced a forest; he entered it where generally no one could see twenty paces before him on account of the thickets and uneven ground. On he came for over two miles. Hardee's advance encountered some of McPherson's outmost pickets-came in sight of our Colonel Alexander's brave mounted escort near Blair's hospital and met a regiment protecting the hospital. This caused the first firing heard.

After the briefest interview with Dodge, sending his officers off with orders, McPherson, with a single orderly, just then thinking that the main attack would be upon Blair's left, hurried away down the road that led that way. He was passing through the yet unoccupied interval when the Confederate advance of Cleburne's division came upon him. He lifted his hand as if to salute, and then turned to ride away, when, under a hostile volley, he was shot and fell from his horse. His orderly was wounded, and became a prisoner. McPherson had with him an important order from Sherman, which first came into the hands of a Confederate soldier; but before long, as Fuller and Wangelin cleared that ground, the soldier was captured, with all the party that had taken to themselves McPherson's immediate belongings; and the remains of the much-beloved commander were very soon secured and brought in to Sherman by Colonel Strong, his inspector general.

General Blair himself was not far from McPherson. He said: “I saw him enter the woods and heard the volley which probably killed him.” At once Blair notified Logan that McPherson was either slain [9] or a prisoner, and that Logan was the senior to command. The instant that Sherman heard of McPherson's fall he sent an order to Logan to assume command, and gave him stimulating and strengthening words.

But a little later Maney's Confederate division came against Giles A. Smith's flank and rear. Our pickets were displaced, our skirmishers driven in. The Confederates were following them in quick time, and their artillery so posted on a neighboring and very convenient ridge and so served as to add death and terror to the terrific assaults.

As his left was enveloped, Smith brought Hall's brigade, helped by Potts's, to better shelter, but lost 250 men and two field guns captured at the extreme point. It was hard maneuvering in such a storm!

Now over the south and east of these trenches, made to face the other way, the soldiers were arratged. They thus got some protection. They fired low, and as fast as they could; the enemy's ranks melted away, till scores were made to rush back to the woods. This went on till their fire was partially silenced.

General Smith sent out at once after the Confederates a strong skirmish line. It could now hold them back for a while. But there was hardly time to turn around. The attack swept in from the opposite quarter. Behind the main line of trenches, and also across the refused part, Hall's brigade was formed to face the foe, partly covered. Potts's brave men made a second line behind Hall's, without cover, and were ready to protect his left flank or to support him directly. I have never known better conduct in battle.

Again the Confederates were repulsed with heavy [10] loss or flew to the trees for shelter against the unceasing rifle shots. Again, within five minutes, the Confederates from the rear, the first repelled, animated by their officers, came bounding on. Over the works again every unwounded Union soldier leaped, and, turning, fought that way.

The enemy having the cover of the woods could in many places approach within fifteen or twenty yards of our works without discovery. Regimental commanders, with their colors, and such men as could follow them, would not infrequently occupy one side of the works and our men the other. Many individual acts of heroism here occurred. The flags of two opposing regiments met us on the opposite side of the same works, and were flaunted by their respective bearers in each other's faces. Men were bayoneted across the works, and officers with their swords fought hand to hand with men with bayonets. Colonel Belknap of the Fifteenth Ohio took prisoner Colonel Lampley of the Forty-fifth Alabama by pulling him over the works by his coat collar, being several times fired at by men at his side. The colors of his regiment were taken at the same time. The enemy's loss in this attack was very severe.

By dark the enemy here had retired, except along the line of the works, which position some of them held until nearly daylight the next morning, thus being able to get off their wounded, but leaving the ground literally strewn with their slain.

There went on a small body of Confederates, who found little to oppose them as they advanced between Scylla and Charybdis westward — not being detained by Giles A. Smith's brigade on their left, or by Wangelin or Martin more to their right — not enough, however, [11] to make a half mile of unbroken frontage, all well screened by the dense woods through which they were passing, till they came to the foot of Leggett's Hill, where Gresham had been wounded, and up which the gallant Force had successfully led his brigade against great odds the day before.

Hood, seeing Hardee's soldiers emerge from the timber and ascend the hill, triumphantly said: “Cheatham, push out your divisions and Sherman is beaten l” But, no, our men on the hill sprang over to the reverse side of the parapet, and quickly by artillery and infantry firing, coolly directed, checked that hopeful advance of Hardee.

A flanking fire from the Fifteenth Corps position, with plenty of cannon and rifle volleys, helped Leggett break this bold effort and send the venturesome Confederates immediately and rapidly back, to find the way of retreat more and more difficult.

In this emeute General Force, while trying to aid a wounded officer of his staff, received a bullet wound through his face and head that was terribly severe, but providentially his life was spared and he recovered.

Cheatham's fine corps of veterans, all in order and well rested, had already broken forward from the Atlanta front. Leggett's soldiers had had hardly time to breathe after their rapid and successful firing against that rear attack, when new enemies were scaling their Bald Hill from the Atlanta side.

It scarcely required orders to bring every soldier behind his lines of intrenchment. Early in the action many of Leggett's regiments had hastened to Giles A. Smith's aid when he was in sore need, and now Blair was able to get for Leggett all the prompt reenforcement [12] he required, so that by an obstinate resistance, somewhat prolonged, Cheatham's attacks on that “rivet” point had to fail.

Meanwhile the two left divisions of Cheatham breasted the whole front of the Fifteenth Corps, now commanded by Morgan L. Smith, and reached Hascall's division, of the Twenty-third. An outwork near the railroad on our front, held by two regiments and a section of an Illinois battery, as soon as outflanked, was given up. This demibrigade regained the main line near a cut in the railroad in good time, but the Confederates took the advantage afforded by the cut and by a building that masked their design. These obstacles wondrously helped their sharpshooters to hold their ground in that vicinage after Lightburn's division had bravely withstood the first assault.

The Confederate brigade of Manigault behind that troublesome building was compactly formed for attack; Colonel W. S. Jones was commanding the Union brigade in his front. Jones's men were occupied by the shooters from that building and elsewhere and blinded by the thick smoke of the artillery.

Like the sudden break of a dam, when the rushing water carries all before it, so that close-formed and waiting Confederate brigade left its cover and rushed down the railway cut and not only displaced Jones's front, but carried away the supporting lines and seized two of our batteries. It was the first bona fide break in Logan's front, and it afforded Cheatham a temporary triumph. During that exciting, noisy, tumultuous and eventful afternoon my own part was easy. I was constantly reminded to keep the Confederate Stewart or G. W. Smith from leaving my front. We did that. I was also to be carefully prepared to reenforce [13] Logan should he require any assistance. My Fourth Corps men were ready for that also.

As the battle came nearer, being naturally anxious, and desirous to be very prompt when Sherman should say the word, I took a few officers with me, and went over some hundred yards to Schofield's front. He had before this sent out one brigade to Decatur to help Sprague defend the trains, and Cox with two others over to be near to Dodge. Schofield and Sherman, with a few officers and orderlies, were mounted when I arrived, and standing near the Howard House then on the prolongation of Logan's line of battle. The fearful break of Logan's right front had been made.

Our troops seemed to have swung around so as to be at right angles with their proper line of battle. Captain DeGress, who had just lost his Parrott guns, was on the ground, near Sherman's stirrup. He was apparently much chagrined at his loss and eager to have them recovered before his enterprising foes could carry them off to Atlanta. This was the group. I had never till then seen Sherman with such a look on his face. His eyes flashed. He did not speak. He only watched the front. There appeared not only in his face, but in his whole pose, a concentrated fierceness. Schofield had located several batteries in an excellent position to pour spherical case and canister shot into the broken interval. All this was being carefully and rapidly done.

At the same time the grand Charles R. Woods, whose division was next to Schofield, was quietly forming his brigades at right angles to and in rear of our line. Logan was also bringing some of Harrow's division to bear from beyond them, and moving [14] up August Mersy's brigade from Dodge to replace Martin's, whose early call and march to help the leftmost battle had weakened Lightburn's front.

The cannon were making much disturbance. The smoke was often blinding and the roar deafening; such firing kept back the remainder of Cheatham's lines. Woods's men advanced steadily down the line; there was no break, no hesitation, no halt; on, on they go till the opening is reached and the continuity of Logan's line was soon restored. Every Confederate who was not made a prisoner fled toward Atlanta, and Captain DeGress, though his horses were killed during the cannonade, had the joy of recovering his big guns.

Schofield now urged Sherman to put a column on Cheatham's flank from himself and Thomas to roll up that Confederate line and so interpose between the outside Confederates and those defending the works of Atlanta. Sherman, whose face now relaxed into a pleasant mood, said: “Let the army of the Tennessee fight it out”

In the afternoon Sprague, near Decatur with his own regiments, aided by Kuhn's battalion of mounted infantry, handsomely repulsed Wheeler's vigorous cavalry and artillery attacks and saved all the trains under his care from capture or damage.

Hood, at last weary, drew Hardee and Cheatham back to the shelter of the Atlanta forts, leaving havoc behind, but sweeping in some prisoners of war, some flags, and many cannon. He reported bravely to Richmond and issued orders of congratulation to his troops. He doubtless at first esteemed this bloody battle a Confederate victory. But we never so regarded this; it was indeed the main battle of Atlatta. [15]

Among the prominent officers slain was one well known to all our old army comrades, the Confederate division commander, William H. T. Walker, who fell near Dodge's line. The mourning for our favorite young commander, McPherson, was heartfelt and widespread. No patriot soldier to-day is more tenderly remembered in our land.

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