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The Georgia militia about Atlanta.

by Gustavus W. Smith, Major-General, C. S. A.
About the time that General Johnston crossed to the south of the Etowah, Governor Joseph E. Brown ordered the militia and the civil officers of the State of Georgia to assemble at Atlanta. These two classes of State officers were, by act of the Confederate Congress, exempt from conscription. Governor Brown's order was promptly obeyed, and these officers — about three thousand in number — were organized into companies, regiments, and two brigades, under the personal supervision of the Governor, by Major-General H. C. Wayne, Adjutant-General of the State. They were required to elect their own officers; and those not chosen had to take their places temporarily in the ranks. They were informed that if they were not willing to accede to this ruling, they would be deprived of their regular commissions in the State service and sent to the Confederate conscript camp. This action of Governor Brown gives a clear indication of the intense strain to which [332] the States and the general government of the Confederacy were then being subjected. It will be seen later, that when General Johnston's army approached still closer to Atlanta, Governor Brown called into active service the old men of the State up to the age of fifty-five, and the boys down to sixteen years, armed in great part with flint-lock muskets, ordinary rifles, and shot-guns, and ordered them to report to me for service in the field.

Immediately after the two classes of State officers were organized, the Governor tendered their services to General Johnston, reserving the right, however, to withdraw them from the Confederate service whenever the interests of the State should require it. Their services were accepted on these terms, and General Wayne was ordered to report to General Johnston. The latter directed the larger portion of General Wayne's command to guard the crossings of the Chattahoochee River from Roswell to West Point, the distance being nearly one hundred miles. About one thousand men were left in camp of instruction near Atlanta.

A short time after, in order that General Wayne might resume his duties as Adjutant-General of the State, much to my surprise the troops elected me to command them in the field. At that time I was busily engaged in Macon, preparing for the manufacture of iron, the iron-works at Etowah, in north Georgia, under my charge, having been destroyed by General Sherman's army a few weeks before.

I took command of the Georgia militia on the 1st of June, and began to prepare them for the field. About the middle of June General Mansfield Lovell came from Marietta to explain to me the condition of affairs near that place and General Johnston's views in reference to the special service it was proposed should be performed by that portion of my command which was in camp of instruction. It seemed that whilst Johnston's army was strongly intrenched and capable of resisting direct attack, his lines were already so extended that no troops could safely be taken from the trenches to support the cavalry on the flanks. But it was believed by General Johnston that if the small cavalry force on his left could be supported by the militia, the extension of Sherman's army on that side might be checked, and the Confederates could permanently hold position near Marietta. I told General Lovell that I did not believe the small available force of raw militia, acting as a support to the cavalry, could stop Sherman's advance if he chose to move in force around Johnston's left flank; but if I received a positive order from General Johnston to move across the Chattahoochee for the purpose indicated, the order would be obeyed to the best of my ability, without regard to my opinion of the matter. In giving that order, General Lovell, in the name of General Johnston, directed me not to allow my command to become closely engaged with superior numbers.

Fortunately for this small body of militia, there was then in Atlanta a Confederate battery of light pieces, commanded by Captain R. W. Anderson. That battery had just been refitted for field service, and was awaiting orders to return to the front. Without other authority than my own, but with the full consent of the officers and men, I took this battery with the militia when we crossed the Chattahoochee at James's Ferry, and assumed position in the open country, within close supporting distance of our small force of cavalry, five or six miles from the left of General Johnston's intrenched position.

We played “brag” with the Federals in the open country, on that side, for eight or ten days, giving way a little when they pressed, but still holding position well out until they advanced in earnest on the 3d of July, when it became apparent that they were moving close on us in large force. Against this advance our cavalry could do but little more than “get out of the way.”

For a short time thereafter the “supporting force” was at a great disadvantage, but it was withdrawn in good order, and the line of cavalry pickets was again formed between the militia and the advancing Federal columns.

On the 4th, being farther pressed, the whole force was moved back to the crest of Nickajack ridge, about three miles north of Turner's Ferry. At the point where the road from that ferry crosses the ridge an embrasure battery for artillery had been previously constructed, and short lines of trenches for infantry extended on each side, but not far enough to give cover to more than five hundred men. In a very short time after the troops were formed in this defensive position, the Federals, in large force, advanced against our front.

The situation of the militia on the afternoon of the 4th will be better understood by reference to the movements that had been previously made in other portions of the theater of operations. July 1st, General Sherman reported to General Halleck: “Schofield is now south of Olley's Creek. To-morrow night I propose to move McPherson from the left to the extreme right . . . The movement is substantially . . . straight for Atlanta.” One of McPherson's divisions moved on the 2d, the rest of his army followed that night, and on the 4th the armies of Schofield and McPherson were concentrated in front of the militia, four or five miles west and a little south of the position then occupied by General Johnston's army strongly intrenched at Smyrna Station, six or eight miles south of Marietta.

The affair at Smyrna Station, that day, is reported by General Sherman as follows:

We celebrate our 4th of July by a noisy but not desperate battle, to hold the enemy there till Generals McPherson and Schofield can get well into position below him, near the Chattahoochee crossings.

When I took up a defensive position on the crest of Nickajack ridge I did not know that the armies of McPherson and Schofield were in my immediate front, but it was evident that the Federal forces pressing upon the militia were in large numbers, and if they passed us they would be within easy reach of the then unoccupied strong Confederate fortifications on the north bank of the Chattahoochee River. These works had been constructed some time before, under the supervision of an [333] officer of General Johnston's staff, for the protection of the crossings of the Chattahoochee, including Turner's Ferry and the railroad bridge.

I understood the situation well enough to feel certain that the Federal forces in front of the militia should be held back if possible, and not permitted to reach the unoccupied works on the banks of the Chattahoochee whilst General Johnston's army remained at Smyrna Station. In making a stand on the crest of Nickajack ridge I intended to hold the position without regard to becoming closely engaged with superior numbers, and was determined to sacrifice the command, if necessary, in an earnest effort to prevent the Federals from crossing the ridge that afternoon.

Our position was strong against attack in front; but it could have been easily turned on either flank. About the middle of the afternoon the Federals approached our front, and, under cover of sharp firing of a strong skirmish-line, they made dispositions to attack in force. The firing soon became very heavy and continued so until night. No attempt was made to carry the position by assault, but they approached within good musket range, where they were held in check, principally, no doubt, by the very effective fire of Captain Anderson's battery. No effort was made against either of our flanks.

A little after nightfall I wrote to General Johnston, informed him of what had occurred, and stated that the enemy were in very large numbers and would, in all probability, attack again at day-light in such strength that my small force could not hold them back for more than a very short time. But, so long as he held his army at Smyrna Station, I should continue to resist the farther advance of the Federals, unless I received an order from him to withdraw.

Before that note was dispatched, General W. H. Jackson, the commander of the cavalry that I was supporting, and General Toombs, chief of my staff, joined me. At their earnest request I modified the note I had just written by adding: I would retire at daylight if I did not get orders during the night to hold the position as long as possible. At 1 A. M., July 5th, in reply, I received an order from General Johnston to withdraw my command at the dawn of day. When we arrived at the works on the north bank of the Chattahoochee we found them occupied by General Johnston's army.

I suppose that previously to the receipt of my note he must have known that the armies of McPherson and Schofield were on the left flank and rear of his intrenched position at Smyrna Station. Be that as it may, he withdrew his army to the works on the Chattahoochee before we retired from the crest of Niekajack ridge. The militia were proud of their debut beyond the Chattahoochee; elated by the successful resistance they had made during the afternoon of July 4th; rather dissatisfied because of their being withdrawn at daylight on the 5th; but were reconciled to this when they found the main Confederate army had preceded them to the Chattahoochee.

In reference to these operations General Johnston says:1

In the evening [July 4th] Major-General Smith reported that the Federal cavalry was pressing on him in such force that he would be compelled to abandon the ground he had been holding, and retire before morning to General Shoup's line of redoubts. As the position in question covered a very important route to Atlanta, and was nearer than the main body of our army to that place, the necessity of abandoning it involved the taking a new line. The three corps were accordingly brought to the intrenched position just prepared by General Shoup.

This “contribution of materials for the use of the future historian of the war between the States” 2 requires amendment. I did not report to General Johnston that the Federal cavalry was pressing me in such force that I would be compelled to abandon the ground I had been holding and retire before morning. It is true that the position in question did cover a very important route to Atlanta, and was nearer than the main body of our army to that place; but that position was pressed by the armies of McPherson and Schofield, and I held them in check until daylight of July 5th, thus enabling General Johnston to withdraw his army quietly from Smyrna Station during the night, after Sherman had held him there all day “by a noisy but not desperate battle.”

If McPherson and Schofield had wiped out the small militia force opposing them on the 4th, and occupied the strong Confederate works that covered the crossings of the Chattahoochee, General Johnston would have had no opportunity to excuse his falling back from Smyrna Station by claiming that I reported the Federal cavalry was pressing on me in such force that I would be compelled to abandon the ground I had been holding and retire before morning. General Johnston fell back from Smyrna Station to the strong works on the north bank of the Chattahoochee because his left flank was turned by the armies of McPherson and Schofield. A few days later he fell back to the south side of the Chattahoochee because his right flank was turned by the Federal army. And on the 17th of July the Confederate Government relieved him from the command of the army he had led from Dalton to the gates of Atlanta without engaging in a decisive battle.

When he relinquished command on the 18th McPherson's army was closely approaching the east side of Atlanta, on the railroad leading to Augusta. Of the four railroads centering in Atlanta, two were already in the hands of the Federals, and that leading to Macon was within easy striking distance of McPherson.

In his “Narrative”--speaking of what he would have done if he had not been relieved from command--General Johnston says:3

I expected an opportunity to engage the enemy on terms of advantage while they were divided in crossing Peach Tree Creek. . . . If unsuccessful, we had a safe place of refuge in our intrenched lines close at hand. Holding it we could certainly keep back the enemy . . . until the State troops promised by Governor Brown were assembled. Then I intended to man [334] the works of Atlanta on the side toward Peach Tree Creek with those troops, and leisurely fall back with the Confederate troops into the town, and, when the Federal army approached, march out with the three corps against one of its flanks. . . . If unsuccessful, the Confederate army had a near and secure place of refuge in Atlanta, which it could hold forever, and so win the campaign of which that place was the object. The passage of Peach Tree Creek may not have given an opportunity to attack; but there is no reason to think that the second and far most promising plan might not have been executed.

In addition to the above claim, that he could have held Atlanta “forever” if he had not been relieved of command, General Johnston now says: “I assert that had one of the other lieutenant-generals of the army (Hardee or Stewart) succeeded me Atlanta would have been held.” It is not proposed to discuss this assertion, nor to refer to the claim made by General Johnston in his own behalf, farther than may be necessary to elucidate briefly its connection with the Georgia militia.

At the time General Johnston was relieved the militia numbered about two thousand effectives, and the “troops promised by Governor Brown” were just beginning to assemble. Atlanta was not strongly fortified, and the Federal army on the east side was at the very gates of the city. In about two weeks the old men and boys called out by Governor Brown had arrived in sufficient numbers to increase the effective militia force in the trenches to five thousand. At no time did it exceed that number.

If the fortifications of Atlanta had been “impregnable,” as General Johnston asserts, this would have given no assurance of his ability to prevent Sherman from turning the position, cutting off its railroad communications, and thus making it untenable for an army. It had neither provisions nor ammunition to enable it to resist a siege.

Suppose that General Johnston had not been relieved, and General Sherman had suspended his turning operations for two weeks “until the State troops promised by Governor Brown were assembled,” what guarantee could be given that five thousand militia could hold Atlanta, whilst General Johnston with his army “leisurely” fell back “into the town,” marched out against one of the flanks of the Federal army, and was “unsuccessful”? The Georgia militia were good fighters, but in the case supposed I do not think they could have held Atlanta as “a secure place of refuge” for Johnston's army. But if the militia had held the place whilst the three corps were “unsuccessful.” on the outside Atlanta was no “secure place of refuge” for an army that could not, by hard and successful fighting, prevent the position from being turned.

On the afternoon of the 18th of July General Johnston gave up the command of the army to his successor, General John B. Hood. It will be borne in mind that General Johnston “expected an opportunity to engage the enemy on terms of advantage while they were crossing Peach Tree Creek.” On the 19th General Hood gave orders for two corps to take position ready to attack Thomas's army on Peach Tree Creek, whilst one corps watched and guarded against the movements of the armies of McPherson and Schofield, closely approaching Atlanta on the east side. On the night of the 19th Hood gave orders to the two corps then in the neighborhood of Peach Tree Creek to attack Thomas's army in that position at 1 P. M. on the 20th. At the time named Thomas's army was engaged in crossing the creek. The armies of Schofield and McPherson were not within good supporting distance, and it is safe to say that if Hood's order for the attack at 1 P. M. had been promptly obeyed by the two corps Thomas would have met with serious disaster before the forces of Schofield or McPherson could have reached him. Owing to mismanagement of the leading corps the Confederate attack was delayed until 4 P. M., and was then made without proper concert of action. In the meantime the advance of McPherson's army on the east of Atlanta was so threatening that it became necessary late in the afternoon to detach a division of the leading corps on Peach Tree Creek and send it to hold McPherson in check. That division was sent off before it had been put in action against Thomas. The Confederate attack on the latter was repulsed.

If Hood's orders had been promptly obeyed, this attack would probably have resulted in a staggering blow to Sherman. But Thomas had safely crossed Peach Tree Creek, and was strongly established on its south side. Schofield was again in fair communication with Thomas, and McPherson was extending his fortifications south of the railroad leading to Augusta, thus threatening the railroad leading to Macon. The militia occupied the unfinished lines of Atlanta, south of the Augusta road, closely confronted by McPherson's fortifications.

General Hood deemed it necessary that McPherson should be held back from the railroad leading to Macon. And he hoped by attacking the rear of McPherson's fortified lines to bring on a general engagement that might result in the-defeat of the Federal army. On the 21st he ordered one corps to fall back at dusk and move rapidly from Peach Tree Creek, through the eastern suburb of Atlanta, pass out to the south, around McPherson's extreme left, and attack the fortified lines of the latter from the direction of Decatur. When the Federals were thus assailed in rear an attack was to be made on their front by the Confederates from the Atlanta side.

The corps that turned McPherson's left moved slowly, the attack was not made until late in the morning of the 22d, and was not then directed against the rear of the Federal lines, because the turning corps had not moved far enough in the direction of Decatur before being sent into action. When that corps became engaged General Hood ordered the corps on my left to advance from its lines around Atlanta and attack the front of the Federals. Seeing this movement on my left, I formed the militia in line of battle in the trenches, and without waiting for orders moved my command over the parapet against a strong embrasure battery in McPherson's line about one mile in front of our works. That battery had greatly annoyed [335] us by its fire whilst we were engaged in completing our unfinished intrenchments. Anderson's battery accompanied this movement and took position in open ground, supported by the militia on the right and left, within about four hundred yards of the Federal lines. The effective fire of the enemy in our immediate front was soon silenced, and my command strongly desired that orders should be given for them to assault the embrasure battery. I would not permit this to be done at that time, because the firing on my right had ceased soon after the militia moved out of the lines and the Confederate troops on my left had been driven back several hundred yards in rear of the position held by command. I considered it useless to make an isolated attack with the militia — about two thousand men. But they were retained in the position they first assumed, and I awaited developments. About two hours later came an order from Hood to withdraw my command to the trenches.

In a letter to Governor Brown, July 23d, 1864, General Hood says: “The State troops, under General G. W. Smith, fought with great gallantry yesterday.”

After the battle of the 22d of July Sherman withdrew his left from its position threatening the railroad leading to Macon, and extended his right in the direction of the railroad leading to West Point. In the meantime he pressed his lines closer to the city on the north and west.

On the 28th of July Hood fought the battle of Ezra Church, a few miles west of Atlanta, in order to prevent Sherman from seizing the West Point railroad. From that time Sherman continued to extend his right. On the 31st of August he succeeded in cutting off all railroad communications with Atlanta, and that place was consequently evacuated by Hood on the 1st of September, after he had held Sherman closely at bay for seventy-five days. It will be noticed that Sherman had succeeded in forcing Johnston back from Dalton to Atlanta in a somewhat less length of time.

My report of September 15th, 1864, says:

A few days after the affair of the 22d of July I was ordered again to Poplar Spring,4 . . . but was scarcely established in camp before we had to be placed in the trenches on the left of the Marietta road, and from that time until the end of the siege we continued under close fire night and day. We had to move from one portion of the lines to another, and had our full share of all the hardest places. . . . The militia, although poorly armed, very few having proper equipments, more than two-thirds of them without cartridge-boxes, almost without ambulances or other transportation, most of the reserves [ “State troops promised by Governor Brown” ] never having been drilled at all, and the others but a few days, all performed well every service required of them during an arduous and dangerous campaign. They have been in service about one hundred days, during at least fifty of which they have been under close fire of the enemy mostly night and day . . . They have done good and substantial service in the cause of their country, and have established the fact that Georgia is willing and able to do something effective in her own name, besides furnishing more than her quota to the Confederate armies proper. . . . There being a lull in active operations, the Governor has . . . [temporarily] withdrawn the Georgia militia from Confederate service, and furloughed them for thirty days.

In his report Hood says: “This force rendered excellent and gallant service during the siege of Atlanta.”

When again called into active service a few weeks later, the Georgia militia, although still under Hood's orders, did not form a part of his active operating army. During his Tennessee campaign the militia remained in Georgia and opposed Sherman's army in its march to Savannah.

As commander of a brigade, division, and corps, Hood had proved himself an aggressive, bold, determined, and careful fighter, perhaps a shade too sanguine, and disposed to assume that subordinates would carry instructions into effect as fully as he would have done if in their place. His high reputation as a brigade and division commander was acquired in the Army of Northern Virginia. At Gettysburg he was crippled in one arm; he lost a leg close up to the hip-joint on the field of Chickamauga. From these causes he was not physically as active as he had been in the early years of the war; but he was an excellent horseman and could ride nearly as well as most men who have two legs and two arms. It may be assumed, however, that many of the “slips” made by his subordinates whilst he commanded the army might have been corrected by him if he had then been as much “at home on horseback” as he was before he was so badly maimed. As an army commander his orders were judicious and well-timed in the operations around Atlanta; but he was compelled to evacuate that place, and the cry arose, “Atlanta was impregnable and if General Johnston had not been superseded he would have held it forever.”

The fall of Atlanta was discouraging to the Confederates in a degree that called for the utmost exertion on the part of the commander of that army to force the Federals to abandon that city, and, if possible, make them give up all the territory in north Georgia which had been yielded to them by General Johnston.

The backing, digging, and constant service in trenches, from Dalton to Atlanta, had very perceptibly injured the morale of the Confederate forces before General Johnston was relieved from command. The condition of that army had not been improved by the loss of Atlanta, and its practical efficiency was likely to be ruined if the policy of “backing and digging” was continued. Hood determined to move against the railroad over which Sherman, in Atlanta, drew all his supplies from Nashville, then invade Tennessee, transfer the theater of operations to that State, and perhaps to Kentucky and the Ohio River. He believed that a change from the defensive, in trenches, to the active offensive would reestablish the morale of his army, present many chances of success, free north Georgia, and probably arrest the previous tide of Federal successes in the West.

It seemed to him that the passive policy — waiting for Sherman to manoeuvre the Confederate army back from one position to another — would result in the perhaps slow but certain subjugation and occupation of all Georgia by the Federals, and the consequent probable downfall of the Confederacy. [336]

View of the battle of Peach Tree Creek from General Hooker's position. From a sketch made at the time.

1 Johnston's Narrative, p. 345.

2 Johnston's Narrative, dedication.

3 Johnston's Narrative, p. 350.

4 Near the south-western suburb of Atlanta.

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