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Chapter 10:

  • Siege of Atlanta
  • -- difficulties of the situation -- battle of the 20th of July.

Notwithstanding the manifold difficulties and trials which beset me at the period I was ordered to relieve General Johnston, and which, because of unbroken silence on my part, have been the occasion of much injustice manifested in my regard, I formed no intention, till the appearance of General Sherman's Memoirs, to enter fully into the details of the siege of Atlanta, the campaign to the Alabama line, and that which followed into Tennessee.

A feeling of reluctance to cause heart-burnings within the breast of any Confederate, who fulfilled his duty to the best of his ability, has, hitherto, deterred me from speaking forth the truth. Since, however, military movements with which my name is closely connected, have been freely and publicly discussed by different authors, whose representations have not always been accurate, I feel compelled to give an account of the operations of the Army of Tennessee, whilst under my direction.

As already mentioned, the order, assigning me to the command of that Army, was received about II p. m., on the 17th of July. My predecessor, unwilling to await even the dawn of [162] day, issued his farewell order that memorable night. In despite of my repeated and urgent appeals to him to pocket all despatches from Richmond, to leave me in command of my own corps, and to fight the battle for Atlanta, he deserted me the ensuing afternoon. He deserted me in violation of his promise to remain and afford me the advantage of his counsel, whilst I shouldered all responsibility of the contest.

I reiterate that it is difficult to imagine a commander placed at the head of an Army under more embarrassing circumstances than those against which I was left to contend on the evening of the I8th of July, I864. I was, comparatively, a stranger to the Army of Tennessee. Moreover General Johnston's mode of warfare formed so strong a contrast to the tactics and strategy which were practiced in Virginia, where far more satisfactory results were obtained than in the West, that I have become a still more ardent advocate of the Lee and Jackson school. The troops of the Army of Tennessee had for such length of time been subjected to the ruinous policy pursued from Dalton to Atlanta that they were unfitted for united action in pitched battle. They had, in other words, been so long habituated to security behind breastworks that they had become wedded to the “timid defensive” policy, and naturally regarded with distrust a commander likely to initiate offensive operations.

The senior Corps Commander considered he had been supplanted through my promotion, and thereupon determined to'resign, in consequence, I have no doubt, of my application to President Davis to postpone the order transferring to me the command of the Army; he however, altered his decision, and concluded to remain with his corps.

The evening of the I8th of July found General Johnston comfortably quartered at Macon, whilst McPherson's and Schofield's Corps were tearing up the Georgia Railroad, between Stone Mountain and Decatur; Thomas's Army was hastening preparations to cross Peach Tree creek, within about six miles of Atlanta; and I was busily engaged in hunting up [163] the positions of, and establishing communication with Stewart's and Hardee's Corps, since I did not know where they were posted, when General Johnston disappeared so unexpectedly and left me in this critical position.

Not till I read Sherman's Memoirs, was I aware of McPherson's so close proximity to Atlanta at an early hour on the 18th of July. In truth, a few enterprising scouts thrown out that afternoon from his columns, in the direction of the Macon Railroad might have captured my predecessor on his retreat to Macon.

Sherman says (vol. II, pages 71, 72):

On the 18th all the Armies moved on a general right wheel, Thomas to Buckhead, forming line of battle facing Peach Tree creek; Schofield was on his left, and McPherson well on towards the railroad between Stone Mountain and Decatur, which he reached at 2 p. m. of that day, about four miles from Stone Mountain, and seven miles east of Decatur, and there he turned toward Atlanta, breaking up the railroad as he progressed, his advance guard reaching Decatur about night, where he came into communication with Schofield's troops, which had also reached Decatur.

It thus appears that on the afternoon of the 18th the enemy was in Decatur, almost at the gates of Atlanta. This intelligence must have been communicated to General Johnston by the cavalry, after he left me to ride into the city with the promise to return toward evening, as he was virtually Commander-in-Chief up to the moment of his sudden departure. I had consumed a great portion of that day in vain endeavors to adjust the difficulties in the way of his retention in command, by earnest representations to him, on one hand, and, on the other, by telegraphing to Richmond in the hope of accomplishing this object. Although he had published his farewell order the night previous, I had not, owing to the foregoing reasons, assumed command. He had agreed to issue orders in my name, and, in reality, I did not become Commander-in-Chief until about night of that day, when I received information of his departure. [164]

Much confusion necessarily arose during this interval; and this condition of affairs accounts for the circumstance, which must seem strange to military men, that at this late date I am apprised for the first time, and through Sherman's Memoirs, of the presence of the enemy's left wing, at 2 p. m. on the 18th of July, upon the railroad leading to Augusta. It must seem equally strange that, if I was regarded as chief in command, this important movement was not made known to me at headquarters by our cavalry, which was, generally, very prompt in reporting all such information. I cannot but think, therefore, that General Johnston was cognizant before 4 o'clock that day, and before his departure for Macon, of the enemy's presence on the Augusta Railroad, within six or eight miles of Atlanta. If such is not the case, our cavalry, stationed upon the right, neglected most unpardonably its duty — which supposition I am not inclined to admit.

The statement in my official report1 that McPherson was at Decatur on the morning of the 19th, is proof of my ignorance of the circumstance on the 18th.

These facts give evidence of the trying position in which I was placed at this juncture, and this last move of the enemy may somewhat account for the inexplicable conduct and disappearance of General Johnston who, at this critical moment, was unwilling to share with me the responsibility of the issue.

I will now turn from the many unpleasant occurrences interwoven in the history of that day, and endeavor to show in what manner General Sherman exposed, on his approach to Atlanta, the Federal Army to successful attack by our troops; and, at the same time, state why, in my opinion, after our discovery of his blunders, the Confederate Army did not succeed in defeating and routing his forces.

These premises may seem bold, especially since defeat was our fortune, and victory the boast of our adversary.

After having established communication with the corps and [165] the cavalry of the Army during the forepart of the night, I found myself, upon the morning of the 19th, in readiness to fulfil these grave duties devolving upon me.

Our troops had awakened in me heartfelt sympathy, as I had followed their military career with deep interest from early in May of that year. I had witnessed their splendid condition at that period; had welcomed with pride the fine body of reinforcements under General Polk; but, with disappointment, I had seen them, day after day, turn their back upon the enemy, and lastly cross the Chattahoochee river on the night of the 9th of July with one-third of their number lost — the men downcast, dispirited, and demoralized. Stragglers and deserters, the captured and the killed, could not now, however, be replaced by recruits, because all the recruiting depots had been drained to reinforce either Lee or Johnston. I could, therefore, but make the best dispositions in my power with the reduced numbers of the Army, which opposed a force of one hundred and six thousand (106,000) Federals, buoyant with success and hope, and who were fully equal to one hundred and forty thousand (140,000) such troops as confronted Johnston at Dalton, by reason of their victorious march of a hundred miles into the heart of the Confederacy.

Accordingly, on the night of the 18th and morning of the 19th, I formed line of battle facing Peach Tree creek; the left rested near Pace's Ferry road, and the right covered Atlanta. I was informed on the 19th that Thomas was building bridges across Peach Tree creek; that McPherson and Schofield were well over toward, and even on, the Georgia Railroad, near Decatur. I perceived at once that the Federal commander had committed a serious blunder in separating his corps, or Armies by such distance as to allow me to concentrate the main body of our Army upon his right wing, whilst his left was so far removed as to be incapable of rendering timely assistance. General Sherman's violation of the established maxim that an Army should always be held well within hand, or its detachments within easy supporting distance, afforded [166] one of the most favorable occasions for complete victory which could have been offered; especially as it presented an opportunity, after crushing his right wing, to throw our entire force upon his left. In fact, such a blunder affords a small Army the best, if not the sole, chance of success when contending with a vastly superior force.

Line of battle having been formed, Stewart's Corps was in position on the left, Hardee's in the centre, and Cheatham's on the right. Orders were given to Generals Hardee and Stewart to observe closely and report promptly the progress of Thomas in the construction of bridges across Peach Tree creek and the passage of troops. General Cheatham was directed to reconnoitre in front of his left; to erect, upon that part of his line, batteries so disposed as to command the entire space between his left and Peach Tree creek, in order to completely isolate McPherson and Schofield's forces from those of Thomas; and, finally, to thoroughly entrench his line. This object accomplished, and Thomas having partially crossed the creek and made a lodgment on the east side within the pocket formed by Peach Tree creek and the Chattahoochee river, I determined to attack him with two corps--Hardee's and Stewart's, which constituted the main body of the Confederate Army--and thus, if possible, crush Sherman's right wing, as we drove it into the narrow space between the creek and the river.

Major General G. W. Smith's Georgia State troops were posted on the right of Cheatham, and it was impossible for Schofield or McPherson to assist Thomas without recrossing Peach Tree creek in the vicinity of Decatur, and making on the west side a detour which necessitated a march of not less than ten or twelve miles, in order to reach Thomas's bridges across this creek. I immediately assembled the three corps commanders, Hardee, Stewart, and Cheatham, together with Major General G. W. Smith, commanding Georgia State troops, for the purpose of giving orders for battle on the following day, the 20th of July. [167]

I here quote from my official report written soon after these events:

On the morning of the I9th, the dispositions of the enemy were substantially as follows: “ The Army of the Cumberland, under Thomas, was in the act of crossing Peach Tree creek. This creek, forming a considerable obstacle to the passage of an army, runs in a northeasterly direction, emptying into the Chattahoochee river near the railroad crossing. The Army of the Ohio, under Schofield, was also about to cross east of the Buckhead road. The Army of the Tennessee, under McPherson, was moving on the Georgia Railroad at Decatur. Finding it impossible to hold Atlanta without giving battle, I determined to strike the enemy while attempting to cross this stream. My troops were disposed as follows: Stewart's Corps on the left, Hardee's in the centre, and Cheatham's on the right entrenched. My object was to crush Thomas's Army before he could fortify himself, and then turn upon Schofield and McPherson. To do this, Cheatham was ordered to hold his left on the creek, in order to separate Thomas's Army from the forces on his (Thomas's) left. Thus I should be able to throw two corps, Stewart's and Hardee's, against Thomas. Specific orders were carefully given these Generals, in the presence of each other, as follows: The attack was to begin at i p. m.; the movement to be by division, en echelon from the right, at a distance of about one hundred and fifty yards; the effort to be to drive the enemy back to the creek, and then towards the river, into the narrow space formed by the river and creek; everything on our side of the creek to be taken at all hazards, and to follow up as our success might permit. Each of these Generals was to hold a division in reserve. Owing to the demonstrations of the enemy on the right, it became necessary to extend Cheatham a division front to the right. To do this, Hardee and Stewart were each ordered to extend a half division front to close the interval. Foreseeing that some confusion and delay might result, I was careful to call General Hardee's attention to the importance of having a staff officer on his left to see that the left did not take more than a-half division front. This, unfortunately, was not attended to, and the line closed to the right, causing Stewart to move two or three times the proper distance. In consequence of this, the attack was delayed until nearly 4 p. m.”

The three corps commanders, together with General G. W. Smith, were assembled not only for the purpose of issuing to them orders for battle, but with the special design to deliver most explicit instructions in regard to their respective duties. [168] I sought to “make assurance doubly sure” by direct interrogatory; each was asked whether or not he understood his orders. All replied in the affirmative. I was very careful in this respect, inasmuch as I had learned from long experience that no measure is more important, upon the eve of battle, than to make certain, in the presence of the commanders, that each thoroughly comprehends his orders. The usual discretion allowed these officers in no manner diminishes the importance of this precaution.

I also deemed it of equal moment that each should fully appreciate the imperativeness of the orders then issued, by reason of the certainty that our troops would encounter hastily constructed works thrown up by the Federal troops, which had been foremost to cross Peach Tree creek. Although a portion of the enemy would undoubtedly be found under cover of temporary breastworks, it was equally certain a larger portion would be caught in the act of throwing up such works, and just in that state of confusion to enable our forces to rout them by a bold and persistent attack. With these convictions I timed the assault at I p. m., so as to surprise the enemy in their unsettled condition.

As stated in my official report, the charge was unfortunately not made till about 4 o'clock p. m., on account of General Hardee's failure to obey my specific instructions in regard to the extension of the one-half division front to the right, in order to afford General Cheatham an advantageous position to hold in check McPherson and Schofield. The result was not, however, materially affected by this delay, since the Federals were completely taken by surprise.

General Stewart carried out his instructions to the letter; he moreover appealed in person to his troops before going into action, and informed them that orders were imperative they should carry everything, at all hazards, on their side of Peach Tree creek; he impressed upon them that they should not halt before temporary breastworks, but charge gallantly over every obstacle and rout the enemy. It was evident that [169] after long-continued use of entrenchments, General Stewart deemed a personal appeal to his soldiers expedient, An address from a corps commander to his troops, upon the eve of battle, is always productive either of great good or evil, according to the spirit in which it is spoken. For this reason, commanders of large bodies should exercise extreme caution in the expression of their sentiments, even in the presence of staff officers. Every word, portending probable results, passes like an electric spark through the entire command. It is, therefore, in the power of an officer to inspirit his men, and incite them to deeds of valor in the hour of battle, as well as to depress and demoralize them by an expression of despondency, one word foreshadowing the possibility of defeat.

General Stewart and his troops nobly performed their duty in the engagement of the 20th. At the time of the attack, his corps moved boldly forward, drove the enemy from his works, and held possession of them until driven out by an enfilade fire of batteries placed in position by General Thomas.

The following extracts from the reports of Generals Stewart and Featherston, touching the battle of the 20th, will be read with interest:

The plan was for the divisions (commencing on Hardee's right) to move forward, successively, en echelon, at intervals of some two hundred yards, to attack the enemy, drive him back to the creek, and then press down the creek to the left. Should the enemy be found entrenched, his works were to be carried; everything on our side of the creek was to be taken, and our crossing to the other side of the creek was to depend on our success. Such were the instructions of the General Commanding to General Hardee and myself. I was to hold a division in reserve. It seems a division had been withdrawn from the lines on the right of Hardee's Corps. His corps and mine were to close to the right far enough to cover the space vacated by this division — the space to be divided between the two corps. This would have shifted my line a-half division front to the right — perhaps at most — half-a-mile. At 1 o'clock I found the left of Hardee's Corps just beginning to shift to the right. Feeling that this change was not important, and that not a moment was to be lost in making the attack contemplated, a staff cfficer was despatched to the Commanding General to inform him of the fact, [170] and requesting an order to stop the movement to the right and commence the forward movement. The result was, however, that to keep up connection with the other corps, my line was moved a mile and a-half or two miles to the right. * * * My instructions to division commanders, and through them to brigade and regimental commanders, were to move forward and attack the enemy; if found entrenched, to fix bayonets and carry his works; to drive him back to the creek, and then press down the creek; that we were to carry everything in our front on our side of the creek. * * * These commanders, their officers and men, behaved entirely to my satisfaction, and I cannot but think, had the plan of the battle, as I understood it, been carried out fully, we would have achieved a great success.

General Featherston in his official report writes:

The plan of the battle, as explained to me, was as follows: The attack was to begin on the extreme right of the Army. General Hood's old corps and General Hardee's were both on my right. The troops were to advance en echelon by divisions, beginning on the extreme right; the first division advancing some three hundred yards to the front before the second moved. The same order was to be observed down the entire line from right to left, extending through all three of the army corps. Each division when it reached Peach Tree creek was to oblique to the left, and sweep down the creek, and thereby make the attack upon the enemy, one upon his front and left flank at the same time. My orders were to fix bayonets and charge their works when we reached them, to stop for no obstacle, however formidable, but to make the attack a desperate one. I was informed that the same orders had been delivered by the Commander-in-Chief, General Hood, to each and every army corps. I thought the battle had been well planned, and heard it spoken of by my associates in arms in terms of commendation. The whole corps, so far as I heard an expression of their opinions, anticipated a brilliant victory.

I was struck with surprise, at the time we moved to the front, that no guns, either artillery or small arms, were heard on our right, save a feeble skirmish. I supposed from hearing no firing on our right, and knowing that many divisions had had time to reach the creek, that they had found no enemy in their front. Had the attack been vigorously made by all the troops on our right, and the plan of the battle been strictly carried out, I then believe, and still believe, the victory would have been a brilliant one, and the Federal forces on the south side of Peach Tree creek would have been all either killed, wounded or captured. The orders seem to have been misunderstood by the troops on our right, or for some cause not fully carried out.


Unfortunately, the corps on Stewart's right, although composed of the best troops in the Army, virtually accomplished nothing. In lieu of moving the half division front promptly to the right, attacking as ordered, and supporting Stewart's gallant assault, the troops of Hardee — as their losses on that day indicate — did nothing more than skirmish with the enemy. Instead of charging down upon the foe as Sherman represents Stewart's men to have done, many of the troops, when they discovered that they had come into contact with breastworks, lay down and, consequently, this attempt at pitched battle proved abortive.

I was at the time unable to discover a satisfactory reason for which an united attack by two corps d'armee, at even 4 o'clock in the day, should have failed to destroy Thomas's Army, which was protected by only slight entrenchments and was situated within a pocket formed by two streams difficult of passage. I was deeply concerned and perplexed, as I sought to divine the cause of misfortune — especially of failure on the part of Hardee's Corps to attack according to explicit instructions.

General Sherman writes as follows, in regard to this engagement: 2

On the 19th the three Armies were converging towards Atlanta, meeting such feeble resistance that I really thought the enemy intended to evacuate the place. McPherson was moving astride of the railroad, near Decatur; Schofield along a road leading toward Atlanta, by Colonel Howard's house and the distillery; and Thomas was crossing “ Peach Tree” in line of battle, building bridges for nearly every division as deployed. There was quite a gap between Thomas and Schofield, which I endeavored to close by drawing two of Howard's Divisions nearer Schofield. On the 20th I was with General Schofield near the centre, and soon after noon heard heavy firing in front of Thomas's right, which lasted an hour or so, and then ceased. I soon learned that the enemy had made a furious sally, the blow falling on Hooker's Corps (the Twentieth), and partially on Johnston's Division of the Fourteenth, and Newton's of the Fourth. The troops had crossed Peach Tree creek, [172] were deployed, but at the time were resting for noon, when, without notice, the enemy came pouring out of their trenches down upon them, they became commingled, and fought in many places hand to hand. General Thomas happened to be near the rear of Newton's Division, and got some field batteries in good position, on the north side of Peach Tree creek, from which he directed a furious fire upon a mass of the enemy, which was passing round Newton's left and exposed flank. After a couple of hours of hard and close conflict, the enemy retired slowly within his trenches, leaving his dead and many wounded on the field.

1 Appendix, p. 320.

2 Sherman's Memoirs, vol. II, pages 72. 73.

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