previous next

Chapter 10:

  • The battle of Atlanta and its political Generals.

General Sherman's recollections fail to supply the interesting and significant inside history of the battle of Atlanta, by which name the action of July 22d was usually known in his army.

Speaking of two of the prominent actors in that battle, he says:

‘I regarded both Generals Logan and Blair as “volunteers,” that looked to personal fame and glory as auxiliary and secondary to their political ambition, and not as professional soldiers.’

And again:

‘Both were men of great courage and talent, but were politicians by nature and experience, and it may be that for this reason they were mistrusted by regular officers like Generals Schofield, Thomas, and myself.’

The first of these paragraphs suggests the reflection whether it is any more reprehensible for volunteer generals to be actuated by ‘political ambition,’ than for professional soldiers to look upon ‘personal fame and glory’ as their chief incentive—for such is the position in which General Sherman leaves his friends. The public will not judge them so harshly. These two brief extracts form a portion of General Sherman's comments upon the battle of Atlanta.

At the very opening of this action, McPherson then commanding the Army of the Tennessee was killed, and the desperate battle was fought through from noon till after night by his troops, commanded by these same political Generals [120] and volunteers, Logan and Blair, assisted by that other well known politcian and volunteer, General Dodge., then commanding the Sixteenth Corps.

It was preeminently a battle fought and won by the class of officers and men thus pointed out by General Sherman. These saved one of his armies that day from the results of a surprise as great as fell upon him at Shiloh. Under these circumstances it would be natural to expect that high soldierly sentiment, if possessed by him, would not only have prompted a full acknowledgment of such services, unaccompanied by any questioning of motives, but would also have led him to assume the responsibility for a surprise which belonged solely to himself. But the reader of these Memoirs will look in vain for the key with which to unlock the mysteries of the situation on that day. The official record, however, supplies it.

Ten pages of the Memoirs are devoted to this action.

The situation was as follows: On the night of the 21st of July Sherman's army had fought its way close up to the outer lines of the rebels, established at an average of a little over three miles from Atlanta, and north and east of the city. Thomas was on the right, with the Army of the Cumberland; Schofield, with the Army of the Ohio, occupied the center, and McPherson's Army of the Tennessee held the left.

It had been ascertained three days before—that is, on the 18th—that Hood had relieved Johnston, and what was expected of the former is shown by the following statement in the Memoirs:

‘I immediately inquired of General Schofield, who was his classmate at West Point, about Hood—as to his general character, etc., and learned that he was bold, even to rashness, and courageous in the extreme. I inferred that the change of commanders meant “fight.” Notice of this important change was at once sent to all parts of the army, and every division commander was cautioned to be always prepared for battle in any shape.’

It would have been fortunate, as the sequel will show, if General Sherman had heeded his own cautions.

On the 20th, Hood made a ‘furious sally’ on the right. [121] The Union loss was about two thousand, and General Sherman thus states the result:

‘We had, however, met successfully a bold sally, had repelled it handsomely, and were also put on our guard; and the event illustrated the future tactics of our enemy.’ After this the reader would not expect to read of a great surprise. Nor will the traces of it be found very clearly marked in the book, as will now appear:

‘During the night’ (of the 21st) ‘I had full reports from all parts of our line, most of which was partially intrenched as against a sally, and finding that McPherson was stretching out too much on his left flank, I wrote him a note early in the morning’ (of the 22d) “not to extend so much by his left; for we had not troops enough to completely invest the place, and I intended to destroy utterly all parts of the Augusta Railroad to the east of Atlanta, then to withdraw from the left flank and add to the right.” In that letter I ordered McPherson not to extend any further to the left, but to employ General Dodge's corps (Sixteenth), then forced out of position, to destroy every rail and tie of the railroad from Decatur up to his skirmish line, and I wanted him (McPherson) to be ready, as soon as General Garrard returned from Covington (whither I had sent him) to move to the extreme right of Thomas, so as to reach, if possible, the railroad below Atlanta, viz.: the Macon road.

‘In the morning we found the strong line of parapet, “Peach-tree line,” to the front of Schofield and Thomas, abandoned, and our lines were advanced rapidly close up to Atlanta. For some moments I supposed the enemy intended to evacuate, and in person was on horseback at the head of Schofield's troops. * * * * Schofield was dressing forward his lines, and I could hear Thomas further to the right engaged, when General McPherson and his staff rode up. We went back to the Howard House, a double frame building, with a porch, and sat on the step discussing the chances of battle and of Hood's general character. McPherson had also been of the same class at West Point with Hood, Schofield, and Sheridan. We agreed that we ought to be unusually cautious, and prepared at all times for sallies and for hard fighting, because Hood, though not deemed much of a scholar, or of great mental capacity, was undoubtedly a brave, determined, and rash man; and the change of commanders at that particular crisis argued the displeasure of the Confederate Government with the cautious but prudent conduct of General Joe. Johnston. McPherson was in excellent spirits, well pleased at the progress of events so far, and had come over purposely to see me about the order I had given him to use Dodge's corps to break up the rail-road, * * * * saying that before receiving my order he had diverted Dodge's two divisions (then in motion) from the main road, along a diagonal [122] one that led to his extreme left flank, then held by Giles A. Smith's division (Seventeenth Corps), for the purpose of strengthening that flank. * * * * Of course I assented at once. * * * * While we sat there we could hear lively skirmishing going on near us (down about the distillery), and occasionally round shot from twelve or twenty-four pound guns came through the trees in reply to those of Schofield, and we could hear similar sounds all along down the lines of Thomas to our right, and his own to the left, but presently the firing appeared a little more brisk (especially over about Giles A. Smith's division), and then we heard an occasional gun back toward Decatur. I asked him what it meant. We took my pocket compass (which I always carried), and by noting the direction of the sound, we became satisfied that the firing was too far to our left rear to be explained by known facts, and he hastily called for his horse, his staff, and his orderlies, * * * * jumped on his horse, saying he would hurry down his line and send me back word what these sounds meant. * * * * (Soon after)—one of McPherson's staff, with his horse covered with sweat, dashed up to the porch, and reported that General McPherson was either “killed or a prisoner.” He explained that when they had left me, a few minutes before, they had ridden rapidly across to the railroad, the sounds of battle increasing as they neared the position occupied by General Giles A. Smith's division, and that McPherson had sent first one, then another of his staff to bring some of the reserve brigades of the Fifteenth Corps over to the exposed left flank; that he had reached the head of Dodge's corps (marching by the flank on the diagonal road as described), and had ordered it to hurry forward to the same point; that then, almost, if not entirely alone, he had followed this road leading across the wooded valley behind the Seventeenth Corps, and had disappeared in these woods, doubtless with a sense of absolute security. The sound of musketry was there heard and McPherson's horse came back, bleeding, wounded, and riderless. I ordered the staff officer who brought this message to return at once, to find General Logan (the senior officer present with the Army of the Tennessee), to report the same facts to him, and to instruct him to drive back this supposed small force, which had evidently got around the Seventeenth Corps through the blind woods in rear of our left flank. I soon dispatched one of my own staff (McCoy, I think) to General Logan, with similar orders, telling him to refuse his left flank, and to fight the battle (holding fast to Leggett's Hill) with the Army of the Tennessee; that I would personally look to Decatur and to the safety of his rear, and would reenforce him if he needed it.’ * * * *

After explaining how Hood had first withdrawn from his outer line on the night of the 21st, occupied the fortified line next to Atlanta, and then sallied out with part of his force, passed entirely around the left of the Army of the Tennessee, [123] and struck it in flank and rear while a portion of it was in motion, General Sherman continues:

The enemy was, therefore, enabled, under cover of the forest, to approach quite near before he was discovered; indeed, his skirmish line had worked through the timber and got into the field to the rear of Giles A. Smith's division of the Seventeenth Corps unseen, had captured Murray's battery of regular artillery, moving through these woods entirely unguarded, and had got possession of several of the hospital camps.

The right of this rebel line struck Dodge's troops in motion; but, fortunately, this corps (Sixteenth) had only to halt, face to the left, and was in line of battle; and this corps not only held in check the enemy, but drove him back through the woods. About the same time this same force had struck General Giles A. Smith's left flank, doubled it back, captured four guns in position and the party engaged in building the very battery, which was the special object of McPherson's visit to me, and almost enveloped the entire left flank. The men, however, were skillful and brave, and fought for a time with their backs to Atlanta. They gradually fell back, compressing their own line, and gaining strength by making junction with Leggett's division of the Seventeenth Corps, well and strongly posted on the hill. One or two brigades of the Fifteenth Corps, ordered by McPherson, came rapidly across the open field to the rear, from the direction of the railroad, filled up the gap from Blair's new left to the head of Dodge's column-now facing to the general left-thus forming a strong left flank at right angles to the original line of battle. The enemy attacked, boldly and repeatedly, the whole of this flank, but met an equally fierce resistance, and on that ground a bloody battle raged from little after noon till into the night. * * * *

‘I rode over the whole of it’ (the field) ‘the next day, and it bore the marks of a bloody conflict. The enemy had retired during the night inside of Atlanta, and we remained master of the situation outside. I purposely allowed the Army of the Tennessee’ [then in the hands of three political generals] ‘to fight this battle almost unaided, save by demonstrations on the part of Generals Schofield and Thomas against the fortified lines to their immediate fronts, and by detaching, as described, one of Schofield's brigades to Decatur, because I knew that the attacking force could only be a part of Hood's army, and that, if any assistance were rendered by either of the other armies, the Army of the Tennessee would be jealous. Nobly did they do their work that day, and terrible was the slaughter done to our enemy, though at sad cost to ourselves.’

In reporting upon the battle to General Halleck, General Sherman telegraphed:

McPherson's sudden death, and Logan succeeding to the command, as it were, in the midst of battle, made some confusion on our extreme left; but it [124] soon recovered, and made sad havoc with the enemy, who had practiced one of his favorite games of attacking our left when in motion, and before it had time to cover its weak flank.’

Following this, among some general observations upon the battle, and the question of a successor, the extracts given at the opening of this chapter are found.

From the above fair outlines of General Sherman's account, the reader would conclude that some of the warnings received in regard to Hood's methods were disregarded, and that the new Confederate commander had sallied against, and passed entirely around our left, finding it unprepared and partly in motion by the flank, and that some confusion resulted, and a bloody battle, which was not particularly unexpected by General Sherman, and did not, in a great degree, disturb him.

The real reason for this confusion on the left does not appear in the Memoirs. The key to unlock the bloody mysteries of the 22d of July, where the Union loss was thirty-five hundred men, with General McPherson, and ten pieces of artillery, lies deeply covered under the sentence: ‘For some moments I supposed the enemy intended to evacuate.’

Some omitted leaves from the official record will show how long these ‘moments’ were.

In a report made by General Sherman to General Halleck, dated August 15, 1864, this paragraph occurs, though it is not mentioned in his book:

‘On the morning of the 22d, somewhat to my surprise, this whole line was found abandoned, and I confess I thought the enemy had resolved to give us Atlanta without further contest. But General Johnston had been relieved of the command, and General Hood substituted. A new policy seemed resolved upon, of which a bold attack upon our right was an index, * * * * About 10 A. M. I was in person with General Schofield examining the appearance of the enemy's line opposite the distillery, where we attracted enough of the enemy's fire of artillery and musketry to satisfy me the enemy was in Atlanta in force, and meant to fight.’

The last order recorded in General McPherson's field letter [125] book, in the morning of the day he was killed, furnishes a further commentary upon those ‘moments,’ during which General Sherman thought the enemy ‘intended to evacuate:’

three and A half miles East of Atlanta, Georgia, July 22, 1864.
Major-General John A. Logan, Commanding Fifteenth Army Corps:
The enemy having evacuated their works in front of our lines, the supposition of Major-General Sherman is that they have given up Atlanta, and are retreating in the direction of East Point.

You will immediately put your command in pursuit to the south and east of Atlanta, without entering the town. You will keep a route to the left of that taken by the enemy, and try to cut off a portion of them while they are pressed in the rear and on our right by Generals Schofield and Thomas.

Major-General Sherman desires and expects a vigorous pursuit.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

James B. McPHERSON, Major-General.

The following telegram also furnishes testimony to the same end:

camp on railroad, four miles from Atlanta, 9 P. M., July 22, 1864.
Major Thomas T. Eckert, Washington.
At daylight to-day it was found that the rebels had gone from our entire front, and General Sherman announced the occupation of Atlanta by Schofield, and ordered pursuit by Thomas and McPherson. Vigorous pursuit was made, and the enemy found in the fortifications of Atlanta, and not Schofield. We hold the railroad to within two and a half miles of the center of the place; that is about the average distance of the whole line, though Schofield and Dodge are nearer. The fighting has been severe, and we lose McPherson, killed by a shot through the lungs while on a reconnoissance. It is thought that the enemy will be gone in the morning, as they have attacked and been repulsed since dark. Hood fights his graybacks desperately.

J. C. Van Duzen, Cipher Operator, U. S. M. T.

One of the political generals however had informed himself very early in the morning that the rebels had not evacuated Atlanta, as General Sherman supposed; but instead, held the inner lines, near the city, in force. This appears from General Dodge's report of the operations of the Sixteenth Corps on the Atlanta campaign, in which he says:

‘At 4 o'clock A. M. of the 22d of July, General Sweeney, commanding the [126] Second Division, reported to me that the enemy had disappeared from his front, and I immediately ordered him to push forward a heavy skirmish line, which he did promptly, and reported the enemy in force in the works surrounding Atlanta.’

Upon this corps, a few hours later, fell the chief brunt of the battle, as it was hastening to defend the left, and the character of its fighting is sufficiently shown by the facts that it first held its ground, then repulsed the enemy, and that every field officer engaged appears to have been on the list of the killed or wounded.

The character of the surprise upon the left is shown by the following extract from General Blair's report of the battle:

‘In the morning of the 22d the enemy came in on my rear and left in very heavy force, with the intention of overpowering and destroying this corps. Although we had no warning of his approach, and although attacked immediately in rear, the men and officers behaved with unparalleled gallantry, repulsing every assault, changing front repeatedly with a coolness and courage which can not be too highly praised.’

The account given in the above narrative, of the early note to McPherson not to extend so far to the left, certainly needs further explanation in the light of the order, also an early one, to pursue the rebels well to the left, past Atlanta even, and on toward East Point.

The question also arises, if Hood, in his sally, was practising one of his ‘favorite games,’ why he was allowed to succeed so well in his play.

But the one point that will stand out in bolder relief than any other, is the flippancy with which the terms ‘volunteers’ and ‘political generals’ are used against those who, in the midst of grave surprise, brought on by the order of the commanding general, rallied their three corps in the face of an army that had outflanked them, and burst upon them in reverse as well, and fought for hours with the rebel line—sometimes from one face of abandoned Confederate works, sometimes from the other, through that long Summer [127] afternoon and far into the night, and against every disadvantage finally achieved victory, and retrieved the one great mistake with which the commanding general began the day; namely, announcing the evacuation of Atlanta and starting two of his armies by the flank in pursuit.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
McPherson (20)
W. T. Sherman (17)
J. M. Schofield (15)
Hood (12)
George H. Thomas (9)
G. M. Dodge (8)
John A. Logan (6)
Giles A. Smith (5)
Frank Blair (4)
Joe Johnston (3)
H. W. Halleck (2)
Sweeney (1)
Sheridan (1)
Murray (1)
James B. McPherson (1)
J. C. McCoy (1)
Leggett (1)
Joe (1)
Garrard (1)
Thomas T. Eckert (1)
J. C. Duzen (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
July 22nd (3)
July 22nd, 1864 AD (2)
August 15th, 1864 AD (1)
July 21st (1)
22nd (1)
21st (1)
20th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: