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Chapter 36: Battle of Ezra Church

The next five days after the battle of Atlanta were busy ones for every part of the army. The lofty bridge over the Chattahoochee, that connected us again with Marietta and the north, had been speedily rebuilt, so that now there was a shorter haul for all our supplies. It was necessary to bring forward what was needed of food and rations; to get the comforts for the use of the sick and wounded who remained in the field; to readjust lines and batteries and make all the trenches secure against Hood's known impulsiveness; to bring to the front absentees and recruits, and to rest and refresh our weary men.

Sherman and Thomas consulted together as to the officer who should succeed McPherson and the choice fell upon me. The orders from President Lincoln appointing me to the command of the Army and the Department of the Tennessee reached me the evening of the 26th. General Logan and his friends desired that he should be assigned to this command and were, of course, disappointed, but he at once resumed the command of his Fifteenth Corps. Hooker ostensibly was offended that he, who was my senior in rank, had not received the appointment, and asked to be relieved. Slocum was brought from Vicksburg to replace him at the head of the Twentieth Corps. Stanley succeeded me in the Fourth Corps. [17]

Sherman in his “Memoirs” has put forth his reasons for the changes of organization so simply and so plainly that they should relieve me from any suspicion of self-seeking in obtaining a promotion that, as every soldier knows, I would highly value; he says: “All these promotions happened to fall upon West Pointers, and doubtless Logan and Blair had some reason to believe that we intended to monopolize the higher honors of the war for the regular officers. I remember well my thoughts and feelings at the time, and feel sure that I was not intentionally partial to any class.” Of course, Slocum and I had both resigned from the regular army.

By the end of five days Sherman had matured his plan to gain ground by extending his right till he had severed Hood's southern railroad connections, as he had just cut the eastern, or Augusta, line.

In connection with the instructions already given me for the Army of the Tennessee to move from Sherman's left to his right, Schofield had made, near the Howard House, by the help of picks and shovels, a strong left flank, for he was now to temporarily hold tenaciously Sherman's left.

Logan, at a very early hour of July 27, 1864, had set in motion the three corps, Dodge's, Blair's, and Logan's, marching in the order named. In person I joined Dodge, at the head of the column, as he was already in Thomas's rear crossing the Buck Head road. Here I assumed command of the army. Sherman with a small staff came from his meager headquarters near the line of march, and rode along with me all the way behind Thomas's lines to his extreme right, where Palmer's intrenchments ended.

Sherman told me that Morgan's division had that [18] morning gone on by the Turner's Ferry road, which runs westerly. We, having just crossed it, turned southward just outside the forts which led a mile and a half to the Lick Skillet road. When he took me to a high point and showed me a wooded ridge between us and Atlanta, along which he desired me to form my troops, substantially connecting with Thomas, but following the curve of the Atlanta works. This ridge ran nearly north and south. He believed that my lines would be long enough to enable me to get hold of Hood's railroad there before Hood could extend his trenches.

Sherman, not expecting an attack, said that there would be little risk in my moving straight along by the flank down the road before us, which we afterwards found led to Ezra Church. The land was covered for the most part thickly with trees to the left or east of my road. Seeing the nature of the country, and already having had experience of Hood's enterprise, I thought that we should be attacked certainly before we could possibly close up and get into position. I intimated this to Sherman, and said that if he did not object, instead of pushing out my right into the air, I would carefully unfold by having the divisions take their places on Thomas's right, moving up in succession, so that each successive division would protect the flank of the preceding. In reply to my suggestion, Sherman said he did not think that Hood would trouble me, but was willing I should deploy my army in my own way. Then Sherman left me.

Corse commanded Dodge's leading division. He turned to the left and occupied the leftmost section of the new line, pressing well forward until he came as near the enemy's parapet as possible. Fuller's division, [19] partially deployed, next wheeled and ascended the slope, continuing the line. Other divisions went on in succession to do the same until dark.

The day had been a wearisome one for the troops; for, besides the long march, they had been obliged to wait here and there for reconnoissance, the putting out of infantry flankers, no cavalry being with me, so that only Dodge's corps was entirely in place at sundown.

Blair's outposts already held a junction of roads and his corps was deployed facing southeasterly toward the hamlet Lick Skillet. A road ran from the city west to Ezra Church, then southwest for a quarter of a mile, thence westerly again.

Logan's Fifteenth Corps was halted for part of the night in reserve. We were at work at the first glimmer of light the 28th. During the morning Blair's division slowly turned to the left and moved forward by divisions in echelon, and when in place his right was about a quarter of a mile above Ezra Church. Logan, deploying everything except a reasonable reserve, pushed slowly southward. One of his divisions, that of Charles R. Woods, occupied the space from Blair to and including the church.

The other two, Harrow's and Morgan L. Smith's, pretty well developed, followed their skirmish lines, keeping them in sight as well as they could through rough hollows and wooded ravines. Just as the right division had seized with its advance a ridge of land that made almost a right angle with the north and south road, General Sherman had returned and joined me, and we were moving along in rear with our deployed lines full in sight.

There had been an ever-increasing skirmish all the [20] morning. Now the rifle firing on our front increased. Suddenly there was sound of cannon. We heard the rattle of grapeshot in the trees near by and above us. Limbs were severed and fell to the ground. I turned to Sherman and said there would be a battle soon; he replied he did not think so. Then I called his attention to the shot which were clipping off the branches of the trees. The indications were so strong that we would be attacked that Logan called a halt of his main lines and I ordered that our front be covered as speedily as possible with logs and rails. An old field partially cleared and fenced, fortunately for us, lay between my position and the lines, which in general extended along the high ridge before us. Here our men found some rails and plenty of stumps and logs. These men by details were soon running with logs and rails in their arms and on their shoulders. Owing to the conformation of the ground, Logan's two divisions, Harrow's and Morgan L. Smith's, which were formed on the right of Woods's division, made nearly a right angle with the rest of the line. We had no time to locate our batteries in front without too much exposure in case of an enemy's charge; so that I had only a few of them brought forward and kept within call should an emergency require them.

Sherman remained with me until we were in position. He remarked again that he hardly thought I should have a general battle; but that in case of an attack in force Morgan's division, which was reconnoitering to Turner's. Ferry, would come back by a road so as to give complete protection to my right flank; indeed, he would send and order it. Then he left me, saying he would return to the center, telling me to call [21] on him if I needed any assistance. Thus he permitted me to conduct my first battle alone.

One of Logan's batteries I then sent to the front and located not far from the road, with a view to replying to the enemy's troublesome, though fitful, cannonading. The woods there were too thick for anything except blind action in the use of artillery on either side.

Blair and Dodge, and Charles R. Woods, from their first approaches, had strong skirmishing; then encountered brisk firing, particularly from artillery with most annoying shrapnel shells from the Atlanta works. Logan's men worked diligently and soon had sufficient cover to give them partial protection against musketry when kneeling or lying down. The ridge itself gave fair protection to the reserves and field hospitals. At this time, about 11.30 A. M., the fearful yells, fierce and numerous, which we had heard so many times before, came to the ears of our waiting men.

Lieutenant General Stephen D. Lee, my classmate at West Point and a comrade in the spring of 1857 in Florida, was assigned by the Richmond government to command the army corps which had been led by Hood before his promotion. S. D. Lee's assumption of his command was of the same date as mine. Hood, as soon as he divined Sherman's design of threatening his line of supply on his left instead of his right as heretofore, meditated a plan of resistance similar to that in his last battle, July 22d. Instructing Hardee with his corps and the Georgia militia to hold the Atlanta works, he ordered Lee to move out his three divisions to the Lick Skillet road, where, near Ezra Church, he would find Jackson's cavalry.

Hood also instructed Stewart to proceed with two [22] divisions of his corps to follow Lee and mass his troops near the place in the works where the Lick Skillet road left the city. Stewart, with a clear road, was to be there the morning of the 29th, to pass beyond Lee, gain ground, and attack, as far as possible, beyond my right flank. The roads were favorable to this flank movement.

When the fearful Confederate shouts, so strong and confident, reached our ears, every man along the exposed front line carefully knelt behind their slight defenses, or lay prone upon the ground with rifle in hand, gazing steadily through the forest toward the ominous sound.

Field and company officers gave a warning note: “Take steady aim and fire low at the word l” After a few minutes of waiting the men on the ridge caught glimpses of the approaching Confederates tramping steadily and rapidly through the underbrush.

Next, without any record of orders given, the fireat — will began. At first, only two or three heavy guns took any part, so that the roar came increasing and diminishing from rapid rifle firing. The Confederates used some cannon; limbs of trees were broken and fell; a few frightened men, as always, sprang away and ran toward the rear, some giving way on our extreme right.

Logan became greatly animated and rushed for all stragglers with drawn saber, and, assisted by his officers, drove them back to their commands.

On the skirmish line opposite our extreme right Major Charles Hipp, with the Thirty-seventh Ohio, aided by another regiment, had prepared a log house for defense, and thrown out his skirmishers right and left. To the left of him, on the lower ground, Colonel [23] W. S. Jones had two other regiments, with a section of artillery, in support of skirmishers and as an advance guard.

The first warning to Major Hipp was heavy firing to his left. He was evidently beyond the reach of the Confederates, though not of their skirmish line. Next, a shot penetrated his breast; still he remained at his post. When they came near enough, Hipp's regiment opened fire. Again he was shot, which caused him to fall from his horse.

Sergeant Ernst Torgler, who brought him off the field, received for it a medal of honor. The adjutant, Lambert, acting for the major, brought the regiment, fighting its way, without loss of order, all the way back to our main line. Colonel Jones also succeeded in retiring his command to its proper front. It was doubtless such temporary covers as these outside regiments had had which caused Confederate officers to think that they had driven back our men from a main line of works.

In my first report concerning troops called by me from Dodge and Blair, I used these words:

Four regiments were sent at once, but before their arrival the first shock had passed, the enemy having been driven back at every point except on the extreme right where there was scarcely more than a skirmish line to resist them. As soon as possible my aid, Captain Gilbreth, led up two regiments to prolong the right. Two others, led by my inspector general, Strong, followed to the same point.

Early in the action, remembering some remarkable experiences on other fields, I thought I would make assurance doubly sure. So I caused twenty-six pieces of artillery to be so arranged that they swept all the [24] ground beyond Logan's right flank, though but a few pieces of artillery were fired along his front, and the repulses, one after another, from the beginning of the Confederate attack to the close, were made mainly by riflemen.

The two regiments brought by Colonel Strong were armed with breech-loading rifles, the first used in the war. The Confederates at that point had kept bravely on. Some were tramping the rail piles; a few had passed them when those repeating arms began their work. The Confederate soldiers fell there; but few escaped death, wounds, or capture.

Knowing Sherman's desire for Morgan's division to come in on my right, something as Blucher did on Wellington's left at Waterloo, in the middle of the afternoon I sent word to Sherman about the situation.

Furthermore, as the contest was prolonged, and I had Dodge and Blair tied up against the Atlanta works which occupied them, I feared that Logan's men might weary. So, before night, I sent my brother, Lieutenant Colonel C. H. Howard, to Sherman for a brigade, which he sent at once, but it did not arrive until the action was over.

This was my first battle after taking command of the Army of the Tennessee, and I was delighted with the conduct of the officers and men. Major General Logan was spirited and energetic, going at once to the point where he apprehended the slightest danger of the enemy's success. His decision and resolution everywhere animated and encouraged his officers and men. The division commanders, Generals Woods, M. L. Smith, and Harrow showed gallant conduct and well-timed skill; they repelled many terrible and persistent attacks of the enemy. [25]

The number of the Confederate slain left in our front exceeded our entire loss-642. We captured five battle flags, 1,500 muskets, and many prisoners. After the battle of Ezra Church, Hood confined himself to the defensive as long as we were in the neighborhood of Atlanta.

That evening my ambition stimulated me to put in fresh troops in order to sweep the field and make a bold and strong effort to capture Atlanta; but Logan's men were much fatigued. Blair's and Dodge's had been on the qui vive all day within reach of the enemy's cannonade, constantly kept up, and Morgan's division had not succeeded in joining us; the Atlanta works were complete and strong, therefore my cooler judgment said, Let well enough alone.

After I had gone along the front lines and said what I could in appreciation of the wonderful defense made by our gallant soldiers, I simply ordered Logan to double his skirmish lines and press them beyond us as far out as practicable, and then give to the commands rest and quiet for the night. I soon learned positively that this terrible assault was made by my old friend and classmate, Lieutenant General Stephen D. Lee, commanding three divisions, while General Stewart's two divisions supported him.

Under cover of the darkness General Lee withdrew from my front, after giving us a slight show of life through the firing of his artillery and infantry rear guard. Then he hastened within the protection of the strong forts of Atlanta.

1 General Stephen D. Lee at this writing, 1907, is the Commander of the Society of Confederate Veterans, with his home at Jackson, Miss. He is much esteemed by all who know him. General Lee and I are the last surviving commanders of independent armies in the field during the Civil War. [26]

The letter which I wrote that day from the field of battle was as follows:

Major General W. T. Sherman, Commanding Military Division of the Mississippi.
General: The corps of Hood attacked us to-day at 11.30 A. M. on the right of my line, mainly opposite the Fifteenth Corps, with lines extending beyond my right flank. The assaults were pertinaciously kept up for four hours, with scarcely any intermission, and were invariably repulsed. The enemy's dead lay thickly on our front. We took several stands of colors and quite a number of prisoners. General Logan bore the brunt of the battle, and his command acquitted itself nobly. Generals Blair and Dodge weakened their lines to the lowest limits in order to extend his flank and reinforce him at any point. Our casualties were small, owing to the fact that we had just covered ourselves with rough barricades. Some of Polk's (Stewart's) command was engaged in the last assaults. I will make a more specific report as soon as I can get the requisite returns from the different commands.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant, O. O. Howard, Major General.

There is one letter that I find in the public records which I have never seen till now. I shall prize it as I do the “thanks of Congress.” It is from Sherman, addressed to Schofield the evening of that memorable day. It reads:

General Howard's conduct to-day had an excellent effect on his command. After the firing had ceased, he walked the line, and the men gathered about him in the most affectionate manner, and he at once gained their hearts and their confidence. I deem this a perfect restoration to confidence in themselves and the leader of that army.

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