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Chapter 37: Battle of Jonesboro

Sherman had three cavalry divisions of considerable strength-Ed. McCook's, 3,500 effectives, at Turner's Ferry, where the Chattahoochee was bridged; Stoneman's, 2,500, and Garrard's, 4,000, at or near Decatur, Ga., on his left.

The cavalry, except Garrard's, received its raiding orders and set forth to go south and carry them out. Sherman now for three or four days strengthened his right flank by putting two infantry divisions of Thomas in rear of my right for a reserve. Sherman was mainly waiting for the effect of this cavalry movement against the railroad about Jonesboro.

The first report that came to him, August 1st, to the effect that Ed. McCook's division had been defeated and captured, he stoutly discredited and disbelieved; yet he took prompt action in view of the possibility of such a disaster. He put all the garrisons guarding our depots and communications on the alert, brought Schofield's troops around to and beyond my right, and had Thomas send there also the whole of Palmer's corps.

Ed. McCook had done well at the first onset. He struck the railroad and did much damage, and finding no cooperation from Stoneman, drifted back with over 400 prisoners to Newnan. Here McCook was defeated [28] by General Alexander P. Stewart's infantry and lost his captured Confederates, and reported from Turner's Ferry his own loss as 600.

Stoneman, for some unaccountable reason, did not carry out Sherman's instructions at all. Coming from Decatur, he did not join McCook near Jonesboro. Instead of that, he passed off behind the Ocmulgee and went down on the eastern bank. A Confederate dispatch from Macon gave the result of his raid:

Stoneman, after having his force routed yesterday, surrendered with 500 men; the rest of his men are scattered and flying toward Eatonton. Many have been already killed or captured.

Sherman, after this sad experiment, declared that our cavalry “could not or would not make a sufficient lodgment on the railroad below Atlanta, and that nothing would suffice but for us to reach it with the main body.”

After the discomfiture and return of Ed. McCook and the other commanders, Sherman, with marvelous quickness, had our cavalry reorganized and resupplied. He now formed it into three divisions, under Garrard, McCook, and Kilpatrick. The latter, with his optimistic nature and fearless enterprise, had come back to us after the healing of his Resaca wound.

Hood then tried Sherman's cavalry plan on a larger scale. Forrest and Wheeler, with abundant horses, were sent against our long line of supply between Atlanta and Nashville; Forrest above and Wheeler below Chattanooga with hope of drawing Sherman away from Atlanta, so that Hood could fall on his rear with his main army. But these efforts of the Confederate cavalry were as effectually thwarted by Sherman as Sherman's cavalry had been by Hood.. [29] Hood at last acknowledged that he could not anywhere in our rear bring together sufficient force at important points on the line to compel our retreat.

Sherman tried one more raid, using the energy of our sanguine Kilpatrick. That general made his march with promptness, but soon came back. His report claimed three miles of railway track destroyed near Jonesboro, the capture of four cannon, spiking three and bringing in one; three battle flags and seventy prisoners of war. His visit, however, he owned, was shortened by encountering a brigade of Confederate cavalry and a Confederate infantry division.

Two days after Kilpatrick's return one would hardly believe that he had been defeated at all. His memory and his imagination were often in conflict, but we all liked his bright face and happy stories.

Meanwhile, the work of extending our line near Atlanta had gone on. Hood's intrenchments had followed suit, ever protecting his railroad, a vital line of supply. When Schofield and Palmer went to my right, Bate and Cleburne went to Hood's left.

Without too much detour, Sherman put upon Schofield the special work of striking a heavier blow than those we had been able to deliver since “Ezra chapel” and directed Palmer to report to Schofield. As Palmer asserted himself as senior in rank and would not help, Schofieldwas unable to carry out Sherman's wishes.

When Sherman criticised Palmer's course, he resigned, and Brigadier General Jeff C. Davis was promoted to a major general and sent to the command of the Fourteenth Corps. Schofield, though Palmer's junior, had been assigned to an army and department by the President. [30]

This friction occurred at a most unfortunate time in the face of the enemy and it caused delay and loss to us. I had always regarded General Palmer as a strong man, brave and resolute and of good judgment. Under similar circumstances to his, perhaps a little more aggravating, I served under a junior, biding my time. Of course, one must be guided by his sense of what is right; yet, in case of doubt, he ought to give the benefit of his doubt to his country's service.

At one period Sherman had heavy guns brought up and bombarded Atlanta, carrying into it terror and destruction. This was not sufficient, however, to induce Hood to surrender.

On August 16th, Sherman, being resolved to attack Hood's railway lines, issued his orders for the following movements: First: the Twentieth Corps was sent back to fortify and hold the Chattahoochee bridge. Second: Schofield's forces and mine to move on the station at Fairburn; then directly against the West Point railroad between Red Oak and Fairburn; Thomas was to follow up in support.

Forrest's and Wheeler's raids on Sherman's rear somewhat modified these orders, but Thomas began the execution of the first move on the night of August 25th.

The movement of the Twentieth Corps toward the rear, followed by the remainder of Thomas's command, which was going on toward our right flank, had the effect, as was natural, of deceiving the Confederate commander. The night of the 26th my move began. My army (of the Tennessee) was at the time 25,000 strong. We wakened the men quietly and turned our faces southward in two well-organized columns. [31] A guide was at the head of each; he had previously gone over the route of march and made himself acquainted with the maps. It was a solemn procession, every regiment coming without noise into its place; one brigade followed another until my late position was denuded of everything but a few skirmishers. The noise of the wagons and batteries in motion had been carefully provided against. As my staff officer, left behind to see the ground cleared and to report to me the final closing up of the rear guard, was congratulating himself that the whole work had been so noiselessly performed that the enemy had no suspicion of its operation, he was startled by a sudden artillery fire from the Confederate side; probably the very stillness of the night exaggerated the sound of the cannon. Round shot broke small trees and dropped branches to the ground, altogether too near the dim roadway which the men were pursuing.

I heard the firing, and for a few minutes feared that there might be a panic among some of our men; but my fears were rather born of previous experiences with other commands than from the knowledge of those Western veterans. At this time the men, without exception, resolutely continued their march.

The cannon shot and shell passed over us and beyond without great damage. A single soldier, however, was killed, and another wounded, having his leg broken. In the retrospect even this comparatively small loss excites our sympathy, for human life is precious.

When day dawned we were beyond the reach of danger from the rear. This march was the first that I had made in conjunction with Kilpatrick. He cleared [32] my way as rapidly as he could of the enemy's cavalry and artillery with it.

Whoever commanded that Confederate cavalry did it well. He made bridgeheads at the crossing of creeks; destroyed every bridge that would facilitate our march; he would make barricades of logs or rails in the edge of a wood, where it ran at right angles to our pathway.

When the enemy seemed too strong for Kilpatrick I sent forward a battery at a trot and infantry enough to protect it. As a rule, an effort of this kind was sufficient to clear the way, but now and then the Confederate cavalry would get so good a position, either at a creek crossing or in the forest, that it became necessary to halt all hands and send a regiment or a brigade around his flank, and so root him out.

I shall never forget that march. The country was mostly covered with trees, more or less dense, and it was rough, so that it was exceedingly hard to maneuver any considerable body of horsemen. Having now to do with cavalry, I was apprehensive of a surprise, particularly when the horses were crowded together in narrow roads; so I became quite happy and satisfied to see how Kilpatrick managed. He kept his guard so far out that all the irregularities of a cavalry bivouac did not much disturb him.

Logan, as wide awake by night as by day, passed across the Utoy and on to Camp Creek, near Fairburn. Blair, who led the other column, was followed by the Sixteenth Corps. Dodge had been wounded after Ezra Chapel and was obliged to retire for a time. General Ransom, a young officer of great promise, was commanding his corps. With Kilpatrick on our right, we went into position according to our instructions. [33]

Very early on the 27th Kilpatrick drew out first and pressed on rapidly in order, if possible, to drive the enemy's outposts, scouts, and cavalry beyond the West Point Railroad. Feeling himself so well backed up, Kilpatrick was this time successful in holding on to the railroad.

Getting upon the railroad by twelve o'clock noon, I deployed in the usual manner, intrenched enough for protection in case of surprise, with the hamlet of Fairburn in plain sight. I put Kilpatrick out on our approaches so as to give us plenty of warning; Ransom was placed in reserve. Very soon the lively work of railroad breaking was undertaken. We could see different parties of the road destroyers; one party, now standing in a line, seized the rails and lifted all together, causing a long span to come up and be broken apart; another party, catching the ties, threw them upon a log fire to ruin them. Upon the top of a heap others piled the rails, each to be heated in the middle. Another group would run with a rail and push its hot part against a telegraph pole or tree, and run around the trunk in opposite directions.

The most effective disabling of a rail was done by using two short hand bars with a contrivance at one end of each to seize and hold the rail fast; two men at each hand bar turning the rail in opposite directions would make a twist. Two such twists prevented the use of a rail till it had gone again to a rolling mill.

Schofield had moved a little, enough to free his command for speedy work, and watched toward the east and north to cover all trains. Thomas had chasseed to the left, and he came up abreast of me at Red Oak Station; and we all, in the manner we have indicated, spent a day and a half crippling the West [34] Point Railroad. At this time, by the close of August 28th, one road for miles and miles was beyond military repair.

The fourth move for Jonesboro, not given in the preliminary orders, began at the dawn of August 30th. Logan moved along due east, taking the more northern road, guarding the left; while Ransom and Blair marched on a road to the right. The two roads came together near Shoal Creek. Kilpatrick cleared the way as before, and nothing of moment delayed our march till our junction.

At this creek the obstinacy of our foes increased, and we were obliged to halt and reconnoiter. Ransom used two regiments, and Logan at least a brigade, in support of the cavalry. Very soon the confronted barricades were abandoned and we marched on. Every half mile this operation was repeated till everybody became weary and impatient.

Just about sundown I was glad enough to reach Renfro Place, my destination. Everybody there, Union and Confederate, made a halt and began preparations for the night bivouac.

In the sand dunes I found no water for the command, and the Flint River was but six miles ahead. I had heard railroad trains and steam engines on the Macon road all day, and knew well enough that Hood was sending troops. The principal object of my move was plain enough: to seize Jonesboro and the railway as soon as possible. After a few moments' reflection I summoned Kilpatrick and asked him:

Have you an officer, general, who with a small body of cavalry can keep the enemy in motion, and not allow them to create delay between this Renfro Place and the river?


“Just the man, sir,” he replied.

Then he turned to Captain L. G. Estes, assistant adjutant general on his staff. In a few moments Captain Estes brought up a squadron of cavalry, two excellent troops. He moved off toward the Flint, first at a quick walk; then, as he neared the enemy's outposts, at a trot; and the Confederate commander, hearing the firing and seeing his outposts driven in, had no time to make barricades. He saddled up and retired as rapidly as he could. I put my infantry quickly upon the road, and with my staff took the lead, following the skirmishers ahead of me. I desired to get a view of the ground before darkness set in. There was a swift race for the river. Our infantry was so excited that they almost kept up with the cavalry. The Confederates made a brief halt at the bridge on the opposite side, firing upon us from the right and left, while some two or three men set the bridge on fire. Captain Estes's command was armed with Spencer repeating rifles. His troops deployed along the river bank and began their increasing fire, while other troopers dismounted and rushed for the burning bridge. These succeeded in extinguishing the flames, drove back the defenders, and speedily crossed over to the other side. It did not take long for our infantry, under the new excitement, to reach the river and deploy their own skirmishers in support of the cavalry.

Among the first I reached the bridge, delayed a few minutes to reconnoiter, and then crossed over, following up the troops. A few staff officers were with me, including Lieutenant Colonel Stinson, who had been so severely wounded at Pickett's Mill, and who had just returned from Cleveland, Tenn., convalescent, but not [36] entirely well. He was near me when the Confederates suddenly fired from the woods which fringed the opposite slope. A volley passed over our heads.

At that instant I saw Colonel Stinson spring forward in his saddle as if hit. I called to him:

Harry, are you hurt

“No, sir,” he answered; “the suddenness made me jump.”

That surprise was like a blow to him, for during the night his old wound opened, and he had a severe hemorrhage of the lungs. The next morning he left me for a time, but afterwards came and went as his strength permitted, though he never saw a well day again till the time of his death soon after the close of the war.

As soon as the skirmishers were over the bridge, they ran up the slope from the river. Logan led forward his entire corps and arranged it as well as he could in the darkness upon the crest of the ridge-Hazen's division to the left; Harrow on the right; Osterhaus in reserve-all facing Jonesboro.

That night we had nothing but skirmishing to worry us. The men were indeed strong and hearty, though very weary after their long and hard march; they worked the entire night intrenching by reliefs, to be ready in the morning against the attack which we were quite sure Hardee would bring against us. We ascertained that Hardee already had a part of S. D. Lee's troops in our front.

Kilpatrick, calling his men back, had moved off to my right and struck the enemy's advance in a cornfield. It became necessary for me to strengthen his hands, so I ordered Ransom to cover our right on the west side of the Flint with infantry and artillery, and [37] also to give Logan support on the east side upon Logan's immediate right.

Blair, who came up during the night, did the same thing for our left flank, sending one division across the river, which came into position early in the morning, considerably extending Logan's left. As soon as these dispositions were made the cavalry was ordered out farther to our right as far as Anthony's bridge.

By these prompt movements, I succeeded in taking a strong position very near to Jonesboro, and was enabled to save life by putting my command where its artillery could reach and sweep the Macon Railroad, which necessitated the enemy and not myself to take the initiative in the coming battle.

Schofield had been turned northward toward East Point, in order to protect the trains, and was for a time quite isolated from the rest of the whole force. Thomas had fulfilled his instructions, reaching the evening of the 30th a crossroad near Morrow's Mill.

Kilpatrick lost one battery near the river, in the swampy ground — for a time. The enemy was thus decoyed by him and his supports beyond the river, for a Confederate division crossed over and pursued him for a short distance. Nothing, even if I had planned it, could have been better done to keep an entire Confederate division away from the main battlefield.

Our line followed substantially the crest of the ridge, mostly covered with woods, though there were some open places.

Kilpatrick had some lively tilts with Jackson's cavalry after crossing Anthony's bridge, and both sides kept up a skirmishing and some cannonading beyond our front. We had expected Hardee's attack at dawn. [38] I had been misinformed with reference to the force already at Jonesboro. Hardee waited for his men to close up.

It occurred to me that I might open the battle as Grant did at Missionary Ridge, by a strong reconnoissance in force. I so ordered it. Probably fifteen minutes before the time set, the charging cries of our advancing foes met our ears. Our veterans understood very well what was coming, and with confidence awaited the charge. The most determined part of the assault was sustained by Logan's front, the enemy approaching to within an average distance of fifty to one hundred paces.

They were repulsed.

Between 2 and 3 P. M. again the enemy emerged from the woods, coming obliquely toward Corse's front. One of his brigades with Blodgett's battery fiercely met the Confederates and “sent them back.” Another battery opened, but did not seem even to delay the enemy in its front. Corse restrained Colonel Rice's command from firing till the Confederates had cleared the cornfield near by, so as to be in plain sight. Then they were met by a terrible sheet of fire from Corse's ranks.

A portion of the enemy's line broke and ran to the woods, while the rest in front of Rice's men sought shelter in a gully or washout deep enough to conceal a man, and were thus temporarily safe. Corse thereupon sent the Sixty-sixth Indiana Regiment rushing down the declivity into the gully, which drove them out and brought sixty Confederates back as prisoners. A part of Corse's men at first were without any cover, as was also the battery.

Hazen (of Logan) had sixteen regiments in line [39] and one in reserve. Against his front between 2 and 3 P. M. the Confederates made a vigorous cannonade.

In the open spaces two full lines could be observed. The first charge was tremendous, some of the enemy getting within Hazen's precincts, and the attack was persistently carried on for three-quarters of an hour.

But during this time Hazen's parapet kept up a fire against which no men could stand. Here Hazen's battle was decisive.

On Harrow's front the attack came a little later than on Hazen's. The artillery fire from the Confederate batteries reached his command from different directions; then after loud cheering the assault came. Harrow threw them into confusion with his artillery and then repulsed their two charges. So the first day of the Jonesboro battle ended.

It may be wondered why I did not immediately push in my reserves, as more than half my command had not been used in the conflict. Ambition would have spurred me instantly to take the offensive, but prudence and, I believe, good judgment led me to hold on till Sherman and the Army of the Cumberland came.

On the morning of September 1st, General Jeff. C. Davis, of Thomas's army, being at Renfro Place, moved up to my left flank. He instantly pushed on to Moulker's Creek, where he came upon my pickets. He then deployed to my left, engaged the enemy vigorously, and gallantly charged their works, breaking through in many places, capturing hundreds of prisoners and some batteries and also some trophies, making our victory complete.

Thomas and Sherman were together, not far from Davis's right flank. As soon as Davis's attack was [40] finished, Sherman directed me to send Blair's corps below Jonesboro and I expected him to cross the Flint as Kilpatrick had done the day before, but being delayed by the long march he arrived at so late an hour that the enemy was able to resist him at the bridge.

Sherman desired Thomas to get beyond Hardee's right flank and so cut off his retreat; but night came on and Hardee escaped.

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