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Civil War Series

The Campaign for Atlanta

   

BATTLE OF ATLANTA

The night was hot, the roads dusty, and Hardee's soldiers already were half-exhausted from two days of fighting and marching, having spent July 21 holding the Federals east of Atlanta in check. Soon it became apparent that they could not hope to reach Decatur by morning. Hood thereupon, at Hardee's request, modified his plan: Wheeler would proceed to Decatur, where McPherson's wagon train reportedly was parked, but Hardee would attack as soon as he got beyond McPherson's flank.

UNION SOLDIERS ARE PHOTOGRAPHED ON THE LINES BEFORE ATLANTA SHORTLY BEFORE THE BATTLE ON JULY 22. (LC)

Sherman, when informed early on the morning of July 22 that the enemy seemed to have withdrawn from in front of McPherson and Schofield, at once concluded that Hood was evacuating Atlanta and so instructed Schofield to occupy the city while the rest of the army gave pursuit. Then, on discovering that strong Confederate forces still occupied a line closer to Atlanta, Sherman decided that Hood intended to hold the place after all and that therefore the time had come to execute the strategy for taking it that he had outlined to Grant back in April: cut its railroad connections to the Confederacy. One of these, the line between Atlanta and Montgomery, already had been severed by a recent raid out of Tennessee into Alabama by Major General Lovell Rousseau's cavalry. Hence Sherman ordered McPherson to send Dodge's XVI Corps back to the Decatur area to wreak further destruction on the Georgia Railroad to Augusta, after which the Army of the Tennessee would swing north, then west of Atlanta to strike the Macon & Western Railroad, the breaking of which would completely isolate the city.

McPherson did not like this order and he went to Sherman to tell him why: large Confederate forces had been seen moving south and he feared an attack on his vulnerable left flank. Sherman, although he thought McPherson's concern was unwarranted, agreed to postpone the implementation of the order until 1 P.M. If by then the Rebels had not attacked, they never would.

The morning passed and no attack came. At noon Sherman sent a message to McPherson instructing him to direct Dodge to send Brigadier General John Fuller's division of the XVI Corps to Decatur to tear up tracks but to leave that corps other division, Sweeny's, where it was, namely to the rear of McPherson's flank to which point it had marched during the morning after having been posted the previous evening on the right flank of the Army of the Tennessee to plug a gap between it and the XXIII Corps. McPherson did as Sherman directed. But before his dispatch could reach Dodge, an increasingly loud sound of firing came from the southeast.

SPRAGUE'S BRIGADE AT DECATUR, GEORGIA. (BL)

It was Hardee, at long last launching his attack on the Union left and rear. Through no fault of his, its timing could not have been more unfavorable. Had it occurred either an hour sooner or an hour later, his two right divisions, Bate's and Walker's, would have met no opposition or only Sweeny's division. Instead, they encountered both Fuller and Sweeny. And to make matters worse, Bate's troops had to struggle across a swamp and Walker was killed by a Federal sniper before he could even deploy his division. As a result, the Confederate attack in this sector lacked cohesion and punch and soon was repulsed.

Likewise, Wheeler, although he took Decatur, failed to capture McPherson's wagon train, which escaped along with most of the Federals defending the place.

Cleburne's troops, on going into action, enjoyed better luck, for they happened to enter a wide gap between the right of XVI Corps and the left of the XVII Corps, which was at the south end of McPherson's line facing Atlanta. Furthermore, as they advanced McPherson himself, accompanied only by an orderly, came riding among them on his way to check the XVII Corps' situation after witnessing he XVI Corps beat back Bate's and Walker's attack. The Confederates yelled at him to surrender; instead he tried to escape and was shot dead from his horse. As he demonstrated on May 9 at Resaca, and two days earlier on the road to Atlanta, he was too lacking in aggressiveness to be a first-rate combat commander, but his caution served the Union cause well on July 22.

Pushing on, Cleburne's men struck the flank and rear of the XVII Corps while Cheatham's Division, still under Maney, assailed its front. These attacks, however, were uncoordinated, enabling the Federals to repel them by scrambling from one side of their entrenchments to the other. Not until after nearly two hours of bloody fighting did one of Cleburne's brigades join with one of Maney's to hit the Union line simultaneously in front and rear, causing the XVII Corps to fall back to a bald hill which, because of its height, dominated the battlefield and so was the key to it.

BATTLE OF THE BALD HILL, JULY 22
On the evening of July 21 Hardee's Corps, accompanied by Wheeler's cavalry, began marching southward with the object of swinging around the Union left flank to Decatur, where it would strike McPherson's forces, after which it was to join Cheatham's and Stewart's Corps in sweeping the rest of the Union army toward the Chattahoochee. When it became evident that Hardee could not reach Decatur by morning, Hood authorized him to attack on getting into the immediate rear of McPherson. Hardee could not accomplish this until afternoon on July 22. His two right divisions, Walker's and Bate's, encountered Dodge's XVI Corps, which repulsed them. Only Cleburne's and a portion of Maney's division succeeded in penetrating a gap between the XVI and XVII Corps, in the process killing McPherson, and then bending back the XVII Corps until it occupied a line facing southward that was anchored on an elevation called the Bald Hill. Hood sought to transform this partial victory into a complete one by having Brown's and Clayton's Divisions attack the XV Corps. Two of Brown's brigades broke through along the Georgia Railroad. But a counterattack by the XV Corps drove back Brown's troops and ended the Confederate threat in this sector. Even though Hardee continued to assail the Bald Hill until nightfall, he failed to seize it and the battle ended in another bloody defeat for Hood.

Hoping to help Hardee take the hill, Hood ordered Cheatham to attack the XV Corps, which was astride the Georgia Railroad and to the right of the XVII Corps. Thanks to an inadequately defended railroad cut, two brigades from Brigadier General John C. Brown's Division (formerly Hindman's) penetrated the XV Corps' line and captured a four-gun battery. Their success, however, was short-lived. A Union counterattack, personally led by "Black Jack" Logan, who had assumed command of the Army of the Tennessee on McPherson's death, drove the Confederates back and restored the XV Corps' front. To the south, Hardee continued to assault the bald hill with both infantry and artillery until after it was dark, but to no avail as its defenders held on grimly. (The hill became known as Leggett's Hill after the commander of the XVII Corps division that defended it, Brigadier General Mortimer Leggett, who after the war purchased it.)

CONFEDERATE TROOPS OVERRUN A UNION BATTERY DURING THE BATTLE OF ATLANTA. (FROM MOUNTAIN CAMPAIGNS IN GEORGIA)
THE PERIOD PRINT DEPICTING THE BATTLE OF ATLANTA SHOWS SOMEWHAT INACCURATELY THE DEATH OF GENERAL JAMES MCPHERSON. (LC)

Night ended what would be called the Battle of Atlanta, the largest engagement of the Atlanta campaign, one that cost the Confederates about 5,500 casualties and the Federals nearly 4,000, a large proportion of whom were prisoners from the XVII Corps. Again Hood failed in an attempt to smash a wing of Sherman's army, a failure he attributed to Hardee for allegedly not carrying out orders to strike the Union rear but which in truth was caused by the semifortuitous presence of the XVI Corps in position to protect that rear and the steady fortitude of the soldiers of the XVII Corps. On the other hand, Sherman deserved little credit for the Federal victory, a victory which probably would have been a defeat had not McPherson persuaded Sherman to modify his orders regarding the XVI Corps. Moreover, during Cheatham's attack on the XV Corps, Sherman rejected proposals from Schofield and Howard that their corps strike Cheatham's exposed left flank, a move that almost surely would have led to the rout of two-thirds of Hood's army.

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