Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston did not have long to savor his victory of June 27, 1864, over the Federals at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. Even as the battle raged, elements of the Northern force had slipped around the left flank of the Army of Tennessee, and the invaders were moving on the Chattahoochee River.
The evening of July 2, Johnston ordered Confederate forces holding the Kennesaw Mountain Line to fall back toward Smyrna. The blue coats, who had fought so hard just a few days earlier to take the Southern position, found the trenches empty the morning of July 3.
Citizens of Marietta — at least those who remained in the area close to the fighting — witnessed boys in gray moving through the town, an ominous sign. Soon, the Federals occupied Marietta and transformed the area from a Confederate hospital center into one caring for the wounded soldiers from Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s armies.
Independence Day 1864 dawned along the Smyrna-Ruff’s Mill Line, as the Confederates fought a delaying action to safeguard the passage of wagons and other supplies to their next destination — the Chattahoochee River Line. The Chattahoochee was the last significant natural barrier between the Federals and Atlanta.
Earlier, in June, Johnston had granted permission to his chief of artillery, Brig. Gen. Francis Shoup, to begin construction of a unique series of earthworks and above-ground fortifications along the Chattahoochee. Eventually, the line stretched for six miles. It protected the Western & Atlantic Railroad crossing of the river, as well as the Mayson-Turner Ferry.
The formidable “Shoupades” gave Sherman pause. He telegraphed officials in Washington, indicating he “must study the case a little.” After further inspection and consultation with his chief engineer Col. Orlando Poe, the officers decided against a frontal attack. A change in tactics from those deployed thus far in the Atlanta Campaign seemed in order.
Rather than moving to the Confederate left, Sherman sent Maj. Gen. John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio and Brig. Gen. Kenner Garrard’s cavalry force to Johnston’s right, toward Roswell. The ruse worked. On the evening of July 8, and again the following day, elements of both Northern forces crossed the Chattahoochee.
Outflanked, Johnston’s position was no longer tenable. The evening of July 9, the Southern force fell back across the river.
By this time, Confederate President Jefferson Davis — who didn’t get along with Johnston anyway — was beside himself. Would Johnston ever take the offensive?
Davis sent Gen. Braxton Bragg to visit Johnston and ascertain the general’s plan for protecting Atlanta. Johnston offered up to Bragg and other Confederate government officials vague responses about defending the city, and no indication of a vigorous plan of action.
Davis had had enough. On July 17, he relieved Johnston of command and replaced him with Gen. John Bell Hood.
Hood had a reputation as a fighter. And with the Confederates’ backs to the walls outside Atlanta, Davis needed an aggressive commander.
Hood did not disappoint. Fighting three battles in just over a week, Hood threw the Army of Tennessee against the Federals.
On July 20, Hood believed he could attack Maj. Gen. George Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland as it crossed Peachtree Creek and defeat this force in detail before Schofield and Maj. Gen. James McPherson could reinforce it. Yet this strategically sound battle plan failed to achieve victory; the Southern brigades attacked in piecemeal fashion, rather than in an all-out, coordinated advance. The Battle of Peachtree Creek ended with the Northerners soundly in control of what is today Buckhead.
Two days later, executing another solid battle plan, Hood’s Army of Tennessee struck McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee in what became the largest engagement of the entire campaign – the Battle of Atlanta, also known as the Battle of Bald Hill. What was then rolling countryside is now the east side of the city, the vicinity of Memorial Drive and Moreland Avenue (the fight is depicted in the massive painting-in-the-round, the Atlanta Cyclorama at Grant Park).
Lt. Gen. William Hardee executed a sweeping march to the right, toward Decatur. His goal was to get in the rear of the Federals, where he would attack. At the same time, Maj. General Frank Cheatham — temporarily leading Hood’s old corps — would drop the hammer along the Federal front, which faced Atlanta on a north-to-south line parallel to Moreland.
Dusty roads, fatigued soldiers from days of recent fighting, and challenging terrain all slowed Hardee’s maneuver. Sensing the costly delay, Hood allowed Hardee to alter the plan of attack, opting instead for an advance on the flank rather than from behind the Federals. Hard fighting, and a breakthrough along the Georgia Railroad, almost produced a Confederate victory.
However, the rallying Federals turned the tide. When the roar of battle settled, the fighting east of Atlanta had claimed more than 12,000 combined casualties including McPherson, who was killed. The Northern line held, and the Confederates were back behind their defensive works.
Sherman next determined to sever the remaining rail lines into Atlanta; once the city was cut off, the Confederate army would have no choice but to abandon it. Northern troops had cut the Western & Atlantic to the north, and the Georgia Railroad to the east. South of the city, the Atlanta & West Point and Macon & Western remained in Southern hands.
Sherman first moved against the A&WP. He sent Maj. Gen. O.O. Howard’s corps around the west side of Atlanta toward that railroad.
Meanwhile, on the Confederate side, Lt. Gen. Stephen D. Lee, had just arrived from Mississippi to take over command of Hood’s former corps. Lee did not have to wait long to engage in battle on Georgia soil. Hood, aware of Howard’s movements, dispatched Lee along the Lick Skillet Road to intercept him.
On July 28, the two forces collided near Ezra Church. Lee — without orders from Hood to engage, and still awaiting the balance of his corps to arrive — attacked. The Federals easily repulsed Lee’s men, but failed to cut the A&WP.
The Macon & Western was Sherman’s next target. He planned a great cavalry raid involving the troopers of Brig. Gen. Edward McCook and Maj. Gen. George Stoneman. The horsemen rode out while the guns at Ezra Church roared; if everything went according to plan, they would unite near Lovejoy’s Station, where they would destroy the railroad before riding toward Macon.
Stoneman decided to head straight for Macon, hoping to reach Camp Sumter near Andersonville and liberate the Federal prisoners held there.
McCook arrived at Lovejoy’s Station, and instead of Stoneman, he encountered the Southern riders of Brig. Gen. William “Red” Jackson and elements of Maj. Gen. Joe Wheeler’s cavalry. McCook’s men had to fight their way out, and most did so.
Stoneman wasn’t as lucky. On July 31, near Sunshine Church, Confederate cavalry of Brig. Gen. Alfred Iverson routed the Northerners and took many prisoners, including Stoneman.
At the end of July, Hood continued to hold Atlanta — but had lost a third of his Army of Tennessee, now down to about 40,000 men. Peachtree Creek, Atlanta and Ezra Church had held the Federals at bay, but at a heavy cost of Southern lives.
Michael K. Shaffer is a Civil War historian, author and lecturer. He can be contacted at: www.civilwarhistorian.net