A Confederate soldier manning the fortifications surrounding Atlanta wrote of the surprise in learning the Federals had vacated the earthworks outside the city: “No one seems to know what the enemy intends to do, whether he is retreating or on another flank movement. If the latter, he has never taken his whole army with him; therefore, it looks like a retreat. I suppose Gen. Hood knows.”
Gen. John Bell Hood, commanding the Army of Tennessee, did not yet fully apprehend the meaning of the Federal maneuvers away from Atlanta. He would soon discover Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s next target in his continuing bid for control of the besieged city.
Seeking to again strike the railroads supplying Hood’s army after previous cavalry operations failed to do the job, Sherman turned to his infantry. The Northern commander ordered every corps save one of his three armies to march away from their earthworks on Aug. 25, 1864, heading southwest for the Macon & Western Railroad.
Four days later, Capt. Orlando Poe, Sherman’s chief engineer officer, observed “the greater part of the army … at work destroying the railroad, which was effectively done for about twelve and a half miles. … The enemy did not attempt to disturb us.”
The solitude afforded those tying “Sherman’s neckties” would soon change, as Hood learned through reconnaissance of the Federal movements. Lt. Gens. William Hardee and S.D. Lee received orders to deploy to Jonesboro and attack what Hood believed was only a small portion of Sherman’s force. In reality, the vast majority of Sherman’s three armies awaited the approaching Confederates.
Hardee arrived in Jonesboro the evening of Aug. 30; Maj. Gen. Pat Cleburne encountered skirmishers en route, and the resulting fight delayed his arrival until 9 a.m., Aug. 31. Lee arrived later the same day and placed the last of his troops at the ready during the early afternoon hours.
According to the Confederate plan of battle, Cleburne would launch the attack, and when Lee heard the sound of Cleburne’s guns hitting the Federal right, he would strike the left. But Lee, hearing skirmish fire, mistook the reverberations for Cleburne’s full advance and prematurely ordered his troops into battle. Lee’s force was decimated in the ensuing melee.
Cleburne made a gallant effort, driving the Federals back and capturing two artillery pieces. Col. Charles Olmstead with the 1st Georgia Infantry participated alongside Cleburne and later noted the action of the day provided “as fine an exhibition of warlike power as could be imagined.” Still, the fight began to come unglued for the Southerners. Lee’s weakened force could not support Cleburne and the ground he had gained. Soon, the Confederates pulled back into a defensive position and waited.
Lee believed the attack “was a feeble one and a failure,” as his men “halted in the charge when they were much exposed … instead of moving directly and promptly forward against the temporary and informidable works in their front.”
During this lull in the action, Hood — fearing an attack from another direction on Atlanta — ordered Lee to return to the city. When fighting resumed Sept. 1, Hardee’s vastly outnumbered men had no chance to thwart the attacking Federals. A private in Cleburne’s Division lamented their inability to repulse the boys in blue, who advanced and “ran over us like a drove of Texas beeves.”
The Confederates suffered 2,000 casualties during the Battle of Jonesboro. Sherman lost 1,149 killed, wounded or missing.
But a greater blow befell Southern fortunes than the loss of her irreplaceable soldiers at Jonesboro. The evening of Sept. 1, Hood – realizing the Federals had cut the last rail line supplying his troops and were threatening to block the southern escape route for the Confederates – ordered the evacuation of Atlanta. The graycoats would give up the city they had fought so hard to save.
Hardee, in his post-campaign report, criticized his superior’s decision. He suggested the fall of Atlanta “does not date from the result of the battle of Jonesborough (wartime spelling), but from General Hood’s misconception of his adversary’s plans.”
Michael K. Shaffer is a Civil War historian, author and lecturer. He can be contacted at: www.civilwarhistorian.net