Long march before Battle of Atlanta

150 years later, a reporter follows an army’s footsteps

The rain came intermittently, a pattering of silver drops that plinked on the brim of my canvas hat. In the distance I heard thunder, the dog day’s low growl.

This, I thought, was what they must have felt: the heat, the wet, the dirt. As the troops marched toward East Atlanta, hoping to surprise an army, they had to deal with another enemy: Georgia itself.

The rain increased. I cursed it. For a moment, standing under an oak tree growing on the edge of Moreland Avenue, I felt a connection with men who’d been here in 1864.

The Battle of Atlanta took place 150 years ago July 22. It began when Confederate and Union forces bumped into each other at the spot where Alonzo Crim High School stands today. In the melee that followed, nearly 9,000 soldiers fell. It was a Union victory. Commanding Gen. William Sherman watched the battle from the spot where the Carter Center stands now. A few months after that July 22, 1864, battle, he turned his smoldering gaze toward the sea.

For present-day Atlantans, the battle is part of our municipal identity, a footnote worth mentioning when out-of-towners visit. But how many people actually know about the night march that preceded the fight? Some history is in order.

Confederate Gen. John B. Hood, eager to hit the Yankees hard, ordered Lt. Gen. William Hardee’s corps and Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry to move under cover of darkness from Atlanta to surprise Union troops bivouacked east of the city, from Decatur to present-day Inman Park. They were under the direct command of Gen. James McPherson.

If the Confederates sneaked in behind the Union troops, Hood figured, they could attack from the rear. At the same time, Confederate Maj. Gen. Benjamin Cheatham would attack from the front. The Yankees would be in a vise.

But first, Hardee and Wheeler had to move thousands of troops through field, forest and bog. As the sun set July 21, 1864, they set out. Historians estimate they force-marched the men about 15 miles.

What was it like to make that march? I resolved to find out. If I took a wrong turn, too bad: I’d have to figure it out without the help of GPS.

The troops of 1864 had no such luxuries. In their night march, Confederates may have followed a path now roughly defined by several roadways, including McDonough Boulevard, Moreland Avenue, Fayetteville Road, Glenwood Avenue and Memorial Drive. Some of those roads’ shoulders are dotted with historic markers noting the troops’ progress.

I started my trek near the United States Penitentiary, leaving my car at a friend’s home nearby. In my backpack were three bottles of water, a cheese sandwich and a PB&J.

I walked to the gates of the penitentiary, a dismal place made even more grim by the lowering clouds. “Hey!” yelled a man standing outside a battered gas station. “You got a cigarette?”

I did not. I turned east.

McDonough Boulevard is defined by what’s not there anymore. There’s a sign advertising the Big House Car Wash, near the eastern edge of the penitentiary campus; the car wash itself is gone. A building’s steel skeleton, erected years ago, still awaits its brick skin. Abandoned homes and businesses turn shattered-glass eyes to passers-by.

The boulevard, like nearly every road in Atlanta, goes up, then down, then up again. The only flat land in Atlanta is what’s left behind a bulldozer.

After a half-hour of vigorous walking, I came to the spot where McDonough dead-ends at Moreland. A historic marker, put up six decades ago just yards from the intersection, explains the Southern strategy:

At this point the road turned toward South River.

So did the Confederates. I turned, too.

Moreland Avenue is narrow, busy and loud. It’s flanked on both sides with businesses that cater to transportation needs: used-tire stores, body shops and garages. It’s home to a Hubcap Daddy, where I once bought a wheel for an ancient pickup.

According to historians, the Confederates headed downhill roughly along the path Moreland now takes. They were looking for the South River, Atlanta’s lesser-known tributary. When they reached the river, the troops planned to swing northeast.

I headed northeast at Fayetteville Road, a narrow piece of blacktop that angles sharply through the backyards of a couple of car-repair joints before flattening again. I checked my watch: 3:15. I’d been walking an hour and 15 minutes.

Fayetteville Road wends past Thomasville Cemetery, a small collection of stones hiding under a hardwood canopy. The road intersects with train tracks where an orange BNSF locomotive, horn blasting, stopped my trek. I watched the train pass, shaking the ground, and succumbed to boyhood temptation: I threw a rock in an open container car.

The intermittent rain came to an end. The sun shoved aside a cloud and beamed at me. I did not return its bright gaze. The temperature rose.

Fayetteville runs into Key, which is hardly more than an asphalt path winding through a forgotten tract. It’s lined by weeds with serrated edges, populated by winged creatures that sting and bite. It’s the home of tire graveyards and unwanted mattresses.

It’s where Intrenchment Creek passes through an Atlanta wastewater treatment plant. A century-and-a-half ago, it was the home of Cobb’s Mill.

I stopped at the water plant, took a long drink of water from my backpack supply and read a marker:

Hardee’s A.C., consisting of 4 divisions, enroute N. to the rear of Federal forces in E. Atlanta, halted here at dawn to procure guides for a wilderness march ahead.

I looked ahead, where a white city of Atlanta pickup accelerated up a hill. The wilderness had been tamed.

Key leads to Bouldercrest, which, after Key’s desolation, looked like an interstate, busy with trucks and cars and motorcycles and one fat guy on a wobbly scooter. It winds past McNair High School, home of the Mustangs, where stone stallions rear from the school’s rooftop.

The road has sidewalks — why, I don’t know. I passed only one young couple, possibly McNair Mustangs. They regarded me with narrowed eyes: Why was a man my age not in a car?

After nearly a half-hour of walking, I came to the split in the road where Fayetteville Road picks up again from Bouldercrest. This was an important stop in the Confederate trek: It was at this Y-fork that the Southerners split ways. Two divisions pushed on toward East Atlanta, while the remaining two continued along Fayetteville Road for their date with Union forces.

The fork also is home to a Texaco. I stopped there for a Diet Coke and two packs of peanuts. I lingered in the store for a moment. If you ever want to appreciate air conditioning, stroll from the prison to the Bouldercrest Road Texaco.

Coke empty, the peanut bags crumpled, I stepped into the afternoon’s cloying heat and humidity. My feet took me to Fayetteville Road. I’d been on the march for two hours and 10 minutes.

Fayetteville Road is unremarkable. The only thing worth seeing is an odd sign in a yard, shaped like a house and painted pink. It features a smiling face, this anthropomorphic house. Be Nice, an artist painted on it. Do Right.

The road angled down, past ranch homes, before arching skyward again. A distant whisper became a close-up roar: I-20, passing below. Hard to imagine now, but the terrain where the Confederates passed all those years ago featured a hill where there’s now a gulch, cut to accommodate an interstate.

The interstate behind me, I gazed at Mount Gerizim Church of God Holiness, rising in the middle of a low, green lawn. At one time, this had been a lake, fed by Sugar Creek. It powered Terry Mill. At roughly this place, the Confederates turned west, skirting the water’s edge. They didn’t know it, but their march would soon come to an abrupt and dangerous end.

At this point, I made an error. In spite of advice from battle experts, I had mapped out a trek that continued north on Fayetteville Road, taking me off the path of the Confederates. It was only later that I realized the goof. Hoofing up an old sidewalk, I stopped a guy pushing a lawn mower.

“How far to Terry Mill Road?”

The mower looked at me with surprise. “Up that hill,” he said. “Way up that hill.

He was right. Winded, worn, weary, I reached Terry Mill and headed west. My trek took me to Glenwood, roughly back on the Confederate trail. I took that west, walking less than a quarter-mile to the Walker Memorial.

It’s one of those places motorists see only as they whiz by, a weed-choked triangle dominated by a cannon barrel pointed skyward. Behind it is a sign commemorating Confederate Gen. W.H.T. Walker. He was near that spot when a Union sharpshooter, hiding in the woods at Sugar Creek, took aim and fired. It was a good shot. He killed the general.

(On the Union side, McPherson also was killed that day. He’s remembered in a comparable monument located at the nearby corner of Monument and McPherson.)

Wilkinson Drive dead-ends at the Walker monument. It’s a short road, leafy and blessedly flat. I’d been walking three hours and 50 minutes when I turned and followed the road toward Memorial Drive, and the conclusion of my trek.

Halfway along Wilkinson, I looked to my left. A green field rolled flat and serene to Sugar Creek. I wanted to see the creek where so much blood was shed. It was in a culvert, buried in the earth. I sighed, looked at the hill rising before me, and started up.

It was the last hill, and the hardest. I got to the top, chest heaving. To my left was a baseball field, green and perfect. To my right was the rear of Crim High. I skirted a tennis court and strolled onto the school’s parking lot. A security guard gawked.

I smiled.

“Do you know what happened here 150 years ago?”

Nikia Broxton shook her head.

“The Battle of Atlanta,” I said. “It started” — I pointed in the general direction of Crim’s front yard, where picnic tables stood under old trees — “right there.”

“I didn’t know that,” she said. “I’m from Savannah.”

I wiped sweat from my face. “Well,” I said, “when they were through here, they headed your way.”

I walked across Memorial to Clay Street, where a historic marker stood in the middle of the sidewalk. BATTLE OF ATLANTA BEGAN HERE, it announced.

A considerate someone had dumped a sleeper sofa on the edge of the street. I sat on its arm and called my wife to come get me. My march was over.

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