Civil War in Georgia, Week 17: Cavalry fails Sherman

In the days before airplanes, armored vehicles and radios, a military commander relied on cavalry to scout the countryside and keep track of the enemy. So when Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood – besieged in Atlanta in August 1864 – sent mounted troopers under Maj. Gen. Joe Wheeler north to strike the Federal supply line, the Western & Atlantic Railroad, his adversary spotted an opportunity.

Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman knew Hood was somewhat blind without his cavalry. In a dispatch to his superior in Washington, Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, Sherman wrote that he had “a tight grip on Atlanta,” and that he would take advantage of Wheeler’s absence to “reciprocate the compliment.”

“Tomorrow night, the Macon road must be broken. General Kilpatrick will undertake it.” Sherman was referring to the railroads supplying the Confederates and to his cavalry officer, Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick – whose own troopers nicknamed “Kill-Cavalry” for his reckless disregard for the safety of his men. Kilpatrick welcomed the chance for action. He promised Sherman to “break the Macon road effectually at any point the major-general commanding may be pleased to indicate.”

Mounting up, 4,500 Federal cavalrymen – many equipped with Spencer repeating rifles – rode toward Sandtown, southwest of Atlanta, on Aug. 18.

One small Confederate force stood between Kilpatrick’s troopers and the Atlanta & West Point Railroad: Brig. Gen. Lawrence Ross and his 400 mounted Texans. Ross managed to retard Kilpatrick’s progress, but did not have enough troops to stop him. The Federals inflicted minimal damage on the A&WP before turning toward Jonesboro, where – due to a mix-up in Confederate communications – reinforcements had not yet arrived, despite Ross having informed his superiors of the bluecoats’ movement.

Again, the Texans engaged the Federals. The Northerners’ superior numbers and rapid-fire Spencers proved too much for the defenders, and they were pushed back. Free to wreak havoc, blue-clad troopers destroyed several supply stations and burned the Clayton County courthouse.

Learning of Confederate reinforcements en route to Jonesboro, Kilpatrick and his company rode toward Lovejoy’s Station. Unlike the virtually unguarded status of Jonesboro, the next destination for the Federal troopers would soon get very crowded.

The resilient Ross and his Texans remained on the trail of the raiders, made their way to Lovejoy, and welcomed the arrival of Brig. Gens. Daniel Reynolds and Frank Armstrong. On Aug. 20, Reynolds led his Arkansas mounted infantry troops into the area as Armstrong’s cavalry – a group of rugged Mississippians – attacked the Northern soldiers.

Kilpatrick found himself hit from two directions: Confederate cavalry struck him in the front, while Ross struck in the rear. It was a very dangerous place to be.

Seeking the best way out of this Southern vise, “Kill-Cavalry” decided to break through the smaller of the forces surrounding his troops. Once again, the Texans faced another charge. Kilpatrick and his men fought through Ross’ line and headed back to the safety of the Federal camps outside Atlanta.

Misinformation proved the order of the day after the raid, as Sherman – repeating information received from his cavalry officer – sent a dispatch claiming Kilpatrick “destroyed enough road to last 10 days.”

The rumor mill remained in high gear. The Southern Recorder, an Atlanta newspaper, repeated local gossip in its Aug. 23 edition: “A detachment or brigade of Federal cavalry … struck the Macon & Western Railroad near Jonesboro. … Armstrong’s cavalry was in close pursuit, and it is said they succeeded in capturing the whole Yankee expedition, or the largest portion of it.”

The reality of both reports soon grew clear. Some 48 hours after the raid, the Federals noted the arrival of trains on tracks Kilpatrick supposedly had put out of commission for 10 days. The Confederates had the railroad repaired in only two.

Both sides sustained around 300 casualties, but Kilpatrick did not suffer the capture of his entire force, as the newspaper report indicated. Yet he and his mounted troopers may have lost something more significant: Sherman’s confidence.

Sherman abandoned any further notion of deploying cavalry in his bid for Atlanta. Instead, he would rely exclusively on the infantry. This decision would not bode well for Hood.

Michael K. Shaffer is a Civil War historian, author and lecturer. He can be contacted at:

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