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
For more on the Civil War in Georgia, follow the AJC: http://www.ajc.com/s/opinion/ and http://www.myajc.com/s/battleofatlanta/