May 27, 1864 – Federals and Confederates continued fighting in Georgia, as Major General William T. Sherman tried turning the Confederates’ right flank.
Sherman was now convinced that General Joseph E. Johnston’s entire Confederate Army of Tennessee opposed his Federals east of Dallas. But after the fight at New Hope Church on the 25th, Sherman was also convinced that Johnston’s right (north) flank could be turned. He directed Major General Oliver O. Howard’s IV Corps, along with supporting divisions, to do the job.
Howard led 14,000 Federals through dense woods to Pickett’s Mill, a grist mill two miles northeast of the “Hell Hole” at New Hope Church. By the time the Federals approached, Johnston had strengthened this sector of his line with Major General Patrick R. Cleburne’s division.
The Federals struggled through the brush to find the end of the Confederate line, and therefore did not get into attack positions until early evening. Both sides began exchanging fire around 6 p.m., when Howard received a message from Sherman urging him to disengage: “It is useless to look for the flank of the enemy, as he make temporary breastworks as fast as we travel.”
As Howard tried pulling back into the woods, the Confederates counterattacked and inflicted heavy losses. Howard, who was shot through the foot, later wrote:
“That opening in the forest, faint fires here and there revealing men wounded, armless, legless, or eyeless; some with heads bound up with cotton strips, some standing and walking nervously around, some sitting with bended forms, and some prone upon the earth–who can picture it? A few men, in despair, had resorted to drink for relief. The sad sounds from those in pain were mingled with the oaths of the drunken and the more heartless… That night will always be a sort of nightmare to me. I think no perdition here or hereafter can be worse.”
The Federals sustained about 1,600 casualties, while the Confederates lost no more than 500. Sherman made no mention of this defeat in his official report or his personal memoirs. He merely notified Washington, “We have had many sharp, severe encounters, but nothing decisive. Both sides duly cautious in the obscurity of the ambushed ground.”
The engagement at Pickett’s Mill prompted Johnston to try probing for weaknesses in other parts of Sherman’s line. He ordered Lieutenant General William Hardee’s corps to conduct a reconnaissance in force southeast of Dallas on the 28th. The Confederates advanced to a portion of the enemy line held by Major General James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee, specifically Major General John A. Logan’s XV Corps.
Fighting began around 3:45 p.m., with the Confederates pushing the Federals out of their entrenchments. Logan rushed up to his straggling men, shouting, “Damn your regiments! Damn your officers! Forward and yell like hell!” The Federals then counterattacked and drove the Confederates off. Both sides returned to their original lines as Sherman continued trying to find a way to outflank Johnston.
Sherman had initially planned for McPherson to pull out of the line and move north to extend the Federal left flank. But this changed when Sherman learned of the fight with Hardee’s Confederates. Sherman directed McPherson to stay put, hopeful that the dense forest between the two armies would prevent Johnston from noticing a wide gap between the armies of McPherson and Major General George H. Thomas. Johnston did not notice it, and Sherman did not notice a similar gap in Johnston’s line either.
Johnston held a council of war on the night of the 28th, where it was decided that Hood would shift his corps beyond Cleburne and attack the Federal left flank while the two corps of Lieutenant Generals Leonidas Polk and Hardee held the Federals in line on the center and right. However, this attack was aborted the next day when Hood discovered a Federal division blocking his proposed line of march. Johnston ordered the Confederates to resume strengthening their defenses.
The two armies remained within striking distance of each other on the 29th, with skirmishing taking place at various points along the line. Sherman tried moving McPherson’s army to the left that night, but Confederate picket fire prevented any major movements.
The next day, Sherman resolved to try getting his forces to Allatoona Pass, on the Western & Atlantic Railroad beyond his left flank to the northeast. He hoped to use Major General Francis P. Blair, Jr.’s XVII Corps to seize the pass, but Blair still had not arrived from Vicksburg. Sherman wrote, “As Blair cannot be expected as soon as I contemplated, I must use the cavalry to secure Allatoona Pass.”
Having a notoriously low opinion of cavalry, Sherman reluctantly tasked Major General George Stoneman and Brigadier General Kenner Garrard to lead their troopers in seizing the objective. He instructed them:
“If you find the road occupied, attack the cavalry with cavalry and the infantry with dismounted men, and force your way into and through the pass along the railroad till you secure some commanding position… Do not be deterred by appearances, but act boldly and promptly; the success of our movement depends on our having Allatoona Pass.”
During the night of the 30th, McPherson’s Federals successfully fell back from their entrenchments and closed the gap with Thomas’s army. Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio held the Federal left and launched diversionary attacks to prevent the Confederates from discovering McPherson’s shift. As May ended, Sherman was ready to shift his massive force northeast, around Johnston’s flank once more, to reconnect with the railroad and resume his drive on Atlanta.
Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 53-56, 59; Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 525; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20808; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 414-17; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7302-32; 7342-71; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 445-46; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 509-12