July 1, 1864 – General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee, looked to fall back once again after Major General William T. Sherman’s three Federal armies threatened to outflank him north of Atlanta.
As July began, Johnston held a defensive line that included the Western & Atlantic Railroad and Kennesaw Mountain. The Confederates faced northwest, protecting the key cities of Marietta and Atlanta behind them. Sherman’s Federals were in their front, with Sherman looking to move around the Confederate left to avoid a second defeat after his sharp repulse at Kennesaw Mountain in late June.
The Confederate high command had grown increasingly dissatisfied with Johnston’s habit of retreating to avoid being outflanked. Senator Benjamin Hill of Georgia visited Johnston, his personal friend, to assess the military situation on the government’s behalf. Johnston explained that he had neither the strength to attack Sherman nor the size to prevent Sherman from wrapping his troops around the Confederate flank.
Johnston recommended assigning cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest or John Hunt Morgan to destroy Sherman’s supply line, which was the railroad running all the way from Georgia to Louisville, Kentucky. Johnston said that in just one day, Forrest or Morgan “could destroy the railroad to an extent that as to require two weeks or a month to repair it.”
Without supplies, Sherman would have no choice except to attack or retreat. If he attacked, Johnston was sure his army could defeat him. Hill asked Johnston about recent scouting reports stating that Sherman was trying to work his way around the Confederate flank again to cross the Chattahoochee River, the last waterway between the Federals and Atlanta. Johnston assured Hill that he could prevent Sherman from crossing the river for two months. In the meantime, Johnston would seek to block Sherman’s way to Atlanta while trying to destroy the Federals in sections.
On the Federal side, the rains ended and the roads dried enough for another movement around Johnston’s left (southern) flank. Sherman explained, “The object of the contemplated movement is to deprive the enemy of the great advantage he has in Kennesaw as a valuable watchtower from which to observe our every movement; to force him to come out of his intrenchments or move farther south.” According to Sherman’s plan:
- Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio, facing the Confederate left, would shift southward to prepare for the flanking maneuver.
- Major General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland, facing the Confederate center, would follow Schofield out of the line.
- Major General James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee, facing the Confederate right, would move out of its line and march south behind Thomas to reinforce Schofield.
Above all else, Sherman urged, “All movements must be vigorous and rapid.” The Federals would stage a series of diversions to prevent the Confederates from learning their true intention. However, the Confederates discovered the movement almost as soon as it began on the 2nd.
Anticipating that Sherman would try this (though perhaps not so soon), Johnston had arranged for slaves to build defenses on a ridge along the Western & Atlantic Railroad at Smyrna, southeast of Marietta. The Confederates began moving out that night, abandoning the line they had held so strongly for nearly two weeks.
Sherman learned of the Confederate movement that night and, fearing an attack, ordered the part of McPherson’s army that had not started moving yet to stay put. It was not discovered until a few hours later that Johnston was retreating. Sherman wrote in his memoirs:
“By the earliest of dawn of the 3rd of July, I was up at a large spy-glass mounted on a tripod… I directed the glass on Kennesaw, and saw some of our pickets crawling up the hill cautiously; soon they stood upon the very top, and I could plainly see their movements as they ran along the crest just abandoned by the enemy. In a minute I roused my staff, and started them off with orders in every direction for a pursuit by every possible road, hoping to catch Johnston in the confusion of retreat, especially at the crossing of the Chattahoochee River.”
Sherman directed Thomas to pursue the Confederates. When probing Federals found them stopped outside Smyrna, Sherman told Thomas that night, “The more I reflect the more I know Johnston’s halt is to save time to cross his material and men. No general, such as he, would invite battle with the Chattahoochee behind him…Press with vehemence at any cost of life and material…” Meanwhile, McPherson’s Federals continued extending their right around Johnston’s left, moving closer to the Chattahoochee.
On the 4th, Major General Oliver O. Howard’s IV Corps in Thomas’s army advanced and skirmished with Confederates from Lieutenant General William Hardee’s corps north and west of Smyrna. When Howard reported that Confederate resistance was unexpectedly strong, Sherman replied, “You are mistaken, there is no force in your front.”
Howard launched a frontal attack, led by Major General David S. Stanley’s division. The Federals captured some of the forward rifle pits, but they were then forced to fall back under what Stanley called “the severest and most continued cannonade the rebels had ever used upon us.” Such strong Confederate resistance surprised Sherman because it indicated that Johnston intended to make a stand north of the Chattahoochee.
The Federals moving against Johnston’s left had better success. McPherson’s XVI Corps under Major General Grenville M. Dodge crossed Nickajack Creek and pushed back Lieutenant General John Bell Hood’s Confederates before Hood was reinforced by cavalry and state militia. The Federals fell back until they were augmented by more of McPherson’s men and Schofield’s cavalry. They counterattacked and secured positions a mile past Nickajack. This put the Federal right closer to the Chattahoochee than the Confederate left, thus ensuring that Johnston would have to fall back yet again.
Later that day, Johnston’s Confederates began withdrawing to a line six miles south of Smyrna astride the railroad on the north bank of the Chattahoochee. Slaves had been building defenses there since late June. Johnston directed the men to build pontoon bridges in case of another retreat. They were now just eight miles from Atlanta. Sherman’s Federals approached this new line of fortifications the next day.
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