July 19, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal armies launched their long-anticipated drive on Atlanta.
As part of Sherman’s three armies made their way across the Chattahoochee River, Sherman directed them to take a rest, “and accordingly we took a short spell.” Sherman needed not only to regroup, but to find the Confederate Army of Tennessee and assess its defenses.
Two days later, Sherman dispatched cavalry under Major General George Stoneman to wreck railroads and deceive the Confederates into thinking that the main Federal force would cross the Chattahoochee below Atlanta. To help with the deception:
- Two corps from Major General James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee would cross above Atlanta and attack the Georgia Railroad.
- One of McPherson’s corps would remain to the right of Major General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland to support Stoneman.
- Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio would distract the Confederates in their front.
Sherman telegraphed Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck on the 14th: “All is well. I have now accumulated stores at Allatoona and Marietta, both fortified and garrisoned points. Have also three places at which to cross the Chattahoochee in our possession, and only await General Stoneman’s return from a trip down the river, to cross the army in force and move on Atlanta.”
Two days later, Sherman prepared to cross the Chattahoochee as McPherson conducted an enveloping movement around the north side of Atlanta toward Decatur. The Confederates continued strengthening their defenses near the Chattahoochee, from south of Peachtree Creek to the Atlanta & Decatur Railroad. General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate army, planned to attack when Sherman’s two flanks separated from the center.
The Federals began advancing on Atlanta on the 17th, with Sherman’s three armies moving like a wheel and crossing the Chattahoochee with Schofield’s army in the center. The Federals were now within eight miles of Atlanta. That morning, Johnston learned that the entire Federal force had crossed the river, apparently to move on Atlanta from the north and east.
Concerned that Thomas’s army may be moving too slow, Sherman wrote him, “Feel down strong to Peach Tree and see what is there. A vigorous demonstration should be made, and caution your commanders not to exhibit any of the signs of a halt or pause.” That night, Sherman learned that Schofield and McPherson had reached their objectives and would begin wrecking the Georgia Railroad at daybreak.
The next day, Sherman was discussing strategy with Thomas when a spy showed them an Atlanta newspaper reporting that Johnston had been replaced as Confederate army commander by General John Bell Hood. Sherman expressed hope that Hood, unlike Johnston, might actually come out into the open and fight, where the Federals could finally use their numerical superiority.
The Atlanta city council adjourned as the Federals approached. Meanwhile, Sherman directed Thomas to “press down from the north on Atlanta,” crossing Peachtree Creek and driving off the Confederates in the area. Schofield was to advance on Decatur (northeast of Atlanta) from the north, wrecking railroad track and telegraph wires along the way. McPherson was to advance on Decatur from the east, aiding Schofield if needed:
“Otherwise keep every man of his (McPherson’s) command at work in destroying the railroad by tearing up track, burning the ties and iron, and twisting the bars when hot. Officers should be instructed that bar simply bent may be used again, but if when red hot they are twisted out of light they cannot be used again. Pile the ties into shape for a bonfire, put the rails across, and when red hot in the middle, let a man at each end twist the bar so that its surface become spiral.”
By the 19th, two Confederate corps under Lieutenant Generals William Hardee and Alexander P. Stewart defended Peachtree Creek, north of Atlanta. Hood’s former corps, now led by Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham, guarded Atlanta to the east. The Federals began their advance, and, Sherman later wrote, “meeting such feeble resistance that I really thought the enemy intended to evacuate the place.”
Hood received word that Thomas was crossing Peachtree Creek, north of Atlanta, while the armies of Schofield and McPherson were at least two miles to Thomas’s left (east). Johnston had originally planned to attack the Federals if a portion of their force became isolated. Hood decided to adopt this strategy and attack Thomas’s isolated army before it could cross the creek and build defenses. That night, Hood gathered his commanders at his Whitehall Street headquarters in Atlanta and explained his plan:
- Hardee and Stewart would attack Thomas’s army and drive it west, away from both Atlanta and the other two Federal armies.
- Cheatham’s corps, along with Confederate cavalry and Georgia militia, would demonstrate against McPherson and Schofield to prevent them from helping Thomas.
- After Hardee and Stewart defeated Thomas, they would turn right (east) to join with Cheatham in defeating McPherson and Schofield.
Hood demanded that the attacks be “bold and persistent,” and the defensive works that the Federals were building were to be seized at the “point of the bayonet.” For Hood to succeed, time was of the essence. However, instead of scheduling the attack to begin at dawn, he set it for 1 p.m. And the armies of Schofield and McPherson were not as far from Thomas as originally reported.
Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 81, 91-92; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 436-37; 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 8576-618, 8808-18, 9855-85; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 469-71; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 540, 542