July 21, 1864 – Following the Battle of Peachtree Creek, Federal forces seized an important ridge east of Atlanta.
General John Bell Hood, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee, held his positions north and east of Atlanta after the Battle of Peachtree Creek. His two corps under Lieutenant Generals Alexander P. Stewart and William Hardee faced the Federals on the creek to the north, while Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham’s corps faced the Federals to the northeast and east.
The Federals to the east consisted of Major General James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee. They had advanced to within three miles of Atlanta, but were stopped the previous day by Confederates under Major General Patrick R. Cleburne defending Bald Hill, a treeless ridge southwest of McPherson’s left flank. Whoever held this eminence had a clear view of Atlanta below.
Major General William T. Sherman, the overall Federal commander, wrote McPherson on the morning of the 21st, “I was in hopes you could have made a closer approach to Atlanta, as I was satisfied you had a less force and more inferior works than will be revealed by daylight, if, as I suppose, Hood proposes to hold Atlanta to the death.”
Sherman directed McPherson to advance so “your artillery can reach the town easily.” Sherman added, “In case he retreats it will be toward Macon, whither all the advance stores have been sent, and most of the provisions. I want him pursued vigorously for a couple of days.”
McPherson had ordered Major General Francis P. Blair, Jr.’s XVII Corps to take Bald Hill. The task devolved upon Blair’s 4th Division, led by Brigadier General Mortimer D. Leggett. The order had arrived too late to act on the 20th, so Leggett prepared to launch an attack the next morning.
Federal guns opened on the Confederate defenses at dawn, causing substantial damage. Confederate Brigadier General James A. Smith reported that the bombardment was “committing dreadful havoc in the ranks. I have never before witnessed such accurate and destructive cannonading.” This barrage helped McPherson’s infantry to attack the otherwise impregnable positions atop the hill.
Confederate artillery initially held the Federals off, but then they fixed bayonets and resumed their advance. The Federals reached the top of Bald Hill, which was desperately held by Cleburne’s infantry and cavalry under Major General Joseph Wheeler. Vicious hand-to-hand combat ensued, which Cleburne later called “the bitterest fighting” of his life. The Confederates were finally driven off, and Bald Hill later became known as Leggett’s Hill.
McPherson quickly began placing artillery on the ridge, enabling the Federals to fire into Atlanta below. Hood shifted reinforcements from his left to his right, while McPherson slowly extended his line southward, beyond the Confederate right. A standoff ensued, with Confederates holding a curved line that faced Major General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland to the north, Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio to the northeast, and McPherson’s to the east. Atlanta was just two miles behind the Confederates.
Wheeler’s cavalry shifted right to match the extending Federal line. As the Confederates moved, Cleburne noted that McPherson’s left flank was “in the air,” and therefore vulnerable to an attack. This led Hood to develop a daring gamble based on “Stonewall” Jackson’s march around the Federal flank at Chancellorsville. At a council of war that night, Hood explained his plan:
- Stewart and Cheatham would remain behind defenses facing Thomas to the east and Schofield to the northeast.
- Hardee would pull out of his positions between Stewart and Cheatham and move southeast, beyond Cheatham’s right and around McPherson’s vulnerable left.
This would require Hardee’s Confederates to make a 15-mile night march to Decatur, the Federals’ supply depot east of Atlanta. Then, once the troops were in place, they would attack McPherson’s flank and rear, pushing him back into Schofield and Thomas along Peachtree Creek, away from Atlanta. All commanders agreed, and the attack was to begin at dawn.
However, Hardee soon informed Hood that the men could not make 15 miles in the dark of night. Hood agreed to revise the plan so that Hardee’s men positioned themselves below McPherson’s left, not around it. The Confederates would then attack from the south instead of the east.
Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 95-97; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 523; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20929-38; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 439; 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 9922-53; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 472-73; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 543; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 433; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 753-54