July 22, 1864 – General John Bell Hood’s Confederates hoped to destroy a portion of Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal force by attacking the army east of Atlanta.
In keeping with his strategy at Peachtree Creek, Hood, commanding the Army of Tennessee, sought to isolate and destroy one of Sherman’s three armies approaching the vital industrial and transportation center of Atlanta. Hood’s target was Major General James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee, which held a north-south line less than three miles east of the city. According to Hood’s plan:
- Lieutenant General William Hardee’s corps would conduct a 15-mile night march around McPherson’s left (southern) flank and attack from the south and east.
- Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry would ride past Hardee’s corps to the Federal supply depot at Decatur in McPherson’s rear.
- Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham’s corps would attack McPherson’s right and center from the west.
Hood expected Hardee’s Confederates to attack at dawn, but they were exhausted from the night march and could not be brought up into attack formation until afternoon. During the delay, McPherson sensed that the Confederates might threaten his left and persuaded Sherman to allow him to bring up Major General Grenville M. Dodge’s XVI Corps from Decatur to reinforce his flank.
Dodge positioned his troops facing south, refusing the rest of McPherson’s line facing west. The Confederates attacked south of the Georgia Railroad, between Decatur and Atlanta, where Dodge’s Federals were waiting. The Confederates seemed surprised to see the enemy facing them, and they were repulsed. William Strong of McPherson’s staff recalled:
“They showed great steadiness, closed up the gaps, and preserved their alignments; but the iron and leaden hail that was fairly poured upon them was too much for flesh and blood to stand, and before reaching the centre of the open fields, the columns were broken up and thrown into great confusion.”
The Federals counterattacked and drove the Confederates back. However, McPherson soon discovered a gap between Dodge’s corps and Major General Francis P. Blair, Jr.’s XVII Corps to Dodge’s right (facing west). Confederates under Major General Patrick R. Cleburne surged forward to exploit the gap as McPherson called for troops to close it.
McPherson inadvertently rode up to Confederate skirmishers, and a captain demanded his surrender. The captain later wrote, “He checked his horse slightly, raised his hat as politely as if he was saluting a lady, wheeled his horse’s head directly to the right and dashed off to the rear in a full gallop.” The skirmishers killed him with a bullet near his heart. Federals repulsed the skirmishers and recovered McPherson’s body, which they loaded into an ambulance and sent to Sherman’s headquarters. The Army of the Tennessee’s command temporarily passed to Major General John A. “Blackjack” Logan.
Federals rushed forward to plug the gap between XVII and XVI corps, holding firm against Cleburne’s assaults. To the west, Cheatham’s Confederates attacked the Federals at Bald Hill and other points around 3 p.m. The Confederates penetrated the line of XV corps near the Georgia Railroad, but Logan rallied the troops by yelling, “McPherson and revenge, boys! McPherson and revenge!” The Federals eventually drove the Confederates back.
Farther east, Federals were driven out of Decatur by Wheeler’s troopers, but the Federals saved all the army’s ordnance before withdrawing. Wheeler’s position became untenable when he learned that Hardee had not broken the Federal left, and he ordered a withdrawal. With no breakthroughs anywhere along the battle lines, Hood finally ordered his men to fall back.
The Federals suffered 3,722 casualties (430 killed, 1,559 wounded, and 1,733 missing) out of over 30,000 effectives. Sherman wept over the loss of McPherson, whom Sherman believed was his most talented subordinate. He had McPherson’s body wrapped in a U.S. flag and conveyed to Marietta for interment.
The Confederates lost 7,000 to 10,000 from roughly 40,000 men. Cleburne’s division lost 40 percent of its strength, including 30 of its 60 highest-ranking officers. In five days as army commander, Hood had launched two attacks that not only failed to dislodge Sherman, but they cost more lives than former commander Joseph E. Johnston had lost in over two months. Hood again blamed Hardee for the defeat, even though Hood was not present during the fighting, just as he was not present during the Battle of Peachtree Creek two days before.
Despite such devastating losses, the Confederates still held Atlanta. They fell back to defenses around the city, and Sherman began planning to place Atlanta under siege.
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