July 31, 1864 – Confederates from the Army of Tennessee confronted and nearly wiped out one of Major General William T. Sherman’s cavalry commands trying to wreck the railroad south of Atlanta.
The Federal cavalry had underachieved in Sherman’s campaign thus far, but he decided to give the troopers one more chance to redeem themselves. As he moved his three armies west and south of Atlanta, Sherman dispatched two cavalry columns to raid the Macon & Western Railroad, the last major supply line in and out of the city.
Major General George Stoneman from the Army of the Ohio would lead 6,500 troopers around the east side of Atlanta, and Brigadier General Edward M. McCook’s 3,500 troopers from the Army of the Cumberland would ride around the west side. The forces would meet at Lovejoy’s Station, 23 miles south of Atlanta on the Macon & Western Railroad, where they would destroy the lifeline.
Stoneman persuaded Sherman to allow him to continue south and liberate the Federal prisoners of war at Macon and Andersonville, but only after the railroad was wrecked. As the forces moved out, Stoneman disregarded the railroad and headed straight for Macon, leaving Brigadier General Kenner Garrard’s division of 2,000 horsemen to raid toward the South River.
General John Bell Hood, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee, assigned Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry to stop the Federal raid. Wheeler’s 10,000 troopers quickly descended upon Garrard’s isolated command and routed it, forcing the Federals to retreat back north.
McCook’s Federals rode southwest and cut the Atlanta & West Point Railroad on the 28th, destroying about 1,000 Confederate wagons and plundering civilian property along the way. The troopers reached Lovejoy’s Station the next day, where they captured over 400 Confederates, burned another 500 wagons, and slaughtered nearly 800 horses and mules. The Federals began wrecking the railroad, but McCook ordered a withdrawal when Stoneman did not arrive as expected.
Wheeler’s cavalry caught up to McCook near Newnan and sent his men fleeing in retreat. The Confederates inflicted about 950 casualties while taking back most of the Confederate prisoners, 1,200 horses, and several wagons. McCook and the remnants of his scattered command escaped across the Chattahoochee River.
Meanwhile, Stoneman’s Federals reached the Ocmulgee River, opposite Macon, and began bombarding the town. A force of about 2,500 Confederates and Georgia militia repelled a half-hearted assault, and Stoneman withdrew. He soon found himself under pursuit by a detachment from Wheeler’s force. The Confederates caught up to them near Clinton, about 28 miles northeast of Macon, on the 31st.
The Federals were quickly surrounded near Sunshine Church. Two brigades escaped, but Stoneman and 700 troopers were forced to surrender. Ironically, many of Stoneman’s men were sent to the prison in Macon that they had tried to liberate. Confederates pursued and dispersed the remaining Federal troopers as they fled back to their lines.
This was one of the Federal cavalry’s greatest debacles of the war. Not only did the troopers fail to inflict any substantial damage on the Macon & Western Railroad, but nearly 2,000 of their number were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. Sherman, who had already thought little of cavalry before approving this operation, concluded that they “could not, nor would not make a sufficient lodgement on the railroad below Atlanta…”
If Sherman was going to capture Atlanta, he would have to rely on his infantry to do it.
Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 136-40; Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 721; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 440-41; 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 10191-201; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 474-79; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 546-47; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 405-06