August 25, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals began a major movement to the west and south of Atlanta to cut the supply lines leading into the city and starve the Confederate Army of Tennessee into submission.
After failing to seize the railroad below Atlanta, Sherman, commanding the Federal armies in Georgia, admitted to his superiors that he was “too impatient for a siege.” Northern confidence that Atlanta would soon fall was replaced by southern confidence that the city would hold. A Wisconsin soldier wrote that “we make but little progress toward Atlanta, and it may be some time before we take the place.”
Sherman sought to cut the Macon & Western Railroad below Atlanta, the last supply line running into the city. But until he could develop a plan to get to that heavily guarded line, he opted to bombard the city. He wrote Major General Oliver O. Howard, commanding the Army of the Tennessee, “Let us destroy Atlanta and make it a desolation.”
The Federals emplaced siege artillery and Parrott rifles atop Bald Hill, overlooking the city, and began their barrage on the 9th. They fired an average of 5,000 rounds into Atlanta every day for the next two weeks, killing several non-combatants, including women and children. The bombardment was meant not only to destroy Atlanta, but to demoralize the citizenry.
General John Bell Hood, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee, had prevented Sherman from capturing Atlanta thus far, but he lacked the strength to drive the Federals off permanently. He therefore assigned Major General Joseph Wheeler to lead 4,500 cavalrymen on a raid of Sherman’s supply line, the Western & Atlantic Railroad, which stretched north into Tennessee. Hood hoped that wrecking the railroad would starve Sherman into falling back or attacking the strong Confederate defenses.
Wheeler was to ride north into Tennessee, leave half his command to operate against the railroad in that state, and return to Atlanta with his remaining men. He set out on the 10th, and over the next four days, he destroyed railroad track spanning 30 miles from Marietta to Dalton. Wheeler demanded the surrender of the Federal garrison at Dalton, but the commander refused. Federal reinforcements soon arrived, and Wheeler continued on, skirmishing with enemy pursuers along the way.
The Confederates did not cause the damage that Hood hoped; Sherman’s Federals quickly repaired the railroad and supplies continued getting to the armies as Wheeler veered off into eastern Tennessee for the rest of the month. Meanwhile, Sherman assigned Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick to conduct a cavalry raid of his own, leading 4,000 troopers and horse artillery in wrecking the two remaining railroads below Atlanta.
The Macon & Western ran south of Atlanta to Macon, and it also diverged into a second (Atlanta & West Point) railroad at East Point, which ran east to Montgomery, Alabama. However, the Confederates seldom used this line. Kilpatrick’s Federals reached their first objective, Fairburn, on the 18th, and destroyed a section of the seldom-used Atlanta & West Point. At the same time, Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio advanced along Utoy Creek, southwest of Atlanta. Sherman wanted Schofield to be the pivot for the rest of the Federals to swing west and cut off the city’s south side.
The next day, Kilpatrick’s force arrived at Jonesboro, a key depot on the Macon & Western Railroad. They kept the guards busy as they destroyed large amounts of supplies. The troopers then rode south along the railroad to Lovejoy’s Station. They began destroying more supplies and wrecking more track when they were suddenly confronted by Confederate infantry under Brigadier General William H. Jackson.
The two forces battled into the night, when Kilpatrick ordered a withdrawal back to Sherman’s lines. Jackson’s troops attacked the Federal rear guard and nearly surrounded the force, but Kilpatrick fought them off long enough to escape. He returned to the main Federal force two days later.
Kilpatrick reported that his men had wrecked enough of the railroads to prevent supplies from reaching Hood’s army for 10 days. Sherman hoped that this would force Hood to withdraw his starving army from Atlanta. However, the Confederates repaired the track and trains resumed their deliveries the very next day. The cavalry failed Sherman again. He later wrote, “I became more than ever convinced that cavalry could not or would not work hard enough to disable a railroad properly, and therefore resolved at once to proceed to the execution of my original plan.”
Sherman’s original plan involved shifting six of his seven corps around to the southwest to permanently cut the railroads and force Hood to either evacuate the city or give battle. This was risky because the Federals would be separated from their communication and supply lines, but Sherman preferred this to attacking the strong Confederate fortifications ringing the city. Sherman notified his superiors, “I will be all ready, and will commence the movement around Atlanta by the south, tomorrow night, and for some time you will hear little of us.”
The movement began on the night of the 25th, as troops of Major General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland left their trenches. IV and XIV corps began the circuitous movement, while XX Corps stayed back to guard the railroad bridge over the Chattahoochee River. Thomas would pivot on Schofield’s army, which consisted of XXIII Corps, below Utoy Creek.
The next morning, the Federal artillery bombardment stopped, and Confederates reported that the trenches north of Atlanta were empty. Hood believed that Wheeler had forced Sherman to fall back across the Chattahoochee. Residents even planned victory celebrations for that night. However, Wheeler’s men were in Tennessee, unable to inform Hood of the real reason why the Federals abandoned their northern trenches.
Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 139, 141, 143; Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 404-05, 819; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 517; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 446-48, 450; 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 10287-97, 10870-91, 10902-22; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 484-86, 488-90; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 554, 556-58, 560; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 450; 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. 755