August 30, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman’s three Federal armies worked their way to the west and south of Atlanta, threatening the key town of Jonesboro on the Macon & Western Railroad.
Sherman’s Federals continued moving around Atlanta to avoid directly attacking General John Bell Hood’s Confederate Army of Tennessee. Sherman hoped to use his force “against the communications of Atlanta, instead of against its entrenchments.” His main targets were the two railroads supplying Hood’s men in the city. The Federals were to cross the Atlanta & West Point Railroad below East Point and capture the Macon & Western at Rough and Ready and Jonesboro.
Major General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland moved out on the 25th, and the Army of the Tennessee under Major General Oliver O. Howard began moving the next day. The Confederates did not discover that Thomas was gone until it was too late, but they spotted Howard’s troops. Howard wrote, “The enemy seemed aware of our withdrawing during its progress and opened on us with artillery and considerable skirmish-firing, but, providentially, we had but one casualty, one poor fellow losing his leg by a round shot.”
Meanwhile, Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio demonstrated against the Confederate defenses at Utoy Creek, west of East Point. Thomas’s army moved past Schofield’s right and stopped at Camp Creek, southwest of Atlanta. Howard’s army continued past Thomas’s right flank.
Hood initially believed that Major General Joseph Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry raid was forcing Sherman to withdraw. One of Hood’s corps commanders, Lieutenant General Alexander P. Stewart, learned that the Federals were on the move but could not tell whether they were withdrawing; he reported that “thus far their whereabouts (have) not been ascertained.”
Hood reported on the 27th:
“Last night the enemy continued to change their position by their left and center. They have drawn back so that their left is now on the Chattahoochee at the railroad bridge; their right is unchanged, and they appear to be moving troops in that direction. They have no troops nearer than four miles of Atlanta.”
However, by that time the Federals were beyond the Confederate defenses below Atlanta, where they began their arc to the southeast. Confederate scouts soon reported that the Federals were operating near the railroad divergence at East Point, and, “They are constructing works rapidly.” To prevent Sherman from cutting the line, Hood dispatched Lieutenant General William Hardee’s corps to defend East Point, unaware that Sherman intended to move below that depot on his way east to Rough and Ready and Jonesboro.
Thomas advanced to Red Oak, down the Atlanta & West Point line from East Point, on the 28th. Howard’s army advanced further down the line to Fairburn. The Federals spent that day and the 29th wrecking the track, even though that railroad was seldom used by the Confederates. Sherman recalled how the men destroyed the railroad:
“The track was heaved up in sections the length of a regiment, then separated rail by rail; bonfires were made of the ties and of fence rails on which the rails were heated, carried to trees or telegraph poles, wrapped around and left to cool.”
These became known as “Sherman’s neckties,” or “Sherman’s hairpins.” The railroad was wrecked for six miles. Federals filled the railroad cuts with trees, brush, and live ammunition shells that would explode if any Confederates tried repairing the line.
The Federals began their eastward advance on the 30th. Schofield held the left (north) flank, moving toward Rough and Ready. Thomas held the center, moving between Rough and Ready and Jonesboro. Howard held the right flank, moving directly toward Jonesboro. Sherman rode with Thomas and told him, “I have Atlanta as certainly as if it were in my hand!”
Hardee reported that the Federals were moving east, and only then did Hood realize Sherman’s true objective. Hood held a council of war that night, where he announced that he thought Sherman had left part of his army north of Atlanta while sending the rest south. As such, he would keep Stewart’s corps in Atlanta’s defenses while he sent the corps of Hardee and Lieutenant General Stephen D. Lee to Jonesboro, with Hardee in overall command.
Hood directed Hardee, “Your corps will move to Jonesborough tonight. Put it in motion at once if necessary to protect the railroad.” He issued similar orders to Lee, with instructions for both to “attack the enemy, and drive him, if possible, across Flint River.”
As the day ended, Howard’s army had crossed the Flint River and was within two miles of Jonesboro. Thomas’s army was within six miles, having not yet crossed the Flint. Schofield’s army was within striking distance of Rough and Ready. Hardee’s Confederates began moving to Jonesboro, hoping to get there and launch their assault on the Federals while they were supposedly separated.
Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 141-44; Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 404-05; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20938, 20947; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 450-51; 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 10923-67, 10979-99; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 491-92; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 22-23; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 560-63; 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. 774