August 31, 1864 – Federal and Confederate forces clashed south of Atlanta as the Federals sought to cut the last Confederate supply line into the city.
Major General William T. Sherman’s three Federal armies shifted from north to south of Atlanta to cut the Macon & Western Railroad:
- Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio targeted Rough and Ready, about five miles south of Atlanta.
- Major General Oliver O. Howard’s Army of the Tennessee targeted Jonesboro, another five miles down the line.
- Major General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland targeted the area between Schofield and Howard.
General John Bell Hood, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee defending Atlanta, thought that Sherman had divided his army into two equal parts, with one staying north of the city and the other moving south. Hood therefore sent two of his three corps to Jonesboro, with Lieutenant General William Hardee in overall command. The force totaled about 24,000 men who were exhausted from marching all night. And none of the Confederates, including Hood, knew that they would be facing six of Sherman’s seven corps.
Howard’s Federals moved east toward Jonesboro, and the two leading corps entrenched themselves on high ground before the Confederates could get there:
- Major General John A. Logan’s XV Corps faced the railroad to the east.
- Major General Thomas Ransom’s XVI Corps formed a right angle to Logan’s men and faced south.
- Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry extended the Federal line to Ransom’s right. The combined force of Logan, Ransom, and Kilpatrick numbered about 17,000 men.
Hardee was delayed in getting his men into line. His own corps, now led by Major General Patrick R. Cleburne, held the Confederate left (south) at Lovejoy’s Station, and Lieutenant General Stephen D. Lee’s corps held the right (north) outside Jonesboro. Hardee planned for Cleburne to move north and make the major attack on Ransom while Lee launched a secondary attack against Logan.
Cleburne’s Confederates began moving north as planned, but they unexpectedly ran into Kilpatrick’s dismounted cavalry troopers. The lead Confederate division under Brigadier General Mark Lowrey turned west to face Kilpatrick’s force. According to Lowrey:
“About 3:30 p.m. the division moved forward in good order, and soon encountered the enemy in an open field, strongly posted behind breast-works, with four pieces of artillery. From prisoners taken the force was ascertained to have been cavalry dismounted, under command of the Federal General Kirkpatrick. Both artillery and small-arms opened vigorously on my lines, but after a short contest the enemy fled in confusion, and were pursued by my command with great impetuosity.”
The Confederates drove the Federals back across the Flint River but were stopped by Howard’s reserve XVII Corps. Meanwhile, Lee ordered his men to advance, unaware that Cleburne had engaged Kilpatrick, not Ransom. With their flank unprotected, Lee’s Confederates were sharply repulsed by Logan’s Federals. Hardee wanted to renew the assault, but Lee informed him that his corps could not do so. Lee suffered 1,300 of the 1,725 total Confederate casualties, while the Federals lost just 179 men.
Hardee reported, “It now became necessary for me to act on the defensive, and I ordered Cleburne to make no further attempt upon the enemy’s works. It is proper to state that the enemy were strongly intrenched and had one flank resting on the Flint River and both well protected.”
At 3 p.m., Major General Jacob D. Cox, commanding a division within Schofield’s army, seized the Macon & Western Railroad line about a mile below Rough and Ready. The Federals drove the Confederates away from the area and forced a supply train heading into Atlanta to go back to Macon. The last Confederate supply line into Atlanta was cut.
When Hood learned that the Federals were on the railroad line, he feared that they were targeting Atlanta. As such, he ordered Lee’s corps to return to Jonesboro at 6 p.m. This left Hardee hopelessly shorthanded. Hood later called the Confederate assault a “disgraceful effort” because it was not the all-out attack that he hoped it would be.
North of Atlanta, Sherman had kept Major General Henry W. Slocum’s XX Corps from Thomas’s army to hold the bridge over the Chattahoochee River. Now that Hood was scrambling to meet the threat to the south, Sherman told Thomas to have Slocum “feel forward toward Atlanta, as boldly as he can. Assure him that we will fully occupy the attention of the rebel army outside of Atlanta.”
Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 144-47; Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 404-05; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 451; 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 11010-41, 11072-82; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 492; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 563-64; 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; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 325-26