September 1, 1864 – After the heavy fighting the previous day, just one Confederate corps was left to face six Federal corps at Jonesboro, south of Atlanta on the Macon & Western Railroad.
General John Bell Hood, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee, feared that Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals were about to attack Atlanta. He therefore recalled Lieutenant General Stephen D. Lee’s corps from Jonesboro, about 10 miles south of the city. This left just Lieutenant General William Hardee’s corps still at Jonesboro to face six of Sherman’s seven corps.
The Confederates had outnumbered the Federals the previous day, but now the advantage was reversed. Hardee wrote to President Jefferson Davis, “Last night Lee’s corps was ordered back to Atlanta by General Hood. I recommended that he should evacuate Atlanta while it was practicable. He will be compelled to contract his lines, and the enemy has force enough to invest him. My instructions are to protect Macon.”
Davis, unaware that Hardee faced nearly Sherman’s entire force, responded, “If you can beat the detachment in front of you, and then march to join Hood, entire success might be hoped to result from the division which the enemy have made of his force.”
Hardee’s 13,000 exhausted men held defenses in front of the vital Macon & Western Railroad. There was a salient in the line, formed by Hardee’s right (north) division, which curled to the east. Two Confederate brigades held the apex of the salient.
Sherman did not realize that only Hardee’s men remained in his front until around 3 p.m. He then ordered XIV Corps to attack the salient, not waiting for IV Corps to come up in possible support. The Federals were to seize the railroad, which was the last Confederate supply line in and out of Atlanta. Rather than attack Hood in the city, Sherman intended to starve him out.
Various delays prevented the Federals from advancing until around 5 p.m. The Confederates initially held firm, but then XV Corps came up to the right of XIV, and the Federals attacked both flanks and the salient at the same time. They decimated the two brigades, penetrated the line, and took hundreds of prisoners. IV Corps finally came up on the Federal left.
Hardee rushed reinforcements to plug the gap in the line, and they held until sundown. This gave him enough time to withdraw the rest of his corps to Lovejoy’s Station, seven miles south. Had Sherman used his full strength, he might have destroyed Hardee’s corps. Nevertheless, the Federals seized the railroad, leaving Atlanta virtually defenseless.
Hood ordered his army to evacuate Atlanta. He initially planned to move north and attack Sherman’s supply line at Marietta, but then he opted to move south to Macon. This would keep his army between Sherman and the 30,000 Federal prisoners of war at Andersonville. Hood feared that these prisoners could be freed to join Sherman’s army, unaware that they were in no condition to give Sherman any help.
Lieutenant General Alexander P. Stewart’s corps led the movement, heading south to link with Hardee at Lovejoy’s. Lee’s corps, still at Rough and Ready en route back to Atlanta, reversed course and followed Stewart. The Federals sustained about 1,450 casualties in the two days of fighting around Jonesboro, while Confederate losses were not officially reported. According to Hood:
“On the night of the 1st of September we withdrew from Atlanta. A train of ordnance stores and some railroad stock had to be destroyed in consequence of the gross neglect of the chief quartermaster to obey the specific instructions given him touching their removal. He had ample time and means, and nothing whatever ought to have been lost.”
Major General Samuel French reported:
“There is confusion in the city, and some of the soldiers in the town are drunk. Common sense is wanted. The five heavy guns that I had ordered to be spiked by the rear guard at 11 p.m. were burned by order of the chief of ordnance at 5 p.m., a proclamation to the enemy in my front that we were evacuating the place. As soon as I started to leave the works some of Hood’s officers fired the ordnance trains. This should have been done the last of all, when the rear guard or pickets were withdrawn. Who would extinguish an ordnance train of bursting shells? So lighted by the glare of fires, flashes of powder, and bursting shells, I slowly left Atlanta, and at daylight on the morning of the 2nd we were not five miles out of the city.”
After midnight, Confederate cavalry comprising the rear guard burned supplies that could not be evacuated, including seven locomotives, 81 railcars, 13 siege guns, and numerous shells. The fires raged for hours and sparked massive explosions that could be heard at Sherman’s headquarters about 15 miles away.
Hood’s Army of Tennessee moved southward, slipping past the Federals on the railroad. Hood had been given command of the army for the specific purpose of saving Atlanta, but he had been unable to do so despite sustaining tens of thousands of casualties. Now this vital industrial and railroad center was lost to the Confederacy.
Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 179-80; Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 147-48, 151-52; 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 20947; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 452; 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 11031-72; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 492-93; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 564-65; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 29-30; 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