Tag Archives: Benjamin Hill

Georgia: Sherman Crosses the Chattahoochee

July 8, 1864 – Leading elements of Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal forces began crossing the Chattahoochee River and getting ever closer to the vital railroad and industrial city of Atlanta.

Maj Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate Army of Tennessee held strong defenses along the Chattahoochee, just eight miles northwest of Atlanta. President Jefferson Davis wrote Johnston that the army’s pattern of retreating made him “more apprehensive for the future.” Davis urged Johnston to hold firm on the north bank of the Chattahoochee, but he had no reinforcements to send.

Sherman, whose three Federal armies had forced Johnston to fall back southward from Marietta and Smyrna, observed the enemy positions from Vining’s Station and called them “the best line of field intrenchments I have ever seen.”

Sherman would not directly assault the Confederate defenses, having tried that and failed at Kennesaw Mountain. But neither would Sherman move against Johnston’s left flank as he had always done in the past either. Instead, Sherman would feint to the left and cross the Chattahoochee to Johnston’s right. According to Sherman’s plan:

  • Major General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland would demonstrate in the Confederates’ front, keeping them in their defenses.
  • Major General James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee, supported by Major General George Stoneman’s cavalry from the Army of the Ohio, would threaten Turner’s Ferry, downriver (southwest) from Johnston’s left.
  • Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio would cross the Chattahoochee at the mouth of Soap Creek, upriver (northeast) from Johnston’s right.
  • Federal cavalry would cross even farther upriver, near Roswell.

After two days of positioning and skirmishing, Sherman’s plan was ready for execution. McPherson and Stoneman began demonstrating against Turner’s Ferry on the afternoon of the 8th. Meanwhile, Schofield crossed the Chattahoochee at Pace’s Ferry, and Federal horsemen destroyed the textile factories at Roswell before crossing as well. The Federals secured high ground on Johnston’s right and began building a pontoon bridge that night.

The next morning, a group of Confederate congressmen visited Johnston and informed him that Davis expected the army to stop retreating and start fighting very soon. In fact, Davis had ordered Chief of Staff Braxton Bragg to come to Georgia and learn Johnston’s intentions. Specifically, Davis wanted to know if Johnston planned to give battle before Sherman reached Atlanta.

Johnston said to the congressmen, “You may tell Mr. Davis that it would be folly for me under the circumstances to risk a decisive engagement. My plan is to draw Sherman further and further from his base in the hope of weakening him and by cutting his army in two. That is my only hope of defeating him.”

The meeting was interrupted by news that Schofield’s army had crossed the Chattahoochee. Johnston announced that this was good news because it meant that Sherman had finally divided his army, making him vulnerable to attack. But Johnston did not attack; he instead issued orders for the army to fall back across the river to meet the new threat to its right. Thus, Johnston abandoned the last major waterway in front of Atlanta.

Sherman reported that his Federals were the “undisputed masters of north and west of the Chattahoochee.” His armies had made remarkable gains into Georgia since beginning their campaign two months before. Sherman wired Washington, “We now commence the real game for Atlanta,” which was “too important a place in the hands of the enemy to be left undisturbed, with its magazines, stores, arsenals, workshops, foundries, &c., and more especially its railroads, which converged there from the four great cardinal points.”

By Sunday the 10th, the Confederates were behind defenses at Peachtree Creek, a westward-flowing tributary of the Chattahoochee just four miles from Atlanta. Panic swept through the city as residents hurrying to evacuate caused major traffic jams on southbound trains. Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown called for every able-bodied man in the state to take up arms. The city soon had 5,000 men between ages 16 and 55 defending Atlanta.

Meanwhile, Georgia Senator Benjamin Hill arrived at Richmond following his conference with Johnston on the 1st. Meeting with Davis in the residential office of the Executive Mansion, Hill imparted Johnston’s suggestion that Nathan Bedford Forrest or John Hunt Morgan wreak havoc on Sherman’s supply lines in Tennessee. Davis said that neither officer was available; Forrest was opposing Federals in northern Mississippi and Morgan was just coming off a failed raid.

Davis then showed Hill a dispatch from Johnston announcing that he had just withdrawn across the Chattahoochee. Hill, who had hoped to get Davis to support Johnston, now joined Davis in turning against him. Discussing a command change, Davis said he knew “how serious it was to change commanders in the presence of the enemy,” and he “would not do it if I could have any assurance that General Johnston would not surrender Atlanta without a battle.”

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 76-80; Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 565-66; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20826; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 433-34; 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 8467-87, 8520-40, 8670-721, 8743-63; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 465-67; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 533-36; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 132-33, 305; 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. 751-52

Georgia: Johnston Falls Back to the Chattahoochee

July 1, 1864 – General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee, looked to fall back once again after Major General William T. Sherman’s three Federal armies threatened to outflank him north of Atlanta.

Confederate General J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

As July began, Johnston held a defensive line that included the Western & Atlantic Railroad and Kennesaw Mountain. The Confederates faced northwest, protecting the key cities of Marietta and Atlanta behind them. Sherman’s Federals were in their front, with Sherman looking to move around the Confederate left to avoid a second defeat after his sharp repulse at Kennesaw Mountain in late June.

The Confederate high command had grown increasingly dissatisfied with Johnston’s habit of retreating to avoid being outflanked. Senator Benjamin Hill of Georgia visited Johnston, his personal friend, to assess the military situation on the government’s behalf. Johnston explained that he had neither the strength to attack Sherman nor the size to prevent Sherman from wrapping his troops around the Confederate flank.

Johnston recommended assigning cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest or John Hunt Morgan to destroy Sherman’s supply line, which was the railroad running all the way from Georgia to Louisville, Kentucky. Johnston said that in just one day, Forrest or Morgan “could destroy the railroad to an extent that as to require two weeks or a month to repair it.”

Without supplies, Sherman would have no choice except to attack or retreat. If he attacked, Johnston was sure his army could defeat him. Hill asked Johnston about recent scouting reports stating that Sherman was trying to work his way around the Confederate flank again to cross the Chattahoochee River, the last waterway between the Federals and Atlanta. Johnston assured Hill that he could prevent Sherman from crossing the river for two months. In the meantime, Johnston would seek to block Sherman’s way to Atlanta while trying to destroy the Federals in sections.

On the Federal side, the rains ended and the roads dried enough for another movement around Johnston’s left (southern) flank. Sherman explained, “The object of the contemplated movement is to deprive the enemy of the great advantage he has in Kennesaw as a valuable watchtower from which to observe our every movement; to force him to come out of his intrenchments or move farther south.” According to Sherman’s plan:

  • Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio, facing the Confederate left, would shift southward to prepare for the flanking maneuver.
  • Major General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland, facing the Confederate center, would follow Schofield out of the line.
  • Major General James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee, facing the Confederate right, would move out of its line and march south behind Thomas to reinforce Schofield.

Above all else, Sherman urged, “All movements must be vigorous and rapid.” The Federals would stage a series of diversions to prevent the Confederates from learning their true intention. However, the Confederates discovered the movement almost as soon as it began on the 2nd.

Anticipating that Sherman would try this (though perhaps not so soon), Johnston had arranged for slaves to build defenses on a ridge along the Western & Atlantic Railroad at Smyrna, southeast of Marietta. The Confederates began moving out that night, abandoning the line they had held so strongly for nearly two weeks.

Sherman learned of the Confederate movement that night and, fearing an attack, ordered the part of McPherson’s army that had not started moving yet to stay put. It was not discovered until a few hours later that Johnston was retreating. Sherman wrote in his memoirs:

“By the earliest of dawn of the 3rd of July, I was up at a large spy-glass mounted on a tripod… I directed the glass on Kennesaw, and saw some of our pickets crawling up the hill cautiously; soon they stood upon the very top, and I could plainly see their movements as they ran along the crest just abandoned by the enemy. In a minute I roused my staff, and started them off with orders in every direction for a pursuit by every possible road, hoping to catch Johnston in the confusion of retreat, especially at the crossing of the Chattahoochee River.”

Sherman directed Thomas to pursue the Confederates. When probing Federals found them stopped outside Smyrna, Sherman told Thomas that night, “The more I reflect the more I know Johnston’s halt is to save time to cross his material and men. No general, such as he, would invite battle with the Chattahoochee behind him…Press with vehemence at any cost of life and material…” Meanwhile, McPherson’s Federals continued extending their right around Johnston’s left, moving closer to the Chattahoochee.

On the 4th, Major General Oliver O. Howard’s IV Corps in Thomas’s army advanced and skirmished with Confederates from Lieutenant General William Hardee’s corps north and west of Smyrna. When Howard reported that Confederate resistance was unexpectedly strong, Sherman replied, “You are mistaken, there is no force in your front.”

Howard launched a frontal attack, led by Major General David S. Stanley’s division. The Federals captured some of the forward rifle pits, but they were then forced to fall back under what Stanley called “the severest and most continued cannonade the rebels had ever used upon us.” Such strong Confederate resistance surprised Sherman because it indicated that Johnston intended to make a stand north of the Chattahoochee.

The Federals moving against Johnston’s left had better success. McPherson’s XVI Corps under Major General Grenville M. Dodge crossed Nickajack Creek and pushed back Lieutenant General John Bell Hood’s Confederates before Hood was reinforced by cavalry and state militia. The Federals fell back until they were augmented by more of McPherson’s men and Schofield’s cavalry. They counterattacked and secured positions a mile past Nickajack. This put the Federal right closer to the Chattahoochee than the Confederate left, thus ensuring that Johnston would have to fall back yet again.

Later that day, Johnston’s Confederates began withdrawing to a line six miles south of Smyrna astride the railroad on the north bank of the Chattahoochee. Slaves had been building defenses there since late June. Johnston directed the men to build pontoon bridges in case of another retreat. They were now just eight miles from Atlanta. Sherman’s Federals approached this new line of fortifications the next day.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 76; Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 565-66; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20817-26; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 432; 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 8425-77, 8649-69; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 463-65; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 531-33; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 132-33, 786-87; 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. 751

The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain

June 27, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals assaulted Confederates heavily defended on an eminence 15 miles north of Atlanta.

Sherman had resolved to directly attack the Confederate line anchored on Kennesaw Mountain. General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee, had strengthened his flanks to prevent them from being turned, so Sherman felt he had no choice but to try breaking through his center.

The 27th began hot and humid, with temperatures quickly reaching 100 degrees. At 8 a.m., 200 Federal guns opened on the Confederate lines, and Confederate gunners responded. A witness wrote, “Kennesaw smoked and blazed with fire, a volcano as grand as Etna.”

Sketch of firing on Kennesaw Mountain | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

A half-hour later, about 5,000 Federals from Major General James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee began advancing toward Little Kennesaw and Pigeon Hill, which were held by the Confederate corps led by Major General William W. Loring (formerly under Leonidas Polk). McPherson hoped to break the enemy defenses and isolate Loring to the northeast. About 5,000 entrenched Confederates awaited the Federals’ approach.

As the Federals scaled the steep ridges, Confederate artillerists fired down into them. When their guns could not be depressed any lower, the Confederates rolled rocks and other impediments down the hill. The Federals reached the forward rifle pits, with many using their rifles as clubs, but they could not reach the main line. The fight raged for two hours before the Federals were ordered to fall back.

About two miles south, 9,000 Federals began advancing across a mile-wide front at 9 a.m. They belonged to Major General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland. Facing them were two divisions of Lieutenant General William Hardee’s corps under Major Generals Patrick R. Cleburne and Benjamin F. Cheatham.

The Federals marched in columns to apply maximum power against specific points on the line, thereby increasing their chances for a breakthrough. However, this left them vulnerable to artillery, which cut swaths into the formations. The Confederate defenders noted the Federals’ bravery, with one recalling, “They seemed to walk up and take death as coolly as if they were automatic or wooden men.”

Only a few Federals managed to reach the Confederate lines, including Colonel Daniel McCook, who was killed after shouting, “Surrender, you traitors!” He was the fourth of 15 “Fighting McCooks” to die in combat. Vicious hand-to-hand fighting ensued, and this area of the field became known as the “Dead Angle.”

Thomas issued orders around 10:45 for the Federals to fall back, but those pinned down by enemy fire had to wait until nightfall. Sherman wrote Thomas at 1:30, “Do you think you can carry any part of the enemy’s line today?… I will order the assault if you think you can succeed at any point.” Thomas replied, “We have already lost heavily today without gaining any material advantage. One or two more such assaults would use up this army.”

Johnston, not yet aware of the extent of his victory, wired Richmond, “The enemy advanced upon our whole line to-day. Their loss is supposed to be great; ours known to be small.” But the Confederates were not in good shape, despite their victory. One soldier recalled:

“I never saw so many broken down and exhausted men in my life. I was as sick as a horse, and as wet with blood and sweat as I could be, and many of our men were vomiting with excessive fatigue, over-exhaustion, and sunstroke; our tongues were parched and cracked for water, and our faces blackened with powder and smoke, and our dead and wounded were piled indiscriminately in the trenches.”

The Federals sustained 2,051 casualties (1,999 killed or wounded and 52 missing), while the Confederates lost 442 (270 killed or wounded and 172 missing). These numbers were small compared to the terrible battles in Virginia, but they were the greatest losses in this campaign thus far. Sherman came under severe criticism for this failed attack, but he wrote in his report:

“I perceived that the enemy and our officers had settled down into a conviction that I would not assault fortified lines. All looked to me to outflank. An army to be efficient, must not settle down to a single mode of offence, but must be prepared to execute any plan which promises success. I wanted, therefore, for the moral effect, to make a successful assault against the enemy behind his breastworks, and resolved to attempt it at that point where success would give the largest fruits of victory.”

This was Johnston’s greatest tactical victory of the campaign. However, Sherman turned this into a strategic victory for the Federals when Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio extended its right flank beyond Johnston’s left. This allowed Sherman to turn Johnston’s flank once more, even though it would force the Federals to detach themselves from their supply line on the Western & Atlantic Railroad.

That night, Sherman wrote Thomas, “Are you willing to risk (a) move on Fulton, cutting loose from the railroad?” Thomas responded that such a move was risky, but, “I think it decidedly better than butting against breastworks 12 feet thick and strongly abatised.”

Sherman later wrote, “Satisfied of the bloody cost of attacking intrenched lines, I at once thought of moving the whole army to the railroad at a point about 10 miles below Marietta, or to the Chattahoochee River itself…” Kennesaw Mountain proved to be Sherman’s last large-scale frontal attack of the war.

Two days later, Federals and Confederates agreed upon a seven-hour truce to bury the dead and alleviate the overwhelming stench around Kennesaw Mountain. Confederates helped Federals drag bodies, using bayonets as grappling hooks, into deep trenches. The opposing soldiers fraternized, and some Federals impressed by General Cheatham’s leadership at the Dead Angle asked for his autograph.

Meanwhile, Sherman wrote to his wife, “I begin to regard the death and mangling of a couple of thousand men as a small affair, a kind of morning dash. It may be well that we become hardened… The worst of the war is not yet begun.”

Johnston soon learned that Sherman was trying to flank him again. But he was confident that Sherman would eventually overextend his supply line, leaving him isolated in enemy territory. This did not satisfy Johnston’s superiors, who were growing more impatient with his retreats. When Johnston told Richmond that he could not take the offensive without more men, General Braxton Bragg, advisor to President Jefferson Davis, expressed frustration:

“Every available man, subject to my control, has been sent to General Johnston, and he had retained several commands deemed absolutely necessary elsewhere, after receiving orders to move them. No doubt he is outnumbered by the enemy, as we are everywhere, but the disparity is much less than it has ever been between those two armies.”

Since this campaign began, Sherman lost nearly 17,000 men while Johnston lost just over 14,000. This represented 14 percent of Sherman’s total force and 25 percent of Johnston’s. Contrary to Johnston’s boasts that Federal supplies would soon run out, Sherman still had enough men to guard the supply line all the way back to Chattanooga.

As June ended, Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown issued a third call for state militia to oppose Sherman’s drive on Atlanta. President Davis informed Brown that he had sent Johnston “all available reinforcements, detaching troops even from points that remain exposed to the enemy.” Davis did not know what else he could do.

Brown then turned to Senator Benjamin Hill, a personal friend of Davis’s. Brown asked Hill to write the president and ask him to send more troops to Johnston. Hill replied, “Time is too precious and letters are inadequate,” and announced that he would consult with Johnston and then travel to Richmond in person.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 175-76; Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 18, 66-67, 75; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 481; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 82-84; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 430; 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 8328-48, 8371-424, 8638-58; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 462; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 23-24, 155-56; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 529-30; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 413; 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. 749