Tag Archives: David S. Stanley

Tennessee: The Spring Hill Affair

November 28, 1864 – General John Bell Hood’s Confederate Army of Tennessee stood poised to attack the Federal Army of the Ohio at Columbia, Tennessee. But miscommunication led to an enormous missed opportunity for the Confederates.

By the morning of the 28th, Major General John Schofield’s Federals had fallen back north, across the Duck River, putting that waterway between themselves and Hood’s Confederates to the south. Hood still looked to attack, while Schofield hoped to avoid a confrontation before he could join Major General George H. Thomas’s Federal Army of the Cumberland at Nashville.

Confederate General J.B. Hood | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Hood looked to block Schofield from linking with Thomas by sending most of his army across the Duck River east of Columbia. This force would then move northwest around Schofield’s flank, ending up between Schofield and Thomas. Hood patterned this movement after Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s flanking maneuver at the Battle of Chancellorsville, and Hood hoped to match “the grand results achieved by the immortal Jackson.” Hood dispatched Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry and two infantry divisions eastward to find suitable fords across the river.

Confederate gunners launched a diversionary bombardment south of Columbia while Forrest’s cavalry crossed at various fords east of town. The river was so high that some men and horses had to swim across. The Confederates clashed with leading elements of Federal cavalry under Colonel Horace Capron, who reported, “My force sent across the Duck River has been driven back to this side by a heavy force, and I am now engaging him across the river.”

Lieutenant Colonel Stephen W. Presstman, the chief Confederate engineer, oversaw the construction of a pontoon bridge for the infantry to cross. Seeing cavalry and infantry moving beyond his left flank, Capron reported, “There is a heavy force of infantry, cavalry, and artillery pressing us; too strong for us; they are moving up on our left. I will hold them, if possible.”

The Federal cavalry soon discovered that there were too many fords east of Columbia to defend. Schofield notified Major General George H. Thomas, the Federal commander at Nashville, “I do not think we can prevent the crossing of even the enemy’s cavalry, because the places are so numerous. I think the best we can do is to hold the crossings near us and watch the distant ones.”

That night, Thomas told Schofield that if the Confederates outflanked him to the east, “you will necessarily have to make preparations to take up a new position at Franklin, behind Harpeth (River), immediately, if it becomes necessary to fall back.”

Forrest’s Confederates finally drove Capron’s forces off and seized Rally Hill, about 13 miles northeast of Columbia. There they secured the fords so the rest of Hood’s army could cross the Duck River. The troops would cross about three miles above Columbia at dawn on the 29th.

Brigadier General James H. Wilson, commanding the Federal cavalry, learned of Hood’s plan from a captured Confederate. He immediately notified Schofield, “I think it very clear that they are aiming for Franklin, and that you ought to get to Spring Hill by 10 a.m. I’ll keep on this road and hold the enemy all I can… Get back to Franklin without delay, leaving a small force to detain the enemy.”

Spring Hill was a crossroads hamlet on the turnpike leading north to Franklin and Nashville. If Hood could get there before Schofield, he could cut Schofield off from the Nashville supply base. Before dawn, Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham’s Confederate corps crossed the Duck River, followed by the corps of Lieutenant General Alexander P. Stewart. Hood’s third corps under Lieutenant General Stephen D. Lee remained south of Columbia as a diversion.

Schofield received the messages from Wilson and began pulling his Federals back toward Spring Hill, led by Major General David S. Stanley’s IV Corps. Forrest’s Confederates advanced toward Spring Hill and engaged a small defense force before Stanley’s men could arrive and secure both the village and the turnpike for the rest of Schofield’s men.

Major General Patrick R. Cleburne’s Confederate division joined the assault around 3 p.m. Stanley reported, “Up to this time, it was thought that we had only cavalry to contend with, but a general officer and his staff, at whom we sent some complimentary shells, were seen reconnoitering our position, and very soon afterward General Bradley was assailed by a force which the men said fought too well to be any dismounted cavalry.”

The Confederate attack was bogged down by miscommunication, with some troops advancing and others refusing. Hood did not send any reinforcements to break Stanley’s defenses, which held firm. Around this time, Schofield realized that Lee’s Confederates south of Columbia were merely a diversion, and he hurriedly withdrew all his Federals north along the turnpike to Spring Hill and Franklin, 12 miles beyond.

Hood erroneously believed that his Confederates had seized the turnpike. His officers, knowing otherwise, were shocked when Hood ordered them to bivouac for the night rather than continue moving. As the Confederates settled into their camps, the Federals passed them on the turnpike, just 600 yards away, and made their way through Spring Hill unmolested.

This inexplicable failure to stop Schofield’s escape prompted charges and countercharges of dereliction of duty among the Confederate high command. In his official report, Hood wrote, “Major-General Cheatham was ordered to attack the enemy at once vigorously and get possession of the pike, and, although these orders were frequently and earnestly repeated, he made but a feeble and partial attack, failing to reach the point indicated.” But Hood, who had sustained serious wounds in prior battles, may have been too overwhelmed by pain and exhaustion to know exactly what was happening.

Called the “Spring Hill Affair,” this became one of the most controversial non-combat events of the war. And one of Hood’s greatest opportunities to isolate and destroy Schofield’s Federal army was forever lost.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 552; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21115-25; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 493-94; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 525; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 601-03; McMurry, Richard M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 710; 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. 811; Nevin, David, Sherman’s March: Atlanta to the Sea (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 88-89, 91-93; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 285-86

Hood’s Tennessee Campaign Begins

October 22, 1864 – General John Bell Hood led his Confederate Army of Tennessee out of Gadsden, Alabama, intending to move north and redeem both Tennessee and Kentucky for the Confederacy.

Confederate General J.B. Hood | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Hood planned to move 30 miles northwest to Guntersville on the Tennessee River. He would cross that waterway there and then push north. General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate Military Division of the West over Hood, allowed Hood to commandeer Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry for the campaign. But Forrest was at Jackson, Tennessee, and Hood did not wait for him to join the army before moving out.

The plan was quickly compromised when the Confederates found Guntersville too heavily defended by Federals to penetrate, and the Tennessee too high to cross there. Hood therefore redirected his army toward Decatur, 45 miles west.

Major General William T. Sherman, commanding the Federal forces that had pursued Hood into Alabama, thought that Hood was still at Gadsden. He had received permission to stop chasing Hood and instead march through Georgia to the Atlantic coast. Sherman left the job of dealing with Hood to Major General George H. Thomas, who commanded a portion of his Army of the Cumberland at Nashville.

Sherman notified Thomas that the Confederates might be trying to implement the plan that President Jefferson Davis had recently described in a public speech. He warned Thomas that Hood “may go on to perfect Davis’ plan for invading Tennessee and Kentucky to make me let go of Atlanta. I adhere to my former plan, provided always you can defend the line of the Tennessee. Decatur and Chattanooga must be held to the death.”

Believing that Beauregard had replaced Hood as Confederate army commander, Sherman explained that he would leave a force for Thomas to defend important Tennessee cities such as “Nashville, Murfreesborough, Pulaski, and Columbia.” Thomas was to remain on the defensive “unless you know that Beauregard follows me south. If Beauregard attempts Tennessee it will be from the direction of Decatur.”

Meanwhile, the Federal XV Corps under Major General Peter J. Osterhaus moved toward Gadsden to try learning Hood’s intentions. Skirmishing occurred on the 25th as the Confederates headed west, resulting in the capture of some prisoners. Osterhaus reported:

“The information received, however, from those who fell into our hands and from the citizens was not very definite in regard to General Hood’s movements. All agreed that his army had left Gadsden and moved in a western direction. The exact whereabouts could not be ascertained. Rumor placed them near the Tennessee River.”

Based on this vague information, Sherman informed Thomas that if Hood went to Guntersville, Sherman’s Federals will “be after it.” If Hood continued west toward Decatur, “I must leave it to you for the present and push for the heart of Georgia.” Thomas told Sherman that based on reports from Brigadier General Robert Granger, commanding the Federal District of Northern Alabama, “Hood’s army is threatening to cross the Tennessee River at various places between Guntersville and Decatur.”

On the 26th, Hood’s Confederates arrived outside Decatur and found it too heavily guarded to force a river crossing. Hood therefore redirected his men toward Courtland, another 20 miles west. General Richard Taylor, commanding the Confederate Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana in which Hood was operating, directed Forrest to join Hood’s army. Hood felt that being detoured to the west actually worked to his advantage because it brought him closer to joining forces with Forrest. However, Forrest was caught up in his own operations and was delayed in linking with Hood.

Hood arrived at Courtland the next day, where his engineers informed him that they did not have enough pontoons to span the river. This forced Hood to continue moving west to Tuscumbia, another 25 miles downriver, where he hoped to use a partially demolished railroad bridge to get his army across the Tennessee. The vital element of speed was lost, and the delays gave the Federals time to build defenses.

Beauregard met with Hood near Courtland. He expressed dismay that Hood had moved west without notifying him, and also that he had not yet crossed the river. Hood blamed Forrest for this, reporting, “As I had not a sufficient cavalry force without his to protect my trains in Tennessee, I was compelled to delay the crossing and move farther down the river to meet him.”

Still unaware of Hood’s exact intentions, Sherman led his Federals back toward Atlanta on the 28th. He notified Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck that he would prepare “to carry into effect my original plan” of marching to the sea. In the meantime, “I will await a few days to hear what head he (Hood) makes about Decatur, and may yet turn to Tennessee; but it would be a great pity to take a step backward. I think it would be better even to let him ravage the State of Tennessee, provided he does not gobble up too many of our troops.”

In another update, Sherman told Halleck that he was “pushing my preparations for the march through Georgia.” He then asked Halleck to send reinforcements to Thomas so Sherman’s Federals would not have to return to Tennessee. Sherman wrote, “I do not want to go back myself with the whole army, as that is what the enemy wants.” Privately, Sherman said of Hood, “Damn him! If he will go to the Ohio River, I’ll give him rations. Let him go north, my business is down south.”

Sherman continued preparing to march away from Hood as October ended. He dispatched IV and XXIII corps to reinforce Thomas, which he believed “would enable General Thomas to defend the railroad from Chattanooga back, including Nashville and Decatur, and give him an army with which he could successfully cope with Hood should the latter cross the Tennessee northward.” Sherman reorganized his remaining four corps into two wings:

  • XIV Corps under Major General Jefferson C. Davis and XX Corps under Major General Alpheus Williams, formerly part of the Army of the Cumberland, would now be the Army of Georgia, led by Major General Henry W. Slocum.
  • XV Corps under Osterhaus and XVII Corps under Major General Francis P. Blair, Jr., remained the Army of the Tennessee, led by Major General Oliver O. Howard.

Meanwhile, Hood’s Confederates continued having problems crossing the Tennessee due to high water and strong Federal defenses. They finally crossed at Tuscumbia and drove Federal cavalry out of Florence. Tuscumbia would be Hood’s headquarters and supply base for the Tennessee incursion. Hood then informed Beauregard that his men lacked food, shoes, and other necessities. This message shocked Beauregard, who thought that Hood would not have begun this campaign without first gathering the necessary supplies. He scrambled to establish a railroad supply line to Tuscumbia.

On the last day of October, Major General David S. Stanley, commanding the Federal IV Corps, received confirmation that the Confederates were crossing the Tennessee at Florence. Stanley’s troops were at Athens, 40 miles east of Hood. Stanley began moving his Federals to Pulaski, Tennessee, where he expected Hood to attack.

As Stanley’s men left, Granger received alarming (but false) reports that the Confederates were targeting Athens. Stanley gave Granger permission to abandon the garrison there if he felt threatened, and he did so. However, as Stanley later reported, “Athens was evacuated on false rumors. At 4 p.m., the same afternoon, by General R.S. Granger’s order, a very considerable amount of public property was destroyed, although no enemy had shown themselves between Elk River and the Tennessee.”

Not only was Hood poised to thrust into Tennessee, but Forrest’s Confederates were threatening vital Federal shipping on the Tennessee at Johnsonville. Sherman later wrote, “There is no doubt that the month of October closed to us looking decided squally; but, somehow, I was sustained in the belief that in a very few days the tide would turn.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21106; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 478-82; 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 12970-92; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 514-16; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 587, 590-91; Nevin, David, Sherman’s March: Atlanta to the Sea (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20-34

Hood Leaves Georgia

October 17, 1864 – General John Bell Hood led his Confederate Army of Tennessee in a desperate attempt to pull the Federals out of Georgia while trying to regain Tennessee and Kentucky for the Confederacy.

Confederate General J.B. Hood | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Up to this time, Hood had directed his men to attack Major General William T. Sherman’s main Federal supply line, the Western & Atlantic Railroad, between Atlanta and Chattanooga. The Confederates moved east toward Resaca, hoping to force the Federals out of their defenses and into an open fight. But by the 12th, Sherman was still unsure of Hood’s location and intentions.

One of Hood’s corps under Lieutenant General Stephen D. Lee descended on the lightly guarded Federal garrison at Resaca that day. The garrison commander, Colonel Clark R. Wever, deployed skirmishers to hold off the Confederates long enough to bring up some reinforcements, giving him about 1,200 men. But he was still hopelessly outnumbered.

Lee delivered a message to Wever through the lines on Hood’s behalf:

“Sir: I demand an immediate and unconditional surrender of the post and garrison under your command, and should this be acceded to, all white officers and soldiers will be paroled within a few days. If the place is carried by assault no prisoners will be taken.”

Wever replied, “Your communication of this date just received. In reply I have to state that I am somewhat surprised at the concluding paragraph, to the effect that ‘If this place is carried by assault no prisoners will be taken.’ In my opinion I can hold this post; if you want it come and take it.”

Hood had instructed Lee to attack the Resaca garrison only if he was sure that he could capture it “with small loss of life.” Lee opted not to attack, later reporting:

“The commanding officer refused to surrender, as he could have easily escaped from the forts with his forces, and crossed the Oostanaula river; I did not deem it prudent to assault the works, which were strong and well manned, believing that our loss would have been severe.”

Although the Confederates did not capture the Federal garrison, they succeeded in compelling all nearby Federals to concentrate there. This left the railroad to the north open for destruction. Hood’s men worked their way up the railroad, seizing Tunnel Hill along the way before arriving in front of the Federal garrison at Dalton on the 13th.

The Federal commander at Dalton, Colonel Lewis Johnson, was given the same surrender ultimatum as Wever. But for Johnson, the situation was more dangerous because not only was his garrison much smaller than Wever’s, but it was manned by black troops who would most likely be either killed or sent into slavery if captured. Johnson replied, “I cannot surrender the troops under my command, whatever the consequences may be.”

Skirmishing ensued as two Confederate corps came up to surround the fort. Johnson met with Hood and, after vainly protesting against Hood’s threat of no quarter, reported, “I surrendered the command as prisoners of war between 3 and 4 p.m. under conditions that the men were to be treated humanely, officers and white soldiers to be paroled, officers to retain their swords and such private property as they could carry.” Hood told Johnson that the black troops would be enslaved, despite Johnson’s protests and threats of Federal retaliation. Johnson wrote:

“Although assured by General Hood in person that the terms of the agreement should be strictly observed, my men, especially the colored soldiers, were immediately robbed and abused in a terrible manner. The treatment of the officers of my regiment exceeded anything in brutality I have ever witnessed, and a General Bate distinguished himself especially by meanness and beastly conduct.”

Some of the black troops were murdered, while the rest were sent into slavery, regardless of whether they had been slaves before joining the Federal army.

Meanwhile, the bulk of Sherman’s forces moved northeast from Rome to confront Hood. They reached Resaca on the 14th and then turned north toward Dalton. Major General Oliver O. Howard’s Army of the Tennessee was on the Federal left (west) while Major General David S. Stanley’s Army of the Cumberland was on the right. Major General Jacob D. Cox’s XXIII Corps from the Army of the Ohio was in reserve.

Howard intended to move through Snake Creek Gap on the 15th and turn Hood’s right. However, as Howard reported, “The enemy’s force was so small that a simple threat upon his right flank as if to turn it caused him to abandon the position and run over the ridge and through the gap.” The Federals pursued, slowed by felled trees in their path, until nightfall.

The Confederates fell back to La Fayette. Hood had succeeded in pulling Sherman out of Atlanta, but now two Federal forces opposed him from opposite directions: Sherman’s to the south and Major General George H. Thomas’s to the north. If Hood was going to fight Sherman as he told his superiors he would do, he needed to do it before Sherman and Thomas joined forces.

Hood called a council of war with his top commanders, who shocked him by voicing opposition to fighting a major battle. Hood contended that his “forward movement of 100 miles,” had given the troops “confidence, enthusiasm, and hope of victory.” Regardless, the “opinion was unanimous that although the army was much improved in spirit, it was not in a condition to risk battle against the numbers reported.”

The Confederates would not fight, but they could not stay where they were either. Therefore, Hood “conceived the plan of marching into Tennessee with a hope to establish our line eventually in Kentucky, and determined to make the campaign which followed, unless withheld by General (P.G.T.) Beauregard (his immediate superior) or the authorities at Richmond.” Hood hoped that this would force Sherman to leave Georgia and chase him down.

The Army of Tennessee moved west toward Gaylesville, across the Alabama state line. From there, Hood looked to establish a supply base at Gadsden before heading north into Tennessee. Hood did not know that Sherman had already received permission to destroy the railroad (which Hood did for him), halt the pursuit, and turn south for the Atlantic coast.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 475-76; 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 12862-72, 12925-35; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 509-10; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 584; Nevin, David, Sherman’s March: Atlanta to the Sea (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 29-32

Atlanta: The Federal Wheel Starts Turning

July 27, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman prepared to move his three armies around the west and south of Atlanta to try wresting that city from General John Bell Hood’s Confederate Army of Tennessee.

The Confederate attacks of the 20th and 22nd failed to destroy parts of Sherman’s Federal command, but they succeeded in keeping Sherman from reaching Atlanta from the north or east. Following the costly fight on the 22nd, both sides remained stationary in front of each other while their respective commanders pondered their next move.

Federal engineers completed construction on a bridge over the Chattahoochee River on the 25th. The 90-foot-high bridge spanned 760 feet and was built in just five days. This enabled the delivery of supplies to a base behind Major General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland on Peachtree Creek, north of Atlanta.

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

As Sherman developed a plan to get to Atlanta, he wrote his wife Ellen, “We have Atlanta close aboard, as the sailors say, but it is a hard nut to handle. These fellows fight like Devils and Indians combined, and it calls for all my cunning and strength.” President Abraham Lincoln wrote Sherman offering his “profoundest thanks to you and your whole Army for the present campaign so far.”

Sherman’s chief engineer, Captain Orlando Poe, concluded that the Confederate defenses on Atlanta’s perimeter were “too strong to assault and too extensive to invest.” Thus, Sherman decided to create a “circle of desolation” around the city. This would involve bombarding Atlanta and cutting off its four railroads, thereby starving it into submission.

The Federals already controlled the Western & Atlantic Railroad, which supplied them from Chattanooga. They had done extensive damage to the Georgia Railroad running east to Augusta, and the Atlanta & West Point running southwest into Alabama. Only the Macon & Western, running southeast to the Atlantic Coast, remained to supply the soldiers and civilians in Atlanta.

Laying partial siege to Atlanta, Sherman planned to shift his armies from north and east of the city to west and south in a counterclockwise movement. His objective was the intersection of the Atlanta & West Point and Macon & Western railroads at East Point, southwest of Atlanta.

The Federal armies were arranged in a rough semicircle, with Thomas’s army north of Atlanta, Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio to Thomas’s left (northeast), and Major General John A. Logan’s Army of the Tennessee to Schofield’s left (east). Sherman intended to shift Logan’s army to Thomas’s right, so that the semicircle ran from north to west.

Before Sherman began, he had to choose a permanent commander for the Army of the Tennessee. Logan had temporarily taken command after Major General James B. McPherson was killed on the 22nd. Many officers and men wanted to keep Logan, but Thomas protested that Logan was not a professional soldier. The ranking corps commander was Major General Joseph Hooker, but Sherman detested him. He therefore chose Major General Oliver O. Howard as the new commander.

Hooker protested being passed over by the officer he blamed for his disastrous defeat at Chancellorsville in May 1863. He submitted his resignation, calling the decision “an insult to my rank and services.” Thomas, Hooker’s corps commander, “approved and heartily recommended” that Sherman accept Hooker’s resignation, and Sherman quickly complied. Sherman’s decision caused resentment among supporters of both Hooker and Logan.

Major General Alpheus Williams temporarily replaced Hooker in command of Thomas’s XX Corps. Ironically, Hooker’s permanent replacement was Major General Henry W. Slocum, who had despised Hooker ever since Chancellorsville. Williams held command until Slocum arrived from Vicksburg. Howard was replaced in command of Thomas’s IV Corps by Major General David S. Stanley.

Once Howard’s army shifted to the right, Schofield’s and Thomas’s would follow suit, moving along the Chattahoochee River toward East Point. Sherman also dispatched two Federal cavalry forces to harass the Confederate flanks and attack the Macon & Western Railroad from both the east and west.

Meanwhile, Hood remained poised to attack when the opportunity presented itself. Apprised of the Federal moves, he dispatched Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry to stop the Federal troopers. He then assigned two of his corps under Lieutenant Generals Alexander P. Stewart and Stephen D. Lee (newly arrived from Mississippi to take over from Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham) to stop the Federals from threatening the railroads southwest of Atlanta.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 132-33; Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 250-51; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 439-40; 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 10108-118, 10129-70; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 474-76; Kallmann, John D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 369-70; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 545-47; Pritchard, Russ A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 746-47

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