American Civil War: Battle of Atlanta

Battle of Atlanta
Palisades and chevaux-de-frise in front of the Potter House, Atlanta, Georgia, 1864. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

The Battle of Atlanta was fought July 22, 1864, during the American Civil War (1861-1865). The second in a series of battles around the city, it saw Confederate troops achieve some success before being halted by Union forces.  In the wake of the fighting, Union efforts shifted to the western side of the city.

Armies and Commanders

Union

    Confederate

    Strategic Background

    Late July 1864 found Major General William T. Sherman's forces approaching Atlanta. Nearing the city, he pushed Major General George H. Thomas' Army of the Cumberland toward Atlanta from the north, while Major General John Schofield's Army of the Ohio neared from the northeast. His final command, Major General James B. McPherson's Army of the Tennessee, moved towards the city from Decatur in the east. Opposing the Union forces was the Confederate Army of Tennessee which was badly outnumbered and undergoing a change in command.

    Throughout the campaign, General Joseph E. Johnston had pursued a defensive approach as his sought to slow Sherman with his smaller army. Though he had been repeatedly flanked out of several positions by Sherman's armies, he had also forced his counterpart of fight bloody battles at Resaca and Kennesaw Mountain. Increasingly frustrated by Johnston's passive approach, President Jefferson Davis relieved him on July 17 and gave command of the army to Lieutenant General John Bell Hood.

    An offensive-minded commander, Hood had served in General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and had seen action in many of its campaigns including the fighting at Antietam and Gettysburg.

    At the time of the change in command, Johnston had been planning an attack against Thomas' Army of the Cumberland.

    Due to the imminent nature of the strike, Hood and several other Confederate generals requested that the command change be delayed until after the battle but they were denied by Davis. Assuming command, Hood elected to move forward with the operation and he struck at Thomas' men at the Battle of Peachtree Creek on July 20. In heavy fighting, the Union troops mounted a determined defense and turned back Hood's assaults. Though unhappy with the result, it did not deter Hood from remaining on the offensive.

    A New Plan

    Receiving reports that McPherson's left flank was exposed, Hood commenced planning an ambitious strike against the Army of the Tennessee. Pulling two of his corps back into Atlanta's inner defenses, he ordered Lieutenant General William Hardee's corps and Major General Joseph Wheeler's cavalry to move out on the evening of July 21. Hood's attack plan called for the Confederate troops to swing around the Union flank to reach Decatur on July 22. Once in the Union rear, Hardee was to advance west and take McPherson from the rear while Wheeler attacked the Army of the Tennessee's wagon trains. This would be supported by a frontal assault on McPherson's army by Major General Benjamin Cheatham's corps.

    As the Confederate troops began their march, McPherson's men had entrenched along a north-south line east of the city.

    Union Plans

    On the morning of July 22, Sherman initially received reports that the Confederates had abandoned the city as Hardee's men had been seen on the march. These quickly proved to be false and he resolved to begin cutting the rail links into Atlanta. To accomplish this, he sent orders to McPherson instructing him to send Major General Grenville Dodge's XVI Corps back to Decatur to tear up the Georgia Railroad. Having received reports of Confederate activity to the south, McPherson was reluctant to obey these orders and questioned Sherman. Though he believed his subordinate was being overly cautious, Sherman agreed to postpone the mission until 1:00 p.m.

    McPherson Killed

    Around noon, with no enemy attack having materialized, Sherman directed McPherson to send Brigadier General John Fuller's division to Decatur while Brigadier General Thomas Sweeny's division would be allowed to remain in position on the flank.

    McPherson drafted the necessary orders for Dodge, but before they were received the sound of firing was heard to the southeast. To the southeast, Hardee's men were badly behind schedule due to a late start, poor road conditions, and a lack of guidance from Wheeler's cavalrymen. As a result, Hardee had turned north too soon and his lead divisions, under Major Generals William Walker and William Bate, encountered Dodge's two divisions which were deployed on an east-west line to cover the Union flank.

    While Bate's advance on the right was hampered by swampy terrain, Walker was killed by a Union sharpshooter as he formed his men. As a result, the Confederate assault in this area lacked cohesion and was turned back by Dodge's men. On the Confederate left, Major General Patrick Cleburne's division quickly found a large gap between Dodge's right and the left of Major General Francis P. Blair's XVII Corps. Riding south to the sound of the guns, McPherson also entered this gap and encountered the advancing Confederates. Ordered to halt, he was shot and killed while trying to escape (​see map).

    The Union Holds

    Driving on, Cleburne was able to attack the flank and rear of XVII Corps. These efforts were supported by Brigadier General George Maney's division (Cheatham's Division) which assaulted the Union front. These Confederate attacks were not coordinated which allowed the Union troops to repel them in turn by rushing from one side of their entrenchments to the other. After two hours of fighting, Maney and Cleburne finally attacked in conjunction forcing Union forces to fall back.

    Swinging his left back in an L-shape, Blair centered his defense on Bald Hill which dominated the battlefield.

    In an effort to aid Confederate efforts against XVI Corps, Hood ordered Cheatham to attack Major General John Logan's XV Corps to the north. Sitting astride the Georgia Railroad, XV Corps' front was briefly penetrated through an undefended railroad cut. Personally leading the counterattack, Logan soon restored his lines with the aid of artillery fire directed by Sherman. For the remainder of the day, Hardee continued to assault the bald hill with little success. The position soon became known as Leggett's Hill for Brigadier General Mortimer Leggett whose troops held it. Fighting died off after dark though both armies remained in place.

    To the east, Wheeler succeeded in occupying Decatur but was prevented from getting at McPherson's wagon trains by a skillful delaying action conducted by Colonel John W. Sprague and his brigade. For his actions in saving the wagon trains of the XV, XVI, XVII, and XX Corps, Sprague received the Medal of Honor. With the failure of Hardee's assault, Wheeler's position in Decatur became untenable and he withdrew to Atlanta that night. 

    Aftermath

    The Battle of Atlanta cost Union forces 3,641 casualties while Confederate losses totaled around 5,500. For the second time in two days, Hood had failed to destroy a wing of Sherman's command. Though a problem earlier in the campaign, McPherson's cautious nature proved fortuitous as Sherman's initial orders would have left the Union flank completely exposed.

    In the wake of the fighting, Sherman gave command of the Army of the Tennessee to Major General Oliver O. Howard. This greatly angered XX Corps commander Major General Joseph Hooker who felt entitled to the post and who blamed Howard for his defeat at the Battle of Chancellorsville. On July 27, Sherman resumed operations against the city by shifting to the west side to cut the Macon & Western Railroad. Several additional battles occurred outside of the city before Atlanta's fall on September 2.

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    Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of Atlanta." ThoughtCo, Sep. 5, 2017, thoughtco.com/battle-of-atlanta-2360947. Hickman, Kennedy. (2017, September 5). American Civil War: Battle of Atlanta. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/battle-of-atlanta-2360947 Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of Atlanta." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/battle-of-atlanta-2360947 (accessed February 19, 2018).