American Civil War: Battle of Ezra Church

Oliver O. Howard during the Civil War
Major General Oliver O. Howard. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Battle of Ezra Church - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Ezra Church was fought July 28, 1864, during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Armies & Commanders

Union

Confederate

Battle of Ezra Church - Background:

Late July 1864 found Major General William T. Sherman's forces advancing on Atlanta in pursuit of General Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Tennessee.

Reviewing the situation, Sherman decided to push Major General George H. Thomas' Army of the Cumberland over the Chattahoochee River with the goal of pinning Johnston in place. This would permit Major General James B. McPherson's Army of the Tennessee and Major General John Schofield's Army of the Ohio to shift east to Decatur where they could cut the Georgia Railroad. This done, the combined force would advance on Atlanta. Having fallen back through much of northern Georgia, Johnston had earned the ire of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Worried about his general's willingness to fight, he sent his military advisor, General Braxton Bragg, to Georgia to assess the situation.

Reaching Atlanta on July 13, Bragg commenced sending a number of discouraging reports north to Richmond. Three days later, Davis directed Johnston to send him details regarding his plans for defending the city.

Displeased with the general's noncommittal response, Davis decided to relieve him and replace him with the offensively-minded Lieutenant General John Bell Hood. As orders for Johnston's relief were sent south, Sherman's troops began crossing the Chattahoochee. Anticipating that Union forces would attempt to cross Peachtree Creek north of the city, Johnston drew up plans for a counterattack.

Learning of the command change on the night of July 17, Hood and Johnston telegraphed Davis and asked that it be delayed until after the coming battle. This request was refused and Hood assumed command.

Battle of Ezra Church - Fighting for Atlanta:

Attacking on July 20, Hood's forces were turned back by Thomas' Army of the Cumberland at the Battle of Peachtree Creek. Unwilling to surrender the initiative, he directed Lieutenant General Alexander P. Stewart's corps to hold the lines north of Atlanta while Lieutenant General William Hardee's corps and Major General Joseph Wheeler's cavalry moved south and east with the goal of turning McPherson's left flank. Striking on July 22, Hood was defeated at the Battle of Atlanta though McPherson fell in the fighting. Left with a command vacancy, Sherman promoted Major General Oliver O. Howard, then leading IV Corps, to head the Army of the Tennessee. This move infuriated the commander of XX Corps, Major General Joseph Hooker, who blamed Howard for his defeat the previous year at Chancellorsville when the two were with the Army of the Potomac. As a result, Hooker asked to be relieved and returned north.

Battle of Ezra Church - Sherman's Plan:

In an effort to compel the Confederates to abandon Atlanta, Sherman devised a plan that called for Howard's Army of the Tennessee to shift west from their position east of the city to cut the railroad from Macon.

A critical supply line for Hood, its loss would force him to abandon the city. Moving out on July 27, the Army of the Tennessee began their march west. Though Sherman made efforts to conceal Howard's intentions, Hood was able to discern the Union objective. As a result, he directed Lieutenant General Stephen D. Lee to take two divisions out the Lick Skillet road to block Howard's advance. To support Lee, Stewart's corps was to swing west to strike Howard from the rear. Moving down the west side of Atlanta, Howard took a cautious approach despite assurances from Sherman that the enemy would not oppose the march (Map).

Battle of Ezra Church - A Bloody Repulse:

A classmate of Hood's at West Point, Howard expected the aggressive Hood to attack. As such, he halted on July 28 and his men quickly erected makeshift breastworks using logs, fence rails, and other available material.

Pushing out from the city, the impulsive Lee decided not to assume a defensive position along the Lick Skillet road and instead elected to assault the new Union position near Ezra Church. Shaped like a reverse "L", the main Union line extended north with a short line running west. This area, along with the angle and part of the line running north, was held by Major General John Logan's veteran XV Corps. Deploying his men, Lee directed Major General John C. Brown's division to attack north against the east-west portion of the Union line.

Advancing, Brown's men came under intense fire from the divisions of Brigadier Generals Morgan Smith and William Harrow. Taking immense losses, the remnants of Brown's division fell back. Undeterred, Lee sent Major General Henry D. Clayton's division forward just north of the angle in the Union line. Encountering heavy resistance from Brigadier General Charles Woods' division, they were forced to fall back. Having wrecked his two divisions against the enemy's defenses, Lee soon was reinforced by Stewart. Borrowing Major General Edward Walthall's division from Stewart, Lee sent it forward against the angle with similar results. In the fighting, Stewart was wounded. Recognizing that success was unobtainable, Lee fell back and ended the battle.

Battle of Ezra Church - Aftermath:

In the fighting at Ezra Church, Howard lost 562 killed and wounded while Lee suffered around 3,000. Though a tactical defeat for the Confederates, the battle prevented Howard from reaching the railroad. In the wake of this strategic setback, Sherman commenced a series of raids in an effort cut the Confederate supply lines. Finally, in late August, he began a massive movement around the west side of Atlanta that culminated with a key victory at the Battle of Jonesboro on August 31-September 1. In the fighting, Sherman severed the railroad from Macon and forced Hood to depart Atlanta. Union troops entered the city on September 2.