The Battle of Atlanta
Despite its name, the Battle of Atlanta was not the end battle of the campaign but rather it took place in the middle of the fighting for this key transportation and supply hub. The battle took place on July 22, 1864.
On the Union side the fighting was carried out mostly by the Army of the Tennessee. The Union troops engaged in the Battle of Atlanta were outnumbered by General John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee by about 20%, 35,000 to 40,500.
At the start of the battle, the Union forces were under the commanded by Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson, a protegee of Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. McPherson had been a West Point classmate of Hood’s and after Hood’s promotion became known, predicted that Hood would immediately attack the Union troops surrounding Atlanta.
The Army of the Tennessee was a veteran formation that had originally been built and commanded by Grant. They had fought first at the Battle of Belmont, captured Forts Henry and Donelson, Bloody Shiloh, Corinth, Iuka, Vicksburg, Chattanooga and Knoxville. In short, almost every major battle of importance in the Western Theater. The had known nothing but victory. Grant had been followed by Sherman who promoted the young, aggressive McPherson when he himself was promoted to army group command.
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The Confederate Army of Tennessee‘s battles had mirrored their Union counterpart. As the Army of Mississippi, the army had fought at Shiloh and Perryville, under General Albert Sidney Johnston and after his death at Shiloh, General Braxton Bragg. Bragg was technically the Army of Tennessee’s first commander.
In 1863, they had fought the Federals at Tullahoma, Chattanooga and the Battle of Missionary Ridge. Bragg was replaced by General Joseph E. Johnston who commanded the Army of Tennessee until he was replaced by Hood. Unlike their Union counterpart, the Army of Tennessee had experienced repeated defeats throughout its wartime service.
A note about armies’ names: the Union Army of the Tennessee was named for the river. In fact, most of the Union armies were named for rivers, hence the Army of the Cumberland, the Army of the Ohio, the Army of the Potomac, etc. The Confederate armies were named for states or parts of states, hence the Army of Tennessee, the Army of Mississippi, the Army of Northern Virginia, etc.
The Union forces around Atlanta were positioned to the north and the east of the city. On the northern front, Sherman had stationed Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland while McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee was on the east. The Union positions resembled and upside down-backwards “L”.
Hood was determined to break the Union grip on the city and drive them away. He stationed Maj. Gen. Alexander Stewart’s Corps on the northern front against Thomas. Facing McPherson’s army was Maj. Gen. Benjamin Cheatham‘s Corps. His plan called for Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee‘s Corps to march around the Union left flank while Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler‘s cavalry was ordered to make a feint against the Union supply lies to the east near Decatur.
When they had moved into their positions, Blair realized that possession of a ridge, known as Bald Hill, would give the Union forces a distinct advantage. After two days of fighting, on July 20th one of Blair’s division gained possession of the prominence and began to fortify it. They moved artillery to the top of the ridge and began to fire into the city.
They were now able to see every move that Hood’s troops were making in the city. However, they thought that Hood was preparing to evacuate the city. Rather, they were seeing Hardee’s move to the south and then east around their left flank.
Hardee’s flank attack turned into a frontal assault against Grenville Dodge’s Corps when behind schedule, he turned north too early. Confederate General W. H. T. Walker was killed by a sharpshooter early in the battle, creating confusion in his division. Initial Confederate attacks pushed the Union defenders back, creating a gap in their lines.
The gap was to cause the Army of the Tennessee to lose its commander. McPherson, riding with a small group of staff members, ran into Confederate troops, commanded that day by Captain Richard Beard. Realizing his mistake the general doffed his hat, reversed direction and rode off at a gallop. A Confederate enlisted man quickly fired and McPherson fell from his horse, mortally wounded.
In the swift altercation one of the horses belonging to a Union staff officer had been killed and the man was lying on the ground near the general. Beard asked the shaken, although still alive soldier who the general was. “Sir, it is General McPherson. You have killed the best man in our army,” replied the Union soldier with tears in his eyes.
The southern end of the Union line recoiled from Hardee’s repeated attacks but the Union line was stabilized by the tenacity of Dodge’s veteran troops. Meanwhile, once it became known that McPherson was killed, his men lashed out at their enemy. The death of the “best man in our army” inspired his men to fight savagely. John Logan succeeded to temporary command of the army and rallied the troops.
Not realizing that Hardee’s flank attack had failed, Hood ordered Cheatham to attack the Union center. Here the fighting was around Bald Hill where a savage struggle, sometimes hand-to-hand, developed around the hill, lasting until just after dark. The Federals held the hill while the Confederates retired to a point just south of there.
Two miles to the south Cheatham’s troops broke through the Union lines at the Georgia Railroad cut. The Union forces responded with close support from 20 artillery pieces positioned near Sherman’s headquarters at Copen Hill. It is said that General Sherman himself directed the artillery fire. That and troops from Logan’s Corps closed the breach and repulsed further Confederate attacks. As his losses mounted, Hood called off any further attacks.
The Battle of Atlanta was a stunning Confederate defeat. Hood’s army suffered 8,499 casualties while the Union army sustained 3,641, including McPherson.