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American Lives

Battle of Atlanta (GA)

by Laurie Stevens & Peter Kessler, 1 January 2023

 

Atlanta History Center's Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama
Photo © P L Kessler

The Cyclorama which is currently housed by Atlanta History Center in Atlanta, GA, provides a visual tale - somewhat enhanced and amended - of the Battle of Atlanta, one of the last great battles of the American Civil War.

The battle largely took place on the eastern edge of the city of Atlanta on 22 July 1864. The Cyclorama depicts several scenes in its full-circle tale which can be used to illustrate a text-based depiction of the battle, and that is the approach which has been used here.

Atlanta History Center's Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama
Photo © P L Kessler

The situation

The Battle of Atlanta was the largest battle of the Atlanta Campaign of 1864. As a major transportation hub in the south, Atlanta was critical to the Confederate civil war effort.

Lieutenant-General Ulysses S Grant, supreme military commander of all of the US (Union) armies of the north, ordered five simultaneous offensives which were designed to press Confederate positions along their entire frontier.

Atlanta History Center's Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama
Photo © P L Kessler

Grant recognized that the Confederates could not win a war of attrition, so he instilled a specific sense of purpose in his commanders. They needed to exhaust the resources of the southerners by destroying their armies.

Grant selected his friend, Major-General William T Sherman, to command the fifth advance against General Joseph E Johnston's army. Johnston was charged with defending Atlanta, the largest industrial, logistical, and administrative center outside of Richmond (capital of the Confederacy).

Atlanta History Center's Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama
Photo © P L Kessler

Atlanta was at the junction of four railroads which connected all of the surviving Confederate-held territory east of the Mississippi River.

By early July, Johnston had fallen back to Atlantaís defenses, causing some frustration in his commander-in-chief, the south's President Jefferson Davis. Johnston was soon replaced by Lieutenant-General John B Hood, on 18 July 1864.

Atlanta History Center's Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama
Photo © P L Kessler

Focusing on Atlanta

Within days, Hood launched two attacks on Shermanís Union forces. One was at Peach Tree Creek on 20 July, while the other was along the Georgia Railroad on 22 July (this railroad still survives today, running eastwards out of Atlanta to pass through Decatur).

See more here: Decatur, GA.

This action swiftly expanded to become the Battle of Atlanta.

Atlanta History Center's Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama
Photo © P L Kessler

On 21 July 1864, Sherman's three armies were located around the outskirts of Atlanta. Of those armies, Major General James B McPherson's Army of the Tennessee faced the city from the east, sitting across the Georgia Railroad. The rails had already been destroyed farther to the east by Sherman's cavalry, but McPherson had left his left flank exposed.

General Hood saw an opportunity to launch a Confederate flank attack against McPherson, although his plans were ambitious. They involved a fifteen mile (twenty-three kilometer) night march by the troops of Lieutenant-General William J Hardee and a dawn attack on 22 July.

Atlanta History Center's Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama
Photo © P L Kessler

The battle

Hardee's troops were hot, tired, and late after their night march. They were also not at their expected positions when Hardee decided to launch them against McPherson. The terrain told against them too, while Major-General W H T Walker was killed whilst getting his Confederate division deployed. In the end, Hood's 'surprise' attack failed to begin until after noon.

Just as good luck failed the Confederates, so it blessed the Union side. By chance, a division from the Sixteenth Corps under Brigadier-General Thomas W Sweeny was perfectly placed to meet Hardee's opening assault. Instead of overrunning hospital tents and wagon trains in McPherson's rear, the troops of Confederate generals Walker (now dead) and Bate ran slap-bang into veteran Union infantry units.

Atlanta History Center's Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama
Photo © P L Kessler

McPherson had left Sherman's headquarters just before the firing started. He watched Sweeny contend with the Confederate attack, and then witnessed Major-General Frank Blair's Seventeenth Corps being pummeled by Major-General Patrick Cleburne's tough division of Confederates.

Unfortunately for McPherson, during his appraisal of the situation he and his Unionist staff ran into part of Cleburne's line. Captain Richard Beard of the Fifth Confederate Infantry called for him to surrender but instead he bolted at the gallop. One Corporal Coleman brought him down with a single shot. The time was 14:02.

Atlanta History Center's Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama
Photo © P L Kessler

Cleburne overran part of the Union line, capturing two guns and several hundred prisoners. Then the Southerners ran up against infantry and artillery on a treeless hilltop which was occupied by the division of Brigadier-General Mortimer Leggett. This immediately halted their advance. Brigadier-General George Maney's Confederate division joined Cleburne's, but Leggett's men remained unmoved.

Hood ordered the Confederate corps of Major-General Benjamin Franklin Cheatham to launch an attack from Atlantaís eastern line of works.

Atlanta History Center's Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama
Photo © P L Kessler

Cheatham's fierce but uncoordinated assaults against the Unionist line where it was held by Logan's Fifteenth Corps meet with initial success. The Union line at the Troup Hurt House was overrun and the artillery there was captured (the site now lies alongside Marta's Inman Park station).

See more here: Marta Station Buildings.

The Confederates thought they'd secured the battle with this victory, and for a while it seemed as if they might be right. Then a counter-attack repulsed them with heavy losses (a claim which, in modern circles, can still evoke an occasional, muted exclamation of 'Thatís a damn lie!' from some of the more conservative southerners).

Atlanta History Center's Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama
Photo © P L Kessler

By the time the sun was setting the Confederates had retired to their initial positions and the battle was effectively over. Hood's efforts to roll up Sherman's left flank had failed.

Sherman resumed operations against the city on 27 July. He cut the Macon & Western Railroad on Atlanta's western flank before the armies met again at Ezra Church on 28 July 28. This confrontation resulted in another Union victory and finally wore out both sides.

Atlanta History Center's Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama
Photo © P L Kessler

The armies settled in for a siege which lasted throughout August. Eventually Hood was finally forced to abandon the city to Union forces, on 1 September 1864.

When Sherman finally had his hands on Atlanta he ordered everyone to leave and then burned most of the buildings, whether they were military buildings or not (the highly memorable conflagration scene depicted in Gone with the Wind).

The Union side was now able to launch Sherman's most famous operation: the 'March to the Sea' and the capture of Savannah.

Main Sources

American Battlefield Trust

Atlanta History Center

YouTube: Railroad Cut / Georgia Railroad / Hulsey Yard

Historynet: Battle of Atlanta

 

Images and text copyright © P L Kessler & Laurie Stevens except where stated. An original feature for the History Files: American Lives.