‘And the Heart of the City was in Flames’ – Wheeler Discovers Sherman

November 14, 1864 (Monday)

Joseph Wheeler wasn’t having the best of days. He had just arrived in Jonesboro, south of Atlanta, taking over for he shockingly incompetent Albert Iverson. Now just settling in, he had no real idea of what Union force was in and around Atlanta. Iverson had not bothered to send scouts, so Wheeler had to send his own.

Approximate Map!
Approximate Map!
Joe Wheeler sees all!
Joe Wheeler sees all!

This he did the night previous, and it did not take long for them to return. Having scouted the eastern and southern approaches to the city, they were able to capture prisoners from three of William Tecumseh Sherman’s three corps, as well as Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry. It’s not that Sherman was exactly hiding his men, and it’s not as if his intension of marching to the sea were unexpected, but the speed with which Wheeler discovered this was remarkable.

The rumor around the Union camp, at least according to the prisoners, was the Sherman was about to move “forward,” though specifically what that meant was still up in the air. The northern papers had published Sherman’s actual plan of marching to Savannah and Charleston, but this was lumped in with the other rumors.

Further questioning revealed that Sherman’s objectives were Augusta and Savannah, and Wheeler immediately informed his commander, John Bell Hood, who was still hovering along the Tennessee River near Tuscumbia.

Wheeler hardly stopped at Hood. He forwarded the same draft to Braxton Bragg in Richmond, William Hardee in Charleston, Richard Taylor in Selma, Howell Cobb in Macon, G.W. Smith at Lovejoy’s Station, Col. M.H. Wright in Columbus, as well as Governor Joseph Brown, still in the capital of Milledgeville.

These were the senior-most commanders in Sherman’s suspected path. But each, on their own, was small. Even together, they hardly posed a threat to the 60,000 Federals gathering in Atlanta. A threat against this force might have come through Hood’s command, and Jefferson Davis tried to convince Hood to do just that. Hood never promised to act on Davis’ advice, and never intended to do so.

Approximate Map!
Approximate Map!

For now, Wheeler would have to wait. But he would not have to wait long. Sherman planned to begin his march the following morning. But it was on this date that Sherman issued his first marching orders of the new campaign:

The armies will begin the movement on Milledgeville and Gordon tomorrow, the 15th of November as follows:

I. The Right Wing will move, via McDonough and Monticello, to Gordon.
II. The Left Wing, General Slocum, will move, via Covington, Social Circle, and Madison, to Milledgeville, destroying the railroad in a most thorough manner from Yellow River to Madison.
III. The cavalry, General Kilpatrick commanding, will move in concert with the Right Wing, feigning strong in the direction of Forsyth and Macon, but will cross the Ocmulgee on the pontoon bridge of General Howard.
IV. Each column will aim to reach its destination – viz, Gordon and Milledgeville – on the seventh day’s march, and each army commander will on arrival communicate with the other wing and the commanding general, who will accompany the Left Wing.

Sherman himself returned to Atlanta in the afternoon, arriving from Marietta. Everything was now in place. His commissary department was able to round up 1,200,000 rations – about a twenty-day supply for his 60,000. But he would also be replying upon foraging, though it was limited – enough to last, perhaps, five days. “I knew that within that time we would reach a country well stocked with corn,” wrote Sherman after the war, “which had been gathered and stored in cribs, seemingly for our use, by Governor Brown’s militia.”

And through the rest of the night, the engineer corps worked on dismantling what was left of Atlanta. They “had leveled the great depot, round-house, and the machine-shops of the Georgia Railroad, and had applied fire to the wreck. One of these machine-shops had been used by the rebels as an arsenal, and in it were stored piles of shot and shell, some of which proved to be loaded, and that night was made hideous by the bursting of shells, whose fragments came uncomfortably near Judge Lyon’s house, in which I was quartered. The fire also reached the block of stores near the depot, and the heart of the city was in flames all night, but the fire did not reach the parts of Atlanta where the court-house was, or the great mass of dwelling-houses.”

The march would begin at dawn.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 44, p451-452, 857; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Southern Storm by Noah Andre Trudeau. []
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