July 28, 1864 (Thursday)
The day previous, John Bell Hood had received the news. Sherman had sent his cavalry to swing around Atlanta and cut off his rail links to the south. There was probably no way that the Federal armies could encircle the city, but for this to have all the dreaded effects of a siege, they didn’t have to.
To track down the Yankee troopers, Hood dispatched Joe Wheeler, who divided his number and galloped forward in pursuit. In the end, Wheeler’s effort would prove a Southern success. But before this was known, the threat before Hood grew even more serious. Near dawn on this date, word came in the the Union Army of the Tennessee, which had held Sherman’s left since the battle, was on the move. Hood quickly surmised that it had withdrawn to slide to the Union right to reinforce George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland for a coming attack.
This was, he knew, to hit the railroad junction at East Point, southwest of the city. But if Hood’s forces could hold the crossroads at Ezra Church, he would be able to block any Federal swing toward the railroad. But rather than simply bar the way, he dreamed up a fairly elaborate plan of attack.
He first sent S.D. Lee’s Corps to occupy breastworks near the intersection, facing north to meet the Federal move. The next morning (the 29th), another corps, this under Alexander Stewart, was to move on Lee’s left to hit the coming federals on their right flank. But this was not how it happened.
Olive Otis Howard had been promoted to helm the Army of the Tennessee following the death of James McPherson. As he moved from his position near Bald Hill on the Federal left, and marched south past the right flank, he had a small disagreement with General Sherman. Howard knew Hood not only from the battlefield, but from their West Point days. Sherman believed that Hood would not be able to extend his lines toward East Point quickly enough to meet Howard’s thrust. There would be little risk in this operation.
But Howard suggested, rather, a slow unfolding – each division deploying, and extending their lines – rather than a simple march. Sherman relented, but thought it basically pointless. All of the 27th was spent in such a way. It was slow, but steady.
After a rest for the night, on the morning of this date, the crawl is resumed until his line arrived at the intersection near Ezra Church. An entire corps under Francis Blair bent itself toward the crossroads. Skirmishers were deployed and paced toward Lick Skillet Road, which ran past the church, all the while driving Confederate skirmishers south.
They had encountered cavalry for some time now, and thought little more of it. But soon the booms of several cannons pierced the warm air and iron ripped through the leaves of the trees above them. General Howard thought himself vindicated. He was then joined by Sherman, who still believed there would be not battle.
Neither did S.D. Lee expect a battle. In fact, he expected to see no Federals at all. Yet there they were before him. Almost as if it were without a thought, Lee decided to attack. He did not contact Hood and did not wait for Stewart’s Corps to come up. Just after noon, they attacked Howard’s right.
Three brigades fell upon the Federals, but could not break the line. They rallied, but to the same bloodied results. There came with the third assault some small victory on the extreme Union right, but a short counterattack was all that it took to reclaim the lost ground and reform the line.
Seeing his attack fail yet again, S.D. Lee calls for another division to go in a bit to the east near Ezra Church. The first brigade advanced only close enough to open fire, stopping and blasting away at the enemy for over an hour. Another attacked, but was hurled back on the first volley. A third brigade thought better and remained in a defensive position as the first two fled.
Somehow, Lee would not be daunted, and ordered a brigade to assault the Federal line almost between the points of the first two attacks. Here, the Union troops held a small hill, and here the Rebels twice charged and twice fell back defeated. Lee ordered them to attack a third time, but it was soon and fortunately countermanded by the division commander, who would not see it sacrificed for no good reason.
Though Howard and Sherman both wanted the Rebels to “beat their brains out” upon the hastily-constructed Union breastworks, Lee has as enough. Behind him now marched Alexander Stewart’s Corps. Lee informed him that Hood had ordered an attack on the right flank of the enemy. This was true, but now it was out of date, though Stewart could not know. Resolved to do something, but knowing the right Federal flank was unreachable, he decided instead to try to push back the Union line near the flank.
With a division, Stewart advanced and found the Union lines in the section sparsely populated. Before them was only a brigade. They attacked, but were unable to gain ground. Both sides funnel reinforcements and promised support (though late in coming) into their positions. Howard, fearing that the Confederates have more fresh men than he, begged Sherman for more reinforcements. Reluctantly, they were sent.
But they would not be needed. Howard was fortunately mistaken. The Rebel reinforcements were disorganized and under-zealous. To detract from their gusto, General Stewart was hit by a spent shot, and William Wing Loring, commanding some of the reinforcements went down as well. Though only around 3:30pm, the day was over.
For Hood, the losses were terrible. Perhaps as many as 3,000 were killed, wounded or missing – a number he could ill-afford. Howard’s Federals, mostly on the defensive, suffered less than 650. And though it was an obvious Federal victory, the Rebels had stopped Sherman from reaching East Point on the railroad.1
- Sources: Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; Decision in the West by Albert Castel; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman. [↩]