May 27, 1864 (Friday)
It was dawn and the artillery was already warming the fields. When last we left General Sherman, he was not yet certain that it was Joe Johnston’s entire Confederate force before him. He was now satisfied they were there. On the 25th, there were half-hearted stabs toward the Rebel lines, drawn up near Dallas, Georgia, but they met in only repulsion. The day following was one of light skirmishes and slight maneuver. But on this date, it began anew.
Even as late as yesterday’s night, General Sherman held the disbelief that the Rebel host to his front was that of Johnston’s entirety. But neither could he ignore the lines. At 6am, the bombardment started, its cacophony ringing for three hours. Oliver Otis Howard, commanding the Fourth Corps, was to launch an attack upon the Confederate right flank which he believed was unsupported and exposed.
Howard’s corps, along with other divisions, readied themselves through the barrage. With Thomas Wood’s division in the lead, they formed into an assault column of brigades, joined likewise by another division under Richard Johnson. They were an hour behind schedule.
Formed as they were, they marched through fields and woodlands, over ridges and through small streams in an easterly direction, believing that after an hour and half they were beyond the Rebel right flank. Now in position, they wheeled right, and Johnson fell in on Wood’s left. But before them was not the Confederate flank. Rather, it was more entrenchments. The Rebel line, they discovered, did not run straight, but curved as if to meet their planned assault.
In this light, General Howard continued onward for another mile. Riding forward with General Wood, Howard could see through his field glasses that the Confederate entrenchments still loomed to their front. Yet slightly to his left, he saw plainly that they came to an end. Though he wasn’t on their flank, an attack from his position could well overlap it and crush them anyway. It was 3pm, and an hour would elapse before his troops would be in position.
Within that hour, the Confederate pickets and sharpshooters found their mark, killing one of Howard’s aids and raining among Wood’s division. A message then arrived from General George Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland, one of Sherman’s three armies on the field, and Howard’s commander. Thomas related that Sherman again ordered for Howard to launch the attack upon the Rebel flank.
By the word of a Confederate deserter, the troops before them were from Patrick Cleburne’s division. This gave Howard pause, but near 5pm, Wood again asked Howard if he might attack. Of course, Howard had no choice. With or without his uneasiness, Sherman had ordered the assault. A single brigade from Wood’s command steped off, trudging through forest and struggling over brambles until greeted by enemy muskets.
The troops were only Rebel cavalry, however, and they fell back, though stubbornly. Soon the Federals understood that the trenches were mostly unmanned, as the Confederates retreated to the top of a nearby ridge. If this ridge were to fall, the Federals would have a clear road into the rear of Johnston’s army.
With bitter resolve, the Rebels clung to their ground, holding until the infantry might arrive. And soon there were Texans, advancing while firing, crouching behind rocks and killing Yankees as they saw them. It was desperate and, even stiffened with reinforcements, the Confederate cavalry bent and wavered. With a dash, some of Wood’s men hit the thin line, but hardly before more Southern infantry strengthened the flank.
For nearly an hour, they stood firing in the face of the enemy, each unwilling to give. But as more Rebels joined the battle, the ammunition of Wood’s men ran low. To their right was to be Johnson’s division, yet with looks cast over shoulders, they could see no sign of it. They were thrust forward, extended and unsupported – soon to be defenseless. It was only now that Wood deployed a second brigade, his first in retreat.
This new effort could take even less, and soon they too were falling back, the battle all but lost. It was nearing 6pm. And it was then that Howard received another message from Sherman. Forty-five minutes previous it was penned, telling Howard that he had changed his mind. “It is useless to look for the flank of the enemy,” wrote Sherman, “as he make temporary breastworks as fast as we travel.”
With this, Howard ordered Wood to send his last remaining brigade forward as a sort of rear guard to allow his other troops to establish a line of defense. But even this could not be done. Shortly after stepping off, they were met with a storm of bullets and steel, and too fell back. Darkness finally brought the immediate fighting to an end, and allowed Wood’s troops to gather their wounded as the third brigade gathered itself for at least the thinnest of defenses.
But then at 10pm, up rose a terrifying yell from the throats of hundreds. The Texans were attacking. It was mostly this yell that drove back the Yankees, and the Confederates held the field.
General Howard, through this, was slightly wounded in the foot and exhausted. Upon the ground, he threw himself and could see the battlefield illuminated under the stars:
“That opening in the forest, faint fires here and there revealing men wounded, armless, legless, or eyeless; some with heads bound up with cotton strips, some standing and walking nervously around, some sitting with bended forms, and some prone upon the earth – who can picture it? A few men, in despair, had resorted to drink for relief. The sad sounds from those in pain were mingled with the oaths of the drunken and the more heartless. […] That night will always be a sort of nightmare to me. I think no perdition here or hereafter can be worse.”
Sherman had resolved to sleep on it. No attacks, save this, were made on this day, and even this was an aberration. “We have had many sharp, severe encounters,” he would write to Washington the next morning, “but nothing decisive. Both sides duly cautious in the obscurity of the ambushed ground.”1
- Sources: Autobiography by Oliver Otis Howard; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Decision in the West by Albert Castel; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; The Army of Tennessee by Stanley Horn; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds. [↩]