September 1, 1864 (Thursday)
The two corps that had faced and attacked the Federals at Jonesboro the day previous had now been reduced by half. John Bell Hood, fearing that General Sherman was about to attack Atlanta, had called S.D. Lee’s Corps to return to the city. This left a small command under a very exhausted William Hardee to hold the over-extended Confederate left.
“Last night Lee’s corps was ordered back to Atlanta by General Hood,” wrote General Hardee to President Davis on this date. “I recommended that he should evacuate Atlanta while it was practicable. He will be compelled to contract his lines, and the enemy has force enough to invest him. My instructions are to protect Macon.”
If Hood decided to hold the city and was subsequently besieged, Hardee would be cut off – and apparently under orders to somehow protect Macon.
But the entire understanding of the situation was obscured to Davis far east in Richmond. Though he understood that “the enemy’s movement is to gain Atlanta,” he could not know Sherman’s disposition. Davis had called upon reinforcements to come to Hood’s aid and called upon Hardee to do the impossible.
“If you can beat the detachment in front of you, and then march to join Hood,” Davis wrote, “entire success might be hoped to result from the division which the enemy have made of his force.” But there wasn’t merely a Union detachment in front of Hardee. It was, rather, nearly the entire Federal army. And while Sherman’s columns had been widely dispersed, he was now concentrating upon Jonesboro, hoping to consume two entire Confederate corps. But S.D. Lee’s corps had escaped, slipping through Sherman’s tightening grip.
Hardee’s defeat of the previous day spelled out Hood’s own doom, as well as that of Atlanta. Following Hardee’s advice, or at least seeing the situation for what it was, Hood now knew that the city had to be abandoned.
Hood’s first impulse was to flee north, destroy Sherman’s line of supply and then fade toward Alabama to establish a new base. This would place his force well behind the Federal lines and would quite potentially force Sherman to abandon Atlanta and maybe even retreat back to Chattanooga.
There was a problem with this idea – one that might seem ridiculous to modern knowledge, but was a great fear all through the South. If Hood left Georgia, the Federal cavalry could swoop down and set free a literal army of prisoners held at Andersonville. Within the stockades, there was held 33,000 Federal troops – over twice as many men as were in the Army of the Ohio. Their sickly and gruesome condition relatively unknown to Hood, he felt absolutely compelled to stave off this eventuality.
Instead, he would move south, marching as he could for Macon. The retreat was set for evening of this date. As Hood’s men left their defenses, S.D. Lee’s corps was to cover their route, while Hardee did his best to hold Jonesboro.
And in that, Hardee prepared his defenses, shifting his men to better receive the Union assaults. But his lines are thin, having to stretch his 12,000 across a two mile inverted ‘U’. There was little time to construct defenses.
Time, however, was not at all working in Sherman’s favor. His concentration was sluggish. When they finally could array themselves to strike, the morning and most of the afternoon were spent. Even then, it was without the Fourth Corps.
Sherman attacked with the Fourteenth Corps, augmented and supported by the Fifteenth. The fighting was vicious and for a time the Federals were held. But ultimately, a breakthrough could not be helped. Nor could it be plugged once the lines were breached. Hardee’s Corps was whipped, but made an orderly retreat to Lovejoy Station.
“On the night of the 1st of September we withdrew from Atlanta,” wrote Hood in his official report. “A train of ordnance stores and some railroad stock had to be destroyed in consequence of the gross neglect of the chief quartermaster to obey the specific instructions given him touching their removal. He had ample time and means, and nothing whatever ought to have been lost.” Three days after the evacuation, Hood would explain that this officer was “too much addicted to drink of late to attend to his duties. Am greatly in want of an officer to take his place.”
“There is confusion in the city,” wrote General Samuel French in his journal, “and some of the soldiers in the town are drunk. Common sense is wanted. The five heavy guns that I had ordered to be spiked by the rear guard at 11pm were burned by order of the chief of ordnance at 5pm, a proclamation to the enemy in my front that we were evacuating the place. As soon as I started to leave the works some of Hood’s officers fired the ordnance trains. This should have been done the last of all, when the rear guard or pickets were withdrawn. Who would extinguish and ordance train of bursting shells? So lighted by the glare of fires, flashes of powder, and bursting shells, I slowly left Atlanta, and at daylight on the morning of the 2nd we were not five miles out of the city.”
The explosion was even more dramatic than French could tell. After the war, its description was given in the History of Atlanta, Georgia, presumably by one who was witness:
“It took five long hours to blow up the seventy carloads of ammunition. The flames shot up to a tremendous- height, and the exploding missiles scattered their red hot fragments right and left. The very earth trembled as if in the throes of a mighty earthquake. The houses rocked like cradles, and on every hand was heard the shattering of window glass and the fall of plastering and loose bricks. Thousands of people flocked to high places and watched with breathless excitement the volcanic scene on the Georgia Railroad.
“Fortunately all the citizens in the vicinity of the explosions had been ordered to leave their houses before the work of destruction commenced. Every building for a quarter of a mile around was either torn to pieces or perforated with hundreds of holes by fragments of the shells. Day was dawning when the last shell and the last keg of powder exploded. Clouds of heavy, sulphurous smoke swept the ground, and choked men when they gasped for breath.”
The night was over. Atlanta had fallen, and Sherman’s host had come.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 38, Part 3, p633, 906; Part 5, p1011, 1018; History of Atlanta, Georgia edited by Wallace Putnam Reed; Two Wars by Samuel French; Decision in the West by Albert Castel; The Army of Tennessee by Stanley F. Horn; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly. [↩]