July 20, 1864 (Wednesday)
It was too late. John Bell Hood’s plan was sound, but its failure was spelled out before its inception. Hood, commanding the Confederate forces north and east of Atlanta, Georgia, believed William Tecumseh Sherman had made a fatal error in dividing his forces. Of the three Federal armies, only one, the Army of the Cumberland, was pushing from the north, crossing Peachtree Creek to set upon the city. The two remaining, the Armies of the Tennessee and the Ohio, were to the east, near Dalton. And though he gave their approach little caution, he was late before them as well.
The attack, which called for two of his corps to fall upon the Army of the Cumberland just after they crossed Peachtree Creek, but before they could fully entrench, was to erupt at 1pm. His remaining corps was faced east, blocking the perceived slight threat from the enemy at Dalton. General Hood’s plan was indeed sound, but not only had he waited too long to enact it, he waited too long to call the council of war to explain it.
The dawn broke warm and to the east the cavalry under Joseph Wheeler fell back steadily under the push of the Federals forces from Dalton. To the north, where the attack was to spread, the ripples of the Union thrust from the east caused the infantry corps under Benjamin Cheatham, and backing Wheeler’s cavalry, to step off in support. This opened a wide gap between the two wings. In order for it to be filled, Hood shifted the two norther-faced corps, helmed by Alexander Stewart on the left and William Hardee on the right.
It was Hardee who sent forward scouts to reconnoiter the ground over which he would send his troops to kill and to die. Around noon, they returned, but with only an hour left before the scheduled assault, what useful information they could provide was debatable. It was also around noon, and hour before the assault, when General Hood left the field, returning to his headquarters in Atlanta, four miles south.
Leaderless, they had not yet even begun their shift to the right. Over that span, Cheatham’s eastward-facing corps had widened the gap so that there were two miles between his left and Hardee’s right.
At 1pm, just the moment when Hardee was to throw forward his attack, he was instead shifting the length of half a division to the right. This brought his corps closer to Cheatham’s but it hardly mattered. To Hardee’s left was Stewart, who opposed the shift. He sent word to Hood, hoping to halt Hardee, but it was ignored. In the end, and faced with no other choice, Steward shadowed the move to the right. But when Cheatham’s overextension was discovered, confusion filled the gaps left by Hood’s untimely absence.
This was little-helped by Hardee’s seeming lack of interest in engaging the enemy. Through the morning and early afternoon, he was despondent and sluggish. His orders were to keep close to Cheatham and to attack. And when he realized he could do but one and not both, he did neither.
But this shift might have nearly won them the day, if only they had scouted the ground properly. As they were situated in the afternoon, Hardee’s corps overlapped the enemy in his front, while Stewart’s would fall upon an unprotected and unsuspecting Union corps.
It was not until 4pm when Hardee would be ready, but Stewart had already advanced and hour and a half before. This too was Hardee’s doing, as it was then when he reported to Stewart that all was ready.
What lay before Hardee’s right division was unknown to its commander, William Bate. The attack was not to come piecemeal, but en echelon. Once the first division was engaged, the second would come in on its left, and then the next. Bate’s was the first, and all he understood was that the enemy was somewhere before him. But this was not exactly true. The ground to his front was thick with wild underbrush, and he could see only a few yards in any direction. From the moment he finally stepped off, he wandered in search of the enemy.
But Hardee’s second division came upon the Federals as they were digging their entrenchments. Tossing away spades for rifles, the unforeseen attack was met, but not halted. The Rebels flowed around the left of the Union line, even enjoined by some of Bate’s wayward number. Driving closer, they threaten the bridge across Peachtree Creek in the rear of the Union line, and threaten to envelope the enemy. This was Hood’s design. But it was not to be.
The Federals had established a battery of six guns, which was soon augmented with four additional. As Hardee’s men flowed into a ravine leading to the bridge, the cannons spoke, bursting shell and cannister among the Rebels, who stopped in their bloody footsteps and melted back. To hasten their retreat, a Federal brigade was unleashed and many fell, pierced in their backs by northern lead.
Stewart was having only slightly better fortune. The Federal line was split by a small creek flowing to the Peachtree. Into this gap, he fed his first attack, under the banner of William Wing Loring. But the attack had been delayed by still more confusion, and when the Rebels appeared before the enemy, the Federals threw forward an assault, knocking Loring’s troops back upon themselves.
By this time, it was obvious to the Federals that a full scale attack was in the making. And so when Stewart’s next division came forward, it was not unforeseen. They too came forward to meet the attack, and for a time it was screaming and killing in close hand-to-hand melee. In this, the Rebels at first had the better, and the Union line seemed poised to break. But once more the Northern artillery lent its accent to the fight and the Confederates fell back in a most stubborn retreat, hardly letting go until both their flanks were threatened.
Beaten, or at least set back, General Loring believes that he might turn the tide if only he could muster support from Hardee’s corps on his right. Three divisions was all Stewart had under his banner, and he left nothing in reserve. Still, there was a single brigade on his left that had not yet been engaged. This he gave to Loring, while he sent a plea to Hardee.
Hardee is willing to comply, and orders his reserve division, under Patrick Cleburne, to attack. This might have been all that was needed for success north of Atlanta. But the northern line was not the only Confederate line General Hood had to consider.
From the east, the Federals troops came on much more quickly than anticipated. With a fierce abandon, they fell upon the Rebel lines held by Cheatham’s corps and the Confederates were tumbling steadily back. Hood then sent word to Hardee to pull his reserves for the east. The order was received just as Hardee had agreed to aid Loring. With no further troops to feed into the consummation, the attack was canceled, and both sides to the north fell back to their lines.
Fortunately for Hood, the Federals storming from the east were strangely cautious. Though Cheatham had been outnumbered, the attacks were hardly vicious. It was also likely fortunate that Hardee had called off his own attacks. The Federals before him had further entrenched and fully anticipated another Rebel assault. Had it come, the carnage might have been legendary.
With the sun and light failing, Hood was distraught with his failure, and Stewart blamed Hardee. Leaving the two subordinates to cast their own blame where they please, Hood called upon his cavalry commander, Joe Wheeler. He had a plan, and it was to the cavalry he would turn.
The Federals lost perhaps as many as 1,900 killed, wounded and missing. Hood’s Confederates fair worse, suffering 2,500 casualties.1
- Sources: Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; Decision in the West by Albert Castel; The Day Dixie Died by Gary Ecelbarger; Days of Glory by Larry Daniel. [↩]