July 21, 1864 (Thursday)
“During the night,” wrote General Sherman after the war, “I had full reports from all parts of our line, most of which was partially intrenched as against a sally, and finding that McPherson was stretching out too much on his left flank, I wrote him a note early in the morning not to extend so much by his left; for we had not troops enough to completely invest the place, and I intended to destroy utterly all parts of the Augusta Railroad to the east of Atlanta, then to withdraw from the left flank and add to the right.”
The Army of Tennessee, commanded by James McPherson, had advanced toward Atlanta from Decatur in the east. But in his hesitation, McPherson’s success was limited.
“I was in hopes you could have made a closer approach to Atlanta,” came the letter from General Sherman, “as I was satisfied you had a less force and more inferior works than will be revealed by daylight, if, as I suppose, Hood proposes to hold Atlanta to the death.”
John Bell Hood, commanding the Confederate forces defending the Georgia city, had attacked Sherman’s troops to the north, while holding back overwhelming numbers, including McPherson’s army, to the east.
Sherman posited that “Hood will draw from his left and re-enforce his right,” and regardless, Sherman called upon McPherson to push forward his lines so that “your artillery can reach the town easily.”
Sherman correctly predicted that Hood would draw from his left to reinforce his right, but he was also not ready to give up on the idea that the Confederates might abandon Atlanta. “In case he retreats it will be toward Macon, whither all the advance stores have been sent, and most of the provisions. I want him pursued vigorously for a couple of days.”
Before the Army of the Tennessee was a rise known as Bald Hill. This was the piece of ground that Sherman had hoped McPherson would take the day previous, but this task was postponed until the morning of this date. Unknown to McPherson, but seemingly not to Sherman, this gave Hood the time he needed to reinforce the thin line held the day before by only cavalry.
By dawn, the Federal guns opened upon the Rebel infantry, newly arrived and now digging with spades their new embattlements. The fire was deadly accurate, exacting a gruesome toll on the Confederates now uselessly scrambling for cover. Over 140 Rebels were either killed or wounded in the span of five minutes.
When the ruthless barrage was ceased, McPherson’s line of infantry came charging across a small creek, thick-throated and fierce. But just as soon, a Rebel battery opened upon their flank, raking and killing with telling accuracy. The blue line sought cover and for a moment, the bleeding was staunched.
With orders to fix bayonets, once more they rose. With shouts them burst forward, their lines compacting and smashing into the half-finished works of the Rebels. Scores fell before they advanced. And here were multitudes more when the crest was finally reached. But the Confederates could not hold. First fled the cavalry. Seeing the rout, the infantry remained, pouring into the Federal lines as much hell as could be mustered. All too soon, some Rebels fell back to a retreat, but still more held and the true brutality of war was rained down upon the attackers.
The straightened lines of attack and defense devolved into a vicious swirl of heedless abandon. Each man was his own regiment and each fight was personal. On Bald Hill, a thousand wars were waged and lost or won based solely upon fortitude and the terror of dying on this piece of ground before Atlanta. But in the end, the Northern numbers outweighed the Southern. There were attempts to rally and even counter attacks thrust forward, each less populated than the one preceding.
By 8am, the Bald Hill was in Federal hands, and reinforcements poured in for support. But each brigade that came upon the flank of their comrades was met with shell and ball. Most of the Rebels were driven from their works, but along the adjoining ridge some remained.
The battle was broken off before noon and each side stared coldly upon the other. This lull allowed General Hood to filter troops from his left to the lines before General McPherson – just as Sherman had foreseen. The Federals, too, shifted troops east of the city, lining them south and beyond the right flank of the Confederates.
Through the smoke and across the divide, General Hood was constructing a plan. Though his lines were more evenly spread than the day before, with a line facing north and another facing east, he was in no position to attack. He had not enough force to assail the Federal Army of the Cumberland to the north. To the northeast, where the Army of the Ohio was established, the way was also barred, the army’s flanks protected both left and right. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee, to the east, however, presented a small opportunity.
Unlike the positions of the two other Federal armies, Hood knew well the ground now held by McPherson. But it was even to their rear where he looked. At Decatur, left mostly unguarded, rested the Federal supply wagons. If somehow he could feed not only his cavalry but an entire corps of his infantry in secret around the Federal left, might he not be able to take the stores and fall upon the rear of McPherson? It was a flank march fit for Stonewall Jackson, and for the task, he had little choice but William Hardee.
If successful, it would roll Sherman’s line away from the eastern approaches to Atlanta, pushing them as they went to Peachtree Creek. Calling his four division commanders to his headquarters, Hood revealed the plan. No one spoke a word of objection. The next day, if all went as was planned, as many as 18,000 Rebels – the infantry augmented by cavalry – would step off to the south and around McPherson’s unsuspecting flank. The attack was to open at dawn, the troops having made the trek and taken their places fifteen miles away through the dark.
As his men were beginning their march, General Hardee called upon Hood to alter the plan. The distance was too great, and the dark too dark for it to succeed, he reasoned. Hood complied, and rather than attacking west from Decatur, the infantry would form to the south of McPherson’s lines, striking the left and rear. Though Hood was frustrated at first with this change, he quickly grew to see its merits, the most important being that it was now plausible. Come dawn, the attack would open.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 38, Part 5, p219; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; The Day Dixie Died by Gary Ecelbarger; Decision in the West by Albert Castel; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly. [↩]