July 19, 1864 (Tuesday)
Sherman’s armies were across the Chattahoochee River, and were now marching steadily for Atlanta. By the encampment of the night previous, the Northern forces began to box in the city from the north as well as the east. The Army of the Cumberland, commanded by George Thomas, came to rest near the banks of Peach Tree Creek, while James Shoefield’s Army of the Ohio fell in on his left. To the east and along the Georgia Railroad, James McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee began to ply their trade, ripping up track and ensuring that it would never again be of use to the Confederates.
From his headquarters at Cross Keys, General Sherman laid out his plans for his 90,000. Thomas was to “press down from the north on Atlanta.” Peach Tree Creek was to be crossed, and the enemy driven back from any point upon which they held to the banks. Schofield was to leave Thomas’ side and move directly on Decatur from the north and play upon the railroad and telegraph. Lastly, McPherson was to move on Decatur from the east. If he heard the sounds of battle, he was to assist Schofield, but if there was no battle to enjoin, he had a more serious calling.
“Otherwise keep every man of his [McPherson’s] command at work in destroying the railroad by tearing up track, burning the ties and iron, and twisting the bars when hot. Officers should be instructed that bar simply bent may be used again, but if when red hot they are twisted out of light they cannot be used again. Pile the ties into shape for a bonfire, put the rails across, and when red hot in the middle, let a man at each end twist the bar so that its surface become spiral.”
This was not a recipe for the infamous “Sherman neck ties,” for which the heated rails were wrapped around a tree – that extra spice probably came from the troops. Here, Sherman called for the rails to be twisted more than bent.
Come the dawn of this date, all was in swift motion, “meeting such feeble resistance,” wrote Sherman after the war, “that I really thought they enemy intended to evacuate the place.”
But that was not so. This was John Bell Hood’s first day in command of the Confederate forces, the Army of Tennessee, 55,000 or so strong. Peachtree Creek was defended by two corps. Alexander P. Stewart’s held the left, while William Hardee’s was on the right. Guarding Atlanta’s eastern side was Hood’s Corps, now commanded by Benjamin Cheatham.
Rebel scouts reported the shift in Federal troops, and that Peachtree Creek was spanned in several locations. But he also received word that Sherman had split his army, sending two columns to Decatur. This, believed Hood, was a “serious blunder.” At such distances, one half could not support the other. Time was now his biggest fear.
He knew that once across Peachtree Creek, Thomas’ Corps would entrench. It was absolutely essential that Stewart and Hardee hit Thomas before that could happen. If all went according to plan, the Federals would be thrown back and cornered by rivers on all sides. Severed from the rest of Sherman’s forces, they would have no choice but to surrender. With the Army of the Cumberland annihilated, all of Hood’s command could turn on Schofield and McPherson.
The one flaw in his plan came from his cavalry nearest Decatur. As he heard, Schofield and McPherson were merely approaching the town, but in truth, they had already entered. He little anticipated any trouble from the east, at least not for a few days. Time might have already slipped away.
In this ignorance, Hood met with his corps commanders near midnight. He scheduled the attack not for dawn, but for 1pm. Stewart, Hardee and Cheatham all agreed, and all understood their orders. The attacks were to be “bold and persistent.” Whatever works had been already built by the Union troops were to be taken at the “point of the bayonet.” The plan seemed sound. The corps commanders were in concert. There was almost no way for this to fail.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 38, Part 5, p179; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; The Day Dixie Died by Gary Ecelbarger; Decision in the West by Albert Castel. [↩]