July 2, 1864 (Saturday)
It was a day of preparation and an evening of movement as Sherman’s armies readied themselves to swing around the Confederate left at Kennesaw Mountain. But the first marching began before dawn. A division from James McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee stepped off, descending south and groping for the Chattahoochee River.
Earlier, the Army of the Ohio, under the banner of John Schofield, had made this same march, planting themselves four miles south of the Confederate left. From all supposition, the enemy could not afford to detach enough troops to drive away Schofield’s host without fully abandoning their embattlements upon Kennesaw.
To accompany this swing, Sherman had ordered diversions all across his lines, hoping to distract the Rebels, and praying they would not take notice of what was transpiring along the Federal right. Meanwhile, the Federal cavalry probed toward the river, finally crossing near Sandtown, several miles downriver from the main railroad crossing, and the Confederate line of supply.
Most of Sherman’s armies, however, would wait until dark to move. The, corps by corps, they would vacate their entrenchments. Under cover of dark, hoped Sherman, the shifts would go undetected. He was mistaken.
Even before Sherman’s infantry began their pre-dawn tramp, Confederate General Joe Johnston knew that he was about to be outflanked. Through the day, it was all plain. In the early afternoon, Johnston issued orders for his artillery to pull out at dusk,to be followed by around a corps’ worth of infantry a few hours later. Rear guards were to remain until 1am, but then they too were to abandon Kennesaw.
And so, as it happened, both armies began their moves with eerie synchronization. Through the darkness, each unit fell back in their own manner. Some as regiments or companies, others vacated one man at a time. All hoped that the other side would take little notice.
While Johnston realized Sherman’s slide before it was happening, Sherman detected Johnston’s just after 9pm. Unable to comprehend just what the Rebels were doing, however, he interpreted it to mean that the Confederates would strike out against him in the morning.
This too was a mistake, but it caused Sherman to halt some units that would otherwise have made time around the Rebel left. Entire corps were returned to their entrenchments. In actuality, Sherman wasn’t nearly as convinced of the coming Rebel attack as was General McPherson. Still, he acquiesced, allowing much of the Army of the Tennessee to remain.
But by 2am, it was clear to most that the Rebels were indeed in retreat. And by 5am, any Federal still in the lines could plainly see that the enemy was no longer before him.
“By the earliest of dawn of the 3rd of July,” wrote Sherman in his memoirs, “I was up at a large spy-glass mounted on a tripod, which Colonel Poe, United States Engineers, had at his bivouac close by our camp. I directed the glass on Kennesaw, and saw some of our pickets crawling up the hill cautiously; soon they stood upon the very top, and I could plainly see their movements as they ran along the crest just abandoned by the enemy. In a minute I roused my staff, and started them off with orders in every direction for a pursuit by every possible road, hoping to catch Johnston in the confusion of retreat, especially at the crossing of the Chattahoochee River.”1
- Sources: Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; Decision in the West by Albert Castel; Kennesaw Mountain by Earl J. Hess; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds. [↩]