‘Such Rails Could Not Be Used Again’ – Sherman Destroys, Sabotages Railroad

August 30, 1864 (Tuesday)

William Tecumseh Sherman’s horde had fallen upon the railroad running southwest out of Atlanta. Both the Armies of the Tennessee and the Cumberland spent the 29th “breaking it up thoroughly.”

 Gen. Sherman's men tearing up the railroad leaving Atlanta, Ga., 1864.
Gen. Sherman’s men tearing up the railroad leaving Atlanta, Ga., 1864.

“The track was heaved up in sections the length of a regiment, then separated rail by rail; bonfires were made of the ties and of fence-rails on which the rails were heated, carried to trees or telegraph-poles, wrapped around and left to cool. Such rails could not be used again; and, to be still more certain, we filled up many deep cuts with trees, brush, and earth, and commingled them with loaded shells, so arranged that they would explode on an attempt to haul out the bushes. The explosion of one such shell would have demoralized a gang of negroes, and thus would have prevented even the attempt to clear the road.” – William Tecumseh Sherman, Memoirs.

In all, thirteen miles of the West Point & Atlanta Railroad were destroyed. It was a sight to behold, but mostly pointless, as the line had hardly been used by the Rebels. The railroad of interest was actaully, the line to Macon, running southeast away from Atlanta. And this was Sherman’s next objective.

On this date, the armies marched, spread out in three columns. The Army of the Cumberland marched to cut off the line north of Jonesboro, though by near dusk, they were six miles short, and along the Flint River.

The Army of the Tennessee also made for the Flint, finding themselves by the late afternoon hardly a half mile from the railroad and Jonesboro. They were considerably separated from the Army of the Cumberland, which was several miles beyond their left and rear.

Holding the Federal left, beyond the Army of the Cumberland, was John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio, now little more than the Twenty-third Army Corps. On this day, they marched from Mount Gilead Church and then to Morrow’s Mills, where they turned north to face the town of Rough and Ready from the south.


General Sherman spent the day with George Thomas, leading the Army of the Cumberland – the Union center. Thomas was leery on the idea of such an advance. Sherman’s entire force would need to be fed, and he doubted their ability to live off the land.

Through the day, Sherman could hear guns to the southeast. This was Olive Otis Howard’s Army of the Tennessee just outside Jonesboro. As they marched, they threw back Rebel skirmishers, stopping to exchange a few shots and then running for their lives. He had expected to hear similar firing to the north from Schofield’s guns, but no such reports rang true.

This march brought them to within easy reach of the Atlanta & Macon Railroad, and the next day Sherman would fall upon that as well. But towards dusk, columns of dust were spotted. According to one of the Army of the Cumberland’s forward scouts, there was “a column of troops moving into position northeast of Mann’s house at about sundown this evening.” Though hardly a half mile away, it could not be made certain that these were not men from the Army of the Ohio, perhaps wayward.

But it was not Schofield’s troops. Before them now marched the Rebels. General John Bell Hood had received reports throughout the day that the bulk of the Federal host was moving still around his left, south of Atlanta. They were, came the word, making for Jonesboro and the railroad.

Hood’s command, much smaller than Sherman’s, was still formidable. Near East Point, where the two southerly railroads junctioned, he had placed William Hardee’s Corps. Hardee was ordered to “take whatever measure you may think necessary to prevent the enemy from gaining Jonesborough or Rough and Ready this afternoon, so that he may make other dispositions tonight.” Hood was nearly certain that Sherman wouldn’t try to attack Jonesboro on this day. But at the day wore on, Hood became less so, figuring at least that Sherman’s men would fall upon the railroad, blocking any attempt Hardee might make to usher his men to the outlying town.

Finally, near dusk, Hood anticipated Sherman’s hand. “You corps will move to Jonesborough tonight,” he wrote to Hardee. “Put it in motion at once if necessary to protect the railroad.” But also there was S.D. Lee’s Corps, formerly commanded by Hood himself. To Lee, Hood gave the same orders, having him follow Hardee.

Hardee and Lee weren’t simply to arrive in Joneseboro to wait it out, they were to “attack the enemy, and drive him, if possible, across Flint River.” As Hardee’s troops were moving, however, they ran into a few Northern skirmishers, which through the timeline into complete disarray. This would stall their efforts to be in Jonesboro by dawn the following day. This would stall the attack.

And so as the Federal troops rested, the Rebels scrambled as they could to get into position, hoping to hit their enemy before they could concentrate.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 38, Part 1, p213; Part 3, p700; Part 5, p1000-1001, 1003; Nothing But Victory by Steven E. Woodworth; Decision in the West by Albert Castel; Days of Glory by Larry J. Daniel. []
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