July 22, 1864 (Friday)
Union General James McPherson commanded the Army of the Tennessee, one of three Northern armies outside Atlanta. The left wing was his, and before dawn he received orders from William Tecumseh Sherman to set his command in motion. He was not to extend to his own left, but to withdraw Grenville Dodge’s entire Sixteenth Corps – a third of his number – east to Decatur. They were to fall upon the railroad like locusts, laying waste to all they could.
Sherman’s plan was actually to completely withdraw McPherson’s army as soon as he railroad was gutted, and to fall in to the right of George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland. This would send McPherson from the extreme left to the extreme right of the Federal forces.
But when dawn came, Sherman could see that the Confederate lines north of the town and before General Thomas’ army had been abandoned. For a time, Sherman believed this to mean that the entire Rebel army had evacuated Atlanta. It had always been a possibility, and strong evidence had come in over the past few days to that effect.
Riding at the front of a curious advance made by the Army of the Ohio, commanded by John Schofield, and holding the Federal center, Sherman discovered that their retreat was all too hopeful. The Confederates had contracted their lines, moved them closer to the city, but they had not withdrawn. Before long, Schofield’s men were tangled with the enemy and from the west, further sounds of battle could be heard – Thomas’ men.
As Thomas and Schofield advanced on his right, so too did McPherson. He personally rode forward, accompanied by a few of his staff and his Chief of Artillery. He wound his way to a hill a mile outside the city, where he saw as Sherman had seen thick, compacted lines of the enemy. His own army could push forward, but simply marching into Atlanta was out of the question. He predicted as they returned that the most severe battle of the campaign thus far would be fought before dark.
The more he thought about it, the more sense it made to him that the enemy would attack. The assault, he predicted, would come on his left front. To protect against this, he placed the Sixteenth Corps in refused line facing south, nearly perpendicular to the rest of his army.
But this was the same corps General Sherman ordered to Decatur. To see what might be done, McPherson rode to Sherman’s headquarters near the center of the Federal line. “We went back to the Howard House,” wrote Sherman after the war, “and sat on the steps, discussing the chances of battle, and of Hood’s general character. McPherson had also been of the same class at West Point with Hood, Schofield, and Sheridan. We agreed that we ought to be unusually cautious and prepared at all times for sallies and for hard fighting, because Hood, though not deemed much of a scholar, or of great mental capacity, was undoubtedly a brave, determined, and rash man; and the change of commanders at that particular crisis argued the displeasure of the Confederate Government with the cautious but prudent conduct of General Jos. Johnston.”
They talked for quite awhile, and McPherson was found to be enthusiastic and overall happy with how things had turned so far. Sherman’s order for the Sixteenth Corps was all that sat ill with him. Trying to strike a deal, McPherson offered to send all of his pioneers, as well as two divisions of Dodge’s corps, to destroy the railroad if he could keep a single division, that under Thomas Sweeny, on his left. They would, he bargained, do as thorough a job though they were less in number, because they understood such work better than regular infantry might. In this, Sherman easily acquiesced.
As the conversation drew on, and Sherman explained his overall plans for the battle, firing could be heard to the right where Thomas and Schofield were both engaged. But also to their rear, nearer Decatur, came the sounds of battle.
“We took my pocket compass (which I always carried,” continued Sherman, “and by noting the direction of the sound, we became satisfied that the firing was too far to our left rear to be explained by known facts, and he hastily called for his horse, his staff, and his orderlies.”
Riding away from Sherman’s headquarters, McPherson galloped the length of his own lines, stopping as he went to discuss plans with his division commanders. Shortly before noon, McPherson called together his subordinates, including John Logan, commanding the Fifteenth Corps, and Francis Blair, Jr, commanding the Seventeenth.
Things seemed to have fallen silent, and the officers dismounted and ate their lunch and enjoyed some cigars together in a grove of oak trees. McPherson sent off a letter to Dodge explaining Sherman’s approval, adding that the men should keep close to their arms “so that they can be ready for any emergency.” He still believed an attack was soon to follow. Dodge was ordered to keep Sweeny’s division on the line, while sending John Fuller’s division to the railroad.
Almost immediately after the courier left the grove, remembered William Strong of McPherson’s staff, “a shot was heard to the left and rear of us, and then another, followed quickly by a rattling volley of small arms, and at almost the same instant a shell came crashing through the tree-tops near us, followed by rapid and incessant firing form Dodge’s corps.”
With that, every officer called for their horses and swiftly rode for their commands. McPherson, accompanied by Strong and two other staffers, made their way south. One was left with the supply wagons, with orders to move them north of the railroad. Another was sent to oversee the artillery. Alone, but for William Strong and their orderlies, McPherson “rode on and took position on the right of Dodge’s line, and witnessed the desperate assaults of Hood’s army.”
The Rebels massed their numbers and attacked in columns, attempting to break the Federal lines. A few hundred yards away from the embattlements, the enemy halted and opened upon them. There was surprise detected in the Southerners, as if they had not expected Dodge’s corps to be facing south. After a few volleys from the Federals, the Rebels fell back to the security of the woods from which they had emerged. But the respite was brief, and soon they came again.
“The scene at this time was grand and impressive. It seemed to us that every mounted officer of the attacking column was riding at the front or on the right or left of the first line of battle. The regimental colors waved and fluttered in advance of the lines. Not a shot was fired by the Rebel infantry, although the movement was covered by a heavy and well-directed fire from artillery which was posted in the woods and on the higher ground, which enabled the guns to bear upon our troops with solid shot and shell, fire over the attack column.”
To Strong, the fire emitted from Dodge’s two divisions was irresistible. The artillery stoved gashes into the Rebel lines, but as soon as exposed, more of the enemy would rush in. “They showed great steadiness,” continued Strong, “closed up the gaps, and preserved their alignments; but the iron and leaden hail that was fairly poured upon them was too much for flesh and blood to stand, and before reaching the centre of the open fields, the columns were broken up and thrown into great confusion.”
The Federals, with bayonets fixed, surged forward in a violent counterattack, driving the Rebels like cattle into the woods. This success gave McPherson time enough to worry about the rest of his line. Staff officer Strong was sent to feel the pulse and discovered a bit of concern. There had developed a gap between Dodge’s Sixteenth Corps and Blair’s Seventeenth. Rebels were seen moving out of Atlanta and seemed to be trying to take advantage of the open space between.
When he returned to McPherson’s side, he and the general rode toward General Blair’s headquarters, retracing the route taken by Strong just minutes before. They went together, stopping at about the center of the gap between the corps. He dismounted and examined the ground to the south. Back on his horse, he sent Strong with an order to General John Logan, commanding the Fifteen Corps, to send a brigade to stop up the gap. Strong made off, while McPherson rode a bit south. “He had gone hardly more than a hundred and fifty yards,” wrote Strong, “when he was killed.”
But by this time, Strong was gone. After delivering the message, he attempted to find his way back to McPherson, but instead found his way barred by Rebel artillery. Utilizing a round about route, he came near the left flank of the Seventeenth Corps, where McPherson was to have met him, near a thick woodlot.
“When within two hundred yards of the timber, I saw McPherson’s horse staggering about, and evidently wounded. The saddle and equipments bore the marks of three bullets, and the horse was struck in two places. About the time I reached the horse, a wounded soldier came out of the woods near by, accompanied by another soldier, unhurt. Seeing me, they asked if I was not an officer of McPherson’s staff, and upon my returning an affirmative reply, said that the General was dead, and that they had a few minutes previous left his remains.”
They handed to him a few of the general’s personal items and offered to lead him to where McPherson’s body lay. The firing had died down a little, and the procured an ambulance to bear it away. “We found it about twenty or thirty yards from the main road,” wrote Strong. “The General was lying upon his back, quite dead, his head resting upon a blanket which [staff officer] Reynolds had placed there. His hat, watch, sword-belt, and field-glass were missing; and the book which he carried in the side pocket of this blouse, which contained memoranda, papers, telegrams, etc., was also gone. His buckskin gauntlets had not been removed, and a diamond ring still remained on the little finger of his left hand.”
They dashed forward to retrieve the body, loaded it onto the ambulance and sped away, carrying it to General Sherman’s headquarters.
After the battle, William Strong learned, true or not, the story of McPherson’s death. The General must have wandered to within fifty feet of the Rebel lines before knowing it was even there. “He [McPherson] was called upon to surrender by an officer standing near the line,” wrote Strong, “but the only response he made to this demand was to raise his hat politely, bow, and rein in his horse to the right, evidently hoping to escape by gaining quickly the thick timer and underbrush which was close at hand.”
Once upon the ground, McPherson might have called for water, or even his hat, depending upon the storyteller. In some versions, the Confederates nearby seemed cordial and curious, while in others, they were vicious and cruel. More than likely, he lingered for as many as twenty minutes. The Confederates made off with many of his personal items, but most were recovered when the Rebels ended up as prisoners.
The battle itself lasted until after dark, with very little of the military landscape changing. The Rebels had broken through near the center, but they were beaten back. In the end, it was a bloody day, costing the Federals over 3,600 in killed, wounded and missing, and the Confederates over 5,500. Though successful in fending off the Rebels, Sherman would soon settle into besieging the southern city.1
- Sources: Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; The Death of General McPherson by William Strong; Nothing But Victory by Steven E. Woodworth; The Day Dixie Died by Gary Ecelbarger. [↩]