August 31, 1864 (Wednesday)
The night had been one of marching. They arrived in Jonesboro at sunrise, or a little after, and rested while their comrades straggled behind. The Federals north of Atlanta had slipped west and then south over the past week, devouring the countryside and railroad running southwest. The day previous, the northern host drew to within sight of the rails winding southeast to Macon.
But General John Bell Hood had anticipated their latest move and with little warning casually began to slide two corps along the same line to Jonesboro. Arriving first was Patrick Cleburne’s Division, now commanded by Mark Lowrey, as its namesake now helmed William Hardee’s Corps, as Hardee was the wing commander over his own and Stephen D. Lee’s Corps. But there was delay. Both Lee and Cleburne were late, and it wasn’t until 11am that they were arrayed for battle.
Awaiting their attack, entrenched on both sides of the Flint River, was the Sixteenth Corps, now led by Thomas Ransom, taking over for Grenville Dodge, who had been wounded. Ransom’s Corps held the Federal right, with Judson Kilpatrick’s Cavalry extended even farther on the flank. The Confederates saw the infantry, but seemed not to notice the cavalry.
“Each man was provided with sixty rounds of ammunition,” recalled General Lowrey, commanding the attacking Rebel division, “and all were informed that General Hood expected them to go at the enemy with fixed bayonets, and drive them across the river.” Lowrey had given his brigade commanders orders to keep their lines regulated, telling them to halt and dress if necessary. They were to move as one.
“About 3:30pm the division moved forward in good order,” Lowrey continued, “and soon encountered the enemy in an open field, strongly posted behind breast-works, with four pieces of artillery. From prisoners taken the force was ascertained to have been cavalry dismounted, under command of the Federal General Kirkpatrick. Both artillery and small-arms opened vigorously on my lines, but after a short contest the enemy fled in confusion, and were pursued by my command with great impetuosity.”
But General Kilpatrick told a different tale: “At 3:30pm of the same day (August 31) the enemy made a determined attack upon the infantry on my left. It seemed to be the intention of the enemy to break or turn our right flank. At first he entirely ignored my command. This I determined he should not do. Five regiments of cavalry, dismounted, were in position behind barricades directly in the flanks of the charging column. My artillery was in a most favorable position. I directed the artillery to commence firing on the advancing column of the enemy, and the cavalry upon the opposite side of the river to meet and attack him. This attack was determined and gallantly made. The enemy was forced to turn and meet it. He moved down in heavy columns, twice charged and was twice repulsed, but finally forced my people to retire from their rail barricades and across the river.”
Lowrey’s Rebel lines could not remain dressed as he pulled regiment after regiment from the main assault to deal with Kilpatrick’s cavalry. Ultimately, his planned attack was abandoned, and he pursued Kilpatrick and his troopers to the river.
In the meanwhile, S.D. Lee, commanding the other Southern corps, understood the intense firing to mean that Lowrey’s attack was coming off as originally planned. Thinking he would have support on his flank, he ordered his own attack and was viciously mauled by the entrenched Federals.
As the afternoon turned late, General Hardee finally called for a coordinated attack. Both Lowrey and Lee were to form and assault the Union lines as one. This was, of course, the original plan before Kilpatrick had his way with it. But Lee was unsure. While Cleburn’s Corps had been met with success (albeit, not the success they intended), his own had been repulsed. They were too demoralized, he insisted.
“It now became necessary for me to act on the defensive,” admitted Hardee in his report, “and I ordered Cleburne to make no further attempt upon the enemy’s works. It is proper to state that the enemy were strongly intrenched and had one flank resting on the Flint River and both well protected.”
Back in Atlanta, General Hood learned of the repulse, and now believed that Sherman would attempt a full assault upon the city itself. To his he ordered all of Lee’s corps back into the defenses of Atlanta.
“Lee’s corps proceeded to Atlanta,” continued Hardee, “and I remained at Jonesborough with my own corps and a body of cavalry under Brigadier-General Jackson.” Despite all the scouts and all accounts and reports to the contrary, Hardee believed General Hood to be woefully over-cautious.
But this contest was not at an end. There would come a dawn, and with it blood.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 38, Part 2, p856-857, 860; Part 3, p391, 700, 726-727; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; The Army of Tennessee by STanley F. Horn. [↩]