After the battle of Peachtree Creek Hood ordered his army to withdraw to Atlanta, hoping that an opportunity would present itself to destroy a portion of the Union army as Sherman advanced on Atlanta.
While Stewart’s corps held the fortifications north of Atlanta, Hood planned to attack McPhersons Army of the Tennessee which was approaching from the east. Cheatham’ corps would attack from the eastern fortifications of Atlanta, while Hardee’s corps would attack from the south, with Wheeler’s cavalry launching assaults on the supply lines of the Army of the Tennessee.
Hardee’s corps took much longer to get into position for the attack than Hood anticipated, and McPherson reinforced his left to meet this anticipated attack. The attack of Hardee when it went in caused the Union line to waver and begin to retreat before it was repulsed. It was during this attack that McPherson was slain. Major General John “Blackjack” Logan, the most able of the Union political generals, took temporary command of the Union army and successfully led it during the remainder of the battle.
Cheatham’s corps attacked from the Atlanta entrenchments. Here most of the fighting centered on Baldy Hill, with that conflict going on to nightfall. Two miles to the north Cheatham’s corps made a breakthrough of the Union lines, that was only repulsed after much hard fighting, spearheaded by Logan’s corps supported by a heavy Union artillery bombardment.
At the end of the day, Union casualties were 3,000 to Confederate casualties of 5,000. Hood was unable to repulse the Union forces and the battle of Atlanta now became the siege of Atlanta.
The essential tragedy of the Civil War is that it was “a war without an enemy” in which Americans were fighting each other. This sad fact is epitomized by this tribute penned by Hood in regard to his classmate and roommate James Birdseye McPherson:
I will record the death of my classmate and boyhood friend, General James B. McPherson, the announcement of which caused me sincere sorrow. Since we had graduated in 1853, and had each been ordered off on duty in different directions, it has not been our fortune to meet. Neither the years nor the difference of sentiment that had led us to range ourselves on opposite sides in the war had lessened my friendship; indeed the attachment formed in early youth was strengthened by my admiration and gratitude for his conduct toward our people in the vicinity of Vicksburg. His considerate and kind treatment of them stood in bright contrast to the course pursued by many Federal officers.
Here is Sherman’s report of the battle:
On the 21st we felt the enemy in his intrenched position, which was found to crown the heights overlooking the comparatively open ground of the valley of Peach Tree Creek, his right beyond the Augusta road to the east, and his left well toward Turner’s Ferry, on the Chattahoochee, at a general distance from Atlanta of about four miles. On the morning of the 22d somewhat to my surprise this whole line was found abandoned, and I confess I thought the enemy had resolved to give us Atlanta without further contest, but General Johnston had been relieved of his command and General Hood substituted. A new policy seemed resolved on, of which the bold attack on our right was the index. Our advancing ranks swept across the strong and well-finished parapets of the enemy and closed in upon Atlanta until we occupied a line in the form of a general circle of about two miles radius, when we again found him occupying in force a line of finished redoubts which had been prepared for more than a year, covering all the roads leading into Atlanta, and we found him also busy in connecting those redoubts with curtains, strengthened by rifle-trench abatis and chevaux-de-frise.
General McPherson, who had advanced from Decatur, continued to follow substantially the railroad, with the Fifteenth Corps, General Logan; the Seventeenth, General Blair, on its left; and the Sixteenth, General Dodge, on its right, but as the general advance of all the armies contracted the circle, the Sixteenth Corps, General Dodge, was thrown out of line by the Fifteenth connecting on its right with General Schofield, near the Howard house. General McPherson the night before had gained a high hill to the south and east of the railroad, where the Seventeenth Corps had, after a severe fight, driven the enemy, and it gave him a most commanding position within easy view of the very heart of the city. He had thrown out working parties to it and was making preparations to occupy it in strength with batteries. The Sixteenth Corps, General Dodge’s, was ordered from right to left to occupy this position and make it a strong general left flank. General Dodge was moving by a diagonal path or wagon track leading from the Decatur road in the direction of General Blair’s left flank. About 10 a.m. I was in person, with General Schofield, examining the appearance of the enemy’s line opposite the distillery, where we attracted enough of the enemy’s fire of artillery and musketry to satisfy me the enemy was in Atlanta in force and meant to fight, and had gone to a large dwelling close by, known as the Howard house, where General McPher-son joined me. He described the condition of things on his flank and the disposition of his troops. I explained to him that if we met serious resistance in Atlanta, as present appearances indicated, instead of operating against it by the left, I would extend to the right, and that I did not want him to gain much distance to the left. He then described the hill occupied by General Leggett’s division, of General Blair’s corps, as essential to the occupation of any ground to the east and south of the Augusta railroad on account of its commanding nature. I therefore ratified his disposition of troops, and modified a previous order I had sent him in writing to use General Dodge’s corps, thrown somewhat in reserve by the closing up of our line, to break up railroad, and I sanctioned its going, as already ordered by General McPherson, to his left, to hold and fortify that position. The general remained with me until near noon, when some reports reaching us that indicated a movement of the enemy on that flank, he mounted and rode away with his staff.
I must here also state that the day before I had detached General Garrard’s cavalry to go to Covington, on the Augusta road, forty-two miles east of Atlanta, and from that point to send detachments to break the two important bridges across the Yellow and Ulcofauhachee Rivers, tributaries of the Ocmulgee, and General McPherson had also left his wagon train at Decatur, under a guard of three regiments, commanded by Colonel (now General) Sprague. Soon after General McPherson had left me at the Howard house, as before described, I heard the sound of musketry to our left rear, at first mere pattering shots, but soon they grew in volume, accompanied with artillery, and about the same time the sound of guns was heard in the direction of Decatur. No doubt could longer be entertained of the enemy’s plan of action, which was to throw a superior force on our left flank while he held us with his forts in front, the only question being as to the amount of force he could employ at that point. I hastily transmitted orders to all points of our center and right to press forward and give full employment to all the enemy in his lines, and for General Schofield to hold as large a force in reserve as possible, awaiting developments.
Not more than half an hour after General McPherson had left me, viz, about 12.30 of the 22d, his adjutant-general, Lieutenant-Colonel Clark, rode up and reported that General McPherson was either dead or a prisoner; that he had ridden from me to General Dodge’s column, moving as heretofore described, and had sent off nearly all his staff and orderlies on various errands and himself had passed into a narrow path or road that led to the left and rear of General Giles A. Smith s division, which was General Blair’s extreme left; that a few minutes after he had entered the woods a sharp volley was heard in that direction, and his horse had come out riderless, having two wounds. The suddenness of this terrible calamity would have overwhelmed me with grief, but the living demanded my whole thoughts. I instantly dispatched a staff officer to General John A. Logan, commanding the Fifteenth Corps, to tell him what had happened; that he must assume command of the Army of the Tennessee, and hold stubbornly the ground already chosen, more especially the hill gained by General Leggett the night before. Already the whole line was engaged in battle. Hardee’s corps had sallied from Atlanta, and by a wide circuit to the east had struck General Blair’s left flank, enveloped it, and his left had swung around until it hit General Dodge in motion. General Blair’s line was substantially along the old line of rebel trench, but it was fashioned to fight outward. A space of wooded ground of near half a mile intervened between the head of General Dodge’s column and General Blair’s line, through which the enemy had poured, but the last order ever given by General McPherson was to hurry a brigade (Colonel Wangelin’s) of the Fifteenth Corps across from the railroad to occupy this gap. It came across on the double-quick and checked the enemy. While Hardee attacked in flank, Stewart’s corps was to attack in front directly out from the main works, but fortunately their attacks were not simultaneous. The enemy swept across the hill which our men were then fortifying, and captured the pioneer company, its tools, and almost the entire working party, and bore down on our left until he encountered General Giles A. Smith’s division, of the Seventeenth Corps, who was somewhat in “air” and forced to fight first from one side of the old rifle parapets and then from the other, gradually withdrawing regiment by regiment so as to form a flank to General Leggett’s division, which held the apex of the hill, which was the only point deemed essential to our future plans. General Dodge had caught and held well in check the enemy’s right, and punished him severely, capturing many prisoners. General Giles A. Smith had gradually given up the extremity of his line and formed a new one, whose right connected with General Leggett and his left refused, facing southeast. On this ground and in this order the men fought well and desperately for near four hours, checking and repulsing all the enemy’s attacks. The execution on the enemy’s ranks at the angle was terrible, and great credit is due both Generals Leggett and Giles A. Smith and their men for their hard and stubborn fighting. The enemy made no farther progress on that flank, and by 4 p.m. had almost given up the attempt.
In the mean time Wheeler’s cavalry, unopposed (for General Garrard was absent at Covington by my order), had reached Decatur and attempted to capture the wagon trains, but Colonel (now General) Sprague covered them with great skill and success, sending them to the rear of Generals Schofield and Thomas, and not drawing back from Decatur until every wagon was safe, except three, which the teamsters had left, carrying off the mules. On our extreme left the enemy had taken a complete battery of 6 guns with its horses (Murray’s) of the regular army as it was moving along unsupported and unapprehensive of danger in a narrow wooded road in that unguarded space between the head of General Dodge’s column and the line of battle on the ridge above, but most of the men escaped to the bushes; he also got 2 other guns on the extreme left flank that were left on the ground as General Giles A. Smith drew off his men in the manner heretofore described.
About 4 p.m. there was quite a lull, during which the enemy felt forward on the railroad and main Decatur road, and suddenly assailed a regiment which, with a section of guns, had been thrown forward as a kind of picket, and captured the 2 guns. He then advanced rapidly and broke through our lines at this point, which had been materially weakened by the withdrawal of Colonel Martin’s brigade sent by General Logan’s order to the extreme left. The other brigade, General Lightburn’s, which held this part of the line, fell back in some disorder about 400 yards to a position held by it the night before, leaving the enemy for a time in possession of two batteries, one of which, a 20-pounder Parrott battery of four guns, was most valuable to us, and separating General Woods and General Harrow’s divisions, of the Fifteenth Corps, that were on the right and left of the railroad. Being in person close by the spot, and appreciating the vast importance of the connection at that point, I ordered certain batteries of General Schofield’s to be moved to a position somewhat commanding it by a left-flank fire, and ordered an incessant fire of shells on the enemy within sight and the woods beyond to prevent his re-enforcing. I also sent orders to General Logan, which he had already anticipated, to make the Fifteenth Corps regain its lost ground at any cost, and instructed General Woods, supported by General Schofield, to use his division and sweep the parapet down from where he held it until he saved the batteries and regained the lost ground. The whole was executed in superb style, at times our men and the enemy fighting across the narrow parapet; but at last the enemy gave way, and the Fifteenth Corps regained its position and all the guns, excepting the two advanced ones, which were out of view and had been removed by the enemy within his main works.
With this terminated the battle of the 22d, which cost us 3,722 killed, wounded, and prisoners. But among the dead was Major-General McPherson, whose body was recovered and brought to me in the heat of battle, and I had sent it in charge of his personal staff back to Marietta on its way to his Northern home. He was a noble youth, of striking personal appearance, of the highest professional capacity, and with a heart abounding in kindness that drew to him the affections of all men. His sudden death devolved the command of the Army of the Tennessee on the no less brave and gallant General Logan, who nobly sustained his reputation and that of his veteran army and avenged the death of his comrade and commander.
The enemy left on the field his dead and wounded and about a thousand well prisoners. His dead alone are computed by General Logan at 3,240, of which number 2,200 were from actual count, and of these he delivered to the enemy under flag of truce sent in by him (the enemy) 800 bodies. I entertain no doubt that in the battle of July 22 the enemy sustained an aggregate loss of full 8,000 men.