Today is the 150th anniversary of what I consider to be the most compelling battle of the Civil War: the Battle of Atlanta.
I find it compelling because it was a true soldier’s battle that demonstrated the unmatched martial virtues of the combatants, especially those in the Union Army of the Tennessee.
It was a soldiers battle because it was not fought according to any plan. There was a plan, and a rather impressive one on paper, but one that did not even make it to the point of first contact with the enemy. Instead, Confederate General John Bell Hood’s plan dissolved before a shot was fired due to the confusion of a night march, the fatigue of soldiers who had been engaged in combat for virtually every day of the previous two-and-a-half months, and wooded terrain crossed by watercourses and millponds.
Hood desired to reprise Jackson’s flank attack at Chancellorsville, a mere 14.5 months prior. But whereas Jackson attacked in depth, with three divisions one behind the other, Hood’s four attacking divisions were were strung out in a long, scraggly line scattered across several miles of Georgia scrub pine forest. Due to the trials of the march, the forbidding terrain, and the need to make haste, Hood’s divisions (commanded by Bate, Walker, Cleburne, and Maney) attacked mainly as brigades operating on their own hook, only tenuously connected with each other, if connected at all.
That said, they caught McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee in a very vulnerable spot. They were assailed from the direct flank (like Jackson had done to O.O. Howard’s hapless XIth Corps at Chancellorsville) and from the rear and front. Most Civil War armies would have fled when hit in force from flank and rear. But in one of the most sublime displays of soldiership in any war, Grant’s old army did not panic. Indeed, with little direction from any officer above brigade or division level, its soldiers reacted to the situation with aplomb. When attacked from the rear, they faced to the rear and beat off the attack. When attacked from the flank, they refused their lines and repelled it.
Some units, particularly those in the XVIIth Corps, were attacked sequentially from the flank, rear, and front. Resolutely, they responded to each threat. When attacked from the rear, they jumped to the front of their earthworks and beat off the assault, sometimes hand-to-hand. In one of the fights, Colonel Belknap of the 15th Iowa reached over the ramparts to grab Colonel Lampley of the 45th Alabama, wrestled him over the earthworks, and made him prisoner. Lampley had been screaming at his men for not following him. Belknap berated him: “Look at your men! They are all dead! What are you cursing them for?” (To demonstrate that martial prowess does not imply moral virtue, Belknap went on to become a corrupt Secretary of War under Grant. He resigned before being impeached for peculation in the matter of Indian trading posts.)
After being attacked in the rear, when attacked from their (previous) front (i.e., from the direction of Atlanta), the XVII Corps men cooly jumped to the proper side of their works, and easily drove off the attack.
When the Confederates assaulted from the flank, they withdrew stubbornly, fighting first from one side of the trenches, then the other, until they eventually formed on Bald Hill.
There the climax of the battle occurred. In ferocious assaults that continued into the dusk and then into the dark, the Rebels tried time and again to drive the Federals from their redoubt and trenches on the hill. But every time, the Illinoisans, Ohioans, Iowans, and Wisconsin men drove them back.
I am not aware of better fighting on any battlefield of the Civil War, or indeed of any other conflict.
Although the conflict around Bald Hill (sadly leveled by the construction of I-20 in the ’50s) is the most stirring part of the battle, the conflict is better known for the action around the Troup Hurt House. The Union counterattack that drove the Confederates from their lodgment in the Federal lines near that mansion is memorialized in the Cyclorama which is still on display in Walker Park in Atlanta. This was indeed an inspiring action that again demonstrated the sterling qualities of the soldiers in each army, but in my view pales in comparison with what occurred to the south on Bald Hill.
Throughout the battle, Confederates attacked ferociously, and the Union troops responded bravely and cooly, even when caught in the most exposed and dangerous positions. I defy anyone to identify a battle in which such a large number of troops (on the order of 30,000) responded as marvelously as did the troops of the XVth, XVIth, and XVIIth Corps of the Army of the Tennessee.
For the most part, they did this on their own initiative, and the initiative of company, regimental, brigade, and sometimes division officers. Their army commander, John B. McPherson, was shot dead early in the engagement. His replacement, John “Black Jack” Logan, provided inspirational leadership, but his tactical role was modest at best. The XVIIth Corps commander, Frank Blair, was far to the rear (which led many to question his courage).
Soldiers fought. Soldiers extemporized. Soldiers won.
Such individual initiative has been the hallmark of American soldiers since 1775. The Army of the Tennessee boys were recalcitrant soldiers in the traditional sense, resentful of discipline, and disdainful of spit and polish. But could they fight! They never lost a battle.
The Army of Northern Virginia is usually considered the exemplar of American armies in the Civil War, and it was indeed a marvel. But man for man, officer for officer, it could not compare to the Army of the Tennessee, especially at its July, 1864 apogee.
I have a personal connection to that Army. My great-grandmother’s brother, John Hatfield, fought in the 46th Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry. This unit was in Walcutt’s brigade of the 4th Division (Harrow’s) of the XVth Corps (formerly commanded by Sherman, then by Logan). It performed the signal service of defending the Union flank and rear against the attack of Smith’s Texas Brigade of Cleburne’s division. (John’s brother, Eli, had his arm shattered at the shoulder by a Minie ball at the Battle of Dallas on 28 May, 1864. My great-grandmother, who died when I was 4, talked of “Uncle Eli with the dead arm.” Medical records in the archives reveal that Eli was shot too close to the shoulder to permit amputation, so the surgeon removed all the shattered bone in his arm from the shoulder to the elbow. Ever after, the arm hung limp at his side.)
It is particularly inspiring to me at times like to consider the heroism of men like John and Eli Hatfield; their fellows in Sherman’s army; and even their foes in Hood’s Army of Tennessee. Some redeeming things came out of the carnage of the red clay hills of Georgia 150 summers ago, and these things were not sullied by craven politicians: indeed, it redeemed many of the errors and sins of the political class of 1860s America. That battle sealed the fate of Atlanta (though 6 weeks of grueling combat were to come before the city fell), which in turn sealed the fate of the Confederacy, for the fall of Atlanta secured Lincoln’s re-election, and thus the ultimate victory of the Union. And of course, that victory extinguished slavery in the United States. To have participated in such a thing is a credit to any man.
Would that today, we living Americans could be worthy of those who bled and died on a scorching day in the red clay of central Georgia, 150 years ago.