Streetwise Professor

July 22, 2010

Atlanta, 22 July 1864

Filed under: History,Military — The Professor @ 7:59 am

On 22 July, 1864 occurred one of the most remarkable battles of the Civil War, but one that has not received the attention it deserves.  It is sometimes called “The Battle of Atlanta” but it was also known as the “Battle of July 22nd.”

The battle was part of newly appointed Confederate commander John Bell Hood’s effort to smash back Sherman’s relentless approach to Atlanta.  On the 21st, Leggett’s division of Blair’s XVII corps took Bald Hill on the Confederate right in a bold assault.  In moving forward to occupy the line Leggett’s men had seized, the left flank Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee was in the air.  Perceiving the chance to mount a second Chancellorsville, Hood endeavored to strike the vulnerable flank.

Hood’s plan was a good one (especially for Hood), and tolerably well executed.  He placed three strong divisions on the vulnerable Federal flank, advancing north.

But Hood was not facing the dodgy XIth corps of Chancellorsville infamy: the Army of the Tennessee was a much sterner opponent.  Indeed, in my view, this force was the most effective body of troops, man for man, to fight in the Civil War.  It had experienced plenty of combat, and so was tough and battle tested.  But it had not suffered the shattering losses of men and officers that other forces, like the Army of the Potomac or the Army of Northern Virginia had.  It had never suffered a serious reverse, and was highly confident.  Its men were highly self-reliant.

So rather than running when finding a large force on their flank, the Federals fought fiercely.  A small brigade of Iowans directly on the vulnerable flank stood and splintered the assault of Cleburne’s vaunted division.  Other parts of that division swept on, and attacked other elements of the XVIIth corps from the rear.  But while Civil War units would typically break when attacked from the rear, the Federals just jumped to the other side of their earthworks and beat off the attack, at times in hand-to-hand combat.  The commander of the 15th Iowa, William Belknap (later disgraced in a scandal in the Grant administration in which he served as Secretary of War), grabbed the 45th Alabama’s Col. Harris Lampley by the lapels, pulled him over the earthworks and shouted in his face: “Look at your men.  They are all dead.  What are you cursing them for?”  When another assault came from the direction of Atlanta–their former front, their new rear–the Federals just jumped back to the right side of their breastworks and beat off that attack too.

The Rebels eventually pushed back the Federals to Bald Hill, where a vicious, muskets in the face fight broke out over the embrasures of a small fort on its summit.  The Confederates assaulted again and again, but were beaten back by Leggett’s men.  The fight came so intense that when the commander of the brigade holding the hill, Manning Force, wounded terribly in the face, asked for a flag, his frightened aide brought him a white rag, thinking that Force intended to surrender.  Force cursed the man–“I meant an American flag.”  Force’s men fought on.  (Force was awarded the Medal of Honor.)

Another Confederate assault further north gained a temporary lodgement in the Federal line, but a smashing counterattack pushed them back.

By the end of the day, the Confederate assault had been crushed everywhere.  Exact casualty figures are in doubt, but best estimates are that Hood’s army suffered 4 times the casualties as the Army of the Tennessee.

One Federal casualty was the AotT’s commander, James Birdseye McPherson.  He was beloved by many, most notably Grant and Sherman.  Sherman cried when McPherson’s body was brought to his headquarters on a makeshift stretcher fashioned from a door.  McPherson was bright and engaging, obviously, but something of a disappointment as a battlefield commander.

But to me, one of the most interesting and tragic casualties of the battle was someone you’ve probably never heard of, Lucien Greathouse, the commander of the 48th Illinois.  He died leading a local counterattack to save Gay’s Iowa battery. He must have been a remarkable leader.  Sherman and Logan (McPherson’s replacement as army commander) eulogized him, as did Gay and his replacement as commander of the 48th.  All did so in terms that were remarkable, compared to the mention that most deaths merited by that time of the war when so many had already perished.

He was 22 years old.

Today the field of the 22nd is an urban neighborhood.  You can trace some of the action, and see some markers, but the battlefield is essentially obliterated.  Bald Hill–named “Leggett’s Hill” afterwards by the veterans–is no more. It is now an interchange on the interstate.  During the 1930s, the government decided that it had enough money to preserve one battlefield from the Atlanta Campaign.  The choice came down to the field of the 22nd, and Kennesaw Mountain.  The latter won out, and the field of the Battle of Atlanta was swallowed by the city that gave it its name.

The field is gone, but the battle should not be forgotten.  It was one of the most remarkable feats of arms seen in a war that featured many.

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  1. The standard narrative of the American Civil War is about the Armies of the Potomac and Northern Virginia, and General Lee’s thrashing of the Union Army for many years until his defeat at Gettysburg. Then Grant and Sherman mysteriously show up from nowhere and the war is over in a year, almost anti-climactically. The Union victory seems inexplicable. The war is told this way because the presence of both capitals being so close makes it seem like that theatre is the most important, and there is inherent drama in Lee’s victories.

    But I’ve grown increasingly convinced that the standard narrative is wrong. It is the Western Theatre, not the Eastern Theatre, that is the most important. And it is not Lee’s victories that are decisive, but Grant/Sherman’s out west. Although the Union did receive some defeats and setbacks in the West, overall they were successful, and the battles they did win had great impact. Saving Kentucky for the Union, the drive into Tennessee, the control of the Mississippi River, the Siege of Vicksburg, the capturing of Atlanta, and the March to the Sea. In contrast, whatever the drama of the Eastern Theatre, Lee’s great defensive victories are almost a sideshow in retrospect – only delaying the inevitable, and never giving the South the victories it truly needs to win.

    I think a Civil War history that places the proper emphasis on the theatres would seem very strange. Instead of continuing Union defeat, it would show the ongoing Union victories in the West that transform the strategic situation. Lee and his generals would seem diminished, not because their generalship seems worse, but because they don’t really affect the outcome. Grant and Sherman’s arrival in the East becomes natural, understandable, and inevitable instead of being what seems to be a strange disruption. I think it would also put Grant and Sherman in their proper place in the American Pantheon.

    Comment by Chris Durnell — July 23, 2010 @ 1:20 pm

  2. @Chris–agreed. I’ve always been a Western Theater guy. Part of that might be genetic–all my CW ancestors fought in Ohio units, in the West, in the Army of the Cumberland and the Army of Tennessee. Two were in the March to the Sea. But it’s also intellectual, for the reasons that you list.

    One sidelight that I’ve often found fascinating. There were more civilians and politicians in high rank in the Army of the Tennessee than in the Army of the Potomac, but the political infighting in the latter was much more vicious than in the former. (McClernand being the exception that proves the rule.)

    The Vicksburg Campaign was the most impressive of the war, by far. The Atlanta Campaign was similarly impressive. Even Tullahoma (pre-Chickamauga) was quite admirable, as compared to most of what happened in the East.

    Always nice to get a comment on my CW posts 🙂 If I had been independently wealthy, I would have been a CW historian.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 23, 2010 @ 2:55 pm

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