Streetwise Professor

July 22, 2014

The Sesquicentennial of the Most Compelling-and Perhaps Most Important-Battle of the Civil War

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 8:14 pm

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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. God Gave the Union Grant & Sherman, and an Army to smite the Godless Rebs; or is it more properly those who rebelled against God and Manifest Destiny?

    I am always amazed at Vicksburg, the logistics, the march & river crossing. The mark of the great qualities of the American armies then and ever since. The MAC flying (OK and Navy ships moving) 500,000 men armies; tanks, etc. halfway around the world. D-Day, the Pacific war. The landing at Incheon. Logistics and Material – and most importantly Men – and the moxie to use them all.

    You rightly praise the rank and file soldiers. I cannot help but think they also reflect the resoluteness of their former commander Grant (and obviously their commander Sherman). Grant famously never wanted to cross back ground he had taken (Shiloh comments, IIRC) and learned early, and always remembered, his enemy had as much reason to fear him and his army as he had to fear them. Your telling of the extemporaneous fighting of the Union army reminded me of those readings and Grant’s resolve after the first day of Shiloh.

    We cannot forget the men; it is easy to get enamored with logistics and supplies. Pershing showed up in France with men and little material. American Armies many times have found themselves with inadequate supplies, but found the will to prevail. You bet on material, but the will of the people and the leadership is critical.

    Comment by JavelinaTex — July 22, 2014 @ 10:43 pm

  2. BTW, by using men, I do not mean to exclude women and their contributions. And leadership from NCO to the top is critical. The US Military has long put it all aspects together. Although we had adequate armies throughout our history; Grant & Sherman and the Union Armies was the origin of our modern military; and the US Army in particular.

    Comment by JavelinaTex — July 23, 2014 @ 5:36 am

  3. Hood ended up being one of the worst generals of the Civil War, though for the right reasons (he was overly aggressive rather than the opposite). Albert A Nofi noted he has “the distinction of being the only Civil War commander to lose virtually his entire army in action” (after the Battle of Nashville and preceding campaign).

    Comment by Blackshoe — July 23, 2014 @ 11:44 am

  4. Another lesson, Midwest farm boys make darn good soldiers. Too bad we are not making nearly as many as we used to. Of course, I am biased as an Iowa farm boy.

    Comment by Scott Irwin — July 23, 2014 @ 12:04 pm

  5. @Scott-Definitely. The Iowa Brigade (sometimes known as Crocker’s Iowa Brigade) probably performed the greatest service out of all the Federal brigades on the 22d. It bore the brunt of the first flank attack (by Govan’s Arkansas Brigade of Cleburne’s Division), helped repel the attack of Maney’s division, and then drove off the attack of Lowrey’s Brigade and other elements of Cleburne’s division, before withdrawing to Bald Hill and bearing the brunt of the attack there. An amazing performance. It lost a lot of prisoners, because it often fought surrounded, as well as many KIA and WIA.

    I mentioned my family in the 46th Ohio. It was brigaded with the 6th Iowa. These regiments fought together from Shiloh to Sherman’s Carolina Campaign.

    Hawkeyes were few in number relative to Buckeyes and Mudsills in the Army of the Tennessee, but Iowa units distinguished themselves throughout.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 23, 2014 @ 1:29 pm

  6. @Blackshoe-As an army commander, Hood made a great brigadier. I’d cut him some slack for Peachtree Creek (20 July) because he’d assumed command only hours before. Atlanta was reasonable in conception and a lot of the problems of execution were beyond his control. But everything thereafter was a disaster. Ezra Church (28 July) and the first day of Jonesborough (31 August) were insane assaults that achieved nothing but give the Army of the Tennessee target practice. Spring Hill was an utter cock-up, and Franklin was the most appalling display of generalship in the war. The army was destroyed effectively there. Nashville just completed the destruction.

    One wonders what Davis was thinking putting such an intellectually limited and physically ravaged man in command of an army. A mangled, useless arm and a leg amputated almost at the hip joint. Likely heavy use of opiates to dull the pain. Who could possibly imagine that such a wreck of a man, especially one not noted for his intellectual gifts in the first place, could be an effective army commander?

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 23, 2014 @ 1:39 pm

  7. His appointment was typical of Davis’ bias towards commanders who were at times irrationally biased towards the tactical offensive, with little appreciation of strategy. These included Albert Sidney Johnston (what the hell was he doing personally leading attacks at Shilo?)and – pace- Robert E Lee, who made some spectacular blunders – see the attacks made during the Peninsular campaign particularly at Malvern Hill – It was said at the time that the Army of Northern Virginia would never be the same after – not to mention Pickett’s charge which Longstreet knew would fail. It was equalled in stupidity only by Grant at Cold Harbor. Every attempt at the strategic offense failed for the South. Indeed Lees great victory in the Peninsula campaign owed more to McClellan deciding to withdraw after he had trounced Lee than to anything else.

    People who complained that Joe Johnston was not aggressive, fail to remember that he commanded at the Peninsula – his wounding at 7 Pines gave Lee his chance and Davis stuck with him, but the overall plan of campaign was his. Also Note that his was the last large Confederate Army to surrender.

    Joe Johnston’s policy of retreat and maneuver was based on a profound understanding that the South could not win absolutely in the west – indeed by retreating more and more Union troops were tied up in garrison duty and defending a moreand more tenuous supply line. Sherman’s March to the Sea was in fact a validation of Johnston’s understanding, and Sherman’s actions were a response to that reality. Once Sherman cut loose and Hood made the disastrous decision to move North, so many troops were freed up that Thomas’ forces nearly doubled and led to the inevitable disaster in Tennessee

    Davis impatience might be understandable, but was ultimately ruinous.

    As far as Battles go – have you spent any time looking at the Battle of Pea Ridge – known as the Gettysburg of the West? I guess it is to non PC to look at it, as a large part of the southern forces were Indians from the “civilized” nations – so called because, in part, many held slaves.

    Comment by sotosy1 — July 23, 2014 @ 3:55 pm

  8. @sotos-Pretty much agreed. Though when I think through the alternatives, it appears to me that they make it clear that the Confederacy was doomed. It was just a matter of how they lost, how long it took, and how many people were killed in the process. Aggressive commanders, including Lee, probably prolonged the war and increased the carnage, but never did, nor could have, achieve a decisive victory. More cautious commanders, namely Joe Johnston, would have eventually run out of places to retreat to, and then it would have turned into a siege of some vital place (like Atlanta), which as Lee said about retreating to the Richmond area, it then would have become a matter of time.

    Regarding Pea Ridge, yes, I have studied it some. I read the Shea-Hess monograph soon after it came out. I visited the battlefield in 1997. It’s not on the way to anywhere, so I had to make a special trip to visit it. To give you an idea of my dedication, I made the visit on crutches after I ruptured my Achilles tendon. My late dad and I always did a Civil War trip in the spring, and I wasn’t going to let that injury stop me from making it that year. We also went to Prairie Grove and Wilson’s Creek. All very small, intimate, and interesting battlefields.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 23, 2014 @ 8:51 pm

  9. ” Though when I think through the alternatives, it appears to me that they make it clear that the Confederacy was doomed. It was just a matter of how they lost, how long it took, and how many people were killed in the process.” If thats the case then what does the heroism in your original post have anything to do it? Can a soldier truly be a ‘heroic’ soldier not on a personal level but on the level of historical achievement when he is fighting for a cause that is almost inevitable?

    Comment by d — July 23, 2014 @ 9:36 pm

  10. SWP, I think there is an obvious answer why Davis appointed Hood and why other leaders similarly appoint similar men in similar circumstances. There is a time when it becomes obvious your side has lost. Because of the strength still retained, defeat may not come for a year or even years, but given the situation it is inevitable if things continue as they are. Fighting the best textbook way will only delay the inevitable. When that happens, a natural response is to take huge gambles. High risk equals high reward. Such gambles may not be likely to work, but you are going to lose anyway; if they do, you’ve been rescued from defeat. It’s why Hitler choose to launch an attack at Kursk. It only rarely works, but it does sometimes. Folly and brilliance are not too far apart.

    Comment by Chris — July 24, 2014 @ 11:02 am

  11. There is a tendency to look at the past and think everything was determined: a sort of spillover from Marx/hegelian concept of the inevitability of deterministic dialectics. I am not so sure that the south was necessarily doomed (recognizing that my uncle the medievalist would describe this as counterfactual history). Take the whole issue of industrialized slavery. Marx noted (and then shut up) that all the Industrial might was built on slave extraction – cotton and sugar. what is forgotten is that the largest steel and Iron works in the US prior to 1861 was the Tredegar Works in Richmond, VA. Indid a lot of slave powered industries, such as the processing of forest products in North Carolina in the 1800’s only came to an end because the labor of slaves was worth more in the growing cotton Industry. Yet it is common to assume that slavery was fundamentally incompatible with Industry: a case that is really not proven, at least as industry stood in the mid 19th century.

    One cannot prove anything, but a strong case can be made that if the cost was high enough, the North would have relented (at least once navigation rights on the Mississippi were negotiated. Reading source materials makes the trope of inevitability seem less likely: it was always fascinating to put oneself in the place of the people, in “real time”, that is without already knowing the outcome. As one observer put it in 1864 if the south had known of the cost of secession, they never would have done it, while if the north had known the cost of the war, they would have let them go. Instead one sees both sides incrementally dig themselves deeper and deeper, committing more and more to an already chosen path.

    The point of this blather is that the south, unlike the North, had no real strategy for winning independence except beating the Northern ARMIES WHEN THEY SHOWED UP. The North did have a strategy for reconquest though it morphed over time from the Anaconda Plan of Scott to the war of attrition, to the ultimate war of attrition of Grant combined with a sort of Chevauchee by Sherman and Sheridan to break the south as Edward III had forced France to come to its knees in the mid 14th century. i would argue that the case for inevitability is not proven, except that it did work out that way.

    In summary I don’t tend to underestimate the decisions of the players involved. After all if their present was inevitable, so is ours, and that is too big of a cop out to give our current leaders.

    Comment by sotosy1 — July 25, 2014 @ 2:38 pm

  12. I tend to think Thomas doesn’t get enough credit for Nashville. Grant and Sherman’s doubts about him have unfairly obscured the modern Cannae he pulled off. Sure, Hood’s aggression made it possible, but other Union commanders frequently failed to capitalize on Rebel over-aggressiveness as effectively as Thomas did.

    Comment by srp — July 25, 2014 @ 5:43 pm

  13. @srp-I am a long-time Thomas admirer. He was my favorite general growing up, both for Chickamauga and Nashville. I think in some ways he was his own worst enemy, due to his taciturnity. He also alienated Grant by his shabby treatment of him when Grant arrived in Chattanooga because of Thomas’s pique over the relief of Rosecrans. His early death (in 1870) before he could write his memoirs, and his order that his family burn his papers upon his death, left his legacy at the mercy of others. One of the survivors, Schofield, particularly damaged Thomas’s reputation: Thomas’s fatal heart attack occurred while he was responding to an anonymous attack of Thomas’s conduct at Nashville penned by Schofield.

    I am reminded of Churchill’s remark that he expected history to be kind to him, because he intended to write it. Thomas didn’t live long enough to do that, and deprived others of the raw material that they could have used to give justice to his commendable record.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 25, 2014 @ 7:30 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress