April 24 to November 16, 1864
Many historians date the Atlanta campaign from late April 1864 to September 2nd, 1864, the September 2 date coinciding with the withdrawal of General Hood’s Confederate forces from Jonesboro and the official surrender by Atlanta Mayor, James Calhoun. However, that leaves out an important part of the history. It was not until November 12 that Sherman destroyed Atlanta by ordering all buildings except homes and churches to be burned. Many homes and churches, however, were caught up in the conflagration.
Union forces had begun to probe Confederate strength south of Ringgold, Georgia, on April 24, with the objective of a major advance on Atlanta, an important Confederate railroad center and supply depot. Up until the middle of May, General Joe Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry were able to frustrate Sherman’s enormous army of over 100,000 men attempting to advance toward Atlanta.
After a two-day battle at Resaca, Georgia, on May 14 and 15, Sherman’s overwhelming numbers forced General Johnston’s Army of Tennessee to withdraw. Sherman’s better than two to one numerical superiority constantly threatened Johnston with flanking or encirclement. Johnston’s Army, however, was able to inflict some stinging defeats on Sherman at Pickett’s Mill in late May and at Kennesaw Mountain from June 19 to 27. Union General McPherson’s flanking movements, however, forced Johnston to withdraw to Smyrna.
On July 17, President Davis, frustrated with Johnston’s defensive caution and continued withdrawals, replaced Johnston with John B. Hood. On July 21, after repulsing Hood at Peachtree Creek the previous day, Sherman was in position to bombard downtown Atlanta with artillery. A fierce battle occurred the next day on July 22 that cost the Confederates about 8500 casualties. This is the date usually given for the Battle of Atlanta. Union General McPherson was killed on that day. However, the Confederates did not withdraw as Sherman had expected.
Sherman then sent General George Stoneman for a cavalry raid on Macon in an attempt to cut Hood’s main southern supply line. He was supported by cavalry divisions under Garrard just southeast of Atlanta and McCook swinging to the south from Newnan southwest of Atlanta. A total of 9000 Union cavalry pressed to cut off Hood from the major supply depot at Macon.
When Stoneman’s cavalry arrived in front of Macon, however, they met unexpectedly fierce resistance by Confederate militia, composed mostly of older men, disabled veterans, and young boys, commanded by politician-General Howell Cobb. This resistance and the delay it caused may have seemed at first a mere nuisance to Stoneman, but it was a nuisance that contributed to a completely unexpected tactical outcome. Neither did Stoneman anticipate the sheer audacity, speed, and fighting spirit of Confederate cavalry forces opposing him. Hood’s cavalry commander, the young, serious-minded and normally soft-spoken Joe Wheeler, was not inappropriately nicknamed “Fightin’ Joe.”
On July 29-30 Wheeler’s cavalry force of only 5000 dealt Sherman’s cavalry forces of 9000 men a series of stunning, one might even say, astonishing defeats. Wheeler’s cavalry defeated all three divisions of Sherman’s cavalry, mauling and vanquishing McCook at Newnan, routing and capturing Stoneman at Macon, and forcing back Garrard. For the Union, this was the most disastrous cavalry defeat of the war. In all, the Confederates took 3200 prisoners including Major General Stoneman and five brigadier generals in addition to numerous supply wagons and artillery batteries.
Unfortunately, the overwhelming manpower resources of the Union would be able to replace Sherman’s losses within months and supply them down to the last tent peg. In August, Hood ordered Wheeler to take 2000 cavalry on a raid into central Tennessee. This reduction of Confederate cavalry in the Atlanta area had the unfortunate effect of leaving Hood unable to gather intelligence effectively or to successfully hinder the build-up of Union forces around the city. By August 30, Sherman’s forces were in position to cut off the last railroad supply line to Atlanta at Jonesboro.
From August 30 to September 1, Hardee’s Corps with portions of Stephen D. Lee’s Corp and elements of Wheeler’s cavalry attempted to parry a death blow to the strategic city of Atlanta by defending the remaining railroad connection between that city and Macon to the south. This valiant effort was against odds of nearly three to one. On September 2, General Hood was forced to evacuate Atlanta. Hardee had succeeded; however, in delaying Jonesboro’s capture long enough to allow for Hood’s orderly retreat to Lovejoy, Georgia, just south of Jonesboro. Henry Slocum’s Union XX Corp moved into Atlanta and accepted the surrender of the city from Mayor James Calhoun.
At Jonesboro today, a Confederate Battle Flag still flies over the Patrick Cleburne Memorial Cemetery near the railroad. The area once marked a Confederate field hospital. The cemetery contains the remains of Confederate soldiers killed at Jonesboro or dying of wounds from other battles around Atlanta. There are several hundred grave stones there, only seven of which can now be identified. It is estimated that a total of 600 to 1000 Confederate soldiers lie there in either marked graves or mass burials.
Seeing that Confederate Battle Flag there is a marvelous sight but brings sadness to the heart. The Confederates suffered about 2000 casualties at Jonesboro. Union losses were about 1100 for the two-day battle. The Union’s most devastating losses in the Atlanta campaign were suffered in June at Kennesaw Mountain and July 29-30 at the hands of Fighting Joe Wheeler’s cavalry.
On September 4, General Sherman ordered civilian evacuation of Atlanta, much to the protest of Hood and other Confederate leaders. On November 8, Lincoln was reelected President, and on November 12, Atlanta was destroyed by Sherman’s troops.
On November 16, Sherman departed the Atlanta area with his men singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic. His force of 60,000 men proceeded to devastate a 60 mile-wide swath of farms and communities on his march through Georgia to Savannah. Then he turned to destroy 50% of the private property in South Carolina, including the burning of Columbia and about a dozen smaller towns.
Mike Scruggs is a retired financial consultant and corporate business executive. He holds an MBA from Stanford University and a BS from the University of Georgia. He is a USAF combat veteran of the Vietnam War, holding a Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart. He was recently Chairman of the Board of a Classical Christian School and is a former Republican County Chairman. He writes and lives in Hendersonville, NC.