Major General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Orders, No. 42 on July 25, 1864, once again communicating his plans for taking the city of Atlanta. Sherman’s horse soldiers received special mention in the orders, which indicated the troopers’ main mission rested on destroying portions of the rail network lining the city.
Saddles began filling on the morning of July 28; soon, two brigades under Brigadier General Edward McCook left a dusty trail as they rode toward the Macon and Western Railroad. After destroying large sections of this line, the horsemen turned their sights toward the Atlanta and West Point Railroad. A surprise awaited the riders as they traveled the Ricketyback Road when Southern iron of a different form – the cavalry soldiers with Major General Joe Wheeler – twisted the Federals’ plans, much as they had intended to warp the tracks of the Atlanta and West Point.
Hard fighting, often hand-to-hand, took place along the Ricketyback Road, and when Confederate reinforcements, in the form of the 1st and 9th Tennessee Battalions blocked the intersection onto the Corinth Road, the battle turned into a rout. Wheeler smelled blood, rose in his saddle, and encouraged his soldiers from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas to “Follow me! My brave Men!” McCook, shaken with the sudden onslaught, sat in his saddle, almost as if in a daze, mumbling, “What shall we do? What shall we do?” Colonel James Brownlow, son of Tennessee’s infamous “Parson” Brownlow had the answer. Escape! As Brownlow maneuvered toward the Chattahoochee River, at a position near Franklin, McCook and company rode toward the New River. The brave soldiers of the 8th Iowa fought a strong rearguard holding action, which allowed several Federal troopers to avoid a trip to Andersonville’s Camp Sumter. Local African-Americans served as guides for both fleeing forces, as they attempted to navigate through the unfamiliar territory.
Early on the morning of July 31, lead elements of Wheeler’s force caught up with Brownlow’s command and took several prisoners. Crossing the Chattahoochee proved a very slow process, and those boys in blue remaining on the “wrong” side of the river became prisoners. In his after-action report, McCook stated, “At Brown’s Mill…I was surrounded by an overwhelming force.” A fitting summation for a costly defeat, one Sherman echoed in a communication to Washington, “The loss of this cavalry is a serious one to me.”
One bright moment for the Federals did emerge from their suffering at Brown’s Mill, when Private George Healey with the 5th Iowa Cavalry received the Medal of Honor for assisting in the capture of five Confederate soldiers. Federal casualties during the action numbered 1,400 with almost 1,300 taken as prisoners; Wheeler lost around 700 dead, wounded, or missing.
 David Evans, Sherman’s Horsemen: Union Cavalry Operations in the Atlanta Campaign (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 261.
 Ibid., 264.
Images courtesy Library of Congress.
Michael K. Shaffer is the Assistant Director and Lecturer for Kennesaw State University’s Civil War Center. He is a Civil War historian, author, and newspaper columnist, and a member of the Society of Civil War Historians. He serves on the boards of the Civil War Round Table of Cobb County and the River Line Historic Area, and assists the Friends of Camp McDonald as a Civil War consultant.