Civil War Wednesday: The Fall of Atlanta

Destroyed box cars in Atlanta, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-33492

Destroyed box cars in Atlanta, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-33492

One hundred fifty years ago this week, Major General William T. Sherman turned his three armies to the southwest, and began maneuvering around besieged Atlanta, in an attempt to cut the remaining railroads supplying the Confederate forces protecting the city. General John Bell Hood, head of the Army of Tennessee, upon learning the Federal troops had vacated their positions opposite the vast series of earthworks and fortifications surrounding Atlanta, believed Major General Joseph Wheeler’s raid into northwest Georgia had accomplished the mission of severing Sherman’s supply line out of Chattanooga. Although Wheeler and his horsemen inflicted some damage to the Western & Atlantic Railroad, Northern repair crews soon had the rails restored, and supplies flowed to Sherman’s 100,000 troops.

Scouting parties soon reported to Hood the presence of Federal forces near Rough and Ready, with elements also approaching Jonesboro. Hood ordered Lieutenant Generals William Hardee and S.D. Lee to move, posthaste, toward the area. Hardee arrived first, reaching Jonesboro on August 30. At 1:00 p.m. on the day of his arrival, he received a dispatch from Brigadier General Francis Shoup, Hood’s chief of staff, indicating the commanding general “…does not think the necessity will arise to send more troops to Jonesborough to-day.”[1] Before sunset on the day, the Confederates reversed their thoughts regarding a pending attack, and full preparations for battle began.

The plan of attack for the Confederates dictated Lee and Hardee would coordinate their attempted repulse of the approaching Federals, with Major General Patrick Cleburne launching the assault. Upon hearing the sound of Cleburne engaging, Lee would strike the left of the Federal position, while Hardee hit the right. Light skirmishing broke out on the morning of August 31, and Lee, mistaking the sounds for Cleburne’s full advance, initiated his attack. Lee’s soldiers, forced to fall back, could not support a breakthrough Cleburne’s men later achieved. Day one drew to a close with Lee suffering the majority of the Confederate casualties. Major General Oliver O. Howard sent the following report to Sherman: “The enemy attacked us in three distinct points, and were each time handsomely repulsed.”[2]

Fearing an attack upon Atlanta from another direction, Hood ordered Lee to make his way back to the city during the evening of August 31. When the battle renewed at Jonesboro on September 1, Hardee, severely outnumbered, had no chance to hold-off the bulk of Sherman’s armies. Two days of fighting resulted in 2,000 Confederate dead, wounded, and missing; the Northern forces lost 1,149 men. The defeat at Jonesboro, coupled with the severing of the final rail lines running into the city, left Hood no choice but to abandon Atlanta on the evening of September 1, 1864. He ordered the destruction of over 80 box cars – some loaded with munitions – and five locomotives, which the Confederates could not extricate. The resultant blast leveled nearby buildings, while the noise alarmed civilians for miles in all directions.

The fall of the city weakened Southern morale and increased the resolve among many in the North to continue the war effort. None received this news with greater elation than President Abraham Lincoln. He issued an order of thanks to Sherman and his armies, and called for the nation to observe a day of “Thanksgiving and Prayer” on September 10. Perhaps more than most, Lincoln had occasion for giving thanks, as his reelection hopes, spiraling downward before the capture of Atlanta, met a complete reversal after news of Sherman’s victory spread. Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Wells, pointedly addressed the political implications from the fall of Atlanta in his diary entry of September 9. “The success of Sherman at Atlanta…has very much discomposed the opposition. They had planned for a great and onward demonstration for their candidate [George B. McClellan] and platform, but our naval and army successes have embarrassed them exceedingly.”[3] Six small words from Sherman, “…Atlanta is ours, and fairly won,” transformed Northern military and political fortunes in 1864.[4]

shafferMichael K. Shaffer is a Civil War historian, author, newspaper columnist, and lecturer. He can be contacted at: www.civilwarhistorian.net.

[1] U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, reprint 1899 ed. Series I 38, pt. 5 (Harrisburg, PA: National Historical Society, 1971), 1000.

[2] Ibid., 727.

[3] Gideon Wells, Diary of Gideon Wells, Secretary of the Navy under Lincoln and Johnson (1911; repr., Lexington, KY: Filiquarian Publishing, 2011), 2:140.

[4]O.R., 38, pt. 5, 777.