With its two peaks separated by a narrow gorge now thoroughly prepared by trenches, rifle pits, and redoubts, Kennesaw Mountain would be a tough nut to crack. Still, Sherman thought the time had come to crack it. “I am now inclined to feint on both flanks and assault the center,” he wired Halleck back in Washington. It seemed a sound enough proposition from where Old Brains sat, but here in Georgia neither Sherman’s commanders nor the men who would have to do the assaulting would be at all confident about the plan when they finally heard it. As Schofield wisely observed about the men in the ranks, the “veteran American soldier fights very much as he has been accustomed to work his farm or run his sawmill. He wants to see a fair prospect that it is going to pay.” Long experience had taught them something about the prospects of headlong assaults on carefully prepared positions. For three wet June days Sherman probed and pounded the long arc of the Rebel lines, 50 miles of interconnected trenches he estimated, searching for a place to get enough purchase to make his attack. McPherson on the left felt for a weakness on Loring’s front and found none. Thomas in the center hammered away at Hardee’s men across the way with 130 guns, determined, one thought, to fill Kennesaw with old iron, but the bombardment was as futile as it was furious. Schofield made some initial progress south of Kennesaw on the right, but Johnston shifted Hood in that direction, and the Federal turning movement there stalled in a bloody little fight at a place called Kolb’s Farm on June 22. By the 24th Uncle Billy had seen enough. Now thoroughly stymied, he sent orders to his commanders to “make full reconnaissances and preparations to attack the enemy in force on the 27th instant, at 8 a.m. precisely.”
One-armed Oliver Howard had defended Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg and frankly thought Joe Johnston’s position significantly stronger than that Pennsylvania high ground. Even Uncle Billy seemed to be hedging his bets. He would not make the attack with massive numbers, but feint at both flanks and make his main effort with Thomas in the center. Four divisions in all, roughly a fifth of his effective force, would actually carry the business end of the attack forward. McPherson would advance on the southwest slope of Little Kennesaw. A mile south Thomas would try to punch a hole in the Confederate center, hoping for the critical breakthrough that would take him to Marietta and the railroad beyond. Garrard’s horsemen were to threaten the far Rebel right and Schofield with Hooker’s corps in support the far left. On June 26th the rain ceased at last, and the sun rose clear and hot over the red gumbo of Georgia mud the next day. At “8 a.m. precisely,” as per Uncle Billy’s special orders, more than two hundred Yankee guns commenced their sound and fury, pounding the Confederate trenches and rifle pits that were the objectives of the Federal attack. “Hell has broke loose in Georgia, sure enough!” was the simple exclamatory judgment of one Rebel. Two days of probing skirmishes and artillery exchanges all along the front had told the veterans of both sides that a serious action was near, and now the roar of the guns proclaimed unmistakably that its hour had come. Shortly before nine o’clock, the sweaty gunners ceased fire and the blue infantrymen went forward. On McPherson’s front, 4,000 men of Black Jack Logan’s XV Corps marched in line of battle up the Burnt Hickory Road headed for Rebels on Pigeon Hill, a fairly gentle slope just south of Little Kennesaw. When they came into the open, every last musket and cannon of Sam French’s entrenched division exploded into action. The fire was simply staggering, and the attackers, or rather the survivors of those murderous volleys, quickly and sensibly sought such cover as they could. “It was only necessary to expose a hand to procure a furlough,” one Yankee grimly remembered. Nearly 600 of the attackers got their furloughs, many of them forever, without so much as budging the Confederate line.
In fact, the attack was broken so readily that French’s gunners could now turn their attention to the other Yankee thrust going forward a mile to the south just below the Dallas Road. There two divisions–one from Howard’s corps and one from John Palmer’s–were trying to bully Cheatham and Cleburne’s men out of their trenches. The attackers were determined enough, but massed musketry is no respecter of persons. The Yankees “seemed to walk up and take death as coolly as if they were automatic or wooden men,” a defender recalled. The heaviest Yankee blow fell on an angle where Hardee’s line bent to the left rear, soon to be known as the Dead Angle. Here two of Cheatham’s brigades had all they could handle. “The least flicker on our part,” one Rebel knew, “would have been sure death to all. We could not be reinforced on account of our position, and we had to stand up to the rack, fodder or no fodder.” With French’s artillerymen on the right helping out and Cleburne’s riflemen on the left, Cheatham’s men tore up the blue ranks and finally blunted the attack for good. Some 1,500 bluecoats were killed or wounded on this front, and by 11:00 Thomas gave up the attack as a piece of bad business. Howard, who thought the attack unwise in the first place, said frankly, “Our losses in this assault were heavy indeed, and our gain was nothing. We realized now, as never before, the futility of direct assault upon entrenched lines well prepared and well manned.” This is not to say that it hadn’t been hot work for the Confederate defenders. On a morning when the temperature soared to a hundred, the Rebels had fought to the point of utter exhaustion. “When the Yankees fell back and the firing ceased, I never saw so many broken down… men in my life. I was sick as a horse, and as wet with blood and sweat as I could be, and many of our men were vomiting with fatigue, over-exhaustion, and sunstroke; our tongues were parched and cracked for water, and our faces blackened with powder and smoke, and our dead and wounded were piled indiscriminately in our trenches.” They had done an earnest day’s work in those two hours of fighting.
Perhaps recalling what Thomas’ Cumberland men had done against an equally formidable Rebel position at Missionary Ridge, Sherman proposed striking another blow at the Rebel center, but Thomas would have none of it. He wired back immediately: “We have already lost heavily today without gaining any material advantage. One or two more such assaults would use up this army.” (The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain was incidentally probably the first in history directed by a field telegraph system.) Including the men lost in the ineffectual skirmishing on Schofield’s front, the Federals had lost some 3,000 men, two capable brigade commanders among the dead, against a total Confederate loss of 550. Cheatham and Cleburne’s divisions, which had borne the brunt of the fighting, lost less than 200 in each. Sherman insisted, then and later, that the “assault I made was no mistake; I had to do it.” In Sherman’s mind it “demonstrated to General Johnston that I would assault, and that boldly.” It is doubtful that this moral victory was much consolation to the maimed and to those past all consoling, but at least Sherman was willing to admit that the attack was a failure on the field. Unlike Grant at the bloodier field at Cold Harbor, Sherman did not scruple to call for a truce in the customary way to bury the dead. Long after the war one Rebel thought the June 30 truce was not motivated by “any respect either army had for the dead, but to get rid of the sickening stench.” In truth, all the bitter realities of battle, of field hospitals and prison camps and shallow graves, had hardened both blue and grey, perhaps none more so than Sherman himself, not the same man who had been furloughed home with a nervous breakdown in the first year of the conflict. “I begin to regard the death and mangling of a couple of thousand men as a small affair, a kind of morning dash,” he wrote his wife. “It may be well that we become hardened…. The worst of the war is not yet begun.”
Having insisted that his straight-ahead and smash-em-up tactics were no mistake, Sherman was nonetheless in no hurry to repeat them. Only hours after Thomas had counseled against a renewal of the assault on Kennesaw, Sherman wired him again with a new proposal: “Are you willing to risk [a] move on Fulton, cutting loose from our railroad?” It would be a move with the whole army and take it past Smyrna Station on the railroad and very nearly to the Chattahoochee itself. Deliberate Pap Thomas actually preferred to work against Kennesaw by regular siege operations, but Sherman would have none of that. In any event, Thomas agreed, marching was to be preferred to “butting against breastworks twelve feet thick and strongly abatised.” By July 2 Sherman pronounced the roads dry enough for marching. Leaving Garrard’s dismounted troopers to hold the railhead and Thomas to hold the Kennesaw front, Sherman ordered McPherson to swing west, cross Thomas’ rear, and join Schofield for another flanking run around Johnston’s left. One Rebel prisoner was sure that Sherman would never go to hell: “he will flank the devil and make heaven in spite of the guards.” Perhaps the devil did not know Uncle Billy Sherman as well as Joe Johnston. From his lookout on Kennesaw, Old Joe was well aware of his adversary’s turning movement, and it was turn and counter-turn once more. When Garrard and Thomas’ pickets advanced cautiously at dawn of July 3, the rebellious gentlemen had again made their nocturnal disappearance, cleanly, swiftly, and in good order as Sherman noted. This struck Sherman as great good fortune. If the flank march was hard enough and the pursuit in the center swift enough, the fox might be brought to bay in the open or, better yet, caught in the perilous act of crossing the Chattahoochee. Now speed was everything. When Garrard came up too slowly to suit Sherman, the commander spat, “Get out of here quick!” Asked for orders, he only spat once more: “Don’t make a damned bit of difference so you get out of here and go for the rebs.”
The Rebels, it turned out, were not hard to find. They were just five miles down the road near Smyrna, square across the rails with their flanks anchored on two creeks, Rottenwood Creek on the east and Nickajack on the west. More than that, they were snugly entrenched in lines prepared beforehand by slaves. Sherman thought first of forcing the position at once by a night assault, then thought better of it. In the first light of the Fourth of July, Sherman got a good look at the strength of the Smyrna line and, while Thomas was banging away in front, he sent McPherson again around the Confederate left, this time down the bank of Nickajack Creek. It was dark before McPherson was ready to fall on the Confederate left, but by then it was altogether a moot point, for there was no one to fall on. Johnston had slipped his lines and fallen back south of Vining Station, just two miles above the Chattahoochee. Sherman had anticipated Johnston as expertly as Johnston had Sherman, but now he was more than a little surprised to find Old Joe willing to give battle with his back against an unfordable river. Then he saw the line, also prepared ahead of time. The “best line of field entrenchments I have ever seen,” he pronounced them.
They were in truth sturdy lines, three corps in a six-mile arc straddling the railroad crossing with an additional five bridges in the Rebel rear if Old Joe’s boys had to get out in a hurry. And if it came to withdrawal, a second line was already prepared on the south bank of the Chattahoochee to confront a Federal effort to force a crossing. Still, Sherman could now see with his own eyes the steeples of Atlanta’s churches just nine miles distant. While his road gangs went to work repairing the track to Vining’s Station and his teamsters began bringing up fresh supplies, Sherman went to work finding a way over the river without smashing headlong into Johnston’s works. He sent his horsemen, Stoneman downriver and Garrard up, to find the critical point at which to flank Old Joe and sweep down on the prize. Garrard found his bridge, or rather the wreckage of it destroyed a week before by retreating Rebels, just this side of Roswell, twenty miles upriver. Still running in Roswell was a cotton mill owned by a Frenchman who flew the French tricolor over it and indignantly claimed a neutral’s status. Garrard’s troopers, however, were wreckers not lawyers. In short order, they took his mill to pieces. Then, to show that wreckers could build as well, they threw a new bridge up. In three days the Frenchman’s timbers were spanning the Chattahoochee. On July 10 the first of McPherson’s corps crossed uneventfully to the south bank. But even these bluecoats were not the first over. Two days earlier Schofield’s men had marched upriver to where Soap Creek flowed south into the big river, seven miles below Roswell. Across the river were a handful of Rebel horsemen and a single gun. In a crisply handled little action, Schofield sent assault troops over the river on pontoon floats under cover of gunfire and musketry. When they reached the south bank there was no one left to assault, the Rebels having fled and left their gun behind. The bluecoats quickly threw up a pontoon bridge, and by the morning of the 9th two divisions were over. Back on May 23 when he crossed the Etowah River, now far in his rear, Uncle Billy had predicted that his men would swarm along the Chattahoochee in five days. He was well behind that hopeful schedule, it was true, but he was now on the same side of that river as Atlanta.
Sherman had moved steadily by his own right in his long dance down the north Georgia countryside. Now he had turned by his left only to find his nimble grey partner had stepped out smartly by his right the same day McPherson crossed near Roswell. Johnston was once more in line across his path, this time behind Peachtree Creek, a sluggish stream that flowed west into the Chattahoochee just five miles north of Atlanta. Sherman’s legions so close to the Gate City were sending radiating circles of demoralizing anxiety throughout the South. From Atlanta itself, many already hurried south seeking refuge while those who remained packed their baggage and awaited events. In Richmond, however, Jefferson Davis was most unwilling simply to await events. Before the campaign had even begun, he had urged Johnston to drive Sherman’s armies back into Tennessee, a less-than-realistic appraisal of the situation then. Now he was acutely anxious that, at the very least, Atlanta, with its crucial railroad net and industrial plant, not fall to the invaders. Ever mistrustful of Johnston, Davis sent Braxton Bragg westward to confer with him in person. In Atlanta Bragg once more demonstrated his uncanny capacity for sowing discord. When Johnston was not satisfactorily forthcoming about his plans to drive the invader from the city, he conferred mainly with Hood, who argued for taking the offensive. “We should attack,” he insisted. “I regard it as a great misfortune… that we failed to give battle to the enemy many miles north of our present position,” conveniently forgetting that it was his reluctance to attack that had cost Joe Johnston his greatest opportunity back at Cassville.
In any case, confident talk of offensive action was precisely what Davis wanted to hear, although confident talk, as Johnston was later to observe acidly, is not necessarily the best measure of a field commander’s merit. On July 17 Davis removed Johnston from command and gave the reins of the Army of Tennessee to great-bearded, sleepy-eyed John Bell Hood. Old Joe’s removal stunned and grieved that army top to bottom. “This act,” one recalled after the war, “threw a damper over this army from which it never recovered.” (As it happened, the Army of Tennessee would cease to exist as a fighting force before the year was out.) The wisdom of this decision has been debated–with the clarity of hindsight–down the years. Robert E. Lee in fact worried about Hood’s reckless aggression and advised against his appointment. “All lion,” he warned, “none of the fox.” (Lee’s choice was in fact William Hardee.) But the fox was retired now and the lion in command. It may be that Atlanta was doomed to fall sooner or later and that Hood’s elevation only made it sooner. In any case, if Rebels were dismayed by the change, Sherman at least professed satisfaction, sure now that he would get his stand-up fight in the open. In an odd way Union general Schofield was partly responsible for Hood’s military career. Never an able student, to put the case charitably, Hood was within an ace of being dismissed from West Point for his difficulties in mathematics when fellow cadet Schofield had tutored him out of trouble, a good deed he had repented more than once. In any case, he knew his man. “He’ll hit you like hell, now, before you know it,” he assured Sherman.
Sherman, however, now so close to the prize, meant to strike some blows of his own. He sent McPherson marching eastward with orders to cross the South Fork of Peachtree Creek and descend on Decatur. There he would wreck the Georgia railroad, Atlanta’s last line to the upper South, and turn west to drive on the city. At the same time, Schofield would swing east and cross South Fork on a nearer arc, wrecking track when he reached the railroad and descending on Atlanta from the northeast as McPherson came up on his left. Thomas, now the right wing of the Federal effort, was to cross Peachtree Creek due north of the city and press on toward its heart. It was just here, on Thomas’ front, that Schofield’s prophesy was fulfilled. Had Hood’s attack on July 20 got off when he intended, he might have caught Thomas crossing the creek and struck a truly destructive blow. As it was, Stewart and Hardee’s corps delivered a smashing assault that buckled Thomas’ front and bruised both flanks while Cheatham’s covered the Federal threat east of the city. Furious as the attack was, it fell on the Rock of Chickamauga. Nor was there any Slow Trot in George Thomas this day. He got artillery up in a hurry, broke the grey assault waves with cannon fire, and, when infantry supports came up, drove the attackers back on Atlanta. The Battle of Peachtree Creek was a bloody failure for Hood.
Hood, of course, had been given command because Jefferson Davis wanted a commander who would fight battles, and Hood was quick to oblige his commander-in-chief once more. As McPherson approached the city from the east still separated from Schofield on his right, Hood saw an opportunity to strike a slashing blow on his exposed left flank. “Hood is a bold fighter,” Robert E. Lee understood, but he admitted to being “doubtful as to other qualities necessary.” His own men sometimes called him “Old Woodenhead.” But this time Hood was thinking and planning with cool-headed calculation. In fact, Hood had declared himself an “ardent advocate of the Lee and Jackson school.” Now he proposed to serve Sherman just as Lee and Jackson had served Joe Hooker at Chancellorsville. After the repulse at Peachtree Creek, Hood had pulled his whole army into the ring of works around Atlanta. Now with Stewart holding the north front and Cheatham the east, he would send Hardee’s whole corps on a swinging night march, tracing a long loop southeast, then turn north to come smashing down at dawn on McPherson’s left flank. For good measure, Joe Wheeler’s cavalry would ride hard for Decatur and McPherson’s wagon train parked there, and Cheatham would prepare to pitch in on McPherson’s right. It was a first-rate plan. Had it been executed as drawn on the map, it might well have crippled one wing of Sherman’s army.
But problems arose as soon as Hardee’s men were in motion. In fact, they were already behind schedule before some Rebels took a single step. Cleburne’s men had trouble disengaging on their front, and the last of them didn’t start for the proposed jumping-off point until 3:00 a.m. on the morning of July 22. The woods were dark, the single road narrow, the maps inadequate, and the men frankly bone-weary after a hot fight at Peachtree Creek two days earlier. Thus, dawn came and went before Hardee, much to his exasperation, could get his divisions formed up for attack. It was 12:30 before they went forward, and the flank that had been so critically vulnerable just a half-hour earlier was so no longer. One of McPherson’s corps–it was Grenville Dodge’s–had been on one of Sherman’s cherished rail-wrecking excursions up the line to the east. He was returning to the Army of the Tennessee just as Hardee was preparing to strike, and simply turned his corps south in three sturdy lines to meet the attack. It is likely that Dodge’s timely appearance saved McPherson’s army from destruction, for the fighting that blew up just then turned into a blind, bitter, and furious battle all around Bald Hill east of the city. It was, as Sherman might have called it, a big Indian war. One blue brigade, for example, beat off a savage attack on its front just in time to face about to grapple with another on what had been their rear five minutes before. It was attack and counterattack as the afternoon wore on, but Cleburne’s men, who had fallen most squarely on the Federal flank, were making progress.
McPherson himself had not been on the field when the fight began. He had been conferring with Schofield and Sherman at lunch in Schofield’s rear. At 2:00 he rode up to the fighting to discover that Cleburne’s men had found a seam in the blue line and were even now pressing skirmishers through it toward his rear. As McPherson trotted up with a single orderly, a Rebel captain among them raised his sword to demand the surrender of the two riders. McPherson paused a moment, raised his hat in a polite salute, then wheeled and galloped hard for the rear. A Rebel Minie ball tumbled him from his horse a moment later, and a moment beyond that he was dead. Sherman’s grief for the man he called “that bright particular star” was deep, and he wept openly that night over his flag-draped corpse. In his grief was a hard core of anger as well, directed now at the fire-eaters and fanatics, North and South, who had brought on this scourge of war. “The loss of a thousand men such as Davis and Yancy and Toombs and Floyds and Beechers and Greeleys and Lovejoys,” he declared, “would not atone for that of McPherson.” In the months ahead Southerners, at any rate, would feel the destructive weight of that anger.
But just now the Battle of Atlanta was raging, and into the breach caused by McPherson’s death rode Black Jack Logan, the senior corps commander and one of the rare political generals who was also a bold and skillful soldier. The situation he galloped into waving his black felt hat was touch-and-go. Cleburne continued to batter the blue lines from the south and east, and by now Hood had ordered Cheatham to pitch in from the west. At the same time, Wheeler’s horseman were trying to shoot their way into Decatur. The Yankees caught up in the fog of battle were being struck from every quarter of the compass. But these were veterans with a tough confidence in themselves and in Logan. He shouted, “Will you hold this line with me? Will you hold this line?” They roared back their assent, chanting, “Black Jack! Black Jack!” Defending where they had to and counterattacking where they could, the Yankees waged a fierce see-saw fight throughout the afternoon. About 4:00 Cheatham’s men finally punched a hole in Logan’s right north of the railroad, but Schofield rolled his batteries up and their massed fire blunted that advance. Although Dodge’s men had had their fill of fighting since being struck shortly after noon, their assailants, after a punishing night march, were at least as weary, if not more so, and the attacks on this front were running out of steam about the same time. On the far left of the fight, at Decatur, two blue infantry brigades finally turned Wheeler’s troopers away from the city. Stubborn, often close-quarters fighting went on into the gathering twilight, but the crushing blow that Hood had hoped to throw at dawn was clearly checked. Hood had taken a dozen guns, more than fifteen stand of Union colors, a thousand-odd prisoners, and here and there some perfectly useless ground. His second effort to pry Sherman loose from Atlanta had failed at a cost of 8,000 killed, wounded, and missing men. The Army of the Tennessee, which had made this fight virtually on its own at Sherman’s insistence, reported just less than half that number. Among them, though, were its commander, McPherson, shot dead from the saddle, and its senior corps commander, Logan, wounded by a musketball in the face. The Battle of Atlanta had been a close thing for Hood and he might have had better luck than he did, but both sides at nightfall were more or less where they had been at dawn.
The following night Hood pulled his forces back once more to the formidable works of Atlanta. Already in operation was the business of second-guessing Uncle Billy Sherman, an enterprise keeping shop to this day. Hood, like his mentors Lee and Jackson before him, had taken long odds in his attack east of the city. The bulk of his army had been engaged there, risking Atlanta to save it. (An old army crony of Hood remembered him wagering 2,500 dollars in a poker game “with nary a pair in his hand.”) With Thomas and Schofield more or less out of the fight, Sherman might have sent them in a rush against the weakened lines of the city. While Logan’s men were fighting their desperate struggle east of the city, Atlanta could perhaps have been seized behind them. But Sherman did not so order, preferring, as he said, to let battles fight themselves. In any case, Uncle Billy did not traffic much in perhaps or in second guesses. The one thing that was clear to him was that John B. Hood had struck a second hard blow with nothing in particular to show for it but casualties. Now he looked ahead to how he might pry Hood loose from Atlanta.
First, however, he needed to solve two problems, one logistical and one organizational. The logistical problem was the means of supplying his advancing armies with what they needed to march and fight. This his resourceful Westerners solved in short order. Though in fact Sherman carried neither spare tunnel nor spare bridge in his bag of tricks, his engineers had a railroad bridge over the Chattahoochee by July 25. The organizational problem was occasioned by the death of McPherson and the temporary elevation of Illinois politician Black Jack Logan. On the face of it, Logan was a compelling choice to succeed to command of an army. It might be reasonably argued that he had saved Sherman’s hide on the 22nd by his skill, energy, and nerve. Still, he was a volunteer, and, worse yet, a politician, hence, in principle, doubly suspect by the West Point cadre. Sherman thought so, as did Thomas and Schofield. At issue here was not the politics of war but the politics of warriors, and in the end Sherman chose pink-faced, pious Oliver Howard (West Point Class of ’54) to command the Army of the Tennessee. Howard and his Dutchmen had been badly used in the East, but he had handled himself and his men capably in the West. On Howard would rest the primary responsibility for Sherman’s next thrust for the Gate City of the South.