Having secured his own railhead, Sherman now aimed to cut Hood off from his. Of the four lines that had fed pre-war Atlanta, the Western and Atlantic that ran northwest to Kingston and beyond was already safely in Thomas’s rear, and the Georgia line had been wrecked from Atlanta to Decatur by Schofield and McPherson. Hood’s army now lived at the end of two lines, the Atlanta and West Point line and the Macon and Western. Both, however, shared a single track as far as East Point just southwest of the city. The West Point line had been severely compromised a week before when Federal horsemen swooped down and tore up thirty miles of track east of Montgomery. Now to break the Macon line was to break Hood’s hold on Atlanta. Though the bright particular star was extinguished, Howard would take his vengeful veterans on a wide swinging march that had become their trademark. This time they were to march from the extreme Federal left to the extreme right, hiking behind Schofield and Thomas and then leading both in a hard drive for the railroad at East Point. At the same time, two separate cavalry columns under Edward McCook and George Stoneman would ride for the railroad in the neighborhood of Jonesboro twenty miles down the line from Atlanta and break the line there. Stoneman for his part asked and received permission to ride on from Jonesboro once the railroad was wrecked. He intended to strike for Macon and Andersonville to liberate the thousands of Federal prisoners held in abject misery there.
On the morning of July 27 Sherman set them all in motion, and by nightfall Howard’s men, marching at their characteristic swinging route step, had turned a smart half-circle around Atlanta, from due east to very nearly due west of the city. With Black Jack Logan in the lead, the march brought them up in the neighborhood of Ezra Church, a hamlet on the Lickskillet Road running east into the city three miles off. The next morning they set out for East Point again only to march into artillery fire as they approached Lickskillet Road. To Howard, the meaning of this fire was unmistakably clear. “General Hood will attack me here,” he told Sherman. This Sherman manifestly did not believe, reflecting that Hood had already made two furious and futile attacks. Uncle Billy himself had made one such attack at Kennesaw Mountain and never tried a second. “I guess not,” scoffed Sherman. “He will hardly try it again.” But Hood was indeed a lion, and Howard knew it. Still, there was also a measure of the fox in the man, who had after all been tutored in the arts of war by Lee and Jackson. Leaving Hardee this time to hold the city, Hood sent Stephen D. Lee, the South Carolinian now in command of Cheatham’s corps, to front Howard along the Lickskillet Road. Behind Lee, he sent Stewart’s corps, directed to swing around Howard’s right and strike his flank from the southwest. It was more or less the mirror image of the design that had come so close to collapsing McPherson’s corps east of the city.
Virtually all military plans go awry one way or another as soon as the first foot-soldier takes a step, and this one was no exception. S. D. Lee came down the road about noon and ran into Logan’s men. These men, sensing trouble like Howard, had thrown up sketchy works of logs, fence rails, and, in the immediate vicinity of Ezra Church, even pews. Lee, a youthful, zealous corps commander whose tenure was only two days old, sent his three divisions slam-bang into an assault at noontime. They came, as Howard remembered, with a “terrifying yell,” but Yankee veterans were not to be moved by noise at this point of the war. They beat back the first furious attack and then a second, both fearfully cut up. Sherman, not content to let this battle fight itself, sent up reinforcements from Frank Blair and Grenville Dodge’s corps. The slashing flank attack Hood intended Stewart to make was never made, and the most Stewart could manage for all his energy was to send a division in behind Lee to add to the casualties near sundown. Such success as the Confederates could claim in the effort against the Federal westward movement unfolded to the south. Joe Wheeler’s outnumbered troopers turned back the twin raids on Jonesboro. Stoneman himself, along with 700 comrades who had ridden with him to liberate the prison camps, was captive in Macon. It is not recorded how he intended to march 30,000 half-naked skeletons in Andersonville to the nearest place of refuge in Pensacola, Florida. That, however, is beside the point, for Stoneman never reached them in any event, and they remained–those who survived–to sweat out their captivity under the merciless Georgia sun. A full measure of human suffering lurks behind Sherman’s laconic judgment: “the cavalry raid is not deemed a success.” At Ezra Church, though, Hood’s third attempt to drive Sherman away from the Gate City had been decisively turned back at a cost of 2,500 Confederate casualties against just 700 of Howard’s bluecoats. Worse yet for the Confederate cause, the ragged Rebels in the ranks seemed to know how badly they had been beaten. Near Ezra Church a Yankee picket called out with the grim cordiality of pickets: “Say, Johnny, how many of you are there left?” “About enough for another killing” was the equally grim reply.
Hood had commanded the Army of Tennessee just eleven days now. He had struck three hard blows north, east, and west of the city at a cost of some 15,000 casualties to Sherman’s 6,000. He had lost more men in the eight days from Peachtree Creek to Ezra Church than Joe Johnston had in two and a half months, but he was no closer than Old Joe to driving Sherman from Georgia. On the other hand, Sherman had reached the gates of Atlanta skillfully and, compared to the butcher’s bill Grant was running up in Virginia, at a relatively low cost in blood. His total casualty list was about equal to the Confederate total under Johnston and Hood, roughly 27,500, less than half those of the Army of the Potomac. But this salient fact remained: Sherman was now stalled before the imposing works of Atlanta as surely as Grant before the labyrinth of Petersburg trenches. Whatever the Rebel in the ranks thought about his chances, the Southern press put a defiantly good face on the situation. The Atlanta Intelligencer proclaimed that “Sherman will suffer the greatest defeat that any Yankee General has suffered during the war…. The Yankee forces will disappear before Atlanta before the end of August.” It seemed to many that Hood’s attacks, though tactical defeats, were in fact strategic successes. Richmond papers reported Atlanta quite safe and predicted that “Georgia will be soon free from the foe.”
Implacable Billy Sherman and his confident Westerners didn’t think so, but on the home front the summer of ’64 presented the severest crisis of confidence in the war effort. Back before the trouble started, Lincoln in his inaugural address had invoked the “mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land.” These chords would, he was sure, “swell the chorus of the Union.” But now in this terrible summer of battle, what touched the hearts and hearthstones of the North were the radiating circles of suffering and death and irreparable loss. The eager patriotism of the conflict’s first spring was buried in shallow graves at Bull Run and on the Peninsula, at Fredericksburg and Stones River, and a thousand nameless places along the roads the armies tramped. On August 5 Admiral David Farragut’s flotilla had steamed into Mobile Bay in the most dashing, romantic fashion. Lashed to the mast to better view the action, Farragut watched as one of his ships, Tecumseh, struck a torpedo (mine) and sank. Moments later, calling out, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead,” he fought a pitched naval battle and closed the Confederacy’s last Gulf Coast port. But neither Farragut’s personal valor nor his achievement could revive the Union’s earlier energies. The call of Democratic newspapers in the North was louder and more compelling: “Stop the War!” was the frank theme of one Democratic editorial, and it reflected the deep core of Northern despair. Perhaps no more determined hard-war man breathed than Republican Thurlow Weed, but he was sure that “Lincoln’s reelection [was] an impossibility. . . . The people are wild for peace.”
Still, the fall elections were a ways off and the fortunes of war lay between. As far as Tecumseh Sherman was concerned there was not going to be any peace in Georgia just now at any rate. If he couldn’t bully his way into Atlanta, perhaps he could batter it into submission. The city was invested on three sides, and he was steadily strangling its lines of supply. Now he rolled his guns forward, augmented by siege guns, heavy Parrots and Rodmans hauled down from Chattanooga by rail, and he resolved to “make the inside of Atlanta too hot to be endured.” Inside Atlanta, those who remained did endure in cellars and backyard bomb-proofs as the relentless rain of Union shells fell daily and August dragged on. For most, however, the iron reporting of the shells was more convincing than the defiant confidence of Southern papers, and the citizens of Atlanta rode south with every crowded train that left for Macon or hoofed it to safety with what they could carry on those wagon roads that remained open. Sherman insisted he was doing no more than destroying Atlanta’s capacity to wage war, but it happened that those legitimate targets of war–factories, rails, warehouses–lay in the neighborhoods of Atlanta. In a well-known exchange of letters, combative John Hood complained of Sherman’s inhumanity against the people of Atlanta. Sherman countered that it was Hood who had made his stand with citizens behind his lines. War is cruelty, he argued, not to be refined. Cruel it was, and it was to become crueler yet. “Let us destroy Atlanta,” he resolved, “and make it a desolation.”
But if Atlanta was willing to endure a siege, Sherman was unwilling simply to batter it patiently and wait for it to fall as Vicksburg had done the summer before. For unlike Vicksburg, Atlanta could live as long as the Macon line remained open. Furthermore, regular siege operations did not appear to be the means to his original end, which was to break up the Army of Tennessee. Thus, while Yankee guns did their best to make Atlanta, as Sherman put it, “a used-up community,” he continued to reach around to his right, feeling for a vulnerable place to strike the railroad. The trouble was of course that while Sherman reached right, Hood continued to extend his left and entrench as he extended all the way to East Point and beyond. On August 5 Sherman swung Schofield behind Howard for another thrust for the railroad, and the next morning Howard struck the Confederates near Utoy Creek. The attack was a messy failure. It was badly managed for one thing, and for another Schofield’s men were no more eager to go head-long against breastworks than any other soldiers, blue or grey. Hood for his part was playing the same game, trying to cut Sherman’s road in his rear. On August 10 he sent Joe Wheeler’s cavalry on a slashing raid up the line. In a month of hard riding Wheeler’s troopers tore up thirty miles of track, burned the recently rebuilt Etowah River bridge, and scooped up horses, beef cattle, wagons, and 600 Yankees–all at a cost of 150 casualties. It was a brilliant raid, daring and destructive, but in the end it failed in two crucial particulars: first, it didn’t cut the railroad long, for Sherman’s gangs repaired track as fast as Rebels wrecked it; second, it didn’t budge Sherman from his fixed purpose of seizing the Macon and Western line and throttling Atlanta.
In fact, Sherman saw Wheeler’s raid as an opportunity. With Wheeler out of the way, he would send Judson Kilpatrick, just returned to the service after recovering from his Resaca wound, to ride hard for the line at Jonesboro, twenty miles south of Atlanta. (Kilpatrick’s colleague, Garrard, he observed acidly, would dismount and entrench at the sight of a single Rebel through his spyglass.) Kilpatrick’s instructions were “not to fight but to work.” Kilpatrick’s troopers, Sherman added, “cannot tear up too much track nor twist too much iron. It may save this army the necessity of making a long, hazardous flank march.” Kilpatrick’s cavalry reached Jonesboro late on August 19, burned the depot, and tore up a couple of miles of track before being driven off. He returned to the Federal lines on the 22nd, assuring his chief that the road would be closed for a full ten days. To Kilpatrick’s chagrin and Sherman’s disgust, trains rolled into Atlanta’s yards from the south the next morning. Convinced that cavalry “could not or would not work hard enough to disable a railroad properly,” Sherman now resolved, as he later wrote, “to proceed to the execution of my original plan.” It was to be a “grand left wheel around Atlanta,” the hazardous flank march he had hoped to avoid. Slocum’s XX Corps was to remain north of the city, sturdily entrenched and covering the railroad bridge over the Chattahoochee. (This had been Hooker’s corps until he had gone home miffed by Howard’s promotion.) On the far right with the longest arc to march, Howard was to swing southwest, cross the West Point line near Fairburn, then drive east on Jonesboro. Pap Thomas in the center was to drive southwest to Red Oak on the West Point line, then east to cross the Flint River, and strike the Macon line beyond. On the near arc, Schofield would make a tight turn and seize Rough and Ready Station on the same line four miles south of East Point. If all went well, the three blue columns would make three neatly parallel arcs to the Federal right, and the Macon road would be broken in three places, thoroughly, properly, and once and for all. Most important, John Bell Hood would be compelled to come out of his works with just two choices left to him: fight or run.
On August 26 Sherman’s columns were in motion, slipping their lines and leaving Atlanta behind as they hiked west on the Sandtown Road, Howard and Thomas in the lead, Schofield to follow. In their wake was silence, a silence Confederates found both sweet and ambiguous after weeks of relentless cannon fire. When cautious Rebel patrols found empty trenches, hopeful and relieved Atlantans rejoiced to think that the Yankees were headed back across the Chattahoochee, thwarted at last by Hood’s stubborn resistance. But to Hood now fell the sole responsibility for construing the meaning of this sudden silence. The Yankees, or the bulk of them anyway, were gone, that much was clear. Slocum’s corps did hold the Chattahoochee Bridge, and there was a rearguard of blue skirmishers on the Sandtown Road west of the city. It seemed now to Hood that Wheeler’s raid had so effectively compromised Sherman’s line to Chattanooga that he was taking his starving army north to defend it. The Yankees remaining in the neighborhood of Atlanta were simply covering a withdrawal. Hood was confirmed in this judgment the very morning the guns fell silent. A brigade from Wheeler had ridden up with a lot of Yankee prisoners and a report from Wheeler himself. Not only had he wrecked extensive stretches of track, he was still on the rampage, ready now to cross the Tennessee River and ride on Nashville. It could only mean that Hood had won and the Gate City was safe.
Hood sent what remained of his cavalry down the Sandtown Road the next day to make sure. Led by William H. Jackson, they found Yankees to the west quickly enough, but they didn’t seem to Jackson to be leaving Georgia, and he told Hood so. Considering Hood’s capacity for independent command, Robert E. Lee had confirmed the Kentuckian’s courage but doubted the “other qualities” necessary. One of those qualities was imagination, and Hood seemed at this moment incapable of imagining that Sherman was once more reaching for the Macon and Western by a march around the Confederate right. Jackson of course was right. The three blue columns were marching entirely unopposed toward their objectives. Even now Howard and Thomas were on the already broken West Point line and breaking it even further with the kind of thoroughness that Uncle Billy cherished. His Westerners heaved the rails up a regiment’s length at a time, piled the ties into roaring fires, and heated the rails. When the rails were white hot, the men twisted them around the nearest tree or telegraph pole. Plenty of “Sherman’s neckties” now adorned the white pines between Red Oak and Fairburn. By the morning of August 30, Howard and Thomas, Sherman riding with them, reached the Flint River. The Macon and Western was just two miles to the east. It had been a long time since McPherson’s column had emerged from Snake Creek Gap back in May with Johnston’s lightly defended lifeline at Resaca within easy reach. At the time Sherman had crowed he had Old Joe dead, and indeed he might well have had McPherson pushed ahead hard then and there. Now, with September nearly arrived, he was within reach of the critical railroad once more, and for the time being at any rate, it was undefended. “I have Atlanta as certainly as if it were in my hand,” he told Pap Thomas.
In Atlanta, events were at last spurring Hood into awareness and action. Three days after their disappearance, Sherman’s legions, at least some of them, were clearly well south of the city on the West Point line and pressing east toward the Macon line. Hardee was closest to the threatened southern sector, and Hood sent him at once to Rough and Ready where he could march either north or south to confront the Yankee advance. Stephen D. Lee’s corps would follow as far as East Point in support while Stewart’s held the Atlanta works. In truth, Hood had a nightmare on his hands. With Slocum still squarely entrenched north of the city and Yankees in unknown strength threatening his line as far south as Jonesboro, Hood had somehow to defend a twenty-mile front against an enemy twice his numbers. By now he knew that two blue columns were aiming for both Rough and Ready and Jonesboro ten miles farther south. Having discovered their whereabouts, pugnacious John Hood was himself once again. Hood believed he saw an opportunity to strike them in detail in the neighborhood of Jonesboro. He ordered Hardee to make a night march down from Rough and Ready to Jonesboro and launch at dawn on August 31 an attack on Howard’s exposed position. At the same time S. D. Lee’s corps would come down from East Point. Between them they were to “drive the enemy, at all hazards, into Flint River, in their rear.” That night in Atlanta Hood added one embellishment to his plan. As soon as Lee was through helping Hardee push Howard into the river, he was to return to Rough and Ready. There he would join Stewart’s corps for a smash-up flank attack down the west bank of the river the next day. Hood would not simply drive Howard from his road; he would destroy him.
It was a bold plan. Indeed, it would mean that Atlanta would be held by Red Jackson’s troopers and the Georgia militia for a time. But like so many of Hood’s bold plans, it was a bust. Cleburne, temporarily in corps command for Hardee, brought his men down to Jonesboro by a hard night march for a dawn attack, but the sun had been up an hour before he reached Jonesboro. It was no matter, really, because Lee didn’t come up until noon. In the meantime, Howard was calmly preparing for the attack he devoutly hoped Hardee would make. He had his best corps–Black Jack Logan’s–plus a division from Grenville Dodge’s corps across the Flint and dug in along the east bank with his other two in support on the west bank. Logan’s exposed men would, he believed, goad Hardee into attack. It was 2:00 before Hardee and Lee were in position, and by then Howard was beginning to wonder if the Rebels would strike at all. He was going to have to attack himself if they didn’t come on soon. Finally, he ordered a 3:00 assault. Fifteen minutes before the Federals’ own jumping-off hour, Hardee struck.
Hardee intended Cleburne to drive the Federal right while Lee struck Logan’s front as soon as he heard Cleburne’s guns open up. But it was a day when things would simply not go right for the weary Rebels. S. D. Lee, as impetuous as he had been at Ezra Church, mistook the rattling fire of the skirmishers for the main attack and went forward too soon. Meanwhile, Black Jack’s men had put their time in to good purpose, strengthening their works. These were after all the same soldiers who had torn Hood’s ranks so savagely at the Battle of Atlanta and Ezra Church. Now the whole weight of their massed musketry supported by battery fire fell on Lee’s long lines of battle. The attack stalled with heavy losses almost as quickly as it started. Cleburne on the Confederate left had some initial success, driving Kilpatrick’s troopers back across the river easily enough. But even this success had unfortunate consequences, for the whole left wing of the attack swung away from Logan’s front in pursuit of the Yankee horsemen. (Howard was content to note an entire Confederate division taking itself voluntarily away from the point of attack.) Thus, a weakened right wing ran into concentrated rifle fire from Logan’s trenches as well as grapeshot and canister from his batteries. The attack was not very determined and was broken easily. Hardee wanted to try again, but Lee and Cleburne had seen enough. Between Lee and Cleburne the Confederates lost 2,200 men against less than 200 in Logan’s corps. More important than mere bloodletting, however, was the plain fact recognized by the Confederate top command: the Army of Tennessee was all but used up as an offensive force. They had done much hard marching on short rations, and now John B. Hood had led them into a fourth murderous and vain assault. Clearly, they were not going to drive any Yankees into the Flint River this day. The Confederates withdrew, and the first day’s fighting at Jonesboro was over.
That night John Hood, the pre-war poker player who wagered a small fortune with “nary a pair,” was running out of cards to play with dismaying swiftness. The attack he intended to make down the Flint River tomorrow morning with Lee and Stewart was out of the question after this afternoon’s failure at Jonesboro. It appeared to him now that Howard’s army at Jonesboro must be part of a design to draw him away from Atlanta while Thomas and Schofield threw the knockout punch at the city from somewhere off to the northwest. Wheeler’s cavalry might have told him otherwise, but they were still well to the north raiding and would be for ten days more. Now Hood played his next-to-last card. If Atlanta and not the Macon railroad was Sherman’s true aim, S. D. Lee would have to hurry his road-weary and battle-worn men back to the city to aid Stewart in its defense while Hardee fronted Howard at Jonesboro. As Lee’s men marched, they discovered precisely what Hood was discovering from reports drifting into Atlanta at the same time. Schofield and Thomas were not poised for attack off to the northwest. They were already astride the Macon road, Schofield at Rough and Ready, Thomas between that point and Jonesboro. Sherman’s “grand left wheel” had been intended to press two hard choices on Hood–fight or run. He had fought to a bloody repulse on August 31. As the first of September drew near, there was no choice but to surrender the city and save his army if he could. He now played his last card in the campaign for Atlanta. Hasty plans were cobbled together to destroy everything of military value in the city and get Stewart and Lee’s corps moving down the McDonough Road. Their march would take them to the east of the Macon line and south down to Lovejoy’s Station below Jonesboro. There they would reunite with Hardee.
That is, if Hardee could slip his lines and reach them. Doing so would be no mean feat, for Sherman now believed that Hardee had been left holding the bag at Jonesboro. With Howard’s army on Hardee’s front, Sherman ordered Thomas to send two corps and Schofield a third to fall with a shock on Hardee’s right flank. To close the trap completely, Frank Blair would swing his men south and cut off Hardee’s escape. If they could strike together, 60,000 blue infantrymen might well take Hardee’s 12,500-man corps out of the war for good. But Schofield came down too slowly from Rough and Ready, wrecking track as he went. Sherman himself was mainly responsible for the laborious pace at which Schofield descended on Jonesboro, for his orders explicitly instructed him to “work down the road, burning and breaking the road good.” They did not order him to hurry. Old Slow Trot Thomas did his best that day, even galloping at one point (the only time Sherman ever saw him do so). But one of his corps, Frank Stanley’s, took a wrong turn and was lost for a time. Although it did come within easy reach of the field before the day was out, Stanley inexplicably halted and entrenched.
Thomas’ other corps, however, happened to be commanded by Jefferson C. Davis. He had taken over only recently when its former commander, John Palmer, followed Hooker home with a similarly bruised ego. Davis was still notorious for the murder of Bull Nelson back in Kentucky, but a man who could shoot a brother officer with a borrowed pistol would certainly attack Rebels with a will. Without waiting for Stanley to come up on his left according to plan, his three divisions came tearing down from the north to strike Hardee’s right at 4:00, but the thickets and heavy timber through which they passed helped break the attacking lines into uncoordinated pieces. When they finally reached the sturdy Confederate trenches, Cleburne’s division blunted the first attack in furious fighting. Davis’ men came on once more with a rush, and this time the assault fell squarely and with weight on Cleburne’s right-most brigade and buckled it. On the bluecoats came, scooping up Rebel prisoners as they went. But Davis was not the first Federal to discover that Cleburne’s division was uncommonly hard to drive. Cleburne reformed his crumpled right, falling back and extending eastward, and massed musketry and artillery finally took the steam out of Davis’ attack. The second day’s fighting at Jonesboro cost Sherman’s army nearly 1,300 casualties and Hood’s nearly 1,000, most of these prisoners. Stanley’s wrong turn and the gathering darkness had helped save Hardee’s corps. That night the Rebels slipped their lines and commenced their dispirited march toward Lovejoy Station.