NEAR ATLANTA, GEORGIA, July 20, 1864: 9 p m.
Major General H. M. HALLECK, Washington, D. C.:
I have a dispatch from General Grant. Answer him in my name that Major General Smith has the very orders he suggests, viz, to hang on to Forrest and prevent his coming to Tennessee. I will, however, renew the order. I advanced from the Chattahoochee in force on the 17th. On the 18th General McPherson and Garrard’s cavalry reached the Augusta railroad and destroyed it for several miles, General McPherson occupying Decatur.
Today we moved on Atlanta, and have been fighting all day. Our line now extends from a point on the railroad two miles and a half east of Atlanta, and extends around by the north to the mouth of Peach Tree Creek. We find the enemy in force, but will close in tomorrow.
By the Atlanta papers we learn that Johnston is relieved and Hood commands; that Rousseau is on the railroad at Opelika, and that most of the newspapers and people have left Atlanta. General Thomas is on my right, General Schofield the center, and General McPherson on the left, General Garrard’s cavalry on the left rear of General McPherson, and Generals Stoneman and McCook on the west bank, guarding our right flank. The enemy still clings to his intrenchments.
If General Grant can keep Lee from re-enforcing this army for a week, I think I can dispose of it. We have taken several hundred prisoners, and had some short severe encounters, but they were partial. We have pressed the enemy back at all points until our rifle-shot can reach the town. If he strengthens his works I will gradually swing around between him and his only source of supplies, Macon.
W. T. SHERMAN, Major-General
Last night Thomas reported the enemy strong in his front. That message did not reach me until 6 p.m. today. I replied to Thomas:
I have yours of 12 m. I have been with Howard and Schofield today, and one of my staff is just back from General McPherson. All report the enemy in their front so strong that I was in hopes none were left for you, but I see it is the same old game. We must not allow the enemy to build a new system of fortifications. We cannot pass Atlanta without reducing it, and the more time we give them the harder it will be to carry.
General Schofield is near the distillery, where the enemy is fortifying. General Howard is just where he first encountered the enemy, four miles back from Atlanta, and McPherson is on the railroad, about two miles and half out, reports a line of breast-works, but does not seem certain. I wish you to press forward all the time, and thereby contract the lines. If we can shorten our line either to the left or right, we should attempt to break up West Point Railroad. I rather incline to think it best to swing to the right, but hope tomorrow’s work may develop some weak point. The enemy attempted to sally against Cox, but were quickly repulsed. I saw the skirmishers of the other division of Schofield make a dash at a line of rifle-pits, carrying it and capturing about 100 prisoners.
I was anxious today to prevent the enemy from making a new and larger line of breast-works than had been at first prepared, which is so near Atlanta that artillery could overreach and enter the town. All the prisoners captured by Schofield are of Hood’s corps, though each division commander insists he has to fight two corps. All the ground I have seen is densely wooded, but the roads are good. We will tomorrow press at all points and contract our line, so as to spare a column for detached service. It seems to me Palmer can force the enemy to evacuate the works on this bank of the Chattahoochee or be captured. I will push Schofield and McPherson all I know how.
Thomas Reports at 6:15:
The enemy attacked me in full force at about 4 p. m., and has persisted until now, attacking very fiercely, but he was repulsed handsomely by the troops all along my line. Our loss has been heavy, but the loss inflicted upon the enemy has been very severe. We have taken many prisoners, and General Ward reports having taken 2 stand of colors. I cannot make at present more than this general report, but will send you details as soon as I can get them from my corps commanders.
I have just read General Stoneman’s letter, with your indorsement. We have seen enough today to convince us that all of Stoneman’s information is incorrect. Something more than militia remain at Atlanta, and they are not demoralized. They have fought hard and persistently all day, and the heavy musketry fire still continues with Howard and Schofield. I do not hear McPherson’s guns now. I will send him your letter, but fear his answer will be that he has all the rebels on his flank. I think he is already impressed with the importance of pressing hard on that flank.
If we cannot break in, we must move by the right flank and interpose between the river and Atlanta, and operate against the road south. If you can advance your whole line, say to within three miles of Atlanta, I can throw a force that quarter you may call for Stoneman’s and McCook’s men, and let them come across by Pace’s and march down this bank. My own opinion is that in the morning you will find the forts on the Chattahoochee abandoned, and think you will have no difficulty in pushing your line up close to Atlanta. At all events, try it. I will send your and Stoneman’s letters to McPherson, but think the opportunity of operating on that flank, if it did exist, is now past.
I have ordered Garrard to destroy enemy railroads in our rear to prevent supply and re-enforcement:
HDQRS. MILITARY DIVISION OF THE MISSISSIPPI, In the Field, near Atlanta, July 20, 1864: midnight
General GARRARD, Commanding Cavalry Division:
After destroying the bridge at McAfee’s, which I suppose is already done, you will send to General McPherson’s guard at the bridge at Roswell your wagons, led horses, and baggage, and proceed rapidly to Covington, on the main wagon and rail road east, distance about thirty miles from Decatur. Take the road by Latimar’s touching the railroad at or beyond Lithuania, and thence substantially along the railroad, destroying it effectually all the way, especially the Yellow River bridge this side of Covington, as well as the road bridge over Yellow River, after you have passed. From Covington send detachments to destroy the rail and road bridges east of Covington over the Ulcofauhachee. Try and capture and destroy some locomotives and cars, and the depots and stores at Covington, but of private properly only take what is necessary for your own use, except horses and mules, of which you will take all that are fit for service, exercising, of course, some judgment as to the animals belonging to the poor and needy.
On your return select your own route, but I would suggest that by way of Sheffield, Rock Bridge, and Stone Mountain, or even farther north if you prefer. I want you to put your whole strength at this, and to do it quick and well. I know it can be done. By passing Yellow River by the road bridge, and then pushing for the railroad bridges right and left, the guard will run or even burn their own bridges. You ought to catch some trains about Covington, as there is no telegraph to give them timely warning. I believe that the cavalry is mostly withdrawn from that flank of the enemy, and that you can ride roughshod over any force there; at all events, it is a matter of vital importance and must be attempted with great vigor. The importance of it will justify the loss of quarter of your command. Be prepared with axes, hatches, and bars to tear up sections of track and make bonfires. When the rails are red hot they must be twisted. Burning will do for bridges and culverts, but not for ordinary track. Let the work be well done. The whole thing should be done in two days, including tomorrow. I will notify General McPherson that the may look out for his rear and trains.
I am, with respects, yours, truly,
W. T. SHERMAN, Major-General, Commanding
McPherson reports only cavalry in his front:
We have had some pretty lively skirmishing and have driven the enemy from several pretty strong positions, though I do not think there has been much of anything but cavalry in front of us on the left. But they have had four pieces of artillery and are armed with short Enfield rifles, making if difficult at times to dislodge them. Brigadier-General Gresham, commanding Fourth Division, Seventeenth Army Corps, was wounded in the leg below the knee by a minie-ball, which shattered the bone, I am afraid he will lose his leg. I have assigned Brigadier General Giles A. Smith to the command of the division. You will see from the sketch that my left, Blair’s command is in lot 207, and the line runs nearly north, the right breaking to the rear slightly to connect with General Schofield. General Garrard’s headquarters are in Decatur and his command is so disposed as to cover our rear and line of communications back to Roswell. Our losses have been comparatively light.
McPherson’s troops will entrench against attack tonight.
I Wrote to McPherson:
I inclose for you perusal letters from Generals Thomas and Stoneman. You will see that they are in error. I think our only chance of entering Atlanta by a quick move if possible is lost. Still more good results will flow from your pressing hard and close on your flank the other, because if you can reach Atlanta with your guns or turn that flank we will capture more prisoners and property than by the other, for it will leave the enemy in a pocket whence they should not escape. We have carried several light lines or rail-pits to-day all along our lines, but have not followed up quick enough, so that I suppose in the morning we will find the remainder made into good parapets. Still do not fail to try them strong and find that flank if you can reach it. I have ordered Thomas to press close into Atlanta, and will see that Schofield and Howard do the same.