Howard House, Near Atlanta, Georgia
In the morning we found the strong line of parapet, “Peach-Tree line,” to the front of Schofield and Thomas, abandoned. I ordered them to feel up to the enemy and advance rapidly close up to Atlanta. For some moments I supposed the enemy intended to evacuate, and in person was on horseback at the head of Schofield’s troops, who had advanced in front of the Howard House to some open ground, from which we could plainly see the whole rebel line of parapets. I saw their men dragging up from the intervening valley, by the distillery, trees and saplings for abatis. Our skirmishers found the enemy down in this valley, and we could see the rebel main line strongly manned, with guns in position at intervals.
Schofield was dressing forward his lines, and I could hear Thomas farther to the right engaged, when General McPherson and his staff rode up. We went back to the Howard House, a double frame-building with a porch, and sat on the steps, discussing the chances of battle, and of Hood’s general character. We agreed that we ought to be unusually cautious and prepared at all times for sallies and for hard fighting, because Hood, though not deemed much of a scholar, or of great mental capacity, was undoubtedly a brave, determined, and rash man; and the change of commanders at that particular crisis argued the displeasure of the Confederate Government with the cautious but prudent conduct of General Joseph Johnston.
McPherson was in excellent spirits, well pleased at the progress of events so far, and had come over purposely to see me about the order I had given him to use Dodge’s corps to break up the railroad, saying that the night before he had gained a position on Leggett’s Hill from which he could look over the rebel parapet, and see the high smoke- stack of a large foundry in Atlanta; that before receiving my order he had diverted Dodge’s two divisions (then in motion) from the main road, along a diagonal one that led to his extreme left flank, then held by Giles A. Smith’s division (Seventeenth Corps), for the purpose of strengthening that flank; and that he had sent some intrenching-tools there, to erect some batteries from which he intended to knock down that foundry, and otherwise to damage the buildings inside of Atlanta. He said he could put all his pioneers to work, and do with them in the time indicated all I had proposed to do with General Dodge’s two divisions.
Of course I assented at once, and we walked down the road a short distance, sat down by the foot of a tree where I had my map, and on it pointed out to him Thomas’s position and his own. I then explained minutely that, after we had sufficiently broken up the Augusta road, I wanted to shift his whole army around by the rear to Thomas’s extreme right, and hoped thus to reach the other railroad at East Point. While we sat there we could hear lively skirmishing going on near us down about the distillery, and occasionally round-shot from twelve or twenty-four pound guns came through the trees in reply to those of Schofield, and we could hear similar sounds all along down the lines of Thomas to our right, and his own to the left. Presently the firing appeared a little more brisk, especially over about Giles G. Smith’s division, and then we heard an occasional gun back toward Decatur. I asked him what it meant. We took my pocket-compass which I always carried, and by noting the direction of the sound, we became satisfied that the firing was too far to our left rear to be explained by known facts, and he hastily called for his horse, his staff, and his orderlies.
McPherson hastily gathered his papers into a pocket-book, put it in his breast-pocket, and jumped on his horse, saying he would hurry down his line and send me back word what these sounds meant. His adjutant-general, Clark, Inspector-General Strong, and his aides, Captains Steele and Gile, were with him. Although the sound of musketry on our left grew in volume, I was not so much disturbed by it as by the sound of artillery back toward Decatur. I ordered Schofield at once to send a brigade back to Decatur some five miles.
I was walking up and down the porch of the Howard House, listening, when one of McPherson’s staff, with his horse covered with sweat, dashed up to the porch, and reported that General McPherson was either “killed or a prisoner.” He explained that when they had left me a few minutes before, they had ridden rapidly across to the railroad, the sounds of battle increasing as they neared the position occupied by General Giles A. Smith’s division, and that McPherson had sent first one, then another of his staff to bring some of the reserve brigades of the Fifteenth Corps over to the exposed left flank; that he had reached the head of Dodge’s corps, marching by the flank on the diagonal road as described, and had ordered it to hurry forward to the same point. Then, almost if not entirely alone, he had followed this road leading across the wooded valley behind the Seventeenth Corps, and had disappeared in these woods, doubtless with a sense of absolute security. The sound of musketry was there heard, and McPherson’s horse came back, bleeding, wounded, and riderless. I ordered the staff-officer who brought this message to return at once, to find General Logan, the senior officer present with the Army of the Tennessee, to report the same facts to him, and to instruct him to drive back this supposed small force, which had evidently got around the Seventeenth Corps through the blind woods in rear of our left flank.
I soon dispatched one of my own staff to General Logan with similar orders, telling him to refuse his left flank, and to fight the battle holding fast to Leggett’s Hill with the Army of the Tennessee; that I would personally look to Decatur, to the safety of his rear, and would reenforce him if he needed it. I dispatched orders to General Thomas on our right, telling him of this strong sally, and my inference that the lines in his front had evidently been weakened by reason thereof, and that he ought to take advantage of the opportunity to make a lodgment in Atlanta, if possible.
Meantime the sounds of the battle rose on our extreme left more and more furious, extending
to the place where I stood, at the Howard House. Within an hour an ambulance came in attended by Colonels Clark and Strong, and Captains Steele and Gile, bearing McPherson’s body. I had it carried inside of the Howard House, and laid on a door wrenched from its hinges. Dr. Hewitt, of the army, was there, and I asked him to examine the wound. He opened the coat and shirt, saw where the ball had entered and where it came out, or rather lodged under the skin, and he reported that McPherson must have died in a few seconds after being hit; that the ball had ranged upward across his body, and passed near the heart. He was dressed just as he left me, but his pocket-book was gone. On further inquiry I learned that his body must have been in possession of the enemy some minutes, during which time it was rifled of the pocket-book, and I was much concerned lest the letter I had written him that morning should have fallen into the hands of some one who could read and understand its meaning. Fortunately the spot in the woods where McPherson was shot was regained by our troops in a few minutes, and the pocket-book found in the haversack of a prisoner of war captured at the time, and it and its contents were secured by one of McPherson’s staff.
While we were examining the body inside the house, the battle was progressing outside, and many shots struck the building, which I feared would take fire. So I ordered Captains Steele and Gile to carry the body to Marietta.
The reports that came to me from all parts of the field revealed clearly what was the game of Hood and the ground somewhat favored him. The railroad and wagon road from Decatur to Atlanta lie along the summit, from which the waters flow, by short, steep valleys, into the “Peach-Tree” and Chattahoochee, to the west, and by other valleys, of gentler declivity, toward the east Ocmulgee. The ridges and level ground were mostly cleared, and had been cultivated as corn or cotton fields, but where the valleys were broken, they were left in a state of nature: wooded, and full of undergrowth. McPherson’s line of battle was across this railroad, along a general ridge, with a gentle but cleared valley to his front, between him and the defenses of Atlanta; and another valley, behind him, was clear of timber in part, but to his left rear the country was heavily wooded. Hood, during the night had withdrawn from his Peach-Tree line, had occupied the fortified line of Atlanta, facing north and east. Parts of two corps had marched out to the road leading from McDonough to Decatur, and had turned so as to strike the left and, rear of McPherson’s line. At the same time he had sent Wheeler’s division of cavalry against the trains parked in Decatur.
Unluckily for us, I had sent away the whole of Garrard’s division of cavalry during the night of the 20th, with orders to proceed to Covington, thirty miles east, to burn two important bridges across the Ulcofauhatchee and Yellow Rivers, to tear up the railroad, to damage it as much as possible from Stone Mountain eastward, and to be gone four days; so that McPherson had no cavalry in hand to guard that flank.
The enemy was therefore enabled, under cover of the forest, to approach quite near before he was discovered; indeed, his skirmish-line had worked through the timber and got into the field to the rear of Giles A. Smith’s division of the Seventeenth Corps unseen, had captured Murray’s battery of regular artillery, moving through these woods entirely unguarded, and had got possession of several of the hospital camps. The right of this rebel line struck Dodge’s troops in motion; but, fortunately, this corps had only to halt, face to the left, and was in line of battle. Dodge’s corps not only held in check the enemy, but drove him back through the woods.
About the same time this same force had struck General Giles A. Smith’s left flank, doubled it back, captured four guns in position and the party engaged in building the very battery which was the special object of McPherson’s visit to me, and almost enveloped the entire left flank. The men, however, were skillful and brave, and fought for a time with their backs to Atlanta. They gradually fell back, compressing their own line, and gaining strength by making junction with Leggett’s division of the Seventeenth Corps, well and strongly posted on the hill. One or two brigades of the Fifteenth Corps, ordered by McPherson, came rapidly across the open field to the rear, from the direction of the railroad, filled up the gap from Blair’s new left to the head of Dodge’s column, now facing to the general left, thus forming a strong left flank, at right angles to the original line of battle. The enemy attacked, boldly and repeatedly, the whole of this flank, but met an equally fierce resistance. On that ground a bloody battle raged from little after noon till into the night.
A part of Hood’s plan of action was to sally from Atlanta at the same moment; but this sally was not, for some reason, simultaneous, for the first attack on our extreme left flank had been checked and repulsed before the sally came from the direction of Atlanta.
Meantime, Colonel Sprague, in Decatur, had got his teams harnessed up, and safely conducted his train to the rear of Schofield’s position, holding in check Wheeler’s cavalry till he had got off all his trains, with the exception of three or four wagons. I remained near the Howard House, receiving reports and sending orders, urging Generals Thomas and Schofield to take advantage of the absence from their front of so considerable a body as was evidently engaged on our left, and, if possible, to make a lodgment in Atlanta itself. They reported that the lines to their front, at all accessible points, were strong, by nature and by art, and were fully manned.
About 4 p.m. the expected, sally came from Atlanta, directed mainly against Leggett’s Hill and along the Decatur road. At Leggett’s Hill they were met and bloodily repulsed. Along the railroad they were more successful. Sweeping over a small force with two guns, they reached our main line, broke through it, and got possession of De Gress’s battery of four twenty-pound Parrotts, killing every horse, and turning the guns against us. General Charles R. Wood’s division of the Fifteenth Corps was on the extreme right of the Army of the Tennessee, between the railroad and the Howard House, where he connected with Schofield’s troops. He reported to me in person that the line on his left had been swept back, and that his connection with General Logan, on Leggett’s Hill, was broken. I ordered him to wheel his brigades to the left, to advance in echelon, and to catch the enemy in flank. General Schofield brought forward all his available batteries, to the number of twenty guns, to a position to the left front of the Howard House, whence we could overlook the field of action, and directed a heavy fire over the heads of General Wood’s men against the enemy. We saw Wood’s troops advance and encounter the enemy, who had secured possession of the old line of parapet which had been held by our men. His right crossed this parapet, which he swept back, taking it in flank; and, at the same time, the division which had been driven back along the railroad was rallied by General Logan in person, and fought for their former ground. These combined forces drove the enemy into Atlanta, recovering the twenty pound Parrott guns but one of them was found “bursted” while in the possession of the enemy. The two six-pounders farther in advance were, however, lost, and had been hauled back by the enemy into Atlanta.
SPECIAL FIELD ORDERS, HDQRS. MIL. DIV. OF THE MISS., In the Field, near Atlanta, Ga., Numbers 41. July 22, 1864.
The enemy having to-day withdrawn into his entrenchments at Atlanta, and having assaulted our left, the following general plan will be observed for tomorrow, July 23, 1864:
I. All the armies will intrench a strong front on their present lines and will hold in reserve as much infantry as possible for offensive operations. Good batteries will be constructed for the artillery and a steady kept up on the city of Atlanta.
II. The trains will be kept behind the main center (Major-General Howard’s corps) or close up to their own reserves, and in the event of the enemy assaulting at any point all others should assault the enemy to their immediate front. By carrying any one point of the enemy’s present line his whole position becomes untenable.
By order of Major General W. T. Sherman