The Decisive Battle of the Civil War: Another Nomination – Part 3

By David A. Carrino
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2010, All Rights Reserved

Part 3 of a 4-part article


William T. Sherman’s Atlanta campaign was instrumental in ensuring the completion of the Union victory in the Civil War, because its culmination, the capture of the city of Atlanta, enhanced support of the war effort in the North by giving Northerners hope that the war could soon end in defeat of the Confederacy. This likely contributed greatly to Abraham Lincoln’s re-election, which meant that the war would be continued and the Confederacy defeated. Much of Sherman’s progress toward his objective of Atlanta was achieved by maneuvering his adversary, Joseph E. Johnston, out of one strong position after another followed by Johnston falling back closer and closer to Atlanta. Sherman’s tactic of maneuver around Johnston’s strong positions, rather than direct assault on those positions, was devised and first employed at the battle of Rocky Face Ridge, the opening battle of the Atlanta campaign. Because of this, and because the Atlanta campaign, as stated above, was the most significant military action in ensuring the completion of the Union victory, the battle of Rocky Face Ridge, which is not a well-known battle, is proposed in this four-part article as the decisive battle of the Civil War. As discussed in Part 1, the intent in nominating this battle as the most decisive is to provide an unconventional and hopefully thought-provoking point of view and to show how a seemingly insignificant battle can have important ramifications. Part 1 of this four-part article describes the battle of Rocky Face Ridge, while Part 2 focuses on how Sherman used the tactics that he employed at Rocky Face Ridge in the early phases of the Atlanta campaign. Part 3 continues this story and includes the one battle in the campaign in which Sherman deviated from this pattern, with disastrous consequences.

Dealing with the Devil

In less than a month, Sherman’s triplet army had advanced almost three-fourths of the way to its objective, Atlanta. But now Sherman’s forces had become bogged down after a wide sweep away from its railroad lifeline through terrain made muddy by prolonged rain. Once again, Sherman faced a strong defensive position which Johnston had thrown up in his path along the Western & Atlantic, and a frustrated Sherman had to devise a plan to move around Johnston’s army.

While Sherman stewed, Johnston contracted and strengthened his position. Part of this position included an elevation known as Pine Mountain, although its height did not really merit that geographic designation. Pine Mountain was in advance of Johnston’s main position, and Johnston had stationed some of his forces there (including a battery commanded by the son of P.G.T. Beauregard) primarily to act as an observation post. Hardee was concerned that this small force could be easily taken and requested that he and Johnston make a personal assessment, which they did during a pause in the rain. Polk decided to accompany them, and all three generals and their staffs ascended the southern slope of Pine Mountain. A short time after they reached the summit, two events occurred. First, Johnston agreed with Hardee that the position was untenable, and, second, artillery shells began to fall near the three generals. One shell tore through Polk’s body and killed him. When Sherman was informed of this, his mood brightened, even though his forces still faced Johnston’s formidable defenses and even though there was a resumption of the rain which had been hampering his progress.

Nathan Bedford Forrest

While Sherman’s attention throughout the campaign had been steadfastly focused in front of him, one fear, now as always, had been directed behind him on “that single stem of railroad” (as Sherman called it) which Sherman recognized made the Atlanta campaign possible. Sherman’s primary fear in this regard was Nathan Bedford Forrest, whom Sherman colorfully characterized as “that devil Forrest.” Although John Morgan was conducting raids in eastern Kentucky, it was Forrest whom Sherman viewed as the greater threat, and he said so in a letter to his wife, “John Morgan is in Kentucky, but I attach little importance to him or his raid. Forrest is a more dangerous man.” Sherman was hopeful that an expedition sent from Memphis would at least keep Forrest occupied to prevent the Wizard of the Saddle from falling on Sherman’s Washington & Atlantic lifeline. The expedition was led by Samuel Sturgis, who had pursued Forrest several weeks earlier, but had to withdraw for lack of supplies, which prompted Sturgis to write Sherman, “I regret very much that I could not have the pleasure of bringing you his (Forrest’s) hair.” Now Sturgis was given another opportunity to procure Forrest’s scalp.

Samuel Sturgis

Sturgis’ southeastward excursion from Memphis had the effect which both Sherman and Sturgis desired, that is, of drawing Forrest away from Sherman’s lifeline. However, the end result was not so pleasant for Sturgis, who came to face not just Forrest’s hair, but the whole man accompanied by his redoubtable force. The engagement which resulted on June 10, Brice’s Crossroads, was one of Forrest’s most brilliant victories, which for Sturgis was an early and wholly unwanted present coming as it did on the day before Sturgis’ birthday. Near the end of the battle, the formerly cocksure Sturgis was no longer interested in taking possession of Forrest’s scalp, but of saving his own skin. In his report after the battle, Sturgis tried to put a good light on the defeat by claiming that his force “only yielded to overwhelming numbers.” In fact, numerical superiority was the reverse of Sturgis’ claims, which put Forrest’s strength at 15,000 to 20,000 rather than its actual number of 5,000.

A.J. Smith

In Georgia, Sherman was disappointed at the failure of Sturgis’ expedition to end once and for all the threat from Forrest. But Sherman took some consolation that the expedition had bought a short respite from that threat. Now Sherman had in mind another strike at Forrest with the objective to “follow Forrest to the death, if it costs 10,000 lives and breaks the Treasury,” so great was Sherman’s desire to remove Forrest as a threat to his supply line. To bring this about, Sherman telegraphed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on June 14, “I have just received news of the defeat of our party sent out from Memphis, whose chief object was to hold Forrest there and keep him off our road. I have ordered A.J. Smith not to go to Mobile, but to go out from Memphis and defeat Forrest at all costs.”

In fact, Smith’s force of 15,000 not only held Forrest away from Sherman’s supply line, but managed to defeat a combined Confederate force under Stephen Lee and Forrest when this force, technically under the command of Lee but in an attack sanctioned by Forrest, assaulted Smith’s strong position near Tupelo and was repulsed. While Forrest had brought Sturgis to grief on the day before the latter’s birthday, Lee’s and Forrest’s defeat came on July 14, the day before Forrest’s birthday. To compound Forrest’s troubles, he was wounded in an attack on the following day, an attack which Smith’s men likewise repulsed.

In spite of his victory and of holding his strong position, Smith decided to withdraw to Memphis because his supplies and ammunition were running low. But even this retrograde movement served Sherman’s purpose, because Forrest, sufficiently recovered from his wound to remain in command, pursued Smith, which kept Forrest from taking action against Sherman’s supply line. As it happened, Smith was able to occupy Forrest until the latter’s assistance was no longer of use to Johnston. By the time Forrest was able to conduct operations in middle Tennessee, Johnston had been relieved and his replacement would soon move the Army of Tennessee northward in the hope that Sherman’s horde would follow.

“A Small Affair,” a Big Mistake

With the threat to his lifeline neutralized, Sherman could maintain his focus on the more proximate force in his front. That force had been contracted by a short withdrawal southeastward. The focal point of the new position was Kennesaw Mountain, a 700-foot, twin-peaked prominence which rose from the flat ground around it. Kennesaw Mountain was occupied by Polk’s corps, now commanded by W.W. Loring, who served the Confederacy due to his Southern birth, although he did not agree with secession, and who earned the nickname “Old Blizzards” when he exhorted troops under his command to “Give them blizzards, boys” during a repulse of a Union flotilla on the Tallahatchie River as part of the Confederate defense of Vicksburg.

To the right of the mountain, astride the Western & Atlantic, was Hood’s corps, while Hardee’s corps was positioned on the left of Kennesaw Mountain. Prior to Johnston’s reconfiguration of his defenses, Sherman had wired Henry Halleck, “We cannot risk the heavy loss of an assault.” Perhaps buoyed by the dispatching of Polk to the hereafter, Sherman reversed himself in spite of the fact that Johnston’s Kennesaw Mountain position was stronger than his previous one.

Sherman did probe the flanks of Johnston’s position for three days, which forced Johnston to shift Hood’s corps from the right of the Confederate position to the left of Hardee’s corps to block attempts to turn that flank. On June 22, this movement resulted in the most serious engagement of the three days of probing when Hood’s men drove back and then pursued the lead elements of Schofield’s turning attempt only to encounter the remainder of Schofield’s men dug in. After two attempts to dislodge Schofield resulted in two bloody repulses, Hood had his troops dig in and there they and their Federal counterparts remained face to face in entrenchments which neither side cared to attack.

Thwarted in his attempts to turn Johnston’s flanks, Sherman convinced himself that an assault on Kennesaw Mountain posed his best chance for success. The unexpectedness of the assault coupled with the weakening of the position by the extension of Loring’s corps into the trenches evacuated by Hood’s men gave Sherman reason to anticipate success in an assault on such a formidable position. Sherman and all three of his army commanders concurred that their lines could not be stretched further, which provided more support for the decision for a direct assault.

On June 24, Sherman ordered that preparations be made for an attack three days later. Following an hour-long artillery bombardment, the attack was made primarily by Thomas in the center against Hardee’s well entrenched men south of Kennesaw Mountain and by McPherson on the Federal left against the southern and lower of Kennesaw Mountain’s twin peaks. Ironically, if the attack was as successful as Sherman hoped, Loring, whose corps was positioned on the northern end of Kennesaw Mountain on the right of the convex Confederate line, would find himself in a similar situation as he was at Champion Hill, that is, atop an elevation and cut off from the rest of the army.

However, within two hours of the beginning of the infantry assault, the Union commanders knew that the attack had failed. O.O. Howard said afterward, “Our losses were heavy indeed, and our gain was nothing.” At 11:00, Thomas sent word for the attackers to fall back, if possible. Those who could not fall back were told to hold their position until dark and then fall back. But further movement forward was halted. When Sherman sent a message to Thomas in the early afternoon to ask if Thomas could take any part of the Confederate lines, Thomas replied that he had already suffered heavy casualties in the earlier assaults and then added, “One or two more such assaults would use up this army.”

One of the participants in blue at the battle was Abraham Hoch Landis, a physician (Assistant Surgeon) in the 35th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, who had been captured at Chickamauga and sent to Libby Prison in Richmond, but who was exchanged in time to take part in the Atlanta campaign. At Kennesaw Mountain, Landis was struck in the left leg by a cannonball, which led to his discharge two months later and left him with a permanent limp. Perhaps in memory of his wounding, Landis’ son, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, was named after the battle (although with a different spelling). The younger Landis eventually became the first commissioner of Major League Baseball and handed down the stern ruling against eight players who were accused of deliberately losing the 1919 World Series in return for money in what came to be known as the Black Sox scandal. Landis’ ruling banning the players was handed down in spite of the acquittal of all eight in a court of law. Among the players who were banned was Shoeless Joe Jackson, even though his productivity in the 1919 World Series was excellent: a batting average of .375 (12 for 32) with three doubles, a home run, and 6 runs batted in. One can only imagine Jackson’s output had he not been putting forth, as it was alleged, a compromised effort.

After the battle whose name would find its way into the national pastime, Sherman, perhaps blasted into recognition of the costly futility of attacking a strongly entrenched army, decided to revert to his previous tactics of maneuvering. While preparations were being made for the attempt to maneuver Johnston out of his current position, Sherman undertook the task of defending his decision to attack. In a message to Halleck, Sherman declared, “The assault I made was no mistake.” Sherman justified the decision by claiming that the attack “demonstrated to General Johnston that I would attack, and that boldly.” In the epitome of rationalization, Sherman wrote about the Kennesaw Mountain losses, “I begin to regard the death and mangling of a couple of thousand men as a small affair,” a statement which would have come as small consolation to the wives and mothers of all those who fell in Sherman’s fruitless attempt.

In spite of Sherman’s assertion to Halleck about the soundness of the decision to assault Kennesaw Mountain, this was Sherman’s sole blunder of the entire campaign, when he faced Johnston’s strongest position and inexplicably abandoned the tactics which had carried his army in just over five weeks from the northwest corner of Georgia three-fourths of the way to his objective. If the Buzzard Roost was a “terrible door of death,” then Kennesaw Mountain was a solid wall of death with no portal whatsoever to give even the slightest hint that passage through was possible. Though Sherman rationalized that the attack was successful for hardening men who, in his opinion, had become accustomed to maneuvering rather than attacking, in the end Sherman came to realize that maneuvering was the only course which could dislodge Johnston from his Kennesaw Mountain position.

Johnston’s Finale

The last day of June, the third day after the battle, was a day of armistice agreed by both sides for burying the corpses which had lain in the summer heat. Two days later, the movement which Sherman had planned was set in motion. McPherson’s forces were pulled from their position at the northern (left) end of the Union line and moved behind the center (Thomas) to join with Schofield. These combined forces made a sweep around the southern (left) end of the Confederate line, which was manned by Hood’s corps. This movement not only threatened Johnston’s supply base at Marietta behind the Confederate position, but also threatened an attack on the rebel forces from their rear. Sherman had no pretense that either of these would happen, not with the vantage available to the men on Kennesaw Mountain.

As expected, when Sherman ordered Thomas to send pickets forward early on July 3, this small force did what the much larger Union force could not do six days earlier, reach the summit of Kennesaw Mountain, because this time there were no enemy troops there to oppose them. Once again, the Army of Tennessee had withdrawn and was moving toward Sherman’s objective, Atlanta. At this news, Sherman realized that the army which was between his own and the Georgia capital was now out in the open. This meant that Sherman now had a fleeting opportunity to crush Johnston’s forces, if the Union commander could find them before they were able to lay down another stout position, particularly if they could be attacked while they were crossing the Chattahoochee, the last of the three major rivers between Sherman and Atlanta.

By the time Johnston’s army was found late in the day five miles south along the railroad near Smyrna, the Confederates were once more in a strong position with each flank protected by a creek which flowed into the Chattahoochee five miles in their rear. Sherman’s assessment was that Johnston would not risk a fight with a river close behind him and that the Smyrna position was intended only to cover a crossing of the Chattahoochee. Accordingly, Sherman ordered an attack for the following morning, Independence Day and the one-year anniversary of the fall of Vicksburg. However, when the Confederate position was observed on the morning of the scheduled attack to be as formidable as on the previous day, Sherman, no doubt mindful of his self-described correct decision to assault the Kennesaw Mountain defenses, canceled the attack and thereby avoided another “small affair” involving “the death and mangling of a couple of thousand men.”

Sherman instead decided to again maneuver Johnston out of his position. Again it was McPherson’s men who were to execute a sweep around Johnston’s left while Thomas’ troops were given the task of holding the Confederates in place by demonstrating in their front. Because daylight ended before McPherson’s force was in place, the operation was scheduled for the following day. But when the day dawned, the Union army once again confronted empty fortifications. The Army of Tennessee had again moved southward, this time to Vining Station, where they put up what Sherman called “the best line of field intrenchments I have ever seen.”

From the top of a hill, Sherman could see his objective, Atlanta, but he could also see the well constructed Confederate entrenchments on each side of the railroad north of the Chattahoochee as well as another set of entrenchments, currently unoccupied, on the south bank of the river, prepared in advance in the event that the Confederate troops needed to fall back. Also on the south side of the river was Johnston’s cavalry, where it could detect any probes made by Union forces upstream or downstream of the formidable rebel position.

Sherman’s solution was to order two separate crossings of the Chattahoochee far upstream of the Confederate right. One of these was to be made by Schofield and the other, even farther upstream, by McPherson. Some of Schofield’s men effected a crossing by boarding pontoon floats on Soap Creek, which flows into the Chattahoochee from the north, and making a successful amphibious assault on the small surprised rebel force on the south bank of the river. Another part of Schofield’s army was able to cross the Chattahoochee at a ford, and by nightfall of July 9 an entire Union division was across the river. Informed of this, Johnston realized that his position was untenable, and he ordered a withdrawal to the opposite side of the river followed by destruction of the six bridges which his men used for their crossing.

Once across the Chattahoochee and in the fortifications prepared beforehand for this possibility, Johnston ordered a further withdrawal to a position only five miles from the city whose defense was Johnston’s primary object. With the rebel army removed from its front, the blue wave rolled across the Chattahoochee. Sherman was now across the last of the three major rivers which lay in his path at the start of the Atlanta campaign. One week later, another obstacle which had stood between Sherman and Atlanta was no longer in his path: Joseph Johnston, himself.

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