Johnston retreated behind Peachtree Creek as Sherman’s dispersed armies crossed the Chattahoochee. McPherson was at Roswell with about 17,500 troops opposed by General John H. Kelly’s cavalry division of 2,000. Schofield’s Army of the Ohio with 11,500 formed the left flank of Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland, which numbered about 46,500 approaching Atlanta. Another 7,000 infantry (of McPherson’s command) were ready at the large Federal depot in Marietta under General Francis Preston Blair’s command in case the Confederates attempted some sort of raid against the now greatly elongated Union supply line. 3,000 cavalry under General Joseph Wheeler formed Johnston’s forward line, allowing the Rebel infantry to dig-in defensively.
So Sherman had made it to within a few miles of Atlanta with over 75,000 infantry against Johnston’s 41,500. Thousands more Yankees were fortified along every rail station back to Dalton. After about 9 weeks of campaigning with many skirmishes and several larger battles, the Southerners were no better off than when they had started. While he had avoided outright defeat, Johnston had not scored any major victory and it seemed he might be maneuvered completely out of Atlanta.
That was something President Jefferson Davis in Richmond knew the Southern Confederacy could not afford. Atlanta was a significant transportation hub but, more importantly, it was symbolic of the "unconquerable deep South." As long as it the South held it, the idea of the futile war with no end in sight was legitimate among a large number of citizens in the North. A Confederate-held Atlanta aided the growing anti-war movement in the Union states. Davis and Johnston never had an amiable working relationship throughout the war. The former being offensively minded, the later defensively so. While Davis wanted clarity and, above all, offensive action, Johnston was deliberately vague about his plans and intentions. The consensus of the Confederate government at the beginning of July was that Johnston would rarely (if ever) attack because he was more afraid of losing a battle than he was confident in winning one. To Davis' way of thinking, that was too defeatist for the demands of the hour.
Hood, by contrast, had shown himself a perpetual aggressor. He was wounded at both Gettysburg and Chickamauga while leading his command in assaults. He had been Johnston’s go-to commander for attacks at Resaca, Cassville (though aborted), New Hope Church, and Kolb’s Farm. On the evening of July 17, 1864 Davis ordered that the 33-year old Hood replace Johnston.
This was a crucial moment in American history. Apparently, Johnston planned to attack Thomas as his divisions crossed Peachtree Creek, before the Yankees had time to organize themselves on the creek's south side. But the change in command froze the Army of Tennessee in place. Hood took over for Johnston, General Cheatham took over Hood’s Corps, General Alexander P. Stewart replaced General Loring as commander of Polk’s former corps. All of this happened at the exact moment part of Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland was crossing the creek while the rest of Sherman's armies approached Decatur from the northeast.
Hood asked Johnston to remain as an advisor until all the command transitions were complete. Johnston felt bitter about the Davis' decision and refused. Hood had to ascertain where his infantry and cavalry were located and establish communication with them. So, instead of attacking on July 18, the Confederates were reorganizing and shifting their positions. By July 19, Hood was ready to order an assault, but by now the Federals had crossed the creek and were waiting.
The Battle of Peachtree Creek, like so many in the campaign, was a short, sharp attack that was handily repulsed. Another command change for the Southerners, General George Maney substituting for Cheatham’s former division, was a basic cause for that division attacking lamely, but none of Hardee's infantry formations distinguished themselves. As many as 1,800 Federal troops were killed or wounded against perhaps 2,500 Confederate losses. Hood had accomplished nothing at a cost his badly outnumbered army could not afford.
Meanwhile, with Schofield covering his right flank, McPherson was approaching Atlanta from the east. Wheeler's cavalry could do little more than slow him down. Two corps under McPherson were less than three miles away from Atlanta on July 20. Hood readjusted his forces. The immediate threat was the possible shelling of the city from Union artillery. A cleared and elevated area known as Bald Hill offered a prime bombardment position. General Cleburne, mostly in reserve at Peachtree Creek, was quickly dispatched to reinforce Wheeler’s cavalry. General Mortimer Dormer Leggett’s division assaulted and captured the hill on July 21 at a cost of about 700 killed and wounded against a few hundred Confederate losses. A counterattack by Cleburne was driven back by Union artillery fire. Cleburne’s men continued to engage Leggett in heavy skirmishing into the night.
Also on July 21, Sherman, rather obsessed with Southern logistics, ordered General Kenner Garrard’s cavalry to destroy the railroad east of Atlanta. This was a gamble as it rendered McPherson’s left flank unprotected. When Wheeler expertly notified Hood of the situation, Hood sent Hardee marching through the city to the south and realigned Cheatham to the east while Stewart shifted and continued to defend the city’s northern fortifications. Wheeler was ordered to attack the unprotected Union wagon trains in Decatur (because Hood knew Sherman was obsessed with logistics) while Hardee was to attack McPherson’s flank on July 22. If the Rebels could roll-up the Yankee line, they might get into the rear of McPherson’s advanced line and score a major victory for the first time in the campaign.
But Cleburne, Hardee’s best division, had difficulty disengaging from Bald Hill. It took much longer than anticipated in the summer heat for the Southerners to form up their line of attack. About 25% of the crops straggled during their 15-mile night march. McPherson was busy fanning out his command along the Confederate defensive line held by Cheatham. General Thomas William Sweeny was bringing up McPherson’s rare and had not yet been ordered into line, instead he was backed-up along the railroad, awaiting orders, by sheer coincidence facing Hardee’s developing line of attack, though the Federal troops still did not know the Southerners were on their flank.
|The situation at the start of the Battle of Atlanta, July 22, 1864.|
Meanwhile, Cheatham, reinforced by the Georgia Militia, advanced out of the Atlanta fortifications and hit General Morgan Lewis Smith’s division, driving its center back in the only meaningful success that day for Hood’s attack. But even this was negligible as two of Cheatham’s three divisions failed to penetrate at all and General John A. Logan organized an effective Union counterattack to retake his lost position. (This is the scene depicted in the famous oil painting, the Atlanta Cyclorama). The Confederates would wait until nightfall and retire to the safety of the city’s fortifications again.
McPherson was dead and his army suffered about 3,300 casualties. Hood’s army incurred about 5,500 losses including General Walker, who was leading his division. In what was probably the most intense battle of the entire campaign, Hood had only managed to render his army less combat effective and had not prevented Sherman from accomplishing anything. The noose around Atlanta tightened.
Sherman ordered Union artillery to shell Atlanta for the first time on July 20. With the capture of Bald Hill this shelling intensified on July 22 when 187 shells were fired into the populated city. Many citizens panicked and evacuated the city by road and by rail southward toward Jonesboro. Only about 20% of Atlanta’s population as of January 1864 remained in the city at the end of July. Sherman replaced McPherson with General Oliver Otis Howard, which caused an insulted General Hooker (Howard's senior in rank and former commander of the Army of the Potomac) to immediately resign for not being offered command of the Army of the Tennessee. Sherman was glad to see Hooker go. He detested “political” generals.
Hood was also shuffling generals and officers around. Upon taking command he immediately requested that General Stephen Dill Lee be ordered from Mississippi to command Hood’s former corps which had been temporarily led by Cheatham, who returned to command his division. Lee arrived on July 26. General Braxton Bragg arrived from Richmond on July 24 to personally report back to President Davis on events pertaining to Atlanta. When Bragg offered his hand to Hood’s (and formerly Johnston’s) chief of staff Brigadier General William W. Mackall, the Confederate officer (reflecting tensions going back to when MacKall headed Bragg's staff in 1863) refused to accept Bragg’s handshake. MacKall was quickly dismissed by Hood with General Shoup taking his place.
Sherman had repeatedly used wide sweeping movements to probe and dislodge the Army of Tennessee throughout the campaign. With the Army of the Cumberland pressing down on the northern Atlanta fortifications and the Army of the Ohio pushing on the northeast, Sherman sent the Army of the Tennessee with the newly appointed General Howard around west to envelop Atlanta from that side. Hood’s cavalry again alerted him to the movement and he decided to attack the Yankee columns en route. But, instead, the Confederate concentration of Lee’s and Stewart’s corps started late again. The Union troops were defensively deployed and easily repulsed the attack.
|The situation at the Battle of Ezra Church, July 28, 1864.|