On July 21, 1864, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s three armies were separated on the outskirts of Atlanta. Better yet for Confederate commander Lt. Gen. John B. Hood, his cavalry commander Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler reported that Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee, facing Atlanta from the east astride the Georgia Railroad, had its left flank “in the air” (Sherman had sent his cavalry to wreck the railroad further east). This situation presented Hood with an opportunity to launch a flank attack, like the one made famous by “Stonewall” Jackson at Chancellorsville.
Hood planned for the corps of Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee to drop back from its lines north of the city into the main fortified perimeter on the night of July 21-22; the remaining corps of Maj. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart and Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham would follow. Hardee’s corps would march through and out of the city, southeast then northeast, guided by Wheeler’s cavalry and jump into McPherson’s left-rear, while Wheeler attacked McPherson’s wagon trains at Decatur. Cheatham would support Hardee from the east edge of Atlanta. It was an ambitious plan, calling for a 15-mile night march by Hardee’s troops and a dawn attack on the 22nd. But a late start, exhaustion of the men, a hot night and dusty roads combined to bring the four assault divisions not nearly far enough into McPherson’s rear when Hardee, well behind schedule, decided to deploy. Then rough terrain added further delay, and Confederate Maj. Gen. W. H. T. Walker was killed getting his division into place. Hardee’s “surprise” attack did not begin till shortly after noon.
The Federals were blessed with a lot of good luck that day. By chance, a Union XVI Corps division under Brig. Gen. Thomas W. Sweeny happened to be in just the right position to meet Hardee’s opening assault. Instead of overrunning hospital tents and wagon trains in McPherson’s rear, Walker’s and Maj. Gen. William Bate’s troops ran instead face-to-face into veteran Yankee infantry.
McPherson, having left Sherman’s headquarters just before the firing started, was on this part of the field watching Sweeny contend with the Rebels. He rode off to see how Maj. Gen. Frank Blair’s XVII Corps was doing; by now it had been struck by Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne’s hard-hitting division. McPherson and his staff were riding down a wagon road when they unexpectedly ran into part of Cleburne’s line. “He came upon us suddenly,” remembered Capt. Richard Beard of the 5th Confederate Infantry:
"I threw up my sword as a signal for him to surrender. He checked his horse, raised his hat in salute, wheeled to the right and dashed off to the rear in a gallop. Corporal Coleman, standing near me, was ordered to fire, and it was his shot that brought General McPherson down."
McPherson’s subordinates dashed off. One Union officer struck a tree in his flight; the blow smashed his pocket watch and froze the time of the general’s death—2:02 p.m. Confederate Captain Beard came up to the body and saw a bullet hole in the back, near the heart. He stayed only long enough to identify the fallen enemy officer as McPherson before continuing his advance. Later, one of McPherson’s staff officers led an ambulance back to the scene, retrieved the general’s corpse, and bore it to Sherman’s headquarters. Sherman was moved with grief for his friend, only the second Union army commander killed during the war.
Cleburne’s attack initially overran part of the Union line, capturing two guns and several hundred prisoners. Then the Southerners ran up against infantry and artillery on a treeless hilltop occupied by Brig. Gen. Mortimer Leggett’s division, and were stopped cold. Brig. Gen. George Maney’s Confederate division joined in the fight, but Leggett held onto his hill.
Around 3:00 p.m., Hood ordered Cheatham’s corps to launch an attack from Atlanta’s eastern line of works. Cheatham’s fierce but uncoordinated assaults against the Federal line held by Logan’s XV Corps met with initial success, overrunning the Yankee line at the Troup Hurt House and capturing artillery, until a Union counterattack forced it back. Cleburne’s and Maney’s divisions gave up their fight, too, as at the end of the afternoon the Confederates retired back to their initial positions.
The Battle of Atlanta, the bloodiest of Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign, was over, save for sporadic artillery and rifle fire into the night. Maj. Gen. John “Black Jack” Logan, temporarily named to replace McPherson, reported 3,722 killed wounded or missing in the Army of the Tennessee. Hardee counted 3,299 casualties, while Cheatham lost probably half that number. Adding in several hundred casualties in Wheeler’s cavalry (from its unsuccessful attack on the Union wagon train at Decatur) Confederate losses on July 22 add up to about 5,500. Hood’s effort to roll up Sherman’s left flank had failed.
Sherman’s armies would move on, northwest and then west of Atlanta, fighting again at Ezra Church on July 28. Worn out after that, both armies settled in for a siege of the city that took up all of August.
Join t Fight
Donate today to preserve Civil War battlefields and the nation’s history for generations to come.