Civil War

Battle of Ezra Church

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July 28, 1864

Stephen Davis

Oliver O. Howard
Oliver O. Howard's (above) promotion to command of Army of the Tennessee upset Gen. Logan who believed himself James McPherson's logical successor.
Library of Congress

After the Battle of Atlanta, with the Georgia Railroad cut, Gen. William T. Sherman turned his attention to the Macon & Western Railroad, running southwest out of the city. He ordered the Army of the Tennessee, now under Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, to swing around from the Union left to the right, west of Atlanta, and bear down on the Rebel railroad. Early in the morning of July 27, Howard's troops set out. Confederate cavalry was alert. At 4:15a.m., with Howard's march just a few hours in progress, Gen. John B. Hood's headquarters warned Gen. Joseph Wheeler that "indications are that the enemy will attack our left."

Howard's troops made good progress on July 27. Dodge's Sixteenth Corps was first to deploy on a ridge running southward from the end of Maj. Gen. George Thomas' line. Then division after division extended the position of Maj. Gen. John A. Logan's Fifteenth Corps. By nightfall, the Army of the Tennessee had pushed Sherman's flank almost two miles to the south. Sherman, expecting Hood to react to this threat, directed one of Thomas' divisions to march to Logan's assistance on the morning of the 28th. Along Howard's line, soldiers dug in and brought up artillery. Logan, who had held the extreme right, ordered two of his division to refuse to the west in preparation for a possible attack. Logan's men piled rails and logs in impromptu breastworks. The Illinoisan also ordered plenty of ammunition brought forward, a hundred rounds per man. The Federals were getting ready for a fight. 

Ezra Church
Ezra Church lay at a key crossroads Confederate corps commander S.D. Lee hoped to capture during the summer of 1864.
Harpers Pictorial History of the Ciivl War

Hood planned to give it to them. To S.D. Lee, his youngest (30 years old) and newest corps commander, he issued these orders: march west out of the city along Lick Skillet Road, and take position near Ezra Church three miles from town. The church lay at a key crossroads, for bisecting Lick Skillet was the north-south thoroughfare which the Yankees would be using in their march. Lee was to seize this important crossroads and entrench to the north. Stewart's corps was also involved. Stewart was to lead two divisions via Lick Skillet to the western edge of Atlanta's defenses and wait for Lee to get into position at Ezra Church on the 28th; then, on the next morning, "we were to move out on that road, turn to the right, pass in rear of the enemy, and attack," presumably against the Federals' right rear, after marching beyond Lee's divisions holding the front. 

Battle of Ezra Church Markers (700x)
A series of historical markers describe the action here at Ezra Church on July 28, 1864.
Douglas Ullman, Jr.

There was a hitch, though. Logan's Union infantry already held Ezra Church and the vital Lick Skillet junction. S.D. Lee did not know that, however, as he sent two of his divisions, John C. Brown's and Henry Clayton's marching west out of Atlanta's works around 10a.m. on the 28th. After a mile or so, Gen. Brown, in the lead, came upon William H. "Red" Jackson's cavalry, who reported the Yankees in their front. This threw off Hood's whole plan. Gone was the hope of Lee's corps taking a defensive position at Ezra Church while Stewart posted on the left for a flank attack. The Yankees were already there. Young S.D. Lee consequently exercised field discretion, and determined to attack the enemy straightaway. 

Lee formed Brown's division and sent it in around noon. Through thick woods Brown's brigades advanced. The Federals opened up, and from their hastily piled works of log and stone delivered cruel, effective fire. Brown's attack began to fall apart. With an enemy counterattck, the division commander sadly watched his men "driven with great slaughter."

S.D. Lee
A native of Charleston, S.D. Lee distinguished himself early in the war as an artillery commander in the Army of Northern Virginia

Ten minutes after Brown had begun, Clayton's division arrived, which Lee promptly ordered to advance. Unfortunately for the Southerners, Lee's battle was becoming one of uncoordinated attacks by troops as they arrived. The bluecoats heard the fire to their right (the attack of Brown's division) and stood ready in their makeshift works of rails and trenches. The men of Woods' right brigade, Hugo Wangelin's, had gone into Ezra Church and pulled out the pews to reinforce their parapets. Gen. Howard had hurried assistance to Logan's threatened line. A dozen regiments were ordered from the Sixteenth and Seventeenth corps, and some rushed into the fight in time to help beat back Clayton's assault. Clayton had had enough. He posted his reserve brigade against possible Yankee counterattack and awaited orders. 

The two divisions of Lee's corps were through for the day, but not so for Stewart's corps. Having marched west on Lick Skillet to the line of the city's defensive fortifications, Stewart learned that Lee had already joined battle, so he hastened forward with Walthall's division, then Loring's. Lee, believing the enemy had just barely beaten him to the Ezra Church crossroads and therefore had only slight defensive works, determined to continue the attack when Walthall arrived. And so the slaughter continued as Walthall's brigade advanced shortly after 2p.m. over the same ground previously covered by Brown. Fierce musketry dropped Rebels by the hundreds before they fell back, seeking what shelter they could. Walthall ordered no more charges. The Battle of Ezra Church was over. Skirmishing rattled throughout the rest of the day until the Confederates withdrew under cover of nightfall. 

"Deadbrook at Ezra Church" (700x)
"Deadbrook at Ezra Church"
Harpers Pictorial History of the Civil War

The Northerners, fighting on the defensive, suffered fewer casualties at Ezra Church. Howard's Army of the Tennessee closed the battle with fewer than 650 men lost. Confederate casualties at Ezra Church will never be confirmed, but a reasonable estimate would be more than 2,800 men, potentially surpassing 3,000.