Jul 22 • 1HR 11M

Battle of Atlanta: Civil War Tipping Point

New educational website + epic stories from this pivotal battle that took place on July 22, 1864

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Long-form articles & podcasts about Atlanta's history, culture and more. Premium content is denoted with a "lock" icon under the title.
Episode details

In this Issue

  1. New Battle of Atlanta website [00:30]

  2. Tipping Point in the American Civil War [05:20]

  3. Hardee’s Night March [09:30]

  4. Railroad Cut + Manigault’s Brigade [29:20]

  5. Key Take-away: The Profound Human Dimension of this Story [50:25]

  6. McPherson’s Last Ride [55:00]

Educational website — click on image above to access. The video below is a tour of the new website…

Tipping Point in the American Civil War

It can reasonably be argued that the Battle of Atlanta represented the proverbial “nail in the coffin” for the Confederacy. Rationale: The fall of Atlanta as a strategic military hub virtually ensured that the Confederate States Army would be unable to prevail over the Union Army in a war that had persisted for over four years already and would result in over one million casualties (3% of the U.S. population) and over 600,000 soldier deaths.

Grand national union banner for 1864. Liberty, union and victory

The Union victory in Atlanta also changed public sentiment in the “North,” which led to the re-election of President Abraham Lincoln in November 1864. Had Lincoln lost that election, the United States of America may have taken a very different path than it did.

Hardee’s Night March: July 21-22, 1884

Beginning late on July 21, 1864, and throughout the close early morning darkness of July 22, Lt. General William Hardee marched out his entire Confederate corps. The march began with three of Hardee’s four divisions filing out of Atlanta’s outer defenses north of town, consolidating their columns around the modern intersection of Peachtree and Spring Streets and then proceeding south through the then compact downtown of Atlanta (roughly contained within an area of the modern-city bordered by Fulton Street to the south, Northside Drive to the west, Ponce De Leon Avenue to the north and the I-75 / 85 Connector to the east). Just south of the rail terminals downtown, a fourth division—that of Maj. General Patrick Cleburne—joined the tail of the march, completing the corps. Several miles long, and including a full compliment of artillery and a cavalry detachment, this large force would march south beyond the southern perimeter of their outer defenses and out into a then rural countryside. Once beyond the eyes of possible Union scouts, the entire corps would turn back to the north and get into position beyond the left flank of the U.S. Army of the Tennessee.

Map of Hardee’s Night March — Inheritage Almanack (click on image)

One of three Union armies then closing in on the city, this one had fought its way into a threatening position and astride a vital rail link due east of the city only the previous day. From a point beyond the left of that Union line, Hardee’s force would launch a surprise—dawn—attack. As they “rolled up” the Union left and drove them back in confusion on the center of their line, C.S. Maj. General Benjamin Franklin Cheatham’s Corps would march straight out of the Atlanta defenses and smash into a then—as hoped and planned—’wavering’ Union center. Such ferocious pressure would unhinge the entire Union position and clear the vital railroad-lifeline. This was the plan of the newly installed, overtly aggressive chief of the C.S. Army of Tennessee, Lt. General John Bell Hood. The fate of Atlanta and to a large degree the Confederacy itself would rely on the outcome of this day.

Source: Inheritage Almanack

Battlefield Map — American Battlefield Trust (click on map)

The Railroad Cut + Manigault’s Brigade

The “Railroad Cut” — Atlanta Cyclorama. Photo by ATLsherpa (click on image)

McPherson’s Last Ride

James Birdseye McPherson (November 14, 1828 – July 22, 1864) was a career United States Army officer who served as a general in the Union Army during the American Civil War. McPherson was on the General's staff of Henry Halleck and later, of Ulysses S. Grant and was with Grant at the Battle of Shiloh. He was one of two major generals that lost their lives during the Battle of Atlanta on July 22, 1864. The other being Confederate Major General William Henry Talbot Walker.

Major General James Birdeye McPherson (click on image for bio)

McPherson was born in Clyde, Ohio. He attended Norwalk Academy in Norwalk, Ohio, and graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1853, first in his class, which included Philip H. Sheridan, John M. Schofield, and John Bell Hood; Hood would oppose him later in the Western Theater. McPherson was directly appointed to the Corps of Engineers with the rank of brevet second lieutenant. For a year after his graduation he was assistant instructor of practical engineering at the Military Academy, a position never before given to so young an officer.

From 1854 to 1857, McPherson was the assistant engineer upon the defenses of the harbor of New York and the improvement of Hudson River. In 1857 he superintended the building of Fort Delaware, and in 1857–61 was superintending engineer of the construction of the defenses of Alcatraz Island, at San Francisco, California.

In 1859, while in San Francisco, he met Emily Hoffman, a woman from a prominent merchant family in Baltimore who had come to California to help care for her sister's children. They soon became engaged, and a wedding was planned, but ultimately put off by the onset of the Civil War.

At the start of the American Civil War, McPherson was stationed in San Francisco, California, but requested a transfer to the Corps of Engineers, rightly thinking that a transfer to the East would further his career. He departed California on August 1, 1861, and arrived soon after in New York. He requested a position on the staff of Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, one of the senior Western commanders. He received this while a captain in the Corps of Engineers, and was sent to St. Louis, Missouri. In 1861, he was made captain, serving under Maj.-Gen. Henry Halleck. Halleck appointed him to the command of the Department of the West in November, where he was chosen aide-de-camp to Halleck while also being promoted to lieutenant-colonel.

During the days that led up to the Battle of Shiloh, McPherson accompanied Sherman questioning people in the area and learned that the confederates were bringing large numbers of troops from every direction by train to Corinth, Mississippi, which was itself an important railroad junction.

Following the Battle of Shiloh, which lasted from April 6–7, he was promoted to brigadier general. On October 8 he was promoted to major general, and was soon after given command of the XVII Corps in Grant's Army of the Tennessee.

In September 1862, McPherson assumed a position on the staff of General Grant. He was promoted to major-general on October 8, rising to that position primarily due to the influence of Halleck and Grant. Immediately after the siege of Vicksburg in which McPherson commanded the center, on Grant's recommendation McPherson was confirmed a brigadier general in the regular army on August 1, 1863. Soon after this promotion, McPherson led a column of infantry into Mississippi and repulsed the enemy at Canton.

On March 12, 1864, he was given command of the Army of the Tennessee, after its former commander, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, was promoted to command of all armies in the West. He then requested leave to go home and marry his fiancé Emily Hoffman in Baltimore, Maryland. His leave was initially granted, but quickly revoked by Sherman, who explained McPherson was needed for his upcoming Atlanta Campaign. McPherson's army was the Right Wing of Sherman's army, alongside the Army of the Cumberland and the Army of the Ohio.

Sherman planned to have the bulk of his forces feint toward Dalton, Georgia, while McPherson would bear the brunt of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston's attack, and attempt to trap them. However, the Confederate forces eventually escaped. McPherson's troops followed the Confederates "vigorously", and were resupplied at Kingston, Georgia. The troops drew near Pumpkinvine Creek, where they attacked and drove the Confederates from Dallas, Georgia, even before Sherman's order to do so. Johnston and Sherman maneuvered against each other, until the Union tactical defeat at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. McPherson then tried a flanking maneuver at the Battle of Marietta, but that failed as well.Route taken by the Commander of the Army of the Tennessee, when he kept his rendezvous with death on July 22, 1864. Map by Wilbur Kurtz, 1930 (click on image to access full article)

McPherson's career began rising after this assignment. He was a lieutenant colonel and the Chief Engineer in Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's army during the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson in February 1862.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis became frustrated with Johnston's strategy of maneuver and retreat, and on July 17 replaced him with Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood. With the Union armies closing in on Atlanta, Hood first attacked George Henry Thomas's Army of the Cumberland north of the city on July 20, at Peachtree Creek, hoping to drive Thomas back before other forces could come to his aid. The attack failed. Then Hood's cavalry reported that the left flank of McPherson's Army of the Tennessee, east of Atlanta, was unprotected. Hood visualized a glorious replay of Jackson's famous flank attack at Chancellorsville and ordered a new attack. McPherson had advanced his troops into Decatur, and from there, they moved onto high ground on Bald Hill overlooking Atlanta. Sherman believed that the Confederates had been defeated and were evacuating; however, McPherson rightly believed that they were moving to attack the Union left and rear. On July 22, while they were discussing this new development, however, four Confederate divisions under Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee flanked Union Maj. Gen. Grenville Dodge's XVI Corps. While McPherson was riding his horse toward his old XVII Corps, a line of Confederate skirmishers appeared, yelling "Halt!". McPherson raised his hand to his head as if to remove his hat, but suddenly wheeled his horse, attempting to escape. The Confederates opened fire and mortally wounded McPherson in the back.

McPherson was the second-highest-ranking Union officer to be killed in action during the war (the highest ranking was John Sedgwick). Emily Hoffman never recovered from his death, living a quiet and lonely life until her death in 1891.

McPherson’s adversary and former classmate, John Bell Hood, wrote,

I will record the death of my classmate and boyhood friend, General James B. McPherson, the announcement of which caused me sincere sorrow. Since we had graduated in 1853, and had each been ordered off on duty in different directions, it has not been our fortune to meet. Neither the years nor the difference of sentiment that had led us to range ourselves on opposite sides in the war had lessened my friendship; indeed, the attachment formed in early youth was strengthened by my admiration and gratitude for his conduct toward our people in the vicinity of Vicksburg. His considerate and kind treatment of them stood in bright contrast to the course pursued by many Federal officers.