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Sherman's Worst Day of the War:
The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain
or
Sherman shows Thomas who's boss

Copyright © 1 Jan. 2007, 16 Dec. 2009

 
by Bob Redman


Thomas Buell, "The Warrior Generals," pp. 359-60: "The Federal army that assembled [before Dalton in the spring of 1864] - and particularly the Army of the Cumberland - was the most modern of the Civil War, so advanced was it in technology and organization....Sherman's plans were predicated in large measure on information gathered by Thomas' intelligence service. His spies were everywhere, including Johnston's headquarters, giving Thomas access to to Johnston's correspondence and message traffic....Sherman relied entirely on Thomas, not only for the combat power of of the Army of the Cumberland, but also for the staff work and coordination of the campaign....Thomas continued his practice of traveling comfortably with the amenities, and Sherman and his staff soon joined Thomas' mess."

Thomas Buell, "The Warrior Generals," :
pg. 361:  "The Atlanta campaign began early in May and would have ended in a week if  Sherman had listened to Thomas."

Dispatch of 27 June from Schofield to Stoneman <ar75_622> "Thomas and McPherson have failed in their attack and have suffered heavy losses. Our little success on the right is all that has been gained anywhere. This may be very important to us as the first step toward the next important movement." [Italics added]

<ar75_588>
O.R.-- SERIES I--VOLUME XXXVIII/4 [S# 75] SPECIAL FIELD ORDERS No. 28, June 24, 1864 [for the attack on Kennesaw Mountain]
I. Major-General Thomas will assault the enemy at any point near his center, to be selected by himself, and will make any changes in his troops necessary by night, so as not to attract the attention of the: enemy.
II. Major-General McPherson will feign by a movement of his cavalry and one division of infantry on his extreme left, approaching Marietta from the north, and using artillery freely, but will make his real attack at a point south and west of Kenesaw.
III Major-General Schofield will feel well to his extreme right and threaten that flank of the enemy with artillery and display, but attack some one point of the enemy's line as near the Marietta and Powder Springs road as he can with prospect of success.
IV. All commanders will maintain reserve and secrecy even from their staff' officers, but make all the proper preparations and reconnaissances When troops are to be shifted to accomplish this attack the movements will be made at night. At the time of the general attack the skirmishers at the base of Kenesaw will take advantage of it to gain, if possible, the summit and hold it.
V. Each attacking column will endeavor to break a single point of the enemy's line, and make a secure lodgment beyond, and be prepared for following it up toward Marietta and the railroad in case of success.
By order of Maj. Gen. W. T. Sherman:


General Map of Hundred Day's Campaign (source USMA)

After the battle of Chattanooga Thomas built up the supplies and supply system which would underly and make possible the coming drive to Atlanta. Sheridan went off for a while to Meridian, Miss. (3 Feb. - 5 March 64) where he rehearsed for his cakewalk
(or in his own words "winter excursion") to the sea , neglecting, however, to keep regular contact with Grant who, in typical fashion, panicked. He ordered Thomas, in eery anticipation of Nashville, to make an improvised attack on Johnston's fortifications at Dalton in order to keep Johnston from sending reinforcements to Mississippi. Grant sent Thomas a flurry of messages, such as this one of 27 Feb.:

<ar58_480>
"It is of the utmost importance that the enemy should be held in full belief that an advance into the heart of the South is intended until the fate of General Sherman is fully known. The difficulties of supplies can be overcome by keeping your trains running between Chattanooga and your position. Take the depot trains at Chattanooga, yours, and General Howard's wagons. These can be replaced temporarily by returning. Veterans are returning daily. This will enable you to draw re-enforcements constantly to your front. Can you not also take a division from Howard's corps? General Schofield is instructed to send General Granger to you the moment it is safe to be without him."

Thomas conducted some reconnaissance and sent Grant the results. Johnston hadn't sent any troops anywhere and wasn't about to. On this occasion Thomas first suggested the possibility of outflanking the Dalton fortifications by sending troops through Snake Creek Gap. Grant calmed down, at least publically, and called off the frontal attack while rejecting the flanking manoeuver. In private he slandered the "lethargic" Virginian and wished he had Sherman there to promptly obey his orders, no matter how chimerical.

Run-up to the battle of Kennesaw Mountain

Back from his wild goose chase to Meridian (Forrest escaped),
Sherman on 18 March 1864 was made commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi instead of being hauled before a military court of inquiry. Thomas' Army of the Cumberland was incorporated into Sherman's command. The ensuing campaign to approach Atlanta is a story of missed opportunities and official fudging on the part of Sherman as he tried to explain to Grant and the world why he wasn't able to eliminate the smaller and relatively impoverished army of Joseph Johnston who had replaced Bragg on 27 Dec. 64. In his reports and letters Sherman cited many other people (Thomas, Hooker, et al.) as being responsible for this, but never himself. Still, for some reason Grant preferred Sherman's style of conducting affairs over that of Thomas, and that was that. Of little consequence to the strange duo was the fact that all of the enormous amount of staff work (engineering, reconnaissance, railroad management, intelligence gathering, logistics, pay, etc.) for all three armies was carried by Thomas's staff. Thomas' solid competence and professionalism may indeed have occasionally provoked Sherman (under the strict control of Grant) to show Thomas who was really the boss there. Yes, Atlanta was taken on 2 Sept., just in time to influence the fall elections in the North. Had Thomas been in charge, or had Sherman been able to overcome his jealousy and accept Thomas' sound advice on at least 3 occasions (if indeed he had been allowed to), Johnston's Army of Tennessee would have ceased to exist long before 2. Sept. Grant's absentee conduct of the Dalton to Atlanta campaign lengthened the Civil War by at least a year. Sam Watkins refers to the "Hundred Days"campaign, by which he meant that it was all one continuous conflict. I prefer to geographically designate this phase of the drive to take Atlanta. For convenience and study we are forced to divide both this and the subsequent phase into separate battles, some of which are arbitrarily named. In the following where I refer to battles I really mean high points. These high points of the first phase were, as I understand them: 1) Rocky Face Ridge (Dalton or Dug Gap) 7-13 May 64; 2) Resaca 13-15 May 64; 3 ) New Hope Church 25-28 May 64; 4) Kolb's Farm 22 June; and 5) Kennesaw Mountain 27 June 64. The pause at the Chattahoochie River 4-9 July 64 (see 5½ below) was more aftermath than high point. 

1) "The Atlanta campaign began early in May and would have ended in a week if Sherman had listened to Thomas"(Thomas Buell, The Warrior Generals, pg. 361). On 7 May 64 Sherman kicked off his spring offensive against Johnston at Rocky Face Ridge (within sight of today's battle park Tunnel Hill Georgia). Long before this, Thomas' scouts had reported that the low pass Snake Creek Gap about 15 miles to the southwest of Dalton was not or only lightly defended. Thomas proposed that he go through this pass with his entire army of 60,000 men and put them behind Johnston astride the railroad at Resaca and attack Johnston from behind. Instead, Sherman (perhaps following orders from Grant) watered the plan down, called it his own for a while, and sent McPherson with 25,000 men, more than enough to do the job if McPherson hadn't gotten cold feet. After breezing through the gap McPherson encountered minor entrenchments at Resaca manned by 4000 Confederates, whereupon he withdrew back to Snake Creek Gap and called for reinforcements. Meanwhile Sherman ordered a fruitless and fairly costly frontal demonstration at Rocky Face Ridge. Later he sent most of his forces through Snake Creek Gap anyway, but Johnston had prudently retired to Resaca, out of the bag. McPherson's instructions had been explicit enough, but afterward Sherman made them even more explicit in his search for a scapegoat. Is it possible that Thomas's original plan, if successful, would have reflected too well on Thomas to suit Grant's taste? Sherman didn't report his casualties.

2) On 13 May 64 Sherman "felt" Johnston at Resaca who had been reinforced by Polk, bringing his strength up to about 60,000. Sherman still had twice the manpower, without counting the enormous support services at his disposal. The next day there was a general engagement (with Hooker fighting well), but the Confederates held, except on their right flank, where Sherman did not exploit his advantage and thus wasted yet another opportunity to decisively defeat Johnston. On the 15th Sherman began a large scale flanking movement toward the railroad, and Johnston withdrew to Cassville and intrenched. Estimated casualties: 5,547 total (US 2,747; CS 2,800)

3) In a series of partial engagements at New Hope Church on 25-26  May, Pickett' Mill on 27 May, and Dallas on 28 May Sherman attempted a flanking movement to the southwest in order to avoid the last of the mountains between him and Atlanta and reach the railroad at Marietta. On the 26th Sherman mistakenly surmised that Johnston had a token force on his right and ordered Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s corps to attack there at a point which was later called "Hell's Hole." Hooker's troops were severely mauled, and later Sherman blamed Hooker for not attacking soon enough. Johnston retired to positions on and in front of Kennesaw Mountain. Estimated casualties: US 1,600; CS unknown.

4) Battle in the mud at Kolb's farm 22 June 1864. A lot of rain. Hood, up to his usual stuff, trusted his gut and not someone else's reconnaissance, and attacked Hooker behind fortifications. Hooker had an easy time of it. Union casualties 300 - 500, Confederate casualties 1,300-1,500.

The battle of Kennesaw Mountain

5) Once upon a time on 27 June 1864, after weeks of rain and relative inactivity, a battle in Sherman's style was fought at Kennesaw Mountain. Actually it was fought mainly at on the lowlands south of the mountain. Sherman, morose and insecure, ordered a frontal attack against sophisticated breastworks and intrenchments. In a military career of nothing but low points, this was the lowest.

Wilbur Thomas (no relation) writes on pg. 476 of his Thomas biography that Thomas, upon receving Sherman's order, said to Whipple, his chief of staff, "This is too bad." Thus began the only battle of this sort the Army of the Cumberland ever fought.

 

 
Click to enlarge. McPherson demonstrated starting at around 8:30 AM at Pigeon Hill (#2). The heaviest fighting took place under Thomas at Cheatham Hill (#3). Schofield east of Kolb's Farm (#4) did almost nothing. Well, he did carry out a tentative scouting operation around Hood's left flank.(yellow dots added to a map from the USMA collection) on the right.

Schofield writes in his memoirs that he and all of the other top commanders including Thomas protested against Sherman's plan. When Schofield, again according to his memoirs, intimated privately to Sherman that he did not feel that he could succeed in piercing the Confederate defenses, Sherman replied that "it was not intended that I should attack in front, but to make a strong demonstration..." (Forty-Six Years in the Army, pg. 144). His role in the battle was minimal, and he did not report his losses for that day because an exact return would have made this fact all too evident.  His division commander Gen. Hascall made only an approximate return (also an indication of dishonesty and lack of respect for his men's sacrifice), reporting "total losses of about 100, including several valuable officers" suffered in "demonstrations" against the works in front of him (ar73_570).


The road from Lost Mountain through Mill Grove is Sandtown Road. The blue dots (added) show Schofield's
movement from  25 to 27 June 1864. Detail from map CWGASC from collection of the Office of Coast Survey.


But Schofield was not entirely passive at Kennessaw.
We learn from his exchanges of the 25th, 26th, and 27th with Sherman that he, in accordance with Sherman's directive of the 25th (ar75_592), extended his line to the south by pushing one division under Cox along Sandtown Rd. and across Olley's Creek, with "little loss" (ar75_620) as Cox reports without specific numbers. In doing so, Schofield checked with Sherman every step of the way via telegraph to make sure that he exposed the division neither too little nor too much. In fact, on the three days, Sherman and Schofield exchanged 26 dispatches, 13 on the 27th alone!  If I include all of the written communications from Sherman concerning Sandtown Road and Olley's Creek, there were more than 30 of them. The concept was clearly hidden in the General Orders of 24 June 63 (ar75_588):

III Major-General Schofield will feel [emphasis added] well to his extreme right and threaten that flank of the enemy with artillery and display [emphasis added], but attack some one point of the enemy's line as near the Marietta and Powder Springs road as he can with prospect of success. [There was no real attack]

However, Sherman's earliest order in the ORs to Schofield concerning Sandtown Rd. was from June 21 1864: 

<ar75_551>
General SCHOFIELD:

"Move out on the Sandtown road as far as you think your movement is in concert with Hooker's, Thomas' right, and then toward the railroad bridge or Sandtown [across Olley's Creek], according to the appearances. I will communicate with you during the day. Keep up communication with Thomas also. I want to post my cavalry on the left.
" <>
SHERMAN

Schofield responded promtly the same evening (at 8  PM): 


Maj. Gen. W. T. SHERMAN,

"I inclose a sketch (*) which gives all I have been able to learn of the roads in my front, also my position and that of General Hooker. I have made no move to-day because I cannot advance on the Sandtown road until the road from Marietta toward Powder Springs is covered by General Hooker, or until the enemy is displaced from his <ar75_552> present position."

Just to make sure Schofield understood perfectly, he was ordered on the same day to report the following day in person to Sherman:

<ar75_552>

HDQRS. MILITARY DIVISION OF THE MISSISSIPPI,
In the Field, Big Shanty, Ga., June 21, 1864.

Maj. Gen. J. M. SCHOFIELD,
"Yours of 8 p.m. 21st has been received and read by the general commanding, who directs that for the present you will conform your movements to those of General Hooker. General Sherman expects to see you to-morrow."
L. M. DAYTON, aide-de camp

I posit that Sherman, at that meeting, revealed his entire plan to discipline Thomas and to give Schofield the next key role in the campaign - a neat little bloodless demonstration toward Smyrna.  In any case, the dispatches then begin in earnest on 25 June 64:

Major-General SCHOFIELD:  "It will be well to let the brigade on the Sandtown road secure the crossing of Olley's Creek to-morrow, and, as auxiliary,  Cox might open <ar75_592> his batteries near his headquarters on the enemy across the open field which we visited day before yesterday [italics added]. This would give more time for effect than if it be postponed till the next morning."
W. T. SHERMAN

Col. Reilly's was Schofield's first unit to cross Olley's Creek, just a feint. Then Sherman sent this peremptory request a little later:

<ar75_596>
Major-General SCHOFIELD: What have you from Olley's Creek? Answer. [emphasis added]
W. T. SHERMAN, Major-General

However, early on the 26th came this admonition to not take the movement too seriously:

<ar75_597>
General SCHOFIELD: I don't care about Colonel Reilly succeeding; let him throw up a hasty parapet for his guns and fire away and make all dispositions as though he intended to force a passage. Same with General Cox up where he is. It should be done to-day to induce the enemy to strengthen that flank to-night.
 W. T. SHERMAN

Then on the same day this admonition:

<ar75_597>
Major-General SCHOFIELD:

All right. Be careful of a brigade so exposed, but I am willing to risk a good deal.

W. T. SHERMAN

Sherman needn't have worried. Schofield was careful. Sherman then followed up with this suggestion:

<ar75_598.>
Major-General SCHOFIELD:
Good bridge [italics added] should  be made to-night across Olley's Creek where the brigade is across, and operations resumed there in the morning early.
 W. T. SHERMAN

Why a good bridge? For McPherson to cross over later? It wasn't just Col. Reilly pushing along Sandtown Road to the south, as this dispatch from Schofield to Cox shows:

<75_599>
June 26, 1864-.-12 m.
Brig. Gen. J. D. Cox,
"To carry out fully General Sherman's plans it will be necessary for you to make a strong demonstration this afternoon in addition to that to be made by Colonel Reilly. It might be made a short distance this side of the Sandtown road, or near your present right, or even through the strip of woods near Hascall's right. [italics added] Such a demonstration made to-day and continued until dark will be far more valuable than one made to-morrow morning. A brigade and a battery will doubtless be sufficient force, [italics added] its real strength being concealed from the enemy. Hascall will also open with his artillery on the right."
J. M. SCHOFIELD


Nothing serious here, just more demonstration, but a little to the East. In one dispatch from Schofield to Sherman, sent at noon on the 27th, we find excuses for not doing more to relieve the pressure on Thomas to his left:

<ar75_617>
"General Cox has just reported in person. He has advanced to the crest of the main ridge, a mile or so beyond Olley's Creek, and within a mile of the main road running to the mill on Nickajack Creek. The ridge is extremely rough and densely wooded. There is no hope of moving a force along it so as to reach the flank of the enemy's main line to-day. To go by the road would throw Cox three or four miles from Hascall's right, much too far for a single division. The enemy's works can be distinctly seen, running up the slope of the ridge at least a mile beyond Hascall's right. I cannot hope to reach the enemy's flank without separating my division much farther than I deem at all prudent."

It is odd that he felt compelled to justify his conduct when he had positive written and verbal instructions to do exactly what he did and no more. Perhaps he was aware that some observers might fault his lack of initiative. Or was he making doubly sure that Sherman understood that he wasn't about to risk the displeasure of Hood which, forgive my lack of piety, might actually draw some Confederate defenders away from the center where Thomas was attacking?

The ridge Schofield referred to was lightly defended by cavalry (Jackson) and could not have been very high, as the land in that area is gently rolling
. One might ask, where were their axes? Cox had sent one brigade accross the creek the evening before, and his other brigades crossed very early in the morning of the 27th, so Schofield had hours to make some real gesture around Johnston's flank or make a threatening advance toward Marietta in order to relieve the pressure on Thomas to his left, but he stayed put. Maybe he fired some cannons. Here, as earlier during the approach to Atlanta, as well as later at the battles of Peachtree Creek, Atlanta,  Jonesboro, and  Nashville, he either kept himself out of major operations or was kept out of them. As the result of his error at Columbia he got into his one real scrape at Franklin, and even there he repaired to an observation tower on the other side of the Harpeth river and left the management of the defense to Stanley. However, his circumspection in the field didn't make him timid when it came to claiming credit, as we can see in his dispatch of the evening of the 27th to Stoneman:

<ar75_622>                     
"Thomas and McPherson have failed in their attack and have suffered heavy losses. Our little success on the right is all that has been gained anywhere. This may be very important to us as the first step toward the next important movement." [italics added]

He neglects to mention that his "little success" was achieved against a thinly spread cavalry screen which had, to be sure, better horses than the Union cavarly had.

The final dispatch of Schofield to Sherman on the 27th shows how far the micromanaged flanking movement got (see map above):

<ar75_618>
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE OHIO, June 27, 1861--7 p.m.
Major-General SHERMAN:

General Cox's position overlooks the Nickajack Valley and seems to control the ridge between the two creeks, so that the enemy cannot extend his line along that ridge without displacing us. It threatens the enemy's left rear and seems to me more important than I at first supposed. I think it should be held by my whole force if you propose to operate in that direction.

J. M. SCHOFIELD

On the Union left wing McPherson carried out some feints toward the northern end of the mountain, which resulted in 210 casualties (ar75_631), and an attack at Pigeon Hill (# 2 on the map above left) which made little progress and was not pressed, judging from the fact that it cost him only 317 casualties out of about 5500 men engaged (see Gen. Morgan Smith's report, ar74_179). Thomas made the main effort at two points in the center with about 8000 men. The result was a failure with 1580 casualties (see Thomas' report, ar72_151). Normally you can divide the casualty figure by 3 to arrive at the approximate number of soldiers killed.  The Confederate line there was heavily fortified and manned by 2 divisions under Cheatham and Cleburne, Johnston's two best generals. Not satisfied with Thomas' effort, Sherman ordered Thomas to attack again late in the afternoon, and Thomas responded as follows:

"The Army of the Cumberland has already made two desperate, bloody and unsuccessful assaults on this mountain. If a third is ordered, it will, in my opinion, result in demoralizing this army and will, if made, be against my best judgment, and most earnest protest." ( Piatt, Life of Thomas,  p. 545)

The third assault was not made. Sherman's first report to Halleck was sent the evening after the battle:

<ar75_607>
"Pursuant to my orders of the 24th, a diversion was made on each flank of the enemy, especially on the Sandtown road, and at 8 a.m. General McPherson attacked at the southwest end of Kenesaw, and General Thomas at a point about a mile farther south. At the same, time the skirmishers and artillery along the whole line kept up a sharp fire. Neither attack succeeded, though both columns reached the enemy's works, which are very strong. General McPherson reports his loss about 500, and General Thomas about 2,000; the loss particularly heavy in general and field officers. General Harker is reported mortally wounded, also Col. Dan. McCook, commanding a brigade; Colonel Rice, Fifty-seventh Ohio, very seriously. Colonel Barnhill, Fortieth Illinois, and Captain Augustin, Fifty-fifth Illinois, are killed. The facility with which defensive works of timber and earth are constructed gives the party on the defensive great advantage [italics added]. I cannot well turn the position of the enemy without abandoning my railroad, and we are already so far from our supplies that it is as much as the road can do to feed and supply the army. There are no supplies of any kind here. I can press Johnston and keep him from re-enforcing Lee, but to assault him in position will cost us more lives than we can spare. McPherson took today 100 prisoners, and Thomas about as many, but I do not suppose we inflicted heavy loss on the enemy, as he kept close behind his parapets." [italicsadded]

One could conclude from this dispatch, that Sherman, after 2 and a half years of war, was just learning how effective fortifications can be. Better late than never, as they say. However, on 9 July 64 Sherman resorted again to blaming others in order to explain away the failure:

<ar76_91>
"The assault I made was no mistake; I had to do it. The enemy and our own army and officers had settled down into the conviction that the assault of lines formed no part of my game, and the moment the enemy was found behind anything like a parapet, why everybody would deploy, throw up counter-works and take it easy, leaving it to the 'old man' to turn the position. Had the assault been made with one-fourth more vigor [italics added] , mathematically, I would have put the head of George Thomas' whole army right through Johnston's deployed lines on the best ground for go-ahead, while my entire forces were well in hand on roads converging to my then object, Marietta. Had Harker and McCook not been struck down so early the assault would have succeeded, and then the battle would have all been in our favor on account of our superiority of numbers, position, and initiative."

Or this from his report (ar72_69):

"Failure as it was, and for which I assume the entire responsibility, I yet claim it produced good fruits, as it demonstrated to General Johnston that I would assault, and that boldly."

In other words, Sherman ordered a play up the middle in order to show Johnston that Sherman didn't make only end runs, and if the attempt was a bloody failure, it was Thomas' fault for not having assaulted "with one-fourth more vigor." So what if more than 600 Union soldiers died that day for no military purpose? No other passage taken from Sherman's writings displays his moral corruption better than this one, unless it's the following passage about Kennesaw from his Memoirs:

"An army to be efficient must not settle down to a single mode of offence, but must be prepared to execute any plan which promises success. I wanted, therefore, for the moral effect [italics mine], to make a successful assault against the enemy behind his breastworks, and resolved to attempt it at that point where success would give the largest fruits of victory."

Then there is this cynical attempt by Sherman to appear to commiserate with Thomas for the horror which he, Sherman, had ordered:

<ar75_611>
Near Kenesaw Mountain, June 27, 1864.
General THOMAS:
Had we broken the line to-day it would have been most decisive, but as it is our loss is small, compared with some of those East. [italics added] It should not in the least discourage us. At times assaults are necessary and inevitable. At Arkansas Post we succeeded; at Vicksburg we failed. I do not think our loss to-day greater than Johnston's when he attacked Hooker and Schofield the first day we occupied our present ground.

Boatner states that overall Union losses on the 27th were 2051 out of estimated 16,226 engaged, against 442 Confederate losses out of estimated 17,733 engaged.
The numbers alone demonstrate the futility of this battle, but the following dispatch from Sherman to McPherson of the 27th puts a truly sinister cast on the entire proceedings:

<ar75_623>
June 27, 1864.
General MCPHERSON:
Is General Blair back? Report to me fully his operations for the day. Schofield's right division (Cox's) has gained a good position on the other side of Olley's Creek, and at the head of Nickajack. If we had our supplies well up I would move at once by the right flank [Italics added], but suppose we must cover our railroad a few days.
W. T. SHERMAN

 Sherman mulled it over and decided the supplies were well enough up, as this dispatch of the 28th to McPherson shows:

<ar75_631>
"Is there any news on your flank? How long will it take you to load up and be ready to move for ten days, independent of the railroad?"

Sherman had thus, on the day of the battle or the very next day at the latest, arrived at the solution which had apparently eluded him for weeks, namely bring McPherson down from the Union left flank and send him south and east past Schofield and around Johnston's left flank. Did he have a sudden inspiration, or had he decided upon this before the battle? The facts that on the 21st he ordered Schofield to start down Sandtown Rd, and then to put a division across Olley's Creek two days before the battle (3 days if we count his Special Field Orders, no. 28 of 24 June 63 <ar75_588>), then micromanaged the crossing (26 dispatches between them on 3 days!), and wrote the above dispatch to McPherson, indicate that he already had his flanking maneuver in mind well before the battle was fought. While the lives of Thomas' men were being squandered at the Dead Angle, Sherman was sitting at the telegraph, making sure that Schofield hadn't overextended himself or actually provoked a serious reaction by Johnston.

On 1 July, McPherson began leaving his positions on the north end of the Union line and moved south with the intention to go around Schofield and then Johnston's left flank. This got Johnston's attention! Schofield, a known quantity even among the Confederates, was no threat, but McPherson was another matter. That very evening, after the first hint of this movment, Johnston began his withdrawal from Marietta to positions at Smyrna, and then at the Chattahoochee river, just 10 miles away, the last natural barrier protecting Atlanta. That McPherson's movment did not go beyond a hint is shown in the report of Howard (then in McPherson's command) of the Atlanta Campaign. I can't cite McPherson because he died and wrote no report. The reports of the other generals in McPherson's command (Logan, Davis, Osterhaus. and Morgan Smith ) are very sketchy and don't deal with this flanking movement. So, I make do with Howard:

<ar72_195>
June 1, the movement of the army [of the Tennessee] to the left commenced, General McPherson and General Davis having withdrawn from the extreme right position.
On the 2d the movement was continued; the Twentieth and Twenty-third Corps and part of the Fourteenth [under Thomas] passed beyond our extreme left.
June 3 and 4, nothing of consequence [italics added], excepting that I thinned and extended my lines so as to cover the ground occupied by the Twenty-third Corps, and afterward by Davis' division, of the Fourteenth Corps, relieving those troops in order to prolong our lines to the left. The result of these movements was to cause the enemy to abandon his lines on the night of June 4.
June 5, the command rested.

On 3 July the Federals marched unopposed past Kennesaw Mountain into Marietta. The following map of the disposition of Union and Confederate forces after the battle shows how far McPherson's feint at a flanking maneuvre got before Johnston took off.  If you are familiar with the battle you notice that, on this map, McPherson's position doesn't cover Johnston's right flank. On June 30th it did. That 1/2 inch was all it took to make Johnston see the light.

Click to enlarge


Detail based on Sherman's map of 1 Sept. 1864 prepared by
Adolph Lindenkohl (Office of Coast Survey maps CWPL16 and
CWATL)

Since every frontal attack which Sherman had ordered during the Civil War had failed, why did he attempt it again here? McKinney writes in Education in Violence on page 338: "It is possible that Sherman's jealousy of Grant drove him to the assault." Two years before his death, Gen. Logan told Gen. Boynton a story under the condition that it be kept secret until he died. He and McPherson had tried to talk Sherman out of the attack, but Sherman was obsessed with all the coverage Grant's army was getting in the newspapers while his army was stalled before Atlanta. Sherman felt that "it was necessary to show the country that his troops could fight as well as Grant's" (Piatt and Boynton, pg. 548). Sherman may well have had and expressed such feelings, as he was ambivalent towards everyone, but this does not exclude the possibility that Sherman attacked with Grant's approval. The question arises: How might Grant have given Sherman advice without leaving record of it in the official communications? We get a hint from Schofield's memoirs Forty-Six Years in the Army which came out in 1894 while he was Commander in Chief of the Army. On page 223 he writes that, during the Vicksburg campaign, he received in his headquarters in St. Louis a dispatch from Grant, but Schofield's telegrapher couldn't decipher it. The commander of the Army of the Frontier and former physics instructor then rolled up his sleeves:

"My staff officer at once informed me that it was in some key different from that we had in use. So, I took the thing in hand myself...Commencing about 3 P.M., I reached the desired result at three in the morning."

So, Grant had his own code, and perhaps in the person of Schofield his messenger to Sherman. How many other such dispatches from Grant to Schofield were sent in the following years? When was Halleck's hand hovering over Schofield's head replaced by Grant's? How is the rise within a few months of an obscure administrator avoiding battle in Missouri to army command under Sherman to be explained? See my article Schofield vs. Stanley for the answer to this question. Later during the battle of Nashville, Schofield would endeavor to make himself very useful to Grant, and again after the war during the dispute between Johnson and Stanton (whom Schofield would replace as Secretary of War).

Sherman's battle demonstrated yet again the futility of frontal attacks against prepared positions, let alone those against "breastworks twelve feet thick and strongly abatised" (Thomas to Sherman, ar75_612), without prior destruction of at least one of the flanks. It also demonstrated who was not the boss in that army. Yes, I am suggesting that one of Sherman's motives may have been to put Thomas in his place. Consider the following passage from Sherman's letter of 18 June 1864 to "Dear General" Grant:

<ar75_507>
"My chief source of trouble is with the Army of the Cumberland, which is dreadfully slow. A fresh furrow in a plowed field will stop the whole column, and all begin to intrench. I have again and again tried to impress on Thomas that we must assail and not defend; we are the offensive, and yet it seems the whole Army of the Cumberland is so habituated to be on the defensive that, from its commander down to the lowest private, I cannot get it out of their heads. I came out without tents and ordered all to do likewise, yet Thomas has a headquarters camp on the style of Halleck at Corinth; every aide and orderly with a wall-tent, and a baggage train big enough for a division. He promised to send it all back, but the truth is everybody there is allowed to do as he pleases, and they still think and act as though the railroad and all its facilities were theirs. This slowness has cost me the loss of two splendid opportunities which never recur in war."

If you are inclined to discount such intemperate language as being the expression of momentary ill humor by man under the pressure of campaigning, then consider the festering resentment demonstrated in the following quote. In November 1863, Sherman encountered Rosecrans in Cincinatti and, according to Rosecrans, said to him:

"I think Grant had no hand in it [Rosecrans' replacement], for on the arrival of my corps I said to him, 'Why in the devil did you have Rosecrans relieved and Thomas placed in command of the Army of the Cumberland? Rosecrans is a better soldier than Thomas could ever be.'" (Lamers, pg. 406; Rosecrans Papers, Doc. B)

If you think that Sherman was just attempting to ingratiate himself with Rosecrans, then consider this passage from a letter which Sherman wrote half a year later, on 27 April 1864, to former U.S. Senator Thomas Ewing - his childhood guardian and father-in-law and an early backer of Lincoln:

"At Chattanooga Grant was with Thomas in person—he held back Thomas' troops till Hooker got into position—we were delayed by Chattanooga Creek impassable that day without a Bridge to construct which took time, 4 hours. If we were to dispose of such men as Thomas summarily who would take his place? We are not masters as Napoleon was. He could make & unmake on the Spot. We must take the tools provided us, and in the order prescribed by Rank of which the Law judges." (Thomas Ewing and Family Papers)

According to this letter, Sherman would have gotten rid of Thomas if he had he the power he attributed to Napoleone to "make & unmake on the spot." If Sherman could be honest to anyone, it was to Ewing, so we can accept this passage as being an exposition of his deepest feelings toward Thomas. How it must have rankled Sherman that the honors reserved for him at Chattanooga had been carried off by Thomas, and with a (prepared) frontal charge no less. Worse still, Thomas kept on offering him sound advice when he wanted only subservience. Not even his bogus Thanks of Congress, awarded to him on 19 Feb. 1864 could erase the knowledge that he had made a fool of himself at Chattanooga.

It was bogus, if only because he had to lobby for it. In a letter of 11 Feb. 1864 to his brother the senator asking him to get Congress to pass his Thanks resolution (The White Tecumseh, Hirshson, pg. 178) he made, among others, this slanderously worded assertion about a man who was continuously at or close to the front in every other battle he fought:

"The truth is General Thomas a particular friend of mine did not go outside the entrenchments of Chattanooga at the time of Battle or after [Thomas was riding herd on Grant on Orchard Knob]. I was with my men all the time [not very far  forward]. And I repeat one Division of my troops did Hookers best fighting...." [scroll down to the bottom of this page to read the entire quote.]

With friends like Sherman who needs enemies. Note that this letter is not in Brooks Simpson's 900 page compilation of Sherman's Civil War correspondence, nor in the 1894 collection of Rachel Sherman Thorndike (Sherman's daughter). I guess it's too ugly for keepers of the faith. It is in the Sherman Family Papers at Notre Dame.

If either theory about Sherman's motivation for ordering the attack - i.e. out of jealousy of Grant and/or resentment of Thomas - is correct, then Sherman did not value the lives of the soldiers very highly, and we have plenty of evidence for that already from other battles which Sherman fought. To those who object that I am too hard on Sherman, I reply that, in the light of the evidence presented here, "it is hard to overstate the case against him" (Robert Meiser). The general then, now, or any time who does not consider the lives of the least of his soldiers as being as precious as his own is a criminal. He is also short-sighted, because that is the only path to true military greatness, the path which Thomas took.

In other battle summaries I have tried to build a case for Thomas' uncommon professionalism and military talent. This battle illustrates another essential element of Thomas' character, namely his ability to subordinate his feelings to the goal of winning the war as quickly as possible. He knew that Sherman could not take Atlanta without him, and he also knew that Sherman, in his sickness, would get rid of him if sufficiently provoked. So Thomas obeyed the order, albeit with only 2 divisions. His suffering as he watched his men die in front of impregnable fortifications, probably suspecting why he had been sent on this mission impossible, must have been beyond measure. For this reason, our debt to him is also beyond measure.

For a more comprehensive presentation of the Grant Gang's anti-Thomas sentiments, see Don Plezia's article "Grant and Sherman Smear Thomas."

5½) On 4-9 July 64 Sherman outflanked Johnston's position behind the Chattahoochie River and Johnston withdrew into Atlanta.

And so the siege of Atlanta began. 

<>Battle reports:
1. Thomas US
2. Grant US
3. Sherman US
4. Howard US
5. J. Johnston CS
7. Cleburne CS
8. Schofield US?
9. Hascall US?
10. Cox US?
11. Logan US?
12. Osterhaus US?
13. Smith US?

Schofield submitted no report on this campaign. Or if he did, the report is no longer in the ORs. How was this possible? This skeptic smells a cover up.

Other articles on this battle:

1.  Resaca by Don Plezia

2. Thomas Van Horne on the Dalton to Atlanta campaign

3. Excerpt from Opposing Sherman's Advance to Atlanta by Joseph E. Johnston, General, CS.


In this letter to his brother the senator, Sherman lied, called the movements of the Army of the Cumberland "slow & dilatory," added a slur against the character of Thomas insinuating that he hid from danger during the battle of Chattanooga, and wallowed in self-pity. The letter is quoted from "The White Tecumseh" by Stanley Hirshson, 1997, pg. 178. The source for the  text is given in the footnote as the William T. Sherman Family Papers, William Sherman to John Sherman, Vicksburg (Miss.), February 1, 1864, University of Notre Dame Archives, reel 7, cont. 13.

The lack of recognition irked Sherman, too. He noticed, he informed John [his brother, the senator],

"that Resolutions of thanks have been introduced in Congress to Hooker and his Army, and Thomas & his Army, but not one word of Sherman & the Army of the Tennessee. Now it is known to all the Army, that the best fighting in Hookers Army was done by one of my Divisions viz Osterhaus the 1st Division 15th Corps, which could not join me because a Bridge across the Tennessee at Browns Ferry was broken, and which I volunteered to leave with Hooker rather than delay the impending Battle - The Army of the Tennessee marched rapidly from Memphis to Chattanooga [not true], crossed the Tennessee and began the Battle. We had the initiative & most important point of that Battle, and afterward without rest or preparation, in consequence of the slow & dilatory movement of a part of the Army of the Cumberland I was required with the Army of the Tennessee to march 130 miles further shoeless to relieve Knoxville. All these things are known officially to the War Dept and if thanks are voted to the rest & the Army of the Tennessee left out I must construe it as personal and quit. I want the Army of the Tennessee to have its share of official recognition but for myself I ask nothing. . . . The truth is General Thomas a particular friend of mine did not go outside the entrenchments of Chattanooga at the time of Battle or after. I was with my men all the time. And I repeat one Division of my troops did Hookers best fighting....I want a pretext to get rest, and if this injustice be done the Army of the Tennessee, because I led it, I will quickly avail myself of the opportunity to seek rest in another quarter of the World."