Key to Victory

In the summer of 1864, the railroad hub of Atlanta was the final key to ending the bloodiest conflict in the history of United States of America, which had yet to reach the end of her first century.    With devastating losses by the Confederate army at Gettysburg and Vicksburg during the previous July, the vital rail center in Georgia was keeping the armies of the Tennessee and Northern Virginia partially equipped with arms, munitions and food.  

Union commander, General William T. Sherman, set his sights on splitting the South, and in particular Georgia,  from the mountains to the sea.  In the North, tensions were mounting.  Democratic candidates urged peace with the South, while antiwar and anti-draft proponents rioted in the streets of New York City.  Nothing short of a decisive victory in Georgia would guarantee a second term for the Republican president, Abraham Lincoln.  The beginning of the Battle of Atlanta began 150 years ago today.  

Late in April of 1864, General Sherman (left)  and his 120,000 plus man army began its "March to the Sea."  Confederate Army commander Joseph Johnston adopted a strategy of meeting the attack, striking hard and then falling back.  By the end of June, the Union army had captured the strategic Kennesaw Mountain, which could be seen along the western horizon of Atlanta.  Within  23 days, the Federals were knocking on the door of the inner outskirts of Atlanta.  

Four companies of Laurens countians, Companies A,B and H of the 57th Georgia infantry, along with Co. H of the 63rd Georgia, were stationed in Atlanta.  The units had originally been summoned from Savannah to Virginia, until  it became readily apparent that Sherman was going to mount a massive offensive against Atlanta.    Along with the 1st and 54th Georgia regiments, the local men were under the command of Brigadier General Hugh Mercer and division commander Lt. Gen. William H.T. Walker.  Mercer's brigade had seen action at Champion's Hill and Vicksburg, but primarily spent most of their time guarding Savannah and serving a brief time as guards at Andersonville prison.

Johnston's policy of fight and retreat led to his demise as commander of the Army of the Tennessee on
July 18.  General John B. Hood  (left) took over command of the army defending Atlanta.  Two days later, Hooker's XX Corps and Howard's IV Corps struck headlong into Stewart's and Hardee's Corps, who were strongly entrenched along the banks of Peachtree Creek just north of Atlanta.  Just after noon on the 20th, General Hood issued an order to attack the oncoming Union corps.  Walker's Division was established in the center of the Confederate line, about where the present day Brookwood station is now located.

At about 4:00 in the afternoon, Bate's division moved out.  Walker's men were the first to feel the brunt of the overwhelming Union force. Their attack was repulsed in short order.  Augustus G. Fountain (left)  of Laurens County was one of  the three members of Mercer's brigade to be killed in the fighting as the brigade moved up the eastern margin of Peachtree Road. Fifteen men were counted among the wounded. Five more were missing.   Hardee's corps retreated, dug in and waited on the counterattack, which they believed would happen forthwith.

When the attack failed to materialize on the following day, General Hood devised a daring and precarious plan to defeat Sherman's powerful army.  Hood ordered Gen. Hardee (left)  to march his entire corps on a 15-mile night march southward through Atlanta.  South of town, the long column turned left with the intent to launch a dawn strike against the  left flank and rear of General McPherson's Army of the Tennessee, which was pressing westward toward Atlanta from Decatur.

Once Hardee's men cleared Atlanta, they turned northeast along Fayetteville Road.  Cleburne and Maney's divisions turned northwest along Bouldercrest Road, while Walker and Bates took their divisions further along Fayetteville Road.  Despite warnings of treacherous ground ahead, Walker (left) took his division around the western swamps of Terry's Mill Pond.   General Walker moved to the front along Glenwood Avenue north of the pond.  He raised his spy glasses and was instantly and mortally wounded by a Union sniper.  Gen. Mercer succeeded to the command of the division.  The command of his brigade was assumed by Col. William Barkuloo of the 57th Georgia.  Lt. Col. Cinncinatus Guyton of Laurens County was elevated to the command of the 57th regiment.

Suddenly, the situation erupted  into a full scale battle.  Maj. General McPherson (above) rode out to reconnoiter the battle field.  Confederate sharpshooters retaliated for the killing of General Walker by slaying the popular young Army of the Tennessee commander as he moved through the woods.  Mercer's (Barkuloo's) brigade was assigned to reserve duty behind the brigades of Gist and Stevens.  When Barkuloo was informed of Gen. Walker's death and his appointment as brigade commander, he moved forward to front, where he found the Federals in strong numbers.  Gen. Mercer informed Gen. Barkuloo that the Yankees were retreating and ordered an attack.     It was here, near the intersection of the future routes of Memorial Drive and Clay Street where the Battle of Atlanta began just after noon.  Barkuloo's brigade moved northward through a valley south of Legget's Hill.  Finding his brigade in an open field and surrounded on three sides by the enemy, Col. Barkuloo first ordered a halt and then a withdrawal after sustaining only fifteen casualties, including Col. Olmstead of the 1st Georgia. 

Col. Barkuloo succumbed to heat and exhaustion and relinquished command to Lt. Col. Rawls of the 54th Ga.  At 5 p.m., Rawls's brigade  moved by the left flank to a point near and southwest of Fair Ground Road, about 2.5 miles east of Atlanta.  Col. Rawls was wounded in the first assault, which carried the first two Federal lines.   Col. Guyton took over command of the brigade and prepared his men for another assault on the Federals, who had only been pushed back 30 or so paces.  Confused, dazed, disorganized and just plain exhausted, the disheveled and amalgamated remnants of the brigade ground to halt. Despite his repeated commands, Col. Guyton could not encourage his men to advance any further.  Guyton attributed the failure to the lack of command structure in close combat under heavy fire.  

At 9 o'clock that night, Col. Guyton (left)  sent a request for instructions.  At three o'clock the next morning, Guyton was ordered to withdraw his brigade.  For the next two days, the brigade entrenched and waited for another battle  in the roasting heat of the July sun.  On the 24th, Col. Barkaloo resumed command of the brigade. Col. Guyton, the only colonel in the brigade to survive the battle unscathed,  returned to the command of his regiment.  In his memoirs, Lt. Edwin Davis of Company A commended Col. Guyton for his  "consummate ease and skill" in directing the brigade.

During the battle, 32 members of the brigade were killed, including William Thompson of Wilkinson County.  Samuel Fleetwood and Joseph Yarborough of Wilkinson county were among the 122 wounded men, a total which included my great-great grandfather Seaborn J. Thompson, a 36-year-old cook of Co. H, 63rd Ga., who was shot in his right hand.  Two days later, his hand was amputated in a Macon hospital.  He was sent home and died a short time later.

Atlanta fell in six weeks on September 2nd.  Just before Christmas, General Sherman accomplished his mission and delivered Savannah to President Lincoln as a much desired Christmas gift.  The Confederate Army never had a chance.  Hood's army was composed of only three corps, while  the Army of the Cumberland, the Army of the Tennessee and the Army of the Ohio counted among its ranks eight corps,  approximately the necessary ratio for success by an attacking army.  

For all intents and purposes the war was nearly over.   It was just a matter of time.  Hood's army fought on in Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas.   Many members of the Confederate army went home sick during the following winter.  Many never returned.  On April 26th, 19 days after Gen. Lee's surrender at Appomattox and 12 days after Lincoln's assassination in Washington, the Army of the Tennessee surrendered at Greensboro, North Carolina, ending four years of fighting and four years of dying.


Carol said…
Thanks for posting this. This was such a major event in the course of the War. My husband's 2great-grandmother lost her first husband in the Battle of Atlanta. He was from a Bulloch County troup. She went to Atlanta to search for him, but was unsuccessful. Later she married one of his fellow soldiers (who was a little younger than her and a distant cousin of hers). They met when he went to visit her to pay his condolences for the loss of his friend.
Scott Thompson said…
Carol, this happened to two of my great great grandmothers.
Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.