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The Famous Cyclorama Of The Great Battle Of Atlanta
There have been few more desperate fights than the one in which John B. Hood vainly tried to block the invasion of the South
February 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 2
The rival armies were curiously named. Hood’s Confederate army was the Army of Tennessee, named for the state in which it had originally had its base. Sherman was what would now be called an army group commander; technically he had three armies under his command. The largest was the Army of the Tennessee (Yankee armies were mostly named for rivers) under James B. McPherson. Then there were the Army of the Cumberland under indomitable George Thomas, and the smaller Army of the Ohio, really an army corps, under John Schofield, a chubby little soldier with baldish head, pink cheeks and a remarkably long beard. Thomas was leading the Cumberlands across Peach tree Creek, and on July 20 Hood jumped him.
The result was a savage fight which accomplished nothing. A good many private soldiers on both sides got shot and there was a great deal of sharp in-fighting, but when the dust had settled Thomas had made good his crossing. Hood’s first thrust had failed. He immediately set about devising another, and the great Battle of Atlanta was the result.
Sherman was an admirable strategist but an imperfect tactician—which is to say that he controlled his troops more wisely when maneuvering in open country than he did when they got into close quarters in the heat of battle. Alter Thomas had made good his crossing of Peachtree Creek, Sherman sent his largest unit, McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee, swinging around to his left to come in on Atlanta from the east. Doing so, he let his troops get slightly separated and exposed McPherson’s Hank. Hood saw it, and prepared to destroy McPherson’s army; and his attempt to do this constituted the Battle of Atlanta proper, the battle which is depicted in the Cyclorama.
McPherson had got into Decatur, a town just east of Atlanta. Starting in toward Atlanta, his troops ran into Joe Wheeler’s Rebel cavalrymen and drove them away back to Leggett’s Hill, a prominent point on the outer Confederate line. Hood sent in Pat Cleburne’s division—one of his best. Cleburne was Irish, a trained soldier who had put his men through a solid professional course of sprouts—and on fuly 21 Cleburne’s men gave the Federals a stiff fight before the Northerners finally took possession of Leggett’s Hill.
McPherson thus had a lodgment on the Confederates’ outer line. He put Frank Blair’s 17th Army Corps there, and Blair’s men reversed the Confederate trenches to face toward Atlanta. At this point Hood saw his opening, and struck.
The left of McPherson’s line, now drawn up so as to lace, generally, toward the west, was in effect the extreme left of Sherman’s line—a long line, by now, reaching in a crescent a third of the way around the town, its concave side toward the south with the city in the center. This dangerously exposed flank had no cavalry screen to hide it and to give due warning of any danger. It was an ideal target, and Hood saw it.
Around midnight on July 21, Hood pulled all of his troops back from the outer defense lines to the inner ones, some distance to the rear. Simultaneously, he ordered one of his principal subordinates, William Hardee—former commandant at West Point, and author of a notable book on tactics—to take the four divisions of his army corps, perform a fifteen-mile night march to the east, and fall on McPherson’s unprotected left. Wheeler’s cavalry went along, hoping to destroy McPherson’s wagon trains at Decatur; but the big thing was for Hardee to get his corps well to the rear of McPherson’s army and then to attack.
The general idea was sound as a bell, and Hood’s move might very well have stopped Sherman’s Atlanta campaign then and there. Unfortunately, however, Hardee ran into problems. He was moving through what was in effect a heavily wooded wilderness with few roads, he had no adequate maps, and his guides were inefficient. Instead ot being ready to attack at dawn, as Hood had ordered, he was not able to open his fight until noon, and then his men were not exactly where Hood had intended that they should be.
Perhaps the big mistake was in sending Wheeler’s cavalry off to burn McPherson’s wagon trains. The cavalry might have provided the guidance that would have eliminated a lot of guesswork; to destroy a lew Yankee wagons, that dawn of July 22, was not nearly as important as putting the infantry where it could wreck McPherson’s whole army.
In any case, two of Hardee’s divisions, Cleburne’s and Maney’s, somehow took a wrong road, and instead of coming in behind the Federals they ran into the dangling fishhook of entrenchments that Blair’s 17th Corps had occupied the day before. The other two divisions, Walker’s and Bate’s, might have done well to follow Wheeler’s cavalry for a mile or so up the Fayetteville road, beyond the crossing of a little stream known as Sugar Creek; but for some reason the column turned left, skirting the creek, wound its way around a millpond and then ran into a line of Federal pickets, who opened a fire that toppled General Walker out of his saddle. Walker having been replaced by a General Mercer, the two divisions then deployed in the shallow valley of the creek and began to move north in a general northwesterly direction. They were not exactly where Hood had wanted them to be but they were tolerably close to it, and it seemed that they could now go ahead and do what Hood had told them to do.