Losing the Battle of Atlanta
Atlanta is about to bury one of its most sacred spaces under a retail development
By JOHN W. BRINSFIELD
It is hard to find the five Civil War battlefields around metropolitan Atlanta even with a map. Houses, businesses, playgrounds and highways cover them with concrete. In some cases rare trenches are eroding or overgrown with weeds in parks or nature preserves. Few signs — sometimes no signs at all — mark the sites.
Unlike Gettysburg, Richmond, Murfreesboro, Vicksburg and other cities where Civil War battles were fought, Atlanta has had little interest in preserving its Civil War real estate. The Kennesaw battleground, where the Confederates prevailed, has been preserved. But southward to Atlanta, only the foundations of some buildings that old remain in the downtown area. Progress with us has always trumped preservation.
Along Moreland Avenue, construction crews have recently dug up and then leveled an area where thousands of men clashed and died in the Battle of Atlanta on July 22, 1864. And it wasn't even the first time the field has been dug up and leveled for commercial development. Now it will be the site of a Target store, a Kroger, Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond, Barnes & Noble and more. The workers clearing the new Edgewood Retail District site did not know they were on a battlefield. There is no reason they should have known, for there are no signs along that part of Moreland, from Hardee Street to DeKalb Avenue, to tell them otherwise.
It is sad to see the last fragile vestiges of our battlefields disappear. They represent pivotal American events that helped the nation have a new birth of freedom. Both sides knew that the issues were important. Both sides fought for freedom, but with different definitions of that word. Their struggle redefined the United States of America.
Atlanta in 1860 consisted of 7,741 residents and about 300 buildings. The Federal Census listed 16 clergy, 1 U.S. marshal, 41 attorneys, one saloonkeeper and 49 prostitutes among the population. The black population accounted for 25 percent of Fulton County and included skilled artisans, barbers, carpenters and one dentist.
By 1864 the population had swelled to 10,000 as wartime industries brought in new workers. Belt buckles, buttons, spurs, saddles, pistols, canteens, tents, railroad cars, bowie knives, cannon, uniforms, cartridges and iron gunboat plates were manufactured in Atlanta. Church bells were turned into cannon. Eight banks made loans to the Confederate government. The Confederate commissary depot had received thousands of bushels of wheat and barrels of flour, more than 2 million pounds of bacon, 100,000 hogs and thousands of cattle.
Most important, Atlanta was a transportation and hospital center for soldiers. Five railroads linking Chattanooga, Montgomery, LaGrange, Macon and Augusta had their terminus here, which meant Confederate soldiers could move entirely by rail from Virginia through Georgia to Tennessee. Atlanta also contained 16 Confederate hospitals and one medical school whose surgeons sought to bind up soldiers' wounds and return them to battle.
For all of these logistical reasons, Atlanta in 1864 was a certain target for the Union armies. By taking the rail center, Union forces could deny vital food supplies, arms and reinforcements both to the Confederate Army of Tennessee and to Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Confederate forces, such as Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's corps, could no longer move from Virginia to Georgia, as they had during the Chattanooga-Chickamauga campaign of 1863. The two major Confederate armies in the field in 1864 would be separated and, in the Union grand strategy, defeated in detail.
Lincoln on the ropes
Abraham Lincoln not only had a war to win. He also faced an election in 1864, and it was beginning to appear that he might lose both.
The northern people were tired of the war and wanted some evidence that victory was in sight. The news from Virginia was not good. From May 31 to June 12, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had sustained more than 50,000 casualties fighting Lee at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor. On the first day at Cold Harbor, the Union lost 7,000 soldiers in one hour.
By one estimate, the war was costing the Union $1 million a day and one soldier every eight minutes.
Lincoln's political opponents were quick to pin the high cost of the war directly on the president. The Democratic Party, which already controlled key congressional seats, put up former Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan to run against Lincoln; even the president's own treasury secretary, Salmon P. Chase, went over to the Democrats.
In a gloomy but realistic memorandum to his Cabinet at a meeting about the Democratic platform, Lincoln wrote: "It seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President-elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterward."
Outside the Gate City of the South, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman's mission was clear. Militarily he needed to capture Atlanta and help Grant run the Confederacy to ground. Politically he needed to give Lincoln a victory to encourage the people of America to stay the course that the Union might be assuredly preserved.
Great armies collide
Sherman's three Union armies — named for rivers, the Army of the Ohio, the Army of the Cumberland and the Army of the Tennessee — comprised 112,000 soldiers at the end of May 1864. The three were organized into eight corps with a total of 431 numbered infantry regiments, artillery batteries and cavalry units.
Gen. John Bell Hood's Confederate Army of Tennessee, named for the state, numbered 69,946 soldiers in 305 regiments, batteries and cavalry on June 30, but the effective strength was far less due to illness and inadequate arms and equipment.
In terms of the sheer numbers, the campaign for Atlanta ranks above Gettysburg (160,000 total soldiers engaged), Antietam (120,000), Vicksburg (115,000) and Shiloh (82,000). In the case of the five battles around Atlanta, not all of the soldiers on both sides were ever engaged in a single action.
The 40,000 men who fought along Moreland Avenue on July 22, 1864, came from two Confederate corps, commanded by Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee and Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham, and three Union corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson. Many of the units on each side had fought one another during the long campaign through North Georgia. They were not strangers and fully expected a hard fight.
The Union battle line stretched for 2.15 miles from the modern intersection of DeKalb and Moreland Avenues to the vicinity of what is now Alonzo A. Crim High School on Memorial Drive, where the Battle of Atlanta began.
The Union line was roughly in the shape of the letter L, with the long axis running down Moreland Avenue, then bending to the intersection of Flat Shoals and Glenwood Avenues.
A hasty extension of the line to the Crim school site resulted when Maj. Gen. W.H.T. Walker's Division of Hardee's Corps launched a surprise attack on the Union flank a few minutes after noon. (Walker himself was shot out of the saddle and killed by a Union sniper.)
All that hot afternoon and into the evening, Confederate soldiers charged seven times in eight hours, from their right flank to their left flank, from noon until dark. Seven times they charged, and seven times they were thrown back.
The Union lines were seriously broken twice, but there were no Confederate reserves to exploit their penetrations. By nightfall the Union held most of the field.
Maj. Gen. John Logan, commanding the Union Army of the Tennessee at the end of the day, estimated that 8,700 men from both sides were killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner.
Minus the 2,000 prisoners, the combined casualties amounted to 3,000 dead or wounded per linear mile on the battlefield. If they had been placed side-by-side along the main battle line, there would have been one dead, wounded or "missing" soldier for each three feet of ground.
Of the battle, Pvt. Sam R. Watkins of the 1st Tennessee Infantry would write that he saw "dead Generals, colonels, captains, lieutenants, sergeants, corporals and privates piled indiscriminately everywhere, blood gathered in pools and streams of blood."
On July 26, four days after the battle, a War Department telegram arrived for "Major General Sherman, Near Atlanta." The text read, "My profoundest thanks to you and your whole Army. A. Lincoln." (Lincoln won the election of 1864, but by only 400,000 votes out of more than 4 million cast. The victories of Adm. David Farragut at Mobile, on Aug. 5, and Sherman's ultimate capture of Atlanta, on Sept. 2, were important because they were the only decisive victories that summer.)
That long day, July 22, 1864, is 140 years behind us now. But also gone, and tragically so, are the opportunities we should have taken to mark the ground where so many fought to define our freedom.
Maybe someone will erect a suitable monument on Moreland Avenue one day, not to North or South perhaps, but just to American valor at the Battle of Atlanta, the conflict that helped re-elect Lincoln and preserve the Union. Such a monument might even reinforce the concept that we are still a United States of America.
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Chaplain (Col.) John W. Brinsfield is a native of Atlanta and the Chaplain Corps Historian at the U.S. Army Chaplain School. He has led numerous military staff rides to Atlanta battlefields and is a co-author of "Faith in the Fight: Civil War Chaplains."