THE BEST histories of William Tecumseh Sherman’s grand but brutal March to the Sea pick up the story in early May 1864, before the march began, when the general and a massive Union force left Chattanooga, Tennessee, and set off for Atlanta, a major industrial and rail center for the Confederacy. The Atlanta campaign is a fixture in the Sherman legend, but even the best accounts often rush past one of its pivotal moments—the heroic stand of a Union brigade led by a bookish Ohio attorney.
‘Damn you, sir!’ Force bellowed as Rebel troops advanced closer. ‘I don’t want a flag of truce; I want the American flag!’
Manning Ferguson Force was no ordinary man, and certainly no ordinary general. Born in 1824 in Washington, D.C., the fourth of 10 children, Force grew up in a world of privilege and civility. His father, Peter Force, a veteran of the War of 1812, was a talented political journalist, printer, historian, and onetime mayor of the city.
After attending Harvard, the young Manning practiced law in Cincinnati, devoting his spare time to writing on historical subjects like the Indian mound builders of Ohio. In 1850, he joined Cincinnati’s illustrious Literary Club, where he met another young attorney who would become his closest friend, Rutherford B. Hayes.
When the war broke out, the 36-year-old Force decided that “the time had arrived when every one had to take his side.” He threw in with the Union, while two of his brothers joined up with the Confederates. Initially given a commission as major of the 20th Ohio Regiment, Force was promoted to lieutenant colonel in only a few months.
He and his men got their first taste of combat at Fort Donelson in February 1862, and two months later at Shiloh. Force, according to his men, was a stern taskmaster. Henry Otis Dwight, a soldier in Company D, described him as “a spare grave man with an eye that penetrated to the spine of the culprit” during drill.
Nevertheless, said Dwight, “we all respected him for his justice and manliness.” In the spring and summer of 1863, Force and his regiment distinguished themselves during the siege and capture of Vicksburg. In one battle during that campaign, Force, now commanding the 20th Ohio as a colonel, was deeply affected by reports of heavy casualties.
“When I told Colonel Force of our loss, I saw tears course down his cheeks,” wrote Sergeant Osborn Oldroyd in his diary.
Yet war was now the calling for this intellectual. At home on leave, he felt out of place among civilians. “Amid all the luxuries of Cincinnati,” he confessed to a friend, “and with all the kindnesses lavished upon me, there was a feeling of undefined restlessness, discomfort.”
IN EARLY JUNE 1864, about a month after Sherman and his men began the march to Atlanta, Force—now a brigadier general—and his brigade joined them in the northwest Georgia town of Rome, becoming part of Brigadier General Mortimer Leggett’s 3rd Division of the XVII Corps. Sherman’s three armies— the Army of the Tennessee, the Army of the Cumberland, and the Army of the Ohio—totaled more than 100,000 men, considerably more than the Confederate force that stood in its way, General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee.
The going was slow, thanks to muddy roads and Johnston’s delaying actions. On June 27, Sherman threw a frontal assault at the enemy at Kennesaw Mountain, northwest of Atlanta, and was soundly beaten, with at least 2,500 dead or wounded. Leggett’s division played only a minor role, but Force, suffering a malarial fever throughout, spent one night separated from his brigade.
“I would not have been taken,” he later said. “I should rather be shot, than submit to the horrible fate of prisoner in the hands of the Rebels.”
The march to Atlanta continued, and Force’s command dug in and pushed forward, practically inch by inch, facing almost constant skirmishing and occasional artillery barrages. Finally, the fighting reached Atlanta’s outskirts, and Johnston retreated into the city defenses, a move that led to his dismissal and the appointment of the more aggressive General John Bell Hood. The crucial phase of the battle for Atlanta was about to begin.
ON JULY 20, Sherman ordered all three of his armies to advance at once against the Confederate lines. When Hood in response pulled back his lines, Sherman incorrectly assumed that the Confederate general was evacuating Atlanta.
Meanwhile, Force’s brigade and the entire XVII Corps of the Army of the Tennessee advanced against Hood’s right and easily drove back enemy skirmishers, getting very close to the city. A sharp battle broke out between Confederate infantrymen who manned what was called Bald Hill and Union troops who hoped to gain the high ground. By the end of the day, Force’s brigade reached the foot of the hill and prepared for an attack the next morning, July 21.
As evening fell, General Leggett, Force’s division commander, told him, “I want you to carry that hill, General.” Before daylight, Force told his brigade skirmishers to push forward and get close to the enemy without revealing themselves. But delays along the Union lines let the early morning hours slip away before Force issued the attack order.
“Boys, now be cool and firm; don’t waver, don’t falter,” he told his men, his voice clear and strong. “Just make up your mind to drive the enemy from yonder hill, and you’ll do it.”
A Wisconsin private found comfort in those words. “Though we had not been long in General Force’s brigade,” he remembered after the war, “we had learned to have entire confidence in him, and his quiet talk made us more determined than ever to plant our colors on the hill in our front.”
The skirmishers moved out first from woods at the base of the hill, their line springing forward, followed by the entire brigade. Flags waved as the blue lines marched with fixed bayonets gleaming in the sunlight. In no time, the brigade enveloped the skirmishers and steadily climbed the hill to its crest. The Confederate fire was hot and deadly. “Our men fell in bunches,” recalled Colonel Gilbert Munson, one of Force’s officers. “Still came the charging column on; faster and faster it pressed forward.” Force followed on horseback, urging his men to the hilltop.
Shouting above the tremendous noise of battle, he called, “Forward, men!” then “Charge bayonets! Forward, double quick, march!”
The charge was too much for the Confederates. They broke and scattered. Some launched a counterattack to retake the hill, but Force’s men beat them back.
As the sun came up the next morning, Force learned that the enemy was sidling to the left in an attempt to outflank the Union position. Suddenly the sound of musket fire broke the day’s silence and awakened his men to a new reality crashing down on them. Hood had successfully stolen a flanking march, and Confederates were attacking the Union defenses—including Bald Hill—from the west. As musket fire increased, officers all along the main line shouted to their men, “Fall in! Fall in!” In less than 15 minutes, the woods at the bottom of the hill were filled with Confederates rushing the Union lines.
After two hours of fierce fighting, two Confederate units hit the Union line at the same time, pushing the bluecoats back to the defensive works on Bald Hill. Atop the hill, there was so much confusion that no one could plainly see the attacking troops in the rear or on the flank.
Force, almost enshrouded in musket smoke, called for a flag. A junior officer, believing Force meant to surrender, ran off and returned with a piece of white cloth. “Damn you, sir!” Force bellowed. “I don’t want a flag of truce; I want the American flag!” Someone finally brought the Stars and Stripes, and Force stood proudly and planted its staff firmly at the summit for everyone to see.
With the Confederates closing on his lines, the general readied his troops for the collision. “The men,” he said in a speech after the war, “leaped over the works” and waited for the assault. Through the woods, they could hear the Rebel yell above the racket of muskets, cannons, screams, and shrieks. A steady volley greeted the attacking Confederates and halted their advance.
The Rebels—Texans as it turned out— re-formed and stormed the Union breastworks again, but once more the Federal gunfire threw them back. Force’s flag fluttered in the breeze. It was now well after 3 p.m., and Force’s brigade was still taking fire from three sides. Ammunition was running low.
Just as Force stooped down to help put a tourniquet on the leg of a wounded officer, a minié ball struck his face. It penetrated his cheekbone below the corner of the left eye, passed through his face, and exited about an inch in front of the lower jawbone, just beneath the right ear, tearing pieces of the upper jaw. An artilleryman who saw Force go down described how “blood gushed from his eyes, nose, and mouth.” Yet Force “uttered no moan, nor a word of complaint.”
Nor did he lose consciousness. The general was carried from the hill to a field hospital in the rear. His wound was excruciating; he was lucky to be alive. If the bullet had penetrated his skull, it might have struck his brain. Five days later, Force was transferred to hospitals first in Nashville, then in Louisville. He regained the ability to speak fairly quickly, although he could talk only with great difficulty.
Meanwhile, the battle for Atlanta continued. Despite Force’s absence, his brigade held Bald Hill and sent the enemy tumbling back toward Atlanta.
Over the next month, Sherman’s troops encircled the city. Finally, on September 2, Force, recuperating at his father’s home in Washington, heard the news that Atlanta had fallen to Sherman.
REMARKABLY, Force returned to active duty in early October 1864, rejoining Sherman’s army just in time to lead his 1st Brigade through Georgia in the March to the Sea. His wound still bothered him, with waves of pain sometimes sweeping over his jaw.
On one occasion, he set down in his journal that “a bit of bone from the wound discharged through the nose into [my] mouth today.”
Even so, Force—by now a tough and capable field officer—performed bravely and admirably in the march across Georgia. He led his men to Savannah and then took over the 3rd Division of the XVII Corps from his commanding officer, General Leggett.
Force remained with Sherman’s army until the end of the war and led his men in triumph at the Grand Review in Washington, D.C., on May 24, 1865. He then spent six months at the head of Union Reconstruction forces, mostly in Vicksburg, before receiving his discharge in January 1866. Although offered the rank of colonel in the regular army, he declined, happily doffed his uniform, and returned home.
In Cincinnati, riding his fame from the war, he entered local politics and was elected a county judge in 1866. His close friend Rutherford Hayes became president in 1877 and offered Force a White House job as secretary to the president. Force turned him down and instead moved on to the Superior Court of Cincinnati. He remained on the court until 1888, when poor health—a result of his war wound—and fatigue led to his resignation.
He spent a brief time recovering at President Hayes’s home in Fremont, Ohio, and then accepted a position as commandant of the Ohio Soldiers’ Home in Sandusky.
ON MARCH 31, 1892, nearly 30 years after Bald Hill, Force received the Medal of Honor for his bravery. A man of letters, he was hailed for putting aside his books, taking up his sword, and defending the flag with extraordinary valor.
Seven years later, Force died at the soldiers’ home at the age of 74. He was buried at Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, where 38 other Union generals and four other Civil War Medal of Honor recipients have been laid to rest. In Atlanta itself, there is no marker to commemorate General Force. The hill he defended became known as Leggett’s Hill. It was leveled years ago to accommodate a highway.
Today, dreary storefronts and battered metal buildings cover the landscape. Few scholars of Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign even know of Force or Bald Hill, now victims of an imperfect American memory for the past and the less than famous
Glenn W. LaFantasie is the Richard Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History and director of the Institute for Civil War Studies at Western Kentucky University. He is the author of several books on the Civil War and a contributing writer on history and politics for Salon.com.