Confederate Iverson and Yankee Stoneman each hoped to restore a stained reputation
The Battle of Sunshine Church did not alter the outcome of the Atlanta Campaign, but it can’t be said that the fierce cavalry engagement outside Macon, Ga., on July 31, 1864, lacked for drama. The battle was a rarity in Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s monumental campaign that fourth summer of the war: a complete Confederate victory. But, more important, it offered the opposing commanders—Confederate Brig. Gen. Alfred Iverson and Union Maj. Gen. George Stoneman, former brother officers in the antebellum 1st U.S. Cavalry—an opportunity to redeem reputations that had been stained earlier in the war. Only one would succeed.
By late July 1864, after months of slogging back and forth with the Confederate Army of Tennessee from the mountains of northwest Georgia to the outskirts of Atlanta, Sherman focused on cutting the rail lines that supplied the city and its defenders, now commanded by Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood. On July 27, Sherman opened a two-pronged offensive: His Army of the Tennessee would work to seize the rail lines west of Atlanta while three bodies of cavalry moved south to destroy the Macon & Western Railroad. The Army of the Tennessee’s movement culminated in the July 28 Battle of Ezra Church, a tactical victory for Sherman but one that left the rail lines intact. The Union horsemen, however, continued to march on what their chief opponent, Confederate cavalry commander Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler, later called “the most stupendous cavalry operation of the war.”
Four thousand Union troopers under Brig. Gen. Edward McCook rode down the west bank of the Chattahoochee River as Stoneman, leading about 2,100 men, headed toward Covington, intending perhaps to feint toward Augusta. Meanwhile, Brig. Gen. Kenner Garrard’s 3,000 horsemen rode toward Flat Rock, north of Covington, to decoy Wheeler’s cavalry and block any pursuit of McCook and Stoneman. The latter two were to rendezvous at Lovejoy Station, on the Macon & Western south of Atlanta, and destroy track and telegraph lines. McCook was then to return to the Union lines; Stoneman would continue south.
Stoneman had persuaded Sherman that his troopers could make a 125-mile dash, first toward Macon to free more than 1,500 Federal officers imprisoned at Camp Oglethorpe, then proceed south to free the 25,000–30,000 Union prisoners at Camp Sumter near Andersonville. Sherman had doubts about the daring scheme but called the plan “captivating.” Beside the pressing military objectives, Stoneman was seeking to restore his reputation, sullied during the Chancellorsville Campaign earlier in the war.
The career soldier from New York, a graduate of West Point’s noted Class of 1846, was serving under a cloud. In the spring of 1862, Stoneman, then a brigadier, commanded the cavalry division of the Army of the Potomac under Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. He quarreled with McClellan, however, over the cavalry’s proper use, and, after McClellan was stymied in the Seven Days Battles around Richmond, Stoneman was stripped of his troopers and given command of an infantry division.
When Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker replaced Ambrose Burnside as head of the Army of the Potomac in January 1863, he recalled Stoneman to command his cavalry division. That spring, however, Hooker sent Stoneman on a raid during the Chancellorsville Campaign that failed badly. Stoneman was relieved and reassigned to a War Department desk as chief of the U.S. Cavalry Bureau.
In early 1864, he requested a field command with Maj. Gen. John Schofield, a friend then commanding the Department of the Ohio. Soon, Stoneman commanded the Army of the Ohio’s cavalry—one of the three Union armies under Sherman’s command moving south toward Atlanta.
The Union raid on the Atlanta rail lines unraveled early. McCook did not reach Lovejoy Station on schedule. Neither did Stoneman, still more than 40 miles away across the Ocmulgee River. He was delayed when some of his Kentucky cavalrymen drank caches of whiskey commandeered in Covington—the first of many breaches of discipline throughout the foray.
Finding all the Ocmulgee bridges destroyed, Stoneman abandoned meeting McCook in favor of striking Macon. Apparently, Stoneman, according to his chief of staff, seemed “much disheartened and filled with gloomy foreboding.”
By midmorning July 27, Wheeler had reports that blue horsemen were on the Covington Road. Wheeler deduced that the raid was aimed at the Macon rail lines, likely at either Jonesboro or Lovejoy Station. He dispatched Iverson with three brigades of cavalry to protect the railroad. Iverson’s Georgians, Alabamians, and Kentuckians were to ride hard paralleling the Covington Road, overtake the Federals and bring them to battle. As Wheeler and Hood got further reports on the evident size and scope of the raid, other units of Confederate horsemen were sent in pursuit. Many of Iverson’s men looked at the expected fox hunt as a pleasure. For Iverson, however, it wasn’t a game. Like Stoneman, he had come from the Virginia theater, and also like Stoneman he had left it under a cloud.
Alfred Holt Iverson Jr. was born in 1829 in Jones County, Ga., the son of a politically ambitious attorney who became one of the state’s U.S. senators. Iverson was a student at the Alabama Military and Scientific Institute in Tuskegee when the Mexican War began in 1846. He begged his father to let him join a volunteer regiment the elder Iverson had helped raise and equip, and was appointed a 2nd lieutenant in Company D, Georgia Battalion of Mounted Infantry. Frequently ill with fevers, he never saw combat.
After the war he read law in his father’s office and worked in railroad contracting. But in March 1855, he was commissioned a first lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Cavalry, one of two regiments being formed mainly for service on the frontier.
From contemporary accounts, Iverson was a model soldier for the quiet post and parade ground, an exemplar of the 19th-century image of the romantic warrior. Described as “reserved and dignified, congenial but of erect military bearing…first and last a soldier,” a stickler for military protocol and a strict disciplinarian, Iverson was also noted for writing poetry and a fondness for quoting Shakespeare.
Iverson was stationed at Fort Washita, Kan., when he learned of Georgia’s secession in early 1861. After resigning his U.S. Army commission, he returned east. Commissioned a captain in the Confederate Army, he was sent to recruit in Wilmington, N.C., where he organized companies of the 20th North Carolina and was named the regiment’s first colonel. Iverson distinguished himself during the Seven Days in June-July 1862, and was promoted to brigadier general in November.
At Chancellorsville in May 1863, Iverson’s Brigade of North Carolinians fought with Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes’ Division, part of Stonewall Jackson’s Corps. Rodes’ men led the way during Jackson’s spectacular flank attack against the Union 11th Corps on May 2. In the wake of the Confederates’ Chancellorsville victory—and Jackson’s unexpected death—Lee restructured the Army of Northern Virginia, but kept Iverson in Rodes’ Division, now part of Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s Corps. In June, Lee’s army began heading toward Pennsylvania and what would become a calamitous defeat at Gettysburg.
On June 30, while in Carlisle, Pa., Rodes learned a fight was brewing south and was ordered to converge on Gettysburg. With Iverson’s Brigade leading the way, Rodes’ Division arrived on Oak Hill about 11 a.m. on July 1. Since early that morning, Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s Corps had battled Army of the Potomac cavalry first and then 1st Corps infantry west of Gettysburg. By the time Rodes arrived, the Union 11th Corps had begun to array north of the town.
Rodes was poised to hit the already stretched Union defenses on the oblique. But his attack did not go as planned, amid apparently unclear orders and miscommunications in the confusion of battle. Iverson’s men went forward in the first line, only to watch things quickly go wrong. Colonel Edward O’Neal’s Alabama brigade on their left met with early repulse, leaving Iverson’s flank unsupported. The brigades to Iverson’s right were unsure of the route of advance.
Iverson had erred in not sending out skirmishers, so his North Carolinians did not see a line of Union troops waiting for them—some behind a stone wall, others concealed in woods—until the Federals rose and delivered the first volley. The melee became a slaughter. Although the Union positions north and west of Gettysburg would indeed collapse that day, Iverson’s 1,400-man brigade was effectively erased, with casualties at two-thirds its strength.
The blame started immediately. Aside from his failure to send out skirmishers, Iverson had not been with his troops as they advanced, and charges of cowardice were bruited about by the surviving North Carolinians. Battle reports of the day offer no clear explanation, but the most plausible possibility is that Iverson was conferring with the brigade commanders on his right—attempting to clarify Rodes’ orders. Rumors also had him drunk on the battlefield, although that has never been substantiated.
All these rumors and allegations added weight to the contempt for Iverson among his troops, but not among the high command. He was not, as rumors alleged, stripped of his command. Back in Virginia he was given command of a Louisiana brigade. That September, however, he was offered command of Georgia cavalry by Maj. Gen. Howell Cobb, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, former general in the Army of Northern Virginia, and now commanding general of the Department of Georgia. For Iverson, it was another chance.
The first clash for Iverson and Union raiders south of Atlanta came about 9 p.m. July 27, as Iverson’s troopers struck Garrard’s pickets guarding a bridge. The sides sparred by muzzle flashes and the light of a waxing moon. Near midnight, Wheeler personally took command, ordering Iverson to leave him one regiment and go after Stoneman.
In Macon, word that Union cavalry might be headed that way had arrived in a telegram from Atlanta on July 27; however, Howell Cobb, commanding in the city, was slow to take the news seriously. Eventually he took steps to defend the city, the nexus of four railroad lines and a center of armament manufacturing.
Stoneman took his time getting to Macon, sending feinting raids toward Georgia’s capital of Milledgeville and other targets. Early on July 30, his advance troopers hit Cobb’s pickets. A day-long series of skirmishes ensued, but the defending state troops—boys younger than 17, men older than 45, and walking wounded from the city’s hospitals—held their lines. About 3 p.m., Stoneman abandoned hopes of reaching Camp Oglethorpe, but turned his column southward, still intending to try for Andersonville.
That ended quickly when scouts reported—incorrectly—that a large Rebel cavalry force was entering Macon. Stoneman feared the new arrivals, with a shorter line of march, would win a race to reach the crucial Ocmulgee fords south of Macon. Reports that pursuing Confederates were massed to his east also ended any thoughts of striking Milledgeville. With his enemy—both real and in false reports—closing in, Stoneman reasoned only a small blocking force could have been left on the road back to Covington. The route he had taken from Sherman’s lines would have to be his way back. He ordered the column to ride all night.
Since leaving Wheeler, Iverson had stalked Stoneman. With him were the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Georgia Cavalry of his own brigade, together with the 1st, 3rd, 7th, 12th, and 51st Alabama regiments under Brig. Gen. William Wirt Allen and the 1st, 2nd, and 9th Kentucky regiments under Colonel John Russell Butler. Also in tow were two batteries of light artillery: two 3-inch ordnance rifles; and two smoothbore 6-pounders. Near midnight on July 29, Iverson received Wheeler’s dispatch that the Union column wasn’t headed toward Lovejoy Station but more south.
Wheeler’s orders were to pursue Stoneman and “attack him wherever found.” As historian David Evans notes in his 1996 book Sherman’s Horsemen, the problem was determining where the Union general, with nearly a full day’s start, was headed. Milledgeville and Macon seemed most likely, and Andersonville couldn’t be ruled out. Macon was defended by state forces, but much depended on Cobb holding long enough for Iverson to arrive. Iverson dispatched several scouts and hoped for news. Guessing ended about 9 p.m. July 30, just beyond Clinton when Stoneman’s troopers collided with Iverson’s outriders.
At first, Federal cavalry charging in the dark pushed the Confederates back nearly three miles. But Southern reinforcements arrived. About midnight, meeting volley fire from an elevated position in the road, the Yankees halted, dismounted, and sought shelter in nearby woods. Unable to gauge the number of defenders, Stoneman ordered a halt, waiting for morning and the rest of his brigade—the last of which trailed in, exhausted after several days without sleep or proper food, well after midnight.
About 3:30 a.m., Stoneman deployed a thick skirmish line on both sides of the road. The Union advance struck Confederate pickets, pushing the Rebels back. At dawn, the Federals pushed past the chinked-log Sunshine Church, coming upon an Alabama brigade holding a fence rail barricade across the road.
The Alabamians had been fighting delaying action for several hours, retreating and re-forming as necessary. They still held their ground as Iverson, having brought up his Georgia and Kentucky brigades, rushed to fortify a position straddling the road on a rise behind the Alabamians. The line was finished just after dawn, and Iverson pulled the Alabamians back. Union skirmishers swarmed over the abandoned barricades and continued their advance. The first volley from Iverson’s new line staggered them, and shells from the 6-pounders sent them scurrying for the woods.
It was Stoneman’s belief that the Confederates had formed an inverted V that overlapped both his flanks. He deployed the 1st and 11th Kentucky and the 8th Michigan left of the road, the 14th Illinois and an Ohio squadron to its right. The 6th Indiana and the 24th Indiana Light Battery were held in the road’s center. Stoneman’s artillery, in the Sunshine Church yard, soon dueled with the Confederate 6-pounders. One of the first Union shells crashed through Iverson’s farmhouse headquarters, but failed to explode.
At 8 a.m., it grew quiet. Iverson then sent 4th Georgia troopers sweeping around Stoneman’s left, aiming for the Union rear. Iverson sent to his left the Alabamians who had skirmished all night, blocking a road to Milledgeville. On his side of the field, Stoneman ordered an attack. He seemed, in one Michigan officer’s opinion, obsessed with the idea of forcing open the route ahead, according to Evans. Recalled the Michigander, “Even Stoneman’s staff officers begged him to avoid the enemy’s main force and move around to the right.…”
Stoneman attacked with his left, the Kentuckians and Michiganders rushing a rail fence at the top of the hill. When scores of them were over the fence, the 1st and 3rd Georgia rose up 20 yards in front and poured a volley into the bluecoats, stopping them cold. Many of the Kentuckians balked at going forward, though their commanding officer urged them to go on. (Many Kentuckians’ enlistments were up in two weeks, cooling their combat ardor.) A Confederate counterattack broke the 8th Michigan on the extreme left and the Union attack collapsed in disarray. The collapse of the Kentuckians was saved from complete rout when Stoneman threw in an Indiana regiment. On the Union right, probing troopers encountered Alabama scouts Iverson had ordered to block the Milledgeville road; a running melee ensued, but Union troopers gained no ground.
Once again quiet settled in. Many exhausted Union troopers fell asleep; others wondered what Stoneman was even thinking trying to hold this position.
Iverson’s Kentucky brigade reinforced the Georgians on his right who had blunted Stoneman’s first attack. He shifted his artillery to support his right and enfilade the Union left. He left two Alabama regiments blocking the Milledgeville road and pulled the rest back, extending his left. Troopers on both sides were unable to see their foes.
The Union front extended about two miles, while Iverson’s main strength was concentrated in a line about a quarter-mile long at most. Stoneman and his officers, though, imagined the force opposing them was much larger. Union scouts reported 4th Georgia horsemen moving around their left, toward their rear; a blocking force positioned on the Milledgeville road; it appeared the Confederate lines would shortly overlap them on all sides. In fact, the Confederate forces on the extreme right and left were connected to Iverson’s main position only by scattered skirmishers.
After Iverson convened a council of war, he ordered the Georgians who had withstood the morning’s fighting to skirmish on the Union left while Confederate artillery concentrated fire on that flank. Three Alabama regiments would advance as infantry in two lines against the Union right-center to break the line “at all hazards,” then pivot left, rolling up the Union right. The Kentuckians supporting the Confederate right would pour through the gap, pivot right and roll up the Union left.
At about 1 p.m., the Confederate batteries opened fire. When the commander of the Alabamians heard the gunfire signaling Georgian skirmishers had engaged, he ordered his lines to advance. About noon, Stoneman had decided to make another attack, and Union troopers stepped off about the same time as their enemies.
Advancing Illinois and Ohio troopers on the Union right were surprised when Alabamians emerged from the brush and delivered a devastating volley. Some Yankees held their ground, but most broke. Routed, with Confederates pursuing, they angled toward their picketed horses. The terrified horses panicked, many tearing loose from the troopers trying to control them and bolting for the woods and brush, chased by their riders. Other troopers, mounted and seeing the melee approaching, broke for the Milledgeville road, only to clash with Alabamians blocking it. Colonel Horace Capron, with about a hundred riders, rode headlong eastward, the horsemen tearing through the bush country, briars and tree limbs ripping their uniforms. Two miles east of the Hillsboro Road, the galloping mass hit a ravine 8-feet-deep and 15-feet-wide. The front riders tried to rein up, but following horsemen knocked them in, the gully’s bottom becoming a pit of bloodied men and dying horses.
On the still-contested battlefield, Kentuckians in gray poured through Stoneman’s broken line, swung right and rolled up their fellow Kentuckians in blue—the 1st and 11th Kentucky. The Yankees fled with Confederates in pursuit, slowed only by the 5th Indiana’s delaying skirmishes. Shells from Stoneman’s two guns slowed the Confederates even more. Many blue-coated Kentuckians sought refuge in the surrounding brush.
Confederate shells blasted ground, men, and horses, convincing many Federals they’d be slaughtered. One shell killed Stoneman’s horse as he sat observing the carnage, and he caught and remounted a stray. He was everywhere, cheering the men, exhorting them to hold, even pausing to help aim a cannon. Outwardly, Stoneman exuded full confidence; his men and officers therefore were stunned when his order to surrender reached them.
There was no choice, he told his protesting officers. The command was scattered and under galling artillery fire. They were low on ammunition, and many men had no mounts. They could neither move nor fight, and any small groups that scattered risked being annihilated, or treated as marauders—hanged or shot instead of taken prisoner.
Colonel Silas Adams, commanding the Union Kentuckians, asked permission to try to break out, hoping his men could avoid a slow death at Andersonville, or summary judgment from their fellow Kentuckians in gray. Stoneman agreed, and pledged to keep the Confederates occupied as long as possible to drag out the surrender so Adams’ Kentuckians—and Capron’s men who had fled east—could escape. When Stoneman judged enough time had passed, he used the tail of his white shirt as a flag of truce. Iverson replied that any surrender would be unconditional. Stoneman yielded.
Stoneman, with 440 of his men stacking arms, surrendered his sword to Colonel Charles C. Crews, commanding the Georgia brigade. He was denied surrendering directly to Iverson. Stoneman was the highest ranking Union general to surrender during the war. Stoneman earned no redemption in Georgia. He and his officers were sent to Camp Oglethorpe, his troopers to the notorious Andersonville.
Iverson, his tarnished Gettysburg reputation restored by his triumph, basked in a hero’s welcome in Macon.
As Adams’ and Capron’s troopers headed back to Atlanta, pursued by Rebel cavalry, they diverted briefly to attack Athens—an unsuccessful attack in which more than 200 Union troopers were taken prisoner. Eventually, the remnants of Stoneman’s original command, much depleted, regained the safety of Union lines.
George Stoneman remained a prisoner of war for three months until he was exchanged, in no small part due to a request by Sherman. By December 1864, he was leading raids in East Tennessee, and in April–May 1865 he led a sweeping raid through the Carolinas and into Georgia. He remained in the Army after the war, ending his service in 1871 in command of the Department of Arizona. He moved to California, where he became involved in politics, serving as the state governor from 1883-1887. He died of a stroke in New York in 1894.
» Alfred Iverson served the rest of the war and is believed to have refused to sign an oath of allegiance at the end. After engaging in business in Macon, he moved to Florida in 1877 to raise oranges. A freeze in 1895 wiped him out and he moved to Atlanta to live with one of his daughters. He died there in March 1911. –R.C.
Ray Chandler is a freeelance writer based in Elberton, Ga.
This story appeared in the May 2020 issue of America’s Civil War.