In the summer of 1864, four rail lines running through Atlanta were the Confederacy’s last best hope for survival. And Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman knew it. As Sherman slowly closed in on the city in July, he informed Army Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck of his strategy: “Instead of attacking Atlanta direct, or any of its forts, I propose to make a circuit, destroying all its railroads.”
By the end of the month, two of the four lines had been cut, and a third—the Western & Atlantic, northbound to Chattanooga, Tenn.—was in Union hands. That left the Macon & Western, which ran southeast to Macon with connections to Savannah and the coast, as General John Bell Hood’s only viable supply artery for the 40,000 Confederates dug in around Atlanta.
On August 25, after weeks of trying to pound the city into submission with artillery, Sherman ordered six of his seven corps—60,000 men—to pull back and arc to the west. Hood was mystified. Were the Yankees retreating, or was it a feint intended to draw his troops out of their well-fortified positions? Hood held fast, waiting for word from the field. On August 30, he got his answer. Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard’s Army of the Tennessee was massing for an attack on the Macon & Western at Jonesboro 15 miles south of Atlanta. Maj. Gen. John Logan’s XV Corps was entrenching on ridge just west of Jonesboro, and Brig. Gen. Thomas Ransom’s XVI Corps and Maj. Gen. Francis Blair’s XVII Corps were coming up in support. “Your corps will move to Jonesborough to-night,” Hood telegraph Lt. Gen. William Hardee. “Put it in motion at once if necessary to protect the railroad.”
Hardee’s Corps and Lt. Gen. Stephen D. Lee’s Corps—20,000 men—struck out for Jonesboro. “The darkness of the night, the dense woods through which we frequent marched without roads, the want of shoes by many, and the lack of recent exercise by all, contributed to a degree of straggling which I do not remember to have seen exceeded,” recalled Maj. Gen. James Patton Anderson, one of Lee’s division commanders. The troops dragged into town throughout the morning of August 31, and took their positions for the assault that began about 3 p.m.
Hardee’s Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne, was to engage the right flank of the XVI Corps. Once that fight was well under way, Lee’s Corps would attack the XV Corps head-on. But the troops on Cleburne’s left ran into Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry; the sound of gunfire from the resulting skirmish set Lee into motion prematurely. His bone-weary veterans, however, soon gave up the fight.
Meanwhile, Union Maj. Gen. John Schofield’s XXIII Corps and Maj. Gen. David Stanley’s IV Corps grabbed the Macon & Western just north of Jonesboro, severing communications and shattering Confederate hopes of regaining possession of their precious railroad. When word reached Hood on September 1, he gave orders to evacuate Atlanta that night. His army would march south on the McDonough Road, several miles east of the railroad. Lee’s Corps was recalled to defend against any possible Union attack on Atlanta. Hardee’s Corps alone would remain in Jonesboro to screen Hood’s retreat.
Hardee’s 12,000 men stood their ground until Maj. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis’ XIV Corps bore down on an angle in the Confederate line. Still, Hardee managed to fight until nightfall. Then, when Sherman, commanding in the field, failed to deliver a deathblow, Hardee’s Corps quietly pulled out of Jonesboro in the darkness.
Unaware that Hood was on the move, Sherman anxiously awaited news from Atlanta. It came on September 3: Hood was gone, and Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum’s XX Corps, left behind to guard the northbound railroad, was in control of the city. That night, Sherman telegraphed the War Department, announcing the end of his four-month campaign:
“Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.”
Christine M. Kreiser is a senior editor for America’s Civil War.
Originally published in the July 2012 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.