The second bloodiest defeat in 1864 Atlanta campaign devolved into a full frontal catastrophe
William T. Sherman never mentioned the Battle of Pickett’s Mill in his memoirs, even though—or perhaps because—it was his second bloodiest defeat in the 1864 Atlanta Campaign, after Kennesaw Mountain. Yet in the embittered memory of one Union officer, Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce, Pickett’s Mill was a “criminal blunder.” As examined here, it is also a tragic Civil War example of how an intended flank attack could turn into a bloody frontal assault, with catastrophic results.
SHERMAN LAUNCHED HIS CAMPAIGN from Chattanooga, Tenn., on May 5, 1864. Two weeks later, in Georgia, he had pushed General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee from Dalton through Resaca and Cassville. Despite being reinforced by more than 20,000 Confederates (including coastal garrison troops and Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk’s three Mississippi infantry divisions), Johnston kept retreating along the Western & Atlantic Railroad, his supply line to Atlanta. By May 21 he had taken a position at Allatoona Mountain,
some 45 miles south of Dalton. About that time, Sherman commanded 92,000 men against Johnston’s 70,000—the most favorable odds Southerners would hold in the campaign, actually.
“Cump” Sherman knew the strength of this position, having visited the area in 1844 during his younger U.S. Army days. For the first time in his advance, Sherman ordered his troops to pack rations for a march away from the railroad, heading for Dallas, Ga., 12 miles southwest of Allatoona. Before Sherman’s men set out on the morning of May 23, Rebel cavalry had alerted Johnston about the likely enemy movement. Johnston was able to reach Dallas first, lay out a defensive line, and wait for the Yankees to test it.
Test it they did on the afternoon of May 25 at New Hope Church—a Methodist chapel four miles northwest of Dallas. This was the right of Johnston’s six-mile line, held by Lt. Gen. John B. Hood’s Corps. A testy Sherman, annoyed that his movement was being blocked by Johnston’s rapid deployment, ordered an attack. In two hours, the Federals were repulsed with losses of 1,664 killed, wounded, and captured or missing. Casualties in Confederate Maj. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart’s Division totaled some 475.
Both sides spent May 26 fortifying and skirmishing, as well as occasional maneuvering. Having flanked Johnston out of his Allatoona position, Sherman now began to sidle eastward back toward the railroad. The Federal line ran from Dallas on the right (15th and 16th Corps) across New Hope (“Fighting Joe” Hooker’s 20th Corps). That day Sherman extended his left by shifting Maj. Gen. Oliver
Howard’s 4th Corps beyond Hooker. Brigadier General Richard Johnson’s division (14th Corps) also marched east behind Howard. By 11:30 a.m., Maj. Gen. John Schofield’s 23rd Corps had taken a position on Howard’s left. One of Schofield’s officers recorded that “nothing has transpired as yet to indicate whether the enemy are in force, but it is supposed they are on the defensive and awaiting us.” They were. After Confederates spotted the Federals marching eastward on the morning of the 26th, Hood shifted his leftmost division, Maj. Gen. Thomas C. Hindman’s, to his right. Hindman’s troops aligned on high ground in good defensive position.
Later in the day, Maj. Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne’s Division was also ordered to the right, further extending the Confederate line eastward. Cleburne placed one of his brigades, Brig. Gen. Lucius E. Polk’s, on Hindman’s right. Then to Polk’s right, a 12-gun artillery battalion was set. To support the guns, one regiment of Brig. Gen. Daniel C. Govan’s Brigade took position. The rest of it, and Cleburne’s other two brigades (Brig. Gens. Hiram B. Granbury’s and Mark Lowrey’s), were held in a second line behind Polk.
The infantry on the front line dug in that night, now the extreme right of Johnston’s position. Historians have accordingly come to call it his Dallas–New Hope–Pickett’s Mill Line. (The latter point is in recognition of the gristmill owned by Martha “Fanny” Pickett, a 29-year-old widow and mother of four, whose husband, 2nd Lt. Benjamin Pickett of the 1st Georgia Cavalry, had died at the Battle of Chickamauga on September 19, 1863.) Two Confederate cavalry brigades under Brig. Gen. John H. Kelly extended the flank almost to Pickett’s Mill Creek.
Howard’s line was at some points just 100 yards from the Confederates’. One of Howard’s division commanders, Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Wood, would write that his men had spent the 26th “in very brilliant and successful maneuvering to determine the exact position of the enemy’s intrenched [sic] line.” From the other flank, Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson informed the commanding general that his troops had entered Dallas that afternoon. They had encountered some Rebels; “I shall move against them in the morning.”
Sherman was determined to keep up the pressure on Joe Johnston. That night he issued a special field order outlining his plans for May 27. First, the 20th, 4th, and 23rd Corps artillery were to open a morning barrage on the Confederate center and right. Then Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland in Sherman’s army group, would “wheel General Howard’s Corps” southward. By ordering Howard to wheel like that undoubtedly meant Sherman intended a flanking move, not a direct assault. The 23rd Corps would offer support, with Hooker launching a diversionary attack on his front, and McPherson was instructed to push his Army of the Tennessee on the right toward New Hope Church.
Military “science” can be unpredictable, as Cump discovered when his plan fell apart. After the barrage ended about 9 a.m., McPherson informed Sherman that the enemy was too strong to be driven. Thomas and Howard then realized the Confederate line was extended farther to the east than they had believed—in the thick woods, the deployment of Hindman’s and Cleburne’s divisions had not been detected.
Sherman responded by canceling his original plan in favor of a leftward movement. Thomas had Howard send a division farther to the left, seeking an opportunity to find the edge of the enemy line, and attack at that point. Howard chose Wood’s 3rd Division; Johnson’s 1st Division (14th Corps) would lend support.
About 7 a.m., Howard ordered Wood’s division back to the rear to form in column of brigades—meaning Wood’s three brigades were now
arrayed one behind another. Howard got his troops marching about 11 a.m. For commanders, the chief advantage of column formation was that they could move faster and more effectively control their men, who could better hear officers sounding out orders. Once Howard’s demi-corps—some 12,500 men—left the open field in which it had formed, the column encountered thick woods and rough ground. “For a mile the march was nearly due southward,” Wood recalled, “through dense forests and the thickest jungle, a country whose surface was scarred by deep ravines and intersected by difficult ridges.” Officers called for frequent halts and changes in direction. Brigade buglers would sound these orders, which would be taken up by regimental and company horns, “making it a perfect din of sounds,” as one soldier recalled. Lieutenant Alexis Cope of the 15th Ohio recorded the men’s dismay at all the horn-blowing, noting “[M]ore than one officer and man exclaimed: ‘If we are expected to surprise the enemy, why don’t they stop those d—-d bugles?’”
Actually, Cleburne already knew of the enemy activity in his front. About 7 a.m., he had sent out Govan’s Brigade to reconnoiter. Upon the brigade’s return a few hours later, Cleburne posted it on Lucius Polk’s right, extending the Confederate line farther toward Pickett’s Mill Creek. Govan left skirmishers in front, however, and they, along with Kelly’s cavalrymen, picked up the movement of Wood and Johnson. Cleburne had his men strengthen their works.
After about a mile, Howard, believing he had turned the Confederate right, had Wood’s troops form for an attack. By then a brigade from Schofield’s 23rd Corps—Brig. Gen. Nathaniel McLean’s—had joined in support. When Wood sent out skirmishers, though, the Federals learned the enemy’s line was still very much in their front. “Immediately the skirmishers were withdrawn and the column moved rapidly by the left flank at least another mile to the east,” Howard remembered. But it was a blind march—Wood’s division had no cavalry in front, so he was unaware of how far the Rebel line extended. Colonel Benjamin Scribner, leading a brigade in Johnson’s division, was only one Federal venting his frustration when he later wrote of the Confederates’ “seemingly interminable intrenchments.”
Eventually their march brought the Federals near Pickett’s Mill about 2 p.m., when they halted. For the next hour and a half, Howard and his officers inspected the ground ahead of them. “I was standing in the edge of a wood, and with my glass following along the lines of Johnston, to see where his batteries were located,” Howard later wrote, “and to ascertain if we had reached his limits.” He could see Rebel earthworks, he recalled, “but they did not seem to cover General Wood’s front, and they were new, the enemy still working hard on them.” Then he had a member of his staff, Colonel Thomas Morgan, ride off with this message to Thomas:
“GENERAL: I am on the ridge beyond the field that we were looking at this morning. No person can appreciate the difficulty in moving over this ground unless he can see it. I am on the east side of the creek on which Pettit’s [Pickett’s] Mill is, facing south, and am now turning the enemy’s right flank, I think. A prisoner reports two divisions in front of us, Cleburne’s and Hindman’s.”
Actually, Hindman’s Division would not be engaged that day, although Cleburne had two of his brigades as reserves. Since Govan’s morning report of Yankees marching toward his right, the Irishman had been diligent. His position was on high ground, an east-west ridge
covered with trees and undergrowth. Cleburne directed that much of the brush be left standing in front of his troops’ works for purposes of concealment. Because the undergrowth of vines and chinquapin bushes covered the interior of his line, too, Cleburne had paths cut laterally and vertically to help his men move when under fire.
He paid special attention to his artillery. Seeing that the embrasures that had been constructed allowed the guns to deliver only direct frontal fire, he had them torn away to allow oblique firing—more deadly against enemy infantry. He also had two 12-pounder howitzers placed at the very end of his line, to enfilade the advancing enemy. Moreover, during the morning Kelly’s 800 cavalrymen dug rifle pits from the end of the infantry line to Pickett’s Mill Creek.
Twenty-five minutes after Howard sent his “enemy’s right flank, I think” message, Morgan brought back a reply: “General Thomas says that Major General Sherman wishes us to get on the enemy’s flank and rear as soon as possible.” This put Howard in a predicament. His reputation had been tarnished the year before when his 11th Corps had been surprised and routed at Chancellorsville and then was shattered at Gettysburg (even some of his own men turned his “O.O.” initials into disparagement by calling him “Uh-Oh Howard”). He may also have heard that Sherman, who did not particularly care for Howard’s piety, once remarked that he “ought to have been born in petticoats.” Now, Thomas had made it clear that the commanding general wanted results. Indeed, about that time, Sherman jotted a note to Schofield declaring, “We must break his line without scattering our troops too much, and then break through.”
Obviously, Sherman demanded action. Should Howard continue sidling to his left, determining the end of the Rebel line? It was now 4 p.m.; he had already spent much of the day marching, so more of the same promised little benefit. Besides, Howard honestly thought he had reached the enemy’s right flank. “Fully believing from a careful study of the whole position that we had at last reached the end of Johnston’s line,” Howard decided to attack.
He did so only half-heartedly, however. Instead of sending in Wood’s and Johnson’s divisions together, Howard opted for a rather tepid reconnaissance-in-force, one brigade at a time, starting with Brig. Gen. William B. Hazen’s. Howard and Wood were discussing the plan within hearing of Hazen and his topographical officer, Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce. According to Bierce, Wood told Howard, “We will put in Hazen and see what success he has.”
Hazen expressed his mortification 20 years later in his memoirs. “This was a revelation to me,” he wrote, “as it was evident there was to be no attack by column at all.” (A column assault would have advanced Wood’s three brigades in five minutes’ succession.) To Hazen’s right was McLean’s brigade, but it was only to demonstrate against the enemy in their front. To his left rear was Scribner’s brigade, but it was too distant to offer support. Thus, it became evident that with his brigade sent in alone, his 1,500 men were essentially being sacrificed. Indeed, one Union officer well after the war claimed to have heard Howard himself telling Hazen, “General, you will have to charge and turn the enemy’s flank if you sacrifice your brigade.” Yet Hazen was too true a soldier to protest. As he rode back to his command, “he uttered never a word,” Bierce remembered; “only by a look which I knew how to read did he betray his sense of the criminal blunder.”
About 4 p.m., as Hazen’s troops were forming for their assault, Cleburne strengthened his flank by ordering Granbury’s Brigade out of reserve and to Govan’s right. Time was critical; without sending the order through regimental commanders, Granbury called out, “Attention, Brigade! Right face! Forward! Double quick, march!” Lieutenant Robert Collins of the 15th Texas Cavalry (Dismounted) recalled, “We were off on a run.” Soon they were lining up for battle, but with no time to build any protective works.
“At 4.30 p.m. precisely the order was given to attack,” Wood recorded. Hazen’s brigade then advanced—Hazen with them on foot, as all officers’ horses had been sent to the rear. The Federals did not know what lay ahead of them.
They quickly found out. Bierce painfully remembered the advance as “a quarter-mile uphill through almost impassable tangles of underwood.” Color-bearers kept their flags furled lest the cloth be ripped by tree branches. “The regiments [were] inextricably intermingled, rendering all military formation impossible,” Bierce wrote. Soon, Confederate musket volleys brought down scores of Hazen’s men.
Three decades after the war, Silas Crowell of the 93rd Ohio remembered, “We were ordered to charge a hill, our brigade in the lead. We got about two-thirds way up when we were met with a galling fire.” Some Northerners got so close that they could hear the Southerners taunting them. “Come on! We are demoralized!” they shouted, referring sarcastically to the rumor that Johnston’s frequent retreats during the campaign had weakened their will.
On Granbury’s right, Federals got close enough to yell, “Damn you, we have caught you without your logs now,” Cleburne wrote after the battle. But, as he added, Granbury’s attackers didn’t need logs to turn back the attackers. “Our men have no protection,” a Texan, Captain Samuel Foster, recorded in his diary, “but they are lying flat on the ground, and shooting as fast as they can.” Lieutenant Sebron Sneed of the 6th/15th Texas (Consolidated) wrote his wife a week after the battle, “[T]hey came up bravely, but our men kept such a shower of minnies [sic] in their faces that flesh and blood could not stand it….The balls flew as thick as hail and death stalked around.”
Indeed it did. In his report, Cleburne wrote that Granbury’s Texans “slaughtered them with deliberate aim,” leaving “piles of his dead on this front.” Bierce, watching the assault from Hazen’s right, observed a “dead line” maybe 10 yards in front of the Rebels—a “well-defined edge of corpses—those of the bravest” who had gotten closest to the enemy line before being shot down. Unable to break Granbury’s line, Federals sought shelter behind trees and rocks, returning fire as best they could.
Things went better for the Federals on Hazen’s left. As they lost their formation, the attackers veered so far toward the creek that they pushed back Kelly’s dismounted cavalrymen and threatened Granbury’s flank. The Texans called for help. Because McLean had not advanced, Govan’s Brigade was not engaged, so Cleburne could pull it out of line and rush it over to stop Hazen’s advance. For good measure, Cleburne committed his last brigade, Brig. Gen. Mark P. Lowrey’s, which had been held in reserve. Cleburne told Lowrey: “Secure Granbury’s right.” Hurrying into a cornfield abutting the creek, Lowrey succeeded in blunting the Northerners’ advance.
Hazen needed help. He sent staff officers back to summon Wood’s other brigades, which did not come. Forty minutes after the start of his assault (according to Hazen; Bierce remembered 45), the general ruefully recalled, “My command had now lost 500 men and was powerless to go farther,” so he ordered his survivors to fall back.
In their milling to the rear, one Ohio officer came upon Hazen and asked, “General, where is our brigade? We wish to report to our regiments.” With tears rolling down his cheeks, Hazen answered, “Brigade, hell. I have none. But what is left is over there in the woods.”
The only thing worse than a frontal attack is a piecemeal frontal attack, which is precisely what the rest of the battle devolved into. Scribner’s brigade advanced around 5:30 p.m., well after Hazen’s troops were retiring. Brushing aside Kelly’s cavalrymen, the Federals were stopped by Lowrey’s men. Gibson’s brigade went in about 6 p.m., encountering the same withering fire that had ruined Hazen’s—it withdrew after an hour. Finally, with sunset approaching, Wood ordered Colonel Frederick Knefler’s brigade to advance, not so much to attack but to retrieve the Union wounded.
Many Federals were left hugging the ground before the Confederate lines after nightfall—even in the darkness, they feared falling back, as the Rebels kept shooting randomly. “We could hear the Yanks just in front of us moving among the dead leaves,”wrote Texas Captain Samuel Foster, “like hogs rooting for acorns; but not speaking…above a whisper.” About 10 p.m. Cleburne ordered Granbury’s Brigade forward to sweep the field. To its right, Lowrey’s Brigade also advanced into the cornfield.
It was of course hard to distinguish between friend and foe. The Southerners demanded that shadowy figures identify their regiments. “Sometimes the answer would be the 40th, and our boys knew that we dit [sic] not have no 40th Regt. in our Brigade,” wrote one Texan, “and, therefore, they would Kill such. Sometimes the answer would be the 24th, and when they would ask the 24th What, ‘the 24th Ohio,’ and they were servet the same.”
Confederates held the battlefield on May 28 and hence were left to bury the dead. It was a sickening spectacle to Foster, who recorded seeing “men lying in all sorts of shapes….It seems like they have all been shot in the head, and a great number of them have their skulls bursted open and their brains running out.”
Union casualties were 212 killed, 927 wounded, and 318 missing—a total that far exceeded the 448 casualties Cleburne reported (85 killed, 363 wounded), to which should be added probably 100 or so of Kelly’s cavalrymen. By percentage, Wood suffered approximately 20 percent casualties of his 7,000 men engaged to Cleburne’s 8.6 percent.
In the end, the Federals’ repulse occurred because Wood threw his brigades in piecemeal, and Cleburne’s alert movement of troops to the threatened flank was another factor. What Sherman, Thomas, and Howard had hoped would be a basic flank attack turned into a bloody headlong assault. This of course happened quite often in the Civil War, meaning Pickett’s Mill possibly doesn’t deserve Ambrose Bierce’s characterization of it as a “criminal blunder.” But it doesn’t mitigate the tragedy of that bloody spring day in Georgia.
Stephen Davis of Cumming, Ga., is author of A Long and Bloody Task (2016) and All the Fighting They Want (2017), which cover the Atlanta Campaign.
‘My Fighting Texans’
The Confederate brigade at the center of Maj. Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne’s defensive victory at Pickett’s Mill hailed from an area of Texas between Houston and Dallas. Like most early volunteers, these Lone Star boys were full of fight. As one of them, Robert Collins, later recalled, “The idea of the Yankees heading for Texas soil to despoil our fair homes, insult our women and eat up the substance of the people was just a little more than we proposed to submit to.”
Eight regiments, recruited between the summer of 1861 and the spring of 1862, became Granbury’s Brigade: the 6th, 7th, and 10th Texas Infantry, plus the 15th, 17th, 18th, 24th, and 25th Texas Cavalry. Their eventual leader, Hiram Bronson Granbury, had formed the Waco Guards (Co. A of the 7th). The 7th was captured at Fort Donelson. After release, Granbury was promoted as its colonel.
In the summer of 1862, the five Texas cavalry regiments were dismounted, leading to much grumbling among the men and some desertions. After their capture at Arkansas Post in January 1863, 20–25 percent of the 6th, 10th, 15th, 17th, 18th, 24th, and 25th died in Northern prisons. The survivors were exchanged and ordered to Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee.
Their consolidation into two regiments followed in June 1863. Brigade command devolved to Brig. Gen. James Deshler, who would be killed at Chickamauga; Brig. Gen. James Smith succeeded. After Chickamauga, the 7th Texas, already with Bragg, joined the “Arkansas Post Brigade” and the strengthened unit became Smith’s Texas Brigade, part of Cleburne’s Division.
By mid-November 1863, Smith’s Brigade consisted of the 6/10/15 Texas under Colonel Roger Mills, the 17/18/24/25 Texas (Major William Taylor) and Granbury’s 7th Texas.
The brigade shone on November 25, 1863, when Cleburne’s men repelled William Sherman’s assault on Missionary Ridge. After Smith was wounded in that battle, Cleburne put Granbury in charge of the brigade. It repeated its strong performance at Ringgold Gap two days later, when Cleburne’s Division, the rear guard of Bragg’s retreating army, successfully held off the pursuing enemy. Granbury’s subsequent promotion to brigadier general was made effective February 29, 1864.
In the early days of his advance against Johnston’s army, Sherman launched an attack against the Confederate left flank at Dug Gap. During the Federal assault on May 8, when Granbury’s Brigade moved up as reinforcements, Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee shouted, “Here are my fighting Texans!”
The soldiers from the Lone Star State had earned their reputation.–S.D.