The Battle of Atlanta (also known as the Battle of Decatur) was a battle of the Atlanta Campaign fought during the American Civil War on July 22, 1864, just southeast of Atlanta, Georgia. Continuing their summer campaign to seize the important rail and supply center of Atlanta, Union forces overwhelmed and defeated Confederate forces defending the city. Despite the implication of finality in its name, the battle occurred mid-way through the campaign and the city would not fall for another six weeks.
In the Atlanta Campaign, Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman commanded the Union forces of the Western Theater. The main Union force in this battle was the Army of the Tennessee, under Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson. He was one of Sherman's and Grant's favorite commanders, as he was very quick and aggressive. Within Sherman's army, the XV Corps was commanded by Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, the XVI Corps was commanded by Maj. Gen. Grenville M. Dodge, and the XVII Corps was commanded by Maj. Gen. Frank P. Blair Jr.
During the months leading up to the battle, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston had repeatedly retreated from Sherman's superior force. All along the railroad line from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Marietta, Georgia, a pattern was played and replayed: Johnston would take up a defensive position, Sherman would march to outflank the Confederate defenses, and Johnston would retreat again. After Johnston's withdrawal following the Battle of Resaca, the two armies clashed again at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, but the Confederate senior leadership in Richmond was unhappy with Johnston's perceived reluctance to fight the Union army, even though he had little chance of winning. Thus, on July 17, 1864, as he was preparing for the Battle of Peachtree Creek, Johnston was relieved of his command and replaced by Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood. Hood lashed out at Sherman's army at Peachtree Creek, but the attack failed with heavy casualties.
Hood, with his vastly outnumbered army, was faced with two problems. First, he needed to defend the city of Atlanta, which was a very important rail hub and industrial center for the Confederacy. Second, his army was small in comparison to the enormous armies that Sherman commanded. He decided to withdraw inwards, enticing the Union troops to come forward. McPherson's army closed in from Decatur, Georgia, to the east side of Atlanta.
Meanwhile, Hood took Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee's corps on a march around the Union left flank, had Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler's cavalry march near Sherman's supply line, and had Maj. Gen. Benjamin Cheatham's corps attack the Union front. However, it took longer than expected for Hardee to get his men in position, and during that time, McPherson had correctly deduced a possible threat to his left flank, and sent XVI Corps, his reserve, to help strengthen it. Hardee's force met this other force, and the battle began. Although the initial Confederate attack was repulsed, the Union left flank began to retreat. About this time, McPherson, who had ridden to the front to observe the battle, was shot and killed by Confederate infantry.
Near Decatur, Brig. Gen. John W. Sprague, in command of the 2nd Brigade, 4th Division of the XVI Corps, masterfully conducted a delaying action under heavy enemy fire. With only a small command, he defeated an overwhelming Confederate force and saved the ordnance and supply trains of the XV, XVI, XVII, and XX Corps. Sprague would later be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.
The main lines of battle now formed an "L" shape, with Hardee's attack forming the lower part of the "L" and Cheatham's attack on the Union front as the vertical member of the "L". If successful, Hood could later on surround the Union troops and win the battle. However, Hardee's attack stalled as the Union XVI Corps regrouped and held the line. Meanwhile, Cheatham's troops had broken through the Union lines, but Sherman massed 20 artillery pieces near his headquarters, and had them shell the Confederates, while Logan's XV Corps regrouped and repulsed the Southern troops.
The Union suffered 3,641 casualties, including general McPherson, the Confederates 8,500. This was a devastating loss for the already reduced Confederate Army, but they still held the city. Sherman settled into a siege of Atlanta, shelling the city and sending raids west and south of the city to cut off the supply lines from Macon, Georgia. Finally, on August 31 at Jonesborough, Georgia, Sherman's army captured the railroad track from Macon, pushing the confederates to Lovejoy Station. Union forces in Jonesborough could hear the explosions from Atlanta throughout the night as Hood pulled his troops out of Atlanta the next day, destroying supply depots as he left to prevent them from falling into Union hands. On September 2, a committee of Mayor James Calhoun and Union-leaning citizens William Markham, Jonathan Norcross, and Edward Rawson met a captain on the staff of Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum and surrendered the city. Sherman sent a telegram to Washington reading, "Atlanta is ours, and fairly won" and he established his headquarters there on September 7, where he stayed for two months. He ordered the evacuation of the entire city population. The army then burned all but about 400 buildings and departed east on what would become known as Sherman's March to the Sea.
The fall of Atlanta was especially noteworthy for its political ramifications. Former Union General George B. McClellan was running against President Lincoln on a peace platform in the 1864 election. Part of the Democratic platform called for a truce with the Confederates. Had this truce been achieved, it is highly unlikely that the war could ever have been restarted. However, the capture of Atlanta and Hood's burning of many military facilities as he evacuated were extensively covered by Northern newspapers, and significantly boosted Northern morale. Lincoln was re-elected by a comfortable margin.
The battlefield is now urban residential and commercial land, with only a few markers memorializing the history of the battle. To commemorate the 140th anniversary of the battle in 2004, two new markers were erected in the Inman Park neighborhood. The "L"-shaped line of battle roughly corresponds to what is now Moreland Avenue between Little Five Points and I-20 as the north-south line and Interstate 20 as the east-west line where Hardee made his attack. The Atlanta Cyclorama contains a painting and museum of the battle.
- Bonds, Russell S., War Like the Thunderbolt: The Battle and Burning of Atlanta, Westholme Publishing, 2009, ISBN 978-1-59416-100-1.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Red River to Appomattox, Random House, 1974, ISBN 0-394-74913-8.
- Golden, Randy, The Battle of Atlanta at North Georgia History
- Kennedy, Frances H., ed., The Civil War Battlefield Guide, 2nd ed., Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998, ISBN 0-395-74012-6.
- National Park Service battle description
- Kennedy, p.340.
- Upper Marietta Street Artery website
- Bonds, p. 363: estimates of the buildings destroyed range from 3,200 to 5,000.
da:Slaget ved Atlanta fr:Bataille d'Atlanta ja:アトランタの戦い pl:Bitwa pod Atlantą sv:Slaget vid Atlanta th:ยุทธการแอตแลนตา vi:Trận Atlanta