Part II: Hardee’s Attack and The Fight for Bald Hill

This south sector of The Battle of Atlanta was fought mainly in two areas of the modern city: East Atlanta north of Glenwood Avenue and the mile-long corridor bracketed by I-20 / Memorial Drive. In addition, there were extensive troop movements and some additional fighting in-and-about Ormewood, Brownwood and the south-edge of Edgewood to the west and Terry Hill, Parkview and the south-edge of Kirkwood to the east. The sprawling Moreland Avenue / I-20 interchange—the location of the sloping “Bald Hill” at the time of the battle—would be the aim of the Confederate attacks to the south. The Union position atop Bald Hill was, due to its elevated position, an extreme threat to the Confederate defense of Atlanta. In addition, Bald Hill served as a keystone in the U.S. line between the battle’s south and north sector (Cheatham’s attack, the second phase of Hood’s plan, to go off later that afternoon). Knock out this position, and the C.S. Army of Tennessee might just knock the U.S. Army of the Tennessee out of the picture … In 1864, the adjacent areas just detailed—thick with surface roads, main thoroughfares, residential blocks and commercial villages today—consisted of a handful of farms set back from the few country roads that ambled through a rural setting. The general path of modern Memorial and more so Flat Shoals are the only roads that bear much semblance to roads on historical maps of the area. These two roads c. 1864—and their modern descendants—came together along the slopes of the partially logged “bald” hill. But for a rise north of the modern interchange, Bald Hill is no more—leveled to accommodate the looping series of ramps that feed the bridge’s six-lanes and the 12 east-west lanes of I-20 that run beneath it. The fighting to the south would reach a vicious apex on-and-around the Bald Hill with the advance of Hardee’s left-wing. But it was the advance of Hardee’s right-wing, over a mile to the east, that began the fight.

The marker: “The Battle of Atlanta Began Here” stands at Clay St / Memorial Drive. This vicinity, extending several hundred yards east, west and south compose STOP 11 and marks first contact between Dodge’s XVI Corps reinforcements and the right-wing of Hardee’s Confederate Corps. The marker: “An Unexpected Clash,” stands across Memorial in the parking lot of Alonzo Crim High School, and notes the surprise that met both forces. Hood’s surprise attack had itself been surprised. In fact, everyone involved seemed to be caught off-guard. But the sheer weight of Hardee’s four divisions still threatened to overwhelm the Union left, if it could be brought to bear. And at the moment of first contact, Sweeny’s under-sized division (bringing to the field just 2 of its 3 brigades) was the only U.S. force then in-position to hold off half of Hardee’s Corps.

The fighting began in earnest just after noon. With the element of surprise lapsing, Bate’s and Mercer’s (Walker’s) Divisions pitched forward into the two U.S. brigades now lined up in their front. About one hundred yards east of Memorial and Wilkinson Drive, once stood the marker “Bate’s Battle Line” (which had been located before the Parkview Shopping Plaza, before being removed not long after our 2004 tour). That marker and the length of Memorial Drive west to the next marker: “Rice’s Brigade,” (again recently removed and not yet replaced) frames the area over which Bate’s Division advanced on Rice’s line—it having stood in-position across modern Memorial in front of the knoll atop which Crim H.S. and the west side residences of Clay Street now rest, their line facing east. Mercer’s Division, advancing at an angle, was aimed for a gap to the west of the brigade of August Mersy—which was lined-up alongside Rice and roughly parallel with modern Memorial a few hundred feet to the south, their line facing south. The marker “Mersy’s Brigade,” situated in front of a car wash where Dixie Street meets Memorial, notes their position stretching as it did from Crim H.S. to near modern Maynard Terrace. At the angle where these U.S. brigades came together—atop the Crim H.S. lot—two batteries of artillery (approximately 12 guns) were posted on the elevated rise. This was Sweeny’s Division, aligned by XVI Corps commander Dodge himself—a breach of protocol, which “drew the ire” of the subjugated quick-tempered Sweeny (this scene and the larger battle scene depicted, with some interpretation, in a famous post-war painting by 19th century artist: James E. Taylor). Arrayed along the south boundary of modern Kirkwood / Edgewood, this small U.S. force watched a huge one—over double their size—emerge from the cover of forests and the swampy lowlands of Sugar Creek onto the open fields in their front. Confederate artillery opened from the rear of the advance in support of their advancing infantry. But Dodge’s guns answered with devastating accuracy, their elevated position giving them command of the field (a superior position still evident along the length of fence east of the Crim H.S. parking lots, the view hovering over a YMCA complex and DeKalb Memorial Park in the valley below). Still, the Confederates came at this isolated Union position; and in the battlefield tactic of the day, halted, squared up and began to pour fusillades of rifled musketry into the Union position. A Union soldier described it as a “square face-to-face grapple in open field …” But the U.S. artillery was overwhelming, carving bloody gaping holes in the Confederate lines. Hardee’s entire right-wing was quickly forced back on the relative safety of the wood line, Bate’s Division to the east especially hard hit. There, the attacking force was reformed and again ordered forward.

The other element of the battle’s opening was a brigade of John Fuller’s Division. Fuller had only been promoted from brigade command a few days earlier; and as it turned out, the final piece of Dodge’s XVI Corps reinforcement that morning was Fuller’s old brigade. They were led into position by Fuller himself, west of Mersy. They were the only U.S. troops inside a half-mile gap between Mersy and the XVII Corps flank (again, ending in modern East Atlanta Village). The initial position of this brigade is hard to pin down; but given eyewitness accounts of their first action on that day, a best guess has their line stretching out from near modern Memorial down across the I-20 corridor to near Maynard Terrace, facing SW. Fuller’s regiments were more spread out than the compact arrowhead-like lodgment of Sweeny’s Division. And they had barely filed into this position, when Mercer’s entire division appeared in their front. Facing opposite the coming attack, Fuller had his left-most regiments perform a difficult about-face maneuver—under fire—to confront the left-most columns of Mercer’s assault: a full brigade commanded by States Rights Gist (his real name). Fuller’s troops initially wavered as Gist’s men came on; but Fuller himself took up a national flag, planted it in the ground to mark a new position and rallied his old command. Fuller’s men held and pushed back. Gist was seriously wounded and with aid of Mersy’s men, Mercer’s Division—the majority of its regiments being native Georgians—was forced back. STOP 12 down to the Maynard Terrace / I-20 interchange frames this action.

Strengthened by the punishing rounds pouring from Dodge’s artillery, the XVI Corps lodgment mauled each successive attack that Hardee’s right-wing would attempt. Limited, yet successful counterattacks were mounted that resulted in the mass capture of men from both Bate’s and Mercer’s Divisions. Southern casualties were mounting with little to show, this grinding “hard war” attrition continuing to drain the Confederacy’s ability to replace those killed, wounded or captured in the field. This would be a consistent charge levied against the aggressive Hood in light of the carnage amassed in his offensive-oriented defense of Atlanta … But far from being lost, this fight to the south was about to tilt in favor of the Confederates. The no doubt tired, yet battle-tested division of Patrick Cleburne—the Irish-born Arkansan himself considered one of the most intrepid field commanders the South would produce—was right then pouring across modern-day Glenwood through the area where East Atlanta Village now stands, the “fishhook” flank of Blair’s XVII Corps and rear of the U.S. Army of the Tennessee in their sights.

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Following the rapid placement of Dodge’s reinforcements and consultation with his corps commanders, McPherson and staff had settled in to eat lunch and smoke cigars at the general’s field headquarters near the intersection of modern DeKalb Avenue and Oakdale Road, south Candler Park. STOP 13 locates the marker “Noon Under the Trees,” which documents the gathering and what came next. (This marker is only a few hundred yards west of a building originally used for pickling that fronts DeKalb and was converted into residential lofts in the ’80s, a space I called home in 1996-97. It is THE marker that first inspired this tour / documentary). Hearing the unmistakeable earth-thumping din of a large assault underway, McPherson and staff quickly mounted up and sprinted south to a hill overlooking the scene. According to a detailed map that accompanies Wilbur Kurtz’s 1930 article “McPherson’s Last Ride,” ‘the hill’ was most likely modern Walker Park off Memorial—the most significant rise along the general’s route. Here McPherson could see that Sweeny’s and Fullers’ brigades were holding their own before Hardee’s right-wing. But it was clear via Blair’s increasingly urgent calls for support that the left of XVII Corps was in danger of begin overrun by the well-aimed attack of Hardee’s left—Cleburne’s Division ‘in the van.’ McPherson dashed off an order to “Black Jack” Logan directing him to ‘double-quick’ a brigade from his XV Corps to plug the wide gap between XVII Corps and Fuller, then rode ahead with a small contingent to do his own reconnaissance. The historic marker: “McPherson’s Last Ride” stands along the margin of Memorial Drive at Walker Park—and documents the fateful ride. The history of this marker was supplied, in no coincidence, by Kurtz—having been the principal author of all Civil War related markers in-and-about Atlanta, most of these erected in the 1950s. The only coincidence here would be the park itself, named for and commemorating the fallen Confederate general. This stretch of Memorial also likely locates the initial position of Fuller’s brigade, originally in reserve behind Bald Hill.

The tour now comes to East Atlanta. During the 1990s, this neighborhood accelerated a steady climb up from forgotten run-down commercial / residential village to become the thriving eclectic spot it is today. Urban pioneers are now well outnumbered by second-wave settlers. The village itself is host to dozens of successful restaurants, bars and shops. It was the recent beneficiary of a highly popular GDOT street-scape renovation (which as of 2013 hosts a historic wayside documenting the Battle of Atlanta, including a map from this documentary), The Village (EAV) now rivaling Little Five Points for its unique independent music scene. It’s a place where the artistic underground feels right at home.

In testament to the commercial success of East Atlanta’s revitalization, the restaurant where we ate lunch during our 2004 tour closed soon after. But instead of being shuttered for years, as had been the case in the recent past, another establishment quickly opened in its spot. There are few if any store-front vacancies in EAV these days. On July 22, 2004, we had only to walk out the door of our lunch-stop to resume our tour: all of East Atlanta Village making up STOP 14 and beginning at the intersection of Glenwood / Flat Shoals. Here was the “flank in the air,” the end of the U.S. XVII Corps line … Accounts vary, but between 12:30-1 p.m. Hardee unleashed the left of his attack: Cleburne’s Division center-left advancing up through modern East Atlanta, with George Maney’s Division far-left and advancing through modern Brownwood / Ormewood neighborhoods. Designed to be ‘en echelon’ with Bate’s and Mercer’s assault further east, this attack was delayed due to the difficulty Maney’s men had traversing the thicketed terrain that then lay S x SW of Bald Hill. In position to oppose them were the U.S. XVII Corps divisions of Mortimer Leggett—posted on the hill itself—and Giles Smith, whose line ran down from Bald Hill along the same course that today’s Flat Shoals takes through the heart of EAV, it’s end bending in a “fishhook” to face south in the area of the modern Glenwood intersection (Kurtz locates it just south of the intersection). Cleburne’s Division encountered no difficulties coming up. Not anticipating any Union defense, Cleburne was initially surprised; but it did not slow the attack. This quickly escalated into a furious fight. Cleburne’s men had perhaps the fiercest reputation of all the day’s participants. Hard, disciplined fighters, his lead brigade on the left—Daniel Govan’s Arkansans—advanced with predictable ferocity in realizing the flank. A few hundred yards east of the intersection and just up Haas Avenue is the next marker: “Cleburne Outflanked Left Wing.” Things suddenly become very hot for the men of Giles Smith’s Division. It would only get hotter … The same was true of our 2004 tour to that point. Having documented the marker, I noticed the in-cabin temp temperature reading 94°. For fear of our truck overheating with all the stops-starts, we had the AC off that entire afternoon. I had to again pause and think: if I was as uncomfortable as I was in shorts / t-shirt, how about donning a long-sleeved flannel uniform, and performing hard physical action while inhaling clouds of sulfuric smoke with every breath—all while a few thousand other men suffering likewise tried to kill me. The thought has kept my complaining on very hot-humid afternoons to a minimum ever since.

The timing of our tour-stops on July 22, 2004, coincided accurately with the historic timeline of events. Major assaults like this one were often planned and unleashed ‘en echelon’—a series of overlapping, deliberately-staged, successive blows. Singular large-scale Napoleanic charges, where tens-of-thousands of men lined up and marched on the enemy over open ground—such as Pickett’s Charge @ Gettysburg and the even-larger / more devastating Confederate charge at The Battle of Franklin in Tennessee—were very rare events during the Civil War. Hood’s plan was initially based on the former, more common strategy. If it had unfolded that way, a stop-by-stop tour of this battlefield that also lined up accurately to the timeline of events would not be possible. But the series of successive blows that had originally underwritten Hood’s plan, did not materialize. Such pinpoint timing in an era when orders were sent out into the field by horseback or relayed from signal stations via semifore was hard to achieve; especially when a battle was raging, the fields covered by smoke. But this did not stop the bitter blame-games that followed every major defeat throughout the Civil War. Often enough, blame was warranted; but shrill personal attacks were just as frequent, with military and government officials on both sides of the conflict roiling up in loud partisan denunciations of this, or that general. Here at Atlanta, we can with hindsight look at the impossibility of what was asked of Hardee’s men: complete a fifteen-plus mile hike through unfamiliar rural countryside, in the dead of night—when these men would normally be asleep—coordinate a strike force and be ready by dawn. As mentioned, Hood would vent his fury, post-battle, on Hardee being so late to attack. But there is a tenuous relation between the ideals of a plan and the unpredictable reality of conditions, especially during warfare. In the blame-game that followed the southern defeat at Atlanta, Hood laid the bulk of the blame on Hardee’s late / uncoordinated start-times; the irony being that Hood himself failed to order Cheatham’s Corps forward en echelon with Hardee once the attacks to the south were underway. In fact, Hood waited several hours before ordering the second-phase of his plan to go forward. The beneficiary of this delay was the U.S. XVII Corps. Had Cheatham advanced at 1 p.m. instead of 3 p.m., Logan would most likely have been reluctant, if not unable to forward reinforcements to check Cleburne’s plunge into the gap—his XV Corps line needing every able-bodied man possible to defend their own hard-pressed positions. If Cleburne could have pierced the Union line to the south and held near modern Memorial Drive, with Maney attacking the front of that line and Mercer / Bate occupying the attention of the XVI Corps reinforcements, the Confederates could very well have unhinged the Union army’s entire position. But such was not the case and here speculation ends; for Hugo Wangelin’s brigade of XV Corps was right then marching south to plug the gap.

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McPherson and his reconnaissance party had not gone far when they ran into skirmishers from James Smith’s Texas brigade, the right-most brigade of Cleburne’s Division. They demanded that the general surrender. McPherson wheeled his horse and attempted to escape. The Confederate soldiers shot him out of the saddle, wounding or capturing the few others with him. McPherson’s wound was mortal. He would die at that spot about 2:30 p.m … I-20 now splits the route of McPherson’s final ride southwest from modern Walker Park to the monument marking the Union army chief’s death on an island where McPherson / Monument Avenues join: STOP 16, the north end of East Atlanta. Erected in 1877 just as Federal Reconstruction garrisons were vacating the South, this monument stands no more than a mile from the one commemorating the second-highest ranking casualty of the battle, Confederate General W. H. T. Walker.

With the extreme pressure of Mercer’s assault subsiding, the right regiment of Fuller’s Brigade began to trade shots with Smith’s Texans, who had appeared to the S x SW. This unit charged into what was then a wooded area. They pushed back the Texans and scored a temporary lodgment. In doing so, they came upon their lifeless commander. Fuller’s men held the area just long enough to permit removal of McPherson’s body, freeing a number of prisoners from both McPherson’s staff and Smith’s Division in the process. STOP 17 locates the area. (A historical marker used to document Fuller’s right-flank position in East Atlanta. It was struck by a car years ago—its base demolished—and has yet to be replaced.) McPherson would be the only Union army commander killed-in-action during the war.

Word arrived quickly at Sherman’s HQ near the Augustus Hurt house (mistakingly named the Howard house in official reports), it having sat within today’s east-most parking lots of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Center at the south-boundary of the Poncey-Highlands neighborhood (formerly known as Copenhill). Learning of his young protégé’s death, Sherman broke down. He quickly gathered himself and elevated “Black Jack” Logan to army command. Along with the on-field promotion, Sherman sent off an urgent dispatch to his new field-promoted commander: “Tell General Logan to fight ’em, fight ’em, fight ’em like hell” … Logan would have his hands full. From the elevated position of Sherman’s field HQ (the commanding field-of-vision still evident along the western edge of the Carter Center grounds), the Union high command could see the strongest punch of Hood’s assault just then filing out of Atlanta’s inner defenses. And despite the early setback, Hardee now had Blair’s XVII Corps on their heels. Patrick Cleburne’s band of southerners had found the gap and were pouring in.

‘The gap’ was located across the north end of East Atlanta. James Smith’s Texans had quickly regained their footing and drove straight ahead, pushing out the temporary lodgment of Fuller’s men who began to fall back across the area of the modern I-20 corridor. Giles Smith’s men had begun to break, those not trapped already fighting their way back to Mortimer Leggett’s line in their rear. Sensing the breakdown of the Union position, Govan, supported by Lowrey’s brigade, rushed in. What was left of Smith’s line disintegrated, Govan’s men capturing several artillery pieces and hundreds of prisoners—including the entire 16th Iowa, who held their ground until completed surrounded. With Maney’s four brigades now attacking up-and-across modern East Atlanta Village towards Bald Hill and with Cleburne’s men now in behind them, those of Giles Smith’s routed division not already captured, wounded or killed had to get up onto Bald Hill, or be wiped out. It was a precipitous collapse. What is today the I-20 corridor from the Moreland interchange east to the Maynard Terrace overpass—STOP 18—would have been a stream of Union soldiers falling back, some in panic. Smith’s Division took heavy casualties. In the end, it seems amazing that the entire command was not cut off—the pincers of Hardee’s left having come together and crushed the exposed flank.

The last stop in this sector is the Moreland / I-20 interchange: STOP 19. It is a prime example of the schizophrenic nature of this area of town: a ligament between revitalized neighborhoods and a persistent blight. As mentioned, Bald Hill would eventually prove the key position in this fight to the south. This is not a pedestrian-friendly area and getting to the markers posted alongside the east-bound I-20 exit-ramp can prove a mortal challenge. The first notes Atlanta’s “outer defense line,” which had been rendered untenable with Union victory at The Battle of Peachtree Creek on July 20 and this U.S. army showing up here due-east of the southern-end of Atlanta’s inner defenses. The second marker is integral to this tour: “Leggett’s Hill.”

Up on Bald Hill, Leggett ordered back his left-most regiments, under fire, to allow Smith’s retreating men to come in line. There they formed a new defensive position facing south and in parallel with modern I-20, what would have been the south slope of Bald Hill. The area of the Moreland / I-20 interchange was now the ‘salient’ in the Union line. More compact and elevated, it would be a much stronger position—a fortuitous development for the Union forces that day, as Cleburne’s hard-charging veterans had yet to be fully dealt with. Leggett’s and the disorganized remnants of Smith’s Divisions were right then taking fire from three sides: west, south and east. A portion of Leggett’s line literally turned 180° from west to east in order to repel the peak of Cleburne’s advance. The fighting here was as fierce as at any other place on the battlefield. It is a wonder that within the sheer disorientation of being attacked from multiple angles, Leggett’s line was able to hold at all—being compounding as it was by adrenal-anxiety, the deafening noise and the horror of mass death. But this new line came together and was soon being extended by the reinforcing troops of Wangelin’s brigade. Fulfilling McPherson’s final command, these men filed in to plug the gap—massing along the modern Memorial Drive corridor east of Moreland Ave. U.S. artillery batteries on Bald Hill also changed front and let loose a thundering barrage, pounding Cleburne’s men. In defiance of their own bloodletting the intrepid southerners staged multiple, in reality suicidal charges. For the Union line was now a compact solid wall of blue. Cleburne’s advance had been so successful, his troops so far out in front of the rest of Hardee’s Corps, that his men were now exposed. Hardee had no reinforcements to support Cleburne’s successful attack; and as a result they were being punished. James Smith had been wounded, many of his regimental commanders also down. The attack began to drift. No doubt feeling the effects of an all-night march, plus two straight days of hard brutal fighting (this division having battled the Union approach to Bald Hill all the previous afternoon, as well), Cleburne’s Division began to fall back, if grudgingly … Though Cleburne and Maney’s troops would continue to press this re-formed, repositioned and strengthened Union line, the death and destruction yet to come would be for naught. The fighting to the south had been largely decided. The focus would now shift north.

I have been back over all of this southern sector of The Battle of Atlanta battlefield several times since 2004. More than once, I have gone back to stand on the pedestrian-intimidating Moreland overpass above I-20—where Bald Hill once stood. Each time I think about the first time I stood there—July 22, 2004—how I had felt infused with purpose. The fight to preserve The Battle of Atlanta’s fields was lost over a century ago. But right then I felt that I was winning the fight to document the battle and what has come since, one historical marker at a time.

NEXT: Part III › Cheatham’s Attack & Logan’s Counterattack