General Sherman had formed his plans for retiring the entire army from the lines around Atlanta as early as the 18th of August, but for prudential reasons the movement was deferred. The withdrawal of an army from the presence of the enemy, for the execution of a bold and quick movement to his rear, is one of the most difficult and dangerous of all military operations. The manner in which our great Chieftain effected his purpose at once placed him among the greatest Generals in the world, and the grand result occasioned a deep feeling of joy throughout the loyal States.
The army commenced the work of retiring the lines on the night of the 25th of August. The Fourth Corps moved to the rear and right, leaving a strong skirmish line to keep up a vigorous fire. At the same time the Twentieth Corps fell back to the Chattahoochee, covering the crossing at the (p238) railroad bridge, and presenting the appearance of retreat. On the night of the 26th the right wing also retired, the Sixteenth Corps having occupied an entrenched position for the protection of our left rank. The columns moved in the direction of Sandtown, with the design of deceiving the enemy into the belief that we were really retreating across the Chattahoochee. The feint was eminently successful. Hood regarded the evidence presented by the movements of our army as indicating unmistakably the abandonment of operations against Atlanta. The sounds of joy rang through the city, and it was officially declared that Sherman had retired beyond the Chattahoochee. A reconnaissance in force, in the direction taken by the Twentieth Corps, confirmed previous conclusions, the enemy being driven back by our forces. Hood was at last completely out-generaled, and ere he was aware of the real design of his antagonist a strong force was thrown across the West Point Railroad, at Fairburn, and that road thoroughly destroyed for a distance of twelve miles.
The rails were torn from the ties, the latter piled upon the road-bed and the rails arranged upon them for heating. A brisk fire was kindled by the engineers, and when the rails were sufficiently heated levers were attached at the two extremes of each rail, by hooks adapted for the purpose, the (p239) power applied operating in opposite directions, twisting the bar so as to render its use impossible. Many of the rails were wound around trees and left in that condition. A deep cut near Fairburn was filled with fallen trees, to which wires were attached, connecting with shells ready to explode, the whole mass being covered with earth.
On the 30th the army moved rapidly forward to cut the Macon Railroad, the only remaining line of communication in possession of the enemy. In the meantime Hood had discovered the object of his antagonist, and hurriedly dispatched a portion of his force, under Hardee, to protect his line of communication with Macon, while he remained with the right wing of his army for the defense of Atlanta. But he had been too long deceived to aver the impending disaster.
The disposition of our forces was a follows: the Army of the Tennessee on the right, the Fifteenth Corps in the centre, and the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Corps on the flank. The left wing was disposed in the following order: the Fourteenth Corps on the right, the Fourth Corps in the centre, and Twenty-third Corps on the extreme left flank. On the advance of the right, the enemy opposed our progress with a strong skirmish line, which was steadily driven back in the direction of Jonesboro. (p240)
Our column crossed Flint River and formed their lines on the hillside east of that stream, fortifying during the night. At three P.M., August 31st, the enemy charged upon the line of the Fifteenth Corps, and a furious fire was poured into his ranks from our works, which soon forced him to retire with severe loss. The shells fell among the hospitals in the rear, killing and wounding several of the patients.
In the meantime the left of the army, under Thomas and Schofield, moved forward, several miles to our left, striking the enemy's communication at Rough and Ready, and moving down upon the flank of the enemy at Jonesboro, thus completely severing the rebel army. The railroad was destroyed as the forces advanced, and on the afternoon of September 1st the right of the Fourteenth Corps reached the position of the Seventeenth Corps, relieving Blair's entire command, which moved to the right and went into position on the flank. The advance of Thomas was covered by a fierce demonstration along the lines of the Fifteenth Corps, keeping the enemy in constant expectation of attack, thus preventing the weakening of his centre for the reinforcement of his right, now endangered by the approach of the Fourteenth Corps. Davis had succeeded Palmer in command of that Corps, and Brigadier General (p241) Morgan assumed command of the Second Division, which moved forward, in beautiful order, upon the right, in the face of a severe fire. The view of the engagement from the hills on the opposite side of the river was awfully impressive. On, through forest and cultivated fields, the lines moved, charging upon and carrying the enemy's left, sweeping like a tornado over the defenses, and capturing twelve pieces of artillery and nearly a thousand prisoners, with comparatively slight loss.
The Fourth and Twenty-third Corps were pressing to the rear to cut off Hardee's retreat, and, but for the intervening darkness would doubtless have succeeded in reaching the enemy's left flank. The roar of battle continued long after nightfall, the demonstration by the Fifteenth Corps being continued in favor of Thomas and Schofield. But the desired point could not be reached, and the army passed the night in readiness to renew the offensive at an early hour the next morning, should the enemy fail to evacuate his position.
The disastrous result of the day's operations necessitated retreat, and Hardee made good use of the time in withdrawing his forces to Lovejoy's Station, about six miles south, where he again made a stand to await a junction with Hood, who had been forced to evacuate Atlanta and retreat toward McDonough. Major General Slocum, (p242) commanding the Twentieth Corps, at once occupied Atlanta, and the main army followed the retreating forces under Hardee, occupying Jonesboro on the morning of September 2d.
The news of Hood's retreat and Slocum's occupation of the city was officially communicated to the troops on the 3d of September, and orders were immediately issued for the withdrawal of the forces from the presence of the enemy, which was effected on the night of the 5th, under cover of darkness, and in the midst of a disagreeable storm. At ten P.M. the forces were again at Jonesboro.
The enemy followed us, and occupied the place immediately, advancing as far as Rough and Ready, while the army continued its return march to Atlanta and East Point. The congratulatory order of General Sherman was issued, declaring the campaign closed, directing the establishment of camps for the respective commands, and promising rest to the troops. The Army of the Tennessee was ordered into camp in the vicinity of East Point, the Army of Cumberland in and around Atlanta, and the Army of the Ohio at Decatur. (p243)