The Hawkins Boys and the rest of the 19th Tennessee Volunteer Infantry had successfully repelled Gen. William T. Sherman’s attack in the bloodiest of the fighting at the “Dead Angle” during the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain.
Col. Francis Walker, the 19th Tennessee regimental commander, performed so well as temporary brigade commander at the “Dead Angle” that both Division Commander Gen. Frank Cheatham and Corps Commander Gen. William J. Hardee suggested Walker be promoted to general and given a permanent assignment as a brigade commander.
There was little time to think about promotions as Sherman was on the move again, attempting to flank the Confederate position and force Gen. Joe Johnston to give up his strong point of Kennesaw Mountain. It was during a heavy skirmish against this flanking motion that Sherman got the break he needed in the form of a runaway slave.
The runaway explained that he, and about a thousand slaves, had been at work for a month or more on these very lines and gave Gen. Sherman the layout.
Armed with this information, Sherman left Gen. George H. Thomas in front of Kennesaw Mountain to threaten Johnston’s front and took the rest of his army on a flanking march, first toward Smyrna, where a brief skirmish occurred, and then to the Chattahoochee River toward Atlanta.
Fearing a run on Atlanta, Johnston had no choice but to give up his strong point at Kennesaw Mountain and move toward the Chattahoochee River to stop Sherman. But Sherman kept going, crossing the river at different points more than seven miles away from Johnston’s defenses. Johnston, seeing the enemy’s army so spread out, headed to Peachtree Creek with a plan to attack Sherman’s divided forces like he had tried to do at Cassville.
William Worsham, the 19th Tennessee’s musician and historian, remembered the preparation for the battle and the telegram that changed the entire future for the Army of Tennessee and that of the Hawkins Boys.
“Johnston had formed his lines for a firm stand on Peachtree Creek, for another bold fight” said Worsham. “Late in the evening he was handing out instructions to the various commanders for the next day’s action when he received the following telegram.”
“Lieut. Gen. John B. Hood has been commissioned to the temporary rank of General under the late laws of Congress. I am directed by the Secretary of War to inform you that, as you have failed to arrest the advance of the enemy to the vicinity of Atlanta and express no confidence that you can defeat or repel him, you are hereby relieved from the command of the Army and Department of Tennessee, which you will immediately turn over to General Hood.” S. Cooper, Ad’jt and Inspector General.
Though not yet fit to return to duty due to his wounding at Chickamauga, Rogersville’s Lt. Col. Carrick W. Heiskell, the Hawkins Boys’ old captain, visited the men in camp outside of Atlanta and got their reaction to the change in command.
“I came to the regiment on crutches just after Johnston’s removal and the devotion of the troops to him was evidenced by the fact that as we sat around the camp fire they would speak in the highest terms of their commander and weep when they told me of his leaving them” Heiskell said.
The next day, Johnston met with his replacement, Gen. Hood, and outlined the condition of the army to him then mounted his horse and rode out of camp. Both sides of the road were lined with soldiers, some with tears in their eyes, bidding him farewell.
Hood had been promoted past Gen. William J. Hardee, who had been next in line for command of the army. Hardee requested transfer to another command. At the same time, Hood had to find his own replacement and fill other openings brought on by the changes. There was also the problem of Sherman’s armies approaching Atlanta.
Hood denied Hardee’s transfer and the 19th Tennessee’s division commander Cheatham took over Hood’s corps. Gen. George Maney took over Cheatham’s division, and the 19th Tennessee’s commander Walker remained in temporary command of Maney’s brigade.
To deal with Gen. Sherman’s approaching army, Hood used the plan of Gen. Joe Johnston, whom he just replaced, but would attack instead of waiting for Sherman to step into the trap at Peachtree Creek.
Hood’s plan of attack ran into problems from the beginning. The first problem being Sherman was expecting the attack because newspapers in Atlanta had published the order for the change of command. The general’s staff knew Hood and warned him to expect an assault.
Before Hood could get his troops into position to launch his attack, a second problem arose. Part of Sherman’s forces, under the command of Gen. James B. McPherson, was moving so far and fast they were threatening to go around Cheatham and march into Atlanta.
“Owing to the demonstrations of the enemy on the right, it became necessary to extend Cheatham a division” said Hood. “To do this Hardee and Stewart were each ordered to extend a half division to close the interval. Foreseeing that some confusion and delay might result, I was careful to call Gen. Hardee’s attention to the importance of having a staff officer on his left to see that the left did not take more than half a division front. This unfortunately was not attended to and the line closed to the right, causing Stewart to move two or three times the proper distance. In consequence of this the attack was delayed until nearly 4 p.m.”
The third problem facing Hood was that in all the confusion of moving troops no one thought to scout the grounds over which they would attack. Worsham remembered the difficulties that would prevent all of Hood’s forces attacking as planned.
“The battle ground was rough and uneven, Stewart’s men were the only ones engaged here and had to cross a ravine to reach the enemy’s works” said Worsham. “The battle did not materialize as was expected. McPherson already on our right, far advanced towards Atlanta, which forced Hood to draw Cleburne’s division from Hardee’s corps to meet them.”
Hood’s attack on Thomas’ forces had been repulsed and with Atlanta under threat from McPherson, Hood ordered his troops to fall back to the city.
One of the Hawkins Boys, Andy Johnson, was wounded in the fighting at Peachtree Creek. Given how badly things went for Hood’s plan, it was lucky there were not more causalities.