As Sherman swung his forces westward away from the Western and Atlantic Railroad and the formidable Confederate defenses there, Johnston quickly guessed his opponent’s next move and shifted his forces toward Dallas to meet him.
On May 25, the lead of Sherman’s advance consisted of Gen. “Fighting” Joe Hooker’s XX Corps, with Gen. John Geary’s White Star Division leading the way. As they made their way through the oppressive heat and humidity, they found their advance opposed by Confederate Cavalry. The Cavalry proved to be nothing more than an irritation, like the gnats and mosquitoes that inhabited the surrounding pine forests. However, as they neared Pumpkinvine Creek, resistance stiffened as the cavalrymen attempt to burn the bridge. Hooker, riding with Geary at the head of the column, ordered his and Geary’s cavalry escorts to drive the rebels off before the fire can take hold of the bridge. The charge was a success, and the move found a split in the road that was not on their maps. Hooker, after conferring with General Thomas, decided to divide his forces between the two and continue on toward Dallas.
Along the new route, Hooker’s men began to face increasing resistance through the afternoon. Taking infantry prisoners from Hood’s Corps, they learned that they were approaching a little crossroads where Hood had just recently arrived with his Corps. The crossroads was known as New Hope Church, named for a little ramshackle log Methodist meeting house that stood on a gently rising slope in a large clearing in the seemingly endless sea of pine trees.
Hood was just arriving with his divisions there, directly in front of Hooker’s advance, with Gen. Alexander P. Stewart’s men in the lead and centered on the Union advance. “In a few minutes Stewart’s Division was in line ready to meet the enemy,” one of Stewart’s men recalled. “Clayton’s Brigade was on the left, Stovall’s on the right with Baker’s in the center, while the artillery were planted on the New Hope Church Road and to the left of Baker’s Brigade. The skirmish line in our front consisted of the 32nd and 58th Alabama and Austin’s sharp shooters, commanded by Col. Bush Jones. I will state that although contending against Hooker’s entire corps, it took the enemy something like two hours to drive this little force about one mile. Col. Jones had orders to hold his ground just as long as it was possible to do so, as it was important to gain as much time as we could in order that the other divisions of our corps might come up….”
The Confederates on the main line quickly set about dragging logs, limbs, rocks, and anything else they could find to their positions to build a barricade. “I had three trees, each about a foot in diameter, cut down the limbs trimmed off,” Samuel Sprout in the 40th Alabama noted, “and with them constructed a little breast work that proved very valuable…. About the center of my company was a hickory tree a little larger than my body and I took position behind this, standing up as that I could have a full survey of the whole field.”
The other troops dug is as best that could except for some of Stovall’s Georgians, who found themselves deployed through the New Hope Cemetery—a grim place to have to fight. All told, Hood had 4,000 men arrayed around the crossroads as Hooker approached with 16,000.
Upon meeting infantry resistance, Hooker sent orders for his other two divisions, those of generals Dan Butterfield and Alpheus Williams, to join him. General Thomas sent word to bring up the rest of his army, but before that would matter, Sherman sent orders for Hooker to advance. Hooker’s men deployed in the low ground fronting the crossroads even as the sound of approaching thunder heralded the arrival of a storm. At around 5 p.m., bugles blared and Hooker’s men moved forward, each division in a column of brigades, as the torrents of rain began to fall.
Soon a storm of another kind opened up on them, Stephen Pearson of the 33rd New Jersey Zouaves noted: “in the next instant the storm of shot, shell, shrapnel, and minnie burst upon us.” General Williams later reported that the fire came from “all directions except the rear.”
“The noise was deafening,” remembered Sgt. Rice Bull of the 123rd New York:
the air was filled with the fumes of burning powder; the lazy whining of bullets…. The shot and shell from the enemy batteries tearing through the trees caused every head to duck as they passed over us. With all this tumult could be heard the shouts of our men and yells of the enemy… The enemy’s artillery located immediately in our front were firing grape. After a discharge from their battery I heard a cry just back of me; turning, I saw the Colonel stagger and fall. He was carried to the rear mortally wounded by grape shot. We took a position…and fought from a reclining line to keep below the grape shot as far as possible. In an hour the darkness came; our only light was from the flash of the muskets and the greater light of the artillery in action directly in our front.
Bull also noted that “the rain came down in torrents, the lightening was blinding; then the darkness so black in could almost be felt. For a time the thunder drowned out the sound of the artillery which continued to pound away at our line. During the storm one of our boys, who was quite a wag, lying in a pool of water turned to Captain Anderson, who was just behind him, and said, ‘Now Captain, if you will just give the order, we will swim over and tackled the Johnnies.’”
The fighting raged unabated, causing another soldier to note it was “more like hell than God’s beautiful earth.”
Samuel Sprout watched the initial Union advance. “They came on in splendid style with flags waving,” he remembered:
Our artillery-sixteen pieces were massed at one point-opened upon the enemy, but they continued to advance until with range of our small arms when a blaze of shot from our line, and was promptly responded to by the enemy. But our fire was more than they could stand and they fell back to the tune of shells, Minnie balls, and rebel yells. No sooner had this line disappeared than we heard the huzza, huzza, huzza of the Federals-this being their way of cheering-and we knew that we would have but a brief breathing spell. Sure enough in a few minutes another magnificent line advanced…. They were met with the same withering fire…and like the first line, they too gave way followed by our yells. But our yells had scarcely died away before their loud huzzas warned us that another charge was about to be made, and sure enough, before the smoke from the other charges had lifted, another long line of blue was seen emerging from the woods in the distance….Thus…the battle raged; charge after charge, advancing with cheers, like waves beating against the rock bound coast, they were thrown back shattered, followed by loud yells and cheers of triumph.
The fighting continued on into the night, finally ending around 9:30 p.m.
Sherman’s move was checked. Entrenching on both sides began. The next several days would see heavy skirmishing and more battles as the struggle in “the Hell Hole” began in earnest.
But perhaps most chilling that day: when the Confederate artillery opened fire on Hooker’s advance, the roar of the guns made its way to Atlanta. The sound was ominous, and the citizens of Atlanta realized that the war would soon be at their doorsteps.