Part one of a two-part series
Resaca, Pickett’s Mill, Kolb’s Farm, Dallas, Kennesaw Mountain—a road of bloody encounters that all led to here. Numerous battles that paved the way to the Gateway to the South: Atlanta.
With its convergence of railroads in the center of the city, Atlanta was vital to both Federal and Confederate leadership, and through two months of campaigning the armies had battled and maneuvered to the city’s doorstep.
William T. Sherman eyed the railroads that all converged at Atlanta—if he could capture the train stations, he would cleave the Deep South into nearly irreparable pieces. His counter-part, the newly promoted John Bell Hood, looked to defend the city and together the two armies maneuvered to Atlanta’s doorstep.
While the downtown portion of Atlanta had been well developed and its main streets even paved, the fringes of the city remained largely untouched. Thick forests and tangled underbrush lay as potential hindrances to either army. In such a wild and untamed landscape, any clearing would be targeted, much less a clearing set upon a ridge. Such was the case with Bald Hill; it was located a little over a mile from Atlanta’s outskirts and had a panoramic view of the countryside. If Union troops could capture Bald Hill, they would be able to place artillery atop its plateau and begin shelling Atlanta, gradually wearing down its resistance.
In the morning hours of July 21, 1864, Federal forces began to concentrate their attack forces against Bald Hill. They shifted through the woods, using the thick canopy of trees to conceal their movements. Responsibility for the main thrust fell to Mortimer Leggett’s Third Division of the Seventeenth Corps from James McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee. Leggett in turn would rely on Manning Ferguson Force’s First Brigade to carry the main portion of the heights.
Born in 1824, Force was the son of Peter Force, who was then the mayor of Washington D.C. Besides having one of the manliest names in all of the Union Army, Manning Force was a combat veteran, having already gone through the Vicksburg Campaign. His brigade of toughened men from Illinois and Wisconsin would need their experience, because holding Bald Hill on July 21 was the Confederate division of Patrick R. Cleburne. The exploits of Patrick Cleburne were already well known to men of both armies.
Leggett’s division fell into line and around 7 am the division commander gave the order to go forward. Force’s brigade, on the left flank of the command, faced squarely up the incline of Bald Hill. Staring down the heights and waiting for them were some of Cleburne’s best-trained men, under the command of James Smith, and some dismounted Confederate cavalry. As the Federals closed in, the rebels began to fire rifle volleys down into them.
As they took casualties, the blue-clad troops closed their ranks and pressed forward, up the hill. Realizing that they could not hold back their Yankee foes, the “Rebels broke for the rear,” racing down the opposite side of Bald Hill. The initial charge and fighting had only taken a few minutes. Force’s brigade consolidated around Bald Hill while the rest of Leggett’s division finished its attack. But down below, the rebels who had fled Bald Hill were not finished with the Federals.
Cleburne, true to form, rallied his forces and began sending them back to face the Federals. The Irishman knew the strategic importance of Bald Hill and knew that he needed to try and wrestle it back from Leggett’s men.
What followed was described by Mortimer Leggett as, “repeated efforts to drive us from the hill, but were unsuccessful.” Leggett especially credited Force’s men with the repulse, writing, “the First Brigade, commanded by Brigadier General M. F. Force, was particularly conspicuous and did great honor to themselves and the cause for which they fought.”
From the time that the Federals captured Bald Hill a few minutes after 7 am until just about 11 am there were some four hours of combat that Cleburne would later describe as the “bitterest” of his life. When contrasted to the extremely heavy fighting that would occur the following day, one gets a glimpse into what Cleburne opined of the fighting on July 21.
As Force’s men fought throughout the morning, they also worked on beginning to reverse the Confederate trenches. “Reversing” means to take an existing trench and change the direction that it faces. The men worked with what tools they had on hand to adapt Cleburne’s old works. That work would continue into the morning of July 22, but the small rifle pits they managed on July 21 allowed them basic protection.
The few hours of combat on July 21 created about 1,000 casualties with approximately 700 going to the Federals and 300 belonging to Cleburne and the dismounted cavalry. In the end, Cleburne’s division retreated back into Atlanta while Force’s brigade and the other blue-clad units strengthened their positions atop Bald Hill. Batteries of artillery were rolled up and embrasures dug for the guns. The final result for ownership of Bald Hill had not been decided, and both sides knew it.
Tomorrow, July 22, would be the Battle of Atlanta and Manning Force would barely escape with his life.
 Steven E. Woodworth, Nothing But Victory: The Army of the Tennessee (Vintage Civil War Library: New York, 2005), 536.
 Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Vol. 38, pt. 3, 564.
Irving A. Buck, Cleburne and His Command. New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1908.