“I want the American flag!”—Manning Force and the Battle of Atlanta

Conclusion of a two-part series

After their hard fight the previous day, the men of Manning Force’s brigade still had a lot of work to do when they awoke on Friday, July 22. They had slept amongst the casualties from the day before and there had only been a few scattered thunderstorms to breakup the intense heat that also took effect on the fight’s corpses.

As the soldiers stirred, they returned to unfinished business. Yesterday the men had started to reverse the Confederate trenches that had been manned by Patrick Cleburne. Now, in the early morning hours, Illinoisans and Wisconsinites returned to that work. Using the available shovels, the soldiers also used their bayonets, plates, and hands to dig trenches and ditches that faced towards Atlanta. By the time they were finished, they would be able to stand in their own works and fire towards Atlanta, but still have the rebels’ old works to their rear. Though no one knew it at the time, that fact would become crucial for the battle of Bald Hill in just a few hours.

Manning Force oversaw his brigade’s work while his division commander, Mortimer Leggett, checked in with the rest of his brigade commanders. The Seventeenth Corps commander, Frank Blair, Jr, was further away, closer to the army headquarters of James McPherson. This disjointed command scenario would also play a role in the upcoming fight. Without strong, central leadership, the fighting men of the Army of the Tennessee would look to lower echelon commanders, like Force and others, to lead them through the bloody gauntlet.

While the soldiers of the Federal Army of the Tennessee dug into their positions around Bald Hill, their Confederate counterparts in the Army of Tennessee were finishing up a rare nighttime march. Reeling from his first defeat at the Battle of Peachtree Creek on July 20, John Bell Hood had looked, and found, another tactic. He would draw on his experiences from the Army of Northern Virginia—he would emulate Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Or at least he would attempt to.

Throughout the night of July 21, Hood’s main subordinate, William J. Hardee, led his corps south through the streets of Atlanta. The Confederates swung out on the old roads leading into the thick wilderness outside of the city. Marching under the moon and the stars, Hardee’s men were tasked with finding the left flank of James McPherson’s left flank. If all went according to plan, perhaps it would be another Chancellorsville—one that would drive the Federals away from Atlanta. But the march did not go according to plan; the time table was not long enough for Hardee to march the distances Hood asked of him and attack the Federal left by early dawn. The whole maneuver has been described by one historian as, “a morass of confusion..”[1]

Finally in position, arrayed in a battle line that was three divisions wide, Hardee launched his attack nearly seven hours late. Instead of early morning, upon unsuspecting Federals, the rebels attacked in the middle of the day into the midst of Union ranks that had known something was going on since last night.[2]

Stumbling through the thick woods, the Confederates soon ran into the trouble of retaining their battle lines as the thick foliage disrupted the long rows of soldiers carrying bayonet-tipped rifles. The three divisions became disjointed, with two wheeling away from Bald Hill, towards troops of the Federal Sixteenth Corps. As intriguing as that fight is, it is beyond the scope of this post.

An inset from a map from the "Official Records Atlas," showing the Union trenches on July 22. Force’s brigade was located on the center of Bald Hill. I have adapted the map by adding the red arrows indicating Confederate attacks; the arrows do not indicate individual units, but rather the general direction of the attack.

An inset from a map from the “Official Records Atlas,” showing the Union trenches on July 22. Force’s brigade was located on the center of Bald Hill. I have adapted the map by adding the red arrows highlighting Confederate attacks; the arrows do not indicate individual units, but rather the general direction of the attacks.

With two of Hardee’s divisions moving east, the third moved northwest, battle flags waving above their ranks. This was the division of Patrick R. Cleburne and very early into the fight his men scored an incredible success: they killed James McPherson. The death of McPherson has been recounted elsewhere, and need not be repeated here, but it is important to know that once the Texans of James Smith’s brigade killed the young Federal commander, they pushed further into the Union lines. Beaten back by Federal reinforcements, the Texans reformed, wheeled, and moved towards the sound of the heaviest firing: Bald Hill.

Bald Hill was a swirling mass of confusion, and Manning Ferguson Force’s brigade was in the middle of it. We last saw Force as he and his men continued building their fortifications in the early morning hours and now his troops were using those trenches to stop an unimaginable hail of lead.

As the battle heated up, an ironic twist of history occurred; the day before, approaching from the northeast, Manning Force’s brigade had attacked Bald Hill from the bottom of the ridge, using the tree line. Just over 24 hours later, the Confederates under Patrick Cleburne, who had defended Bald Hill the day before, attacked from the same tree line, from the same direction, and passing by some of the casualties their own fire had caused. It was if the sides had picked themselves up, rotated 180 degrees, and continued fighting. Mortimer Leggett, Force’s division commander, noted, “The enemy… came in heavy force… moving over the same ground and in the same direction that I had on the day before.” With little recourse, Leggett had his men, including Force’s brigade, switch back to the rebels’ trenches, “their faces to the east and their backs toward Atlanta.”[3]

Cleburne’s men approached with their noted fury, and before them fell back other Federal brigades, retreating in front of Force’s men. The result, as one artilleryman noted, “The stragglers then commenced coming up, and encumbered us to such an extent that it was hard to work to handle the guns.”[4]

In the face of the stragglers, remaining Federal troops, including Force’s brigade, continued to fight the oncoming Confederates. Cleburne’s men were joined by others, pushing up Bald Hill and hemming in Force’s brigade from all sides. One of Force’s subordinates, Colonel Byrant, of the 12th Wisconsin, called for his men to, “Get into the works, boys!” His soldiers hesitated, not sure what side their colonel wanted them to fire from as the gray and butternut soldiers approached. Bryant roared back, “I don’t care which side, but get into the works!” The Wisconsinites did so, but one of Bryant’s men later wrote, “Get in we did, but it was a puzzle to us to know which side would be safest as the attack came from front and flank, which compelled us to fight first on side of the… rails… and then on the other.”[5]

The fighting atop Bald Hill, July 22, 1864, as depicted in Volume 4 of the popular "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War"

The fighting atop Bald Hill, July 22, 1864, as depicted in Volume 4 of the popular “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War”

Right around this time, roughly 2:30 pm, Manning Force turned to a staffer and asked for a flag. The staffer, looking about at the mass of confusion and blood, scrounged around before finally settling on a piece of white cloth, which he held out to the brigadier general. And Manning Ferguson Force, in the midst of Bald Hill, exploded with rage.

Damn you, sir! I don’t want a flag of truce! I want the American flag!”[6]

The fighting continued in dizzying episodes of bloodshed, but shortly after demanding the Stars and Stripes, Manning Force’s Battle of Atlanta ended. As he stood by his brigade, flag waving nearby, a bullet slammed into the brigade commander. As a historian of the battle narrates, “The bullet passed sideways through Force’s mouth, entering just below the eye through the left cheek and exiting at the same point through the right, carrying away a portion of his upper jaw in the process.”[7] The same artilleryman who complained of the stragglers wrote, “The blood gushed from his eyes, nose, and mouth; but he uttered no moan, nor a word of complaint. The bones of his mouth were shattered, and he could not, in fact, speak. But from his eyes flashed a spirit unconquered and unconquerable, — the spirit of a soldier sans peur et sans reproche [without fear and without reproach].”[8]

Force, remarkably, would survive his wound without serious eye loss. And, even more remarkably, he would be back in command in time for Sherman’s March to the Sea, just four short months later.[9]

The Battle of Atlanta was ultimately a Federal victory, and Bald Hill remained under control of the Army of the Tennessee, now under the temporary command of John Logan. Manning Force’s role in the defense of that hill cannot be understated, and two examples of his import can both be found in the words of Mortimer Leggett.

Written just days after the battle, Leggett wrote in his official report, “These officers [Force and his staff] occupying the positions they did, and having the entire confidence of their commands, could not be spared without great detriment to the division. This was especially the case with Brigadier-General Force, whose coolness, sagacity, and bravery had long since won the admiration of the whole division, and always inspired the men with confidence and enthusiasm.”[10]

Then, written decades later, Leggett reflected on the Battle of Atlanta. Following the action, Bald Hill became known as Leggett’s Hill because it had been his division that defended it. But Leggett pointed to another officer in his ranks, writing, “[I]t ought to have been christened “Force’s Hill,” because General Force captured it… on the 21st [of July]… and because in defending it the next day, he there fell so terribly wounded.”[11]

Alongside Force, his brigade had 415 casualties, the most of Leggett’s three brigades.[12]

Manning Ferguson Force was given the Medal of Honor in 1892 for his actions on Bald Hill, and he died in 1899 at the age of 74.

 

Manning Force later in life; scars from the passage of the bullet can clearly be seen.

Manning Force later in life; scars from the passage of the bullet can clearly be seen.

 

 

[1] Thomas Lawrence Connelly,  Autumn of Glory: The Army of Tennessee, 1862-1865. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press, 1971), 446.

[2] Gary Ecelbarger,  The Day Dixie Died: The Battle of Atlanta. (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2010), 68-69.

[3] Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (hereafter cited as OR), 38, pt 3, 564.

[4] Richard S. Tuthill, “An Artilleryman’s Recollections of the Battle of Atlanta,” in Military Essays and Recollections: Papers Read before the Commandery of the State of Illinois, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States: Volume 1, 1891, (hereafter cited as Tuthill) 302.

[5] Russell S. Bonds,  War like the Thunderbolt: The Battle and Burning of Atlanta. (Yardley: Westholme Publishing, LLC, 2009), 156.

[6] Tuthill, 305.

[7] Ecelbarger, 140.

[8] Tuthill, 306.

[9] Mark M. Boatner III, The Civil War Dictionary. (New York: David McKay Company, 1959), 287.

[10] OR, 38, pt 3, 566.

[11] Report of the proceedings of the Society of the Army of the Tennessee at the Fourteenth Annual Meeting, 1885, 480.

[12] OR,  38, pt 3, 566.

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